Statue Of Adam Mickiewicz
Statue of the famous Polish romantic poet in the main square with the Cloth Hall in the background.
After a hiatus of a couple of months, it was time to continue my travels and next on the list was a lads' weekend in Krakow for the first May bank holiday weekend.
Everyone I had spoken to about Krakow had only said good things about it, so I was looking forward to seeing if it would live up to the hype.
The trip could not have got off to a worse start.
It's Friday afternoon and a colleague of mine needs me to do a last minute quote for a huge customer (Microsoft no less) and I am the only person with the skillz to do it - and it needs doing before I can leave for the airport. I ended up leaving 15 minutes later than planned and arrived at Liverpool Street station with just five minutes to get on the last Stansted Express that would get me to the airport on time. Then I saw the queue for tickets. Shit.
I waited in line for a panicky three minutes before realising I was in the queue for ticket collection, not ticket purchases! A machine a few metres away was free, so I quickly bought a ticket -
Church Of St. Mary
There are a lot of churches in Krakow, but this one in the main square is probably the pick of the bunch.
only to despairingly see the train leave the platform just as I was going through the gates. Double shit.
Like my airport mercy dash in Paris in 2007
, I thought I would have to give a taxi a try. It worked then, so it might work now.
Being stuck in London's peak hour traffic was excruciating but there was hope once we finally hit the motorway - until the motorway road works that is...of all times to have road works...
So that pretty much put pay to me making my flight on time. Triple shit.
The end result was having to pay £100 (on top of the £100 the taxi cost me, and the £20 for my unused Stansted Express ticket) to get on the next flight out at 6.10am the next morning, plus another £10 for the coach to get me there. Not reading the signs at Liverpool Street has become one of the most expensive mistakes I have ever made. At least I could use my already-bought Stansted Express ticket to get home. Bonus.
Getting up at 3.20am the next morning to catch my 4am coach, I only had about 3 hours sleep.
I was hoping for some sleep on the coach but
Church Of St. Peter & St. Paul
Lovely baroque church on the way from the main square to Wawel Hill.
the whole coach smelt rank with piss. Once off the urine bus (which was 15 minutes late), I still
had to make a mad dash through a ridiculously busy (it was 5.30am!) Stansted Airport to make the gate on time.
All that exercise allowed me to drift in and out of sleep throughout the flight, but I was still pretty cranky when I touched down in Poland.
The hostel directions recommended that I take the bus, but there wasn't another one for about 40 minutes, so I thought f*ck it I'm taking a taxi. I had already spent an extra £230 getting here, what's another £12?
Just as well everything in Poland is cheap as chips - we were to live like kings this weekend ;-)
The Polish currency is the zlotych
and £1 = approximately 5zl.
Our hostel, the Flamingo Hostel, is rated as one of the best in the world and it was clear to see why. It wasn't too big a hostel, it had spotless, refurbished facilities, including a kitchen and a comfy common area. Plus, there was something on every night with the resident "party man". The receptionists were very helpful (and cute) as well. All
Town Hall Tower
Krakow's main square with the Town Hall Tower in the centre.
this for 125zl (£25). For three nights that is. I've definitely paid more than that for one
night at a hostel before.
Anyway, I finally arrived at the hostel and met up with my boys Kelley, Michael and Davies around 11am. Most of you should know my perennial sidekick Davies and most of you may remember Michael aka Gkee from Amsterdam
. Kelley is another one of my good friends from Mount Roskill Grammar School.
So after a free hostel-provided breakfast, it was time to hit the sights.
Our hostel is magnificently located right next to the main square, the biggest in Europe apparently, measuring 200x200m. In the middle of it is a huge clothes hall, which houses a market full of stalls selling mostly beads, jewellery and other arts and crafts. I have been to a few town squares on my travels and I have to say that Krakow's is quite possibly my favourite. Brussels' main square is probably the prettiest but in terms of atmosphere and liveliness, it would be hard to go past Krakow's. The true epicentre of the city, the square is ringed by lovely beer cafes all with umbrellas and tables for people to enjoy a
Davies, Kelley and Michael waving their Polish flags with pride.
beer in the stunning weather that we happened to be having. There are also all sorts of buskers and performers around that gives the place character and ensures that the main square is always alive. The main square is also home to four of Krakow's main sights as well - the Church of St Mary, the Town Hall Tower, St. Adalbert's Church and the Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, the famous Polish romantic poet. It also happened to be Flag Day in Poland (a national day of sorts), so people were handing out small paper flags to everybody and there were a few famous/important Poles being trailed by TV crews. We were honourary Poles for a day - it was all rather patriotic.
