Backpacking Lesser-Known Europe: Krakow, Poland (Part 1)
In July 2018, I backpacked through Central and Eastern Europe! My first destination: Krakow, Poland.
July 1: Confusing train ride from Prague and cheap Polish food
After leaving my apartment in Prague to my brother to sublet, I embarked on my backpacking Europe trip. First stop: Krakow, Poland. Since a one-way train ticket was only around $25 USD, I figured I'd splurge a bit and take the train instead of the bus. Trains are far better than buses anyway, aren't they?
I got comfortable in my seat, working on blogging stuff and so on. After several minutes, the ticket collector told me that I needed to go to a different train car at 1 PM because the one I was on was not going all the way to Krakow. I then figured I'd wait a little while, then change to a different train car.
Fast forward a couple of stops later: two women kicked us out of my seat because one of them reserved the one I was sitting in. Clumsily and awkwardly, I fumbled with all of my belongings in a packed train car, feeling all eyes on me. After walking around the train car, I quickly realized that there were no available seats: exactly what I feared would happen while buying our tickets.
I had no choice: I had to stand in the train aisle.
Thirty minutes later, people got off the train and I magically found a free seat!
I played UNO with two young and adventurous girls from the Netherlands, shared travel stories, and even got to taste some delectable and traditional Dutch candies!
the train rolled into Krakow in the early evening. Once I started walking around the train station, I quickly realized how convenient of a station it was! The place was clean and big with a connected bus station and massive mall! How convenient!
Since I hadn't eaten yet that day, I quickly chose a restaurant in the train station that had some sort of "fast food" Polish food to eat. I ordered a mountain of food: sausage, pork, sauerkraut, and soup. To my surprise, the food was incredible! And not only did it taste heavenly, but it was cheap, too! For a giant plateful of hearty food, I spent 33 zloty, or $8.50 USD. Not too shabby!
After that, I took an Uber (they're so cheap in Krakow!) to my Couchsurfing hosts' place.
"What is Couchsurfing?" you ask? It's this incredible site where you can be put in contact with hosts from around the world. You can stay with or host people for completely free. No catch! You can also attend some awesome events and even make lifelong friends. It's one of my favorite resources!
Anyway, I used Couchsurfing in Krakow for the three nights I was there. It saved me a lot of dough, which was great! That meant I had more money to spend on more important things, like food! Duh!
July 2: Morning Exploring, Auschwitz, and New Friends
One issue with Couchsurfing: more often than not, the host doesn't give you a key. So, when you leave and return depends on the host's schedule. I faced this issue with my host in Krakow. He had to leave for work at 7:30 AM, but his alarm went off around 5:30 AM...multiple times. Obviously, I woke up with the alarm and couldn't fall back asleep. After getting ready, I actually ended up leaving the apartment the earliest I ever have for exploring: around 7AM!
I'd never explored a city so early in the morning before because, you know, sleep is good. So, it was an exciting and interesting experience to see the more touristy area of a city being empty, waking up, and setting up for the day.
I waltzed around the Main Square and Wawel Castle, both wowing me as I walked!
After a couple of hours walking around, I grabbed some breakfast at a conveniently-located, affordable, and cute spot called Nap Nap Cafe! I highly recommend it!
With my full belly, I made my way to the bus station to catch my bus for my day trip to Auschwitz. I booked a guided tour through Auschwitz in advance, which you can do so here. My tour was at 12PM, but the bus, which I paid for the day before at the bus station, was at 10AM, since it takes a little under 2 hours to get there by bus from Krakow. It cost 28 zloty, or $7, one way. You could technically buy the tickets on the bus itself, but be warned: you might have to stand. Actually, you might have to stand even if you buy tickets ahead of time! Be sure to be waiting at the bus around 30 minutes before the bus leaves to try to avoid standing.
Oh, and people are pushy and don't care about lines. Be aware of that ahead of time as well.
Fortunately, I got one of the last seats available. Thankfully, I didn't need to stand!
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, I had to put my small backpack in a locker because they don't allow any medium or large bags inside. Immediately after, I went through the gates, got my headset for the guide, and joined my tour group.
Normally, I don't do tours, but it seemed that this was most certainly the place to do it. It was about $13 for me. Although, if you don't want to, you don't have to do a tour. However, I highly recommend doing the tour.
During my tour, I visited two parts of the camp out of three (the third was destroyed after World War II): Aushwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau. I saw tons of "artifacts," if you will, like thousands of pairs of glasses, 80,000 shoes, and two tons of human hair-- all of which were stolen from victims in the concentration camps.
