Tuesday 5 February 2019

Krakow January 2019

Auschwitz has always been somewhere I have wanted to visit. Luckily for me (and thanks to some strategic Tinder swiping), I have a boyfriend who also shares the same interest. We both read The Tattooist of Auschwitz recently, and this further enthused us to visit the camp itself. Little did I know, Philip had booked it as part of my Christmas present, and so we packed our thermals and off we went (well, I did. He forgot his).

As soon as we landed, getting from the airport to the hotel was easy enough, as there were loads of taxis available right outside. Just don’t take them up on their offer to rebook them for the day you leave, as they won’t show up. But more on that later…
We stayed in Hotel Legend, situated pretty much in the centre of Krakow, near the Jewish quarter and a five minute walk to the main square. The hotel was immaculate, our room was spacious and it wasn’t all that expensive for our three night stay. Oh, and breakfast was included in the price, a huge bonus as it saves you tramping around Poland trying to find somewhere that serves toast. 
Our first night consisted of us ordering a pizza to the hotel as it was really late, but on the Friday we were up early enough to go and check out the city. The first thing I noticed about Krakow is how grey it is. Sure, every city looks gloomy this time of year, but it really is just concrete, really old buildings and graffiti. We wandered around and came across a shopping centre which was actually quite impressive, housing a Sephora, H&M and Bershka. I was delighted, Philip not so much. 

On one of our aimless wanderings, we came across a cat café. I wasn’t even going to go in if it weren’t for Philip and his motivational speech (“But you love cats”). As soon as I stepped through the door I was internally squealing at the fact there was a huge Maine Coon cat just plodding about the place. There were also numerous others looking cute and minding their own business, but the Maine Coon was definitely the highlight. Especially when he slapped someone with his huge paw for having the audacity to pet him.
We also came across the square, which was quite close to where we were staying. It is home to an array of restaurants, a chapel, and a typically Polish market. Just watch out for the pigeons… This is where we ate that evening, and because of the variety of restaurants on offer it took us some time deciding on where to eat...Not least because I am the most indecisive person on this earth.

Eventually we settled for a place called Sioux, a wild west themed restaurant with a quirky interior; It was like walking into a cave. The food was great and so were the cocktails, and everything is really reasonably priced. You get so much for your money in Poland, and become obsessed with working out how much it would be back home.

The square is surrounded by cobbled streets lined with some really unique shops. One in particular that caught my eye was Galeria Bukowski, a tiny shop filled to the brim with a sea of teddies. After declaring I am in fact too old for teddies, Philip bought me a little one wearing a Krakow t-shirt. I quickly christened him Pawel. 

There are so many narrow streets, you could easily spend a couple of hours just walking about and seeing what you come across. It’s also not an overly busy city either, so you don’t feel under pressure to walk quickly, and can dander at your own pace taking it all in.

On Saturday we visited Auschwitz, our sole reason for booking Krakow. Philip had booked it online through Discover Krakow, which I would recommend as I think places on the tour do fill up quite quickly. All we had to do was meet at the Discover Krakow office just off the main square and a bus was there to take us on the 1 hour and 20 minute drive to the camp. We left Krakow at 12pm and weren’t back until around 7pm that evening, so it’s a full day trip but totally worth it.

Once there you are assigned a tour guide, some earphones and are lead around Auschwitz into numerous buildings where prisoners were kept, and of course you can enter one of the gas chambers. You are also allowed to take photos, but not of any artefact that contains human remains, such as the room that is filled with human hair taken from the prisoners.

You read so much about the concentration camps and the horror that took place, but I feel that seeing what is left over and the untouched camp is on another level. There are stacks of suitcases, glasses, brushes, shoes, and pots that were taken from the prisoners on arrival. The sheer number of shoes stacked upon each other is very hard hitting and the extortionate collection of human hair really enables you to understand the scale of the whole operation.

There are also walls displaying hundreds of mugshots of prisoners with their date of birth, the date they died, and through what method. The part of the camp that really stood out for me was the gas chamber. It wasn’t an overly cold day, but the chamber was absolutely freezing and had such an eerie atmosphere, made worse by being informed it apparently took the prisoners around 30 minutes to die.

Next we visited Birkenau, which was about 15 minutes drive from Auschwitz. This is probably the one you see most in photos, with the train track going straight into the centre. At this stage it was beginning to get dark, so it made the camp even more eerie. It is more open than Auschwitz, and has many buildings that were destroyed by Nazi soldiers, however a lot of the buildings that housed the prisoners still remain. We were taken into one of those, and shown in what conditions they were expected to live. Again, reading about it is one thing, but experiencing it is another. 

The gas chamber and crematorium here had been demolished by soldiers in a bid to hide the evidence of genocide, but you can still see the rubble. There are also still pits where the bodies were dumped, and a few grave stones to remind visitors that you are basically walking on a mass grave, as human ash is present. 
If like me, you are interested in the camps and are planning on visiting, I’d really recommend you read the Tattooist of Auschwitz before your visit. It humanised the whole experience for me and made it even more interesting.  Overall, I am really glad I was able to visit both camps and would really recommend it. Just wear boots to dodge the muck!
On our last night we visited the Hard Rock Café in the main square (the square is your best bet for finding food if you’re starving, as there’s so much to choose from), and again the prices were really reasonable. The next day we only really had half a day as our flight was that evening, so we did a bit more exploring. The taxi we had booked on the day we got there was supposed to pick us up at 3pm outside our hotel, however it was a no show. Thank goodness that staff in Hotel Legend were extremely helpful and when we informed them of what had happened, they were quick to book us another which showed within ten minutes. 
Everyone we came across was really helpful, and the taxi drivers are keen to share their knowledge of the city with you. If you plan to go and aren’t sure of where to stay, I highly recommend Hotel Legend. It puts so many hotels here to shame, and they even give you Polish bath salts as a gift when you check out.

In terms of spending money, we both changed over £50 each to cover taxis and tips, and used our Monzo cards for the rest. We ended up struggling to spend money as everything is so cheap, and had some left over. The weather was also really kind to us, something that we did panic about as the week before they had deep snow and temperatures of around -10 degrees. However, the days we were there were no colder than home, in fact I think they were slightly warmer, one day being 8 degrees. Also, to find our way around we relied on Google Maps which worked a treat! 
The question is, would I go back? I loved the city, food, cocktails and having the opportunity to visit the concentration camps, and feel that for the short time we were there we managed to pack a lot in. Of course, there are the salt mines, which we decided not to do as neither of us were particularly interested, but apart from that if we had of stayed any longer, we would have just ended up eating and drinking more cocktails. It would be the perfect destination for a stag or hen party, as the vodka is cheaper than water, but a couple of days there on a city break is just the perfect length of time to spend. 

Finally, a big thank you to Philip for booking the whole trip, keeping it a secret for so long, and organising our visit to Auschwitz. Also, thank you for not getting grumpy when I dragged you about trying to find Sephora, being patient with indecisive me trying to pick somewhere to eat, and being the best travel companion a girl could ask for. So, where next?


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