We actually happened to be here during what the Poles call "The Picnic" where two public holidays close together can result in a nine day break for just three days off work. Tomorrow is Constitution Day, Poland's most important civil day.
We then walked towards Wawel Hill, where the Royal Castle and Cathedral are located. On the way, I have to say that I have never seen so many horse and carriages or pretzel stands in my life.
Outside of the castle complex.
Not sure how much a ride on one of the high-rolling carriages would cost, (I'm sure it's romantic, but not with the boys) but a large yummy pretzel will set you back 1.30zl (30p) and will do you for morning tea - yum.
Wawel Hill is very much like Prague Castle
in that it is a huge collection of royal buildings on a hill. These buildings include the Royal Castle itself, the Cathedral (which houses the royal tombs), the Zygmunt Bell and the Dragon's Den. Legend has it that a dragon lived in a limestone cave beneath Wawel Hill - symbolised by a dude in a dragon costume outside the castle. He must've sweating in that thing. You can pay to go down into the cave but given the queue to get in, we figured that we'd give it a miss. We also thought that we would give the interior castle tour a miss as well, as our previous tour inside Prague Castle was rather disappointing.
Overall, I thought that the castle complex was not as pretty as Prague Castle and that the buildings looked a bit haphazard and makeshift - particularly the Cathedral. The castle itself though does look
Cathedral On Wawel Hill
Cathedral within the castle complex on Wawel Hill.
rather stately with it's Renaissance architecture.
Speaking of architecture, most of the old town is done up in beautiful baroque, much like the Mala Strana district in Prague
. I would say that look-wise, Krakow is like a mix of the Mala Strana district of Prague
and just about any city in Germany, put together.
After having some grilled steaks and sausages at a grill opposite the castle, we went for a wander around the Jewish quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz. Have to say that it was a little disappointing looks-wise as its fairly run-down, although apparently there is quite a bit of culture in the area with artists and young people starting to populate the area. There is one area with a few Jewish cafes that looked lively. Couldn't really distinguish the synagogues from normal buildings so I can't really say anything outstanding about the place. The highlight of the area would probably be the Skalka Sanctuary where there is a monastery. It was here that Bishop Stanislaus of Krakow was murdered by King Boleslaw II The Bold in 1079. Bishop Stanislaus then went on to be martyred and canonised. Alongside the lovely baroque church is an amphitheatre with several statues arranged around it, which I assume
Shrine dedicated to St. Stanislaus.
is some sort of memorial. There is another statue that stands alone within it's own opening in the ground, which I believe is a shrine of sorts to St. Stanislaus. It all felt rather eerie, and it's not surprising given this place is considered the second holiest in Poland. The crypt beneath the church is like a "national pantheon" where distinguished poles including artists and writers are buried.
It struck me that Poland is a very religious country and that most people here are fairly devout, judging by the number of churches scattered throughout Krakow and the number of nuns and priests around town. Wikipedia confirms my suspicions - 89% of Poles are members of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II was from Krakow, so perhaps he may have further raised the profile of Catholicism here.
Once we got back to the main square, we walked northwards past Florian's Gate before being entertained by the Red Indian dudes who usually busk at Tottenham Court Road tube station in London, outside the old Barbican. The Barbican is an old fortified outpost that was part of the defensive barrier around the old town. It now houses various exhibitions.
One of the old fortified gateways into the old town.
doing some people-watching over a lager in the one of the many beer cafes on the main square, it was back to the hostel for a mini-siesta.
Post mini-siesta, we then grabbed a kebab from one of the 11,783,286 kebab shops in Krakow, before a visit to the nearest "alkohole" for takeaway beers. Polish kebabs are OK but not as good as the German ones, which are the best. They toast the pittas over there and they're nice and oily. Yum. Haven't tried an authentic Turkish one yet ironically but will do so when I hopefully visit Istanbul later this year.
It was then time to meet up with our hostel's "party man" for a night on the town.
Party Man (an Australian whose real name is Daniel) was tonight taking us on a pub crawl. In our group was a Canadian guy and a Scottish guy who both seemed pretty cool. Party Man also brought along his Polish girlfriend for the ride.