I walked around, learning various tidbits about the camp, like how 1,100,000 people were murdered there during World War II. I was guided through barracks, a gas chamber, and other buildings. Everything I learned, saw, and experienced was far different than just learning about it in school and reading about it in history books.
One story in particular stood out to me. During a roll call, the S.S. noticed that someone had escaped the camp. In order to punish this person and to deter anyone else from escaping in the future, the officers selected 10 random people to force into a "starvation room," which was a tiny room with no windows where victims were starved to death.
One out of those ten people was a man, who begged and pleaded not to be taken because he had a family. Suddenly, a monk stepped forward, offering to take that man's place in the starvation room. The officers took him instead because what did they care about who went, right?
Then, the monk and the nine other selected men were forced into the starvation room where they all perished days later of starvation.
However, the man who the monk replaced went on to survive the camp and the war. Not only that, but as did his family, which he was reunited with.
One of the most moving stories I've ever heard, to be honest. I couldn't contain my tears after that one. And one of the many reasons the tour was worth it.
The tour was around 3.5 hours, which seems like a long time, but it didn't feel so long while I was there. It was an eye-opening, depressing, and sombre experience, to say the least. Walking where those who were selected from the train cars for immediate death by gas was an indescribable experience. It's something I can't fully describe. You'll just have to go and experience it for yourself to understand.
Afterwards, I bought my ticket to return to Krakow on the bus this time (again, it was pandemonium). Upon returning, I ate some more delectable and cheap Polish food in the train station, then met up with a fellow YouTuber named Sebastian!
Once we met up, we walked through the Main Square for the second time that day, which was interesting since I had only seen it early in the morning! It was far livelier this time around with far more tourists and booths selling all sorts of colorful tchotchkes with music pouring from various instruments every few feet. We walked along a park called Polwsie Zwierzynieckie.
Then, we went into this hip corner of the city right next to the same park with about 15 food trucks and an area to sit with friends, eat, and chill!
Afterwards, I returned back to my Couchsurfing host's place because obviously, I was beat! Being that I was completely exhausted and didn’t want to wake up at 5:30AM again, I asked if I could take the keys and return them to him later in the following day so that I could sleep in. Fortunately, he said yes! Almost immediately after, I was dead to the world.
July 3: "Mounds" of Exploration!
I slept until 9 AM or so, then grabbed a kebab salad near where I was staying— and it was scrumptious!
After that, I met up with my new friend, Sebastian, and his girlfriend again! He took me in a car so that he could show me the city much more easily. How great is that?! A local taking me around by car! VIP, baby!
First stop: Krakus Mound & Kraków-Płaszów Concentration Camp
Second stop: Independence Mound
The mounds were both man-made for what we believe to be radio-transmissions. Naturally, both of these were occupied by the Germans during the war.
The concentration camp, or what remained of it, astounded me because I had no idea there was one almost in the middle of Krakow!
Third stop: Dinner at Gospoda na Woli
There, we ate some traditional Polish food and some grilled meat! Yum! The food was a little pricier than it usually is in Krakow, but it was worth it because it was delicious.
Fourth stop: Zakrzówek Lake
This lake was a surprising gem in Krakow! It was an awesome place to just relax with your friends, walk around, and even swim!
Fifth stop: Jewish Quarter
This area was just great to walk around and admire the cultural differences. We also went to this little street food market, where I ate chicken on a stick with pickles and Sebastian and his girlfriend ate gelato. Happy tummies (and wallets!) all around!
Sixth stop: Love Bridge
Although I’m aware that there are an abundance of bridges with locks symbolizing love everywhere in Europe (and the entire world), this one in particular was unique. On the wires of this bridge, there were acrobatic statues for decorations! On top of that, the bridge was brightly lit with purple and pink colors. Precious!
Seventh stop: St. Joseph's Church
What a cool discovery this was! This church honestly made me feel as if I was in Disney because the church was so magical!
Eighth destination: The Ghetto Heroes’ Square
Next to the tram stop we needed to go to conveniently enough was The Ghetto Heroes Square.
I asked my new friends about what this was dedicated to, but they weren't 100% sure. Upon some research, I discovered that the 33 chairs in this square are dedicated to those who inhabited the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. The entrance to this square was where the ghetto's boundary began.
All throughout Krakow, there were constant reminders of the atrocities committed there during World War II. It’s apparent that the people are still recovering from it and that they will never, ever forget. However, it’s equally as fascinating to watch life continue on around these reminders, symbolizing that the people will never forget, but will move forward.
Overall, I loved my few days in Krakow! Everything I got to witness, gawk at, admire, walk through, learn about, and even eat was great. I now have memories for a lifetime, both pleasant and sombre.
Next destination: Vienna and Salzburg in Austria!