The meeting point for the pub crawl was in the main square by the Town Hall Tower, where we met Party Man #2 (also Australian, but I forget his name) who had brought some posse from
Davies, Michael, Kelley and myself about to shoot some Sambuca.
his hostel. After waiting around for a few stragglers it was off to our first destination which was a cool underground pub/bar, like most of the pubs/bars in Krakow. It was weird walking the streets and hearing music thumping out of every second basement with no sign of life in the buildings above them. This place was pretty cool as the auld bricks made you feel like you were in a medieval dungeon-cum-bar - which you literally were. The underground-ness also gave the place a cool secret/prohibited vibe. The acoustics were weird as well - every time a girl across the room talked it sounded like she was right behind me.
Anyway, our free shot as part of the pub crawl here was a Polish honey wodka that went down rather pleasantly. Michael then got us a round of “Strong” Polish beers that certainly lived up to their name. Having hardly slept thanks to my flight fiasco, it wasn’t taking me long to feel heavy. We then got talking to Party Man #2 who told us that he arrived here nine months ago looking to stay only a couple of days. He then got himself a job as Party Man,
Chatting With The Locals
Having a normal, grown-up conversation with the bartender.
along with a Polish girlfriend, and nine months later he is still here, Partying every night ;-) Pretty sweet job I have to say. But I don’t how his liver survives though - he was keeping up with us and apparently he never holds back when Partying.
We also got talking to Urko, a guy from the Basque Country - the fact that he told me he was from Basque and not Spain says it all about how proud the Basques are about their “country”.
The next place was called The Black Gallery that was semi-outdoors with sand out the back. It was like drinking on the beach. The free shot here was a REALLY HOT one that almost literally burned my throat. It was about ten times stronger than the Mexicaners I had in Hamburg
We then ended up at an underground club called Ministerstwo. It was pretty cool in here and the free shot was a red wodka that was rather sweet from memory (which by this point was a bit shady). This was swiftly followed by a jaeger bomb, a double Sambuca and a Havana Club & coke. We were all pretty wasted at this stage and I remember taking random
Norwegian girl I was hanging with at the last club we were at which I don't remember the name of...
photos with just about every girl in the club (of which there weren’t many) and having a pretty decent conversation with the bartender who was pretty cool. I think the DJ then saved my life with The Prodigy’s “Voodoo People” and couple of other decent tracks as Michael was saying the next day I was just about dead at this point.
We then moved on to another club called Club Lubu Dubu (or was it called Kitsch? I can’t remember) that was cranking. The music was quite retro and 80s before turning a bit indie later in the night (they played White Rose Movement!). There were a lot more girls in here. I got talking to one of them, a Norwegian student called Nanette who was pretty cool and fun. Michael, Kelley and Davies seemed to appear and reappear at different stages of the night while Nanette and I knocked back the beers. Anyway, it was a really drunken night - but an awesome one ;-)
The next day was Constitution Day in Poland, pretty much the nation’s national day. The main square was rammed and there was a parade of old soldiers marching through it, as national pride
Constitution Day Parade
Parade running through the main square.
took centre-stage. It was pretty cool to witness something so important to the Polish people while we were here.
Our mission today was to get to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Situated about 45 minutes out of town, the now defunct salt mine is quite the tourist attraction.
The salt mine has been worked on for the last 900 years, with the last batch of salt having left the mine in 1996. The tour, which gets to a maximum depth of 135m below the surface, starts with a dizzying and never-ending descent down a daunting wooden staircase.
I couldn’t really understand much of what the tour guide was saying as her English wasn’t the best going around but I wasn’t too bothered as I was nursing a severe hangover. About halfway through the tour I was feeling pretty sick, but managed to stick it out. The surroundings helped me a little - apparently there are 200kms of passages and 2,040 caverns in this subterranean labyrinth. This is quite incredible considering that everything in the mines was carved out by hand tools only.
There were also numerous sculptures and artworks carved into the salt, all by the miners themselves apparently. But it
Inside The Salt Mine
The mine reaches depths as low as 135m below the surface.
didn’t stop at sculptures - entire chapels are also carved into the salt and the Chapel of St. Kinga was quite spectacular. Paintings such as “The Last Supper” were carved into the wall here with magnificent 3D effects. Everything in there from the altar to the chandeliers - was made from salt. There were even underground lakes - there was one cheesy moment where the guide took us to one for a “light show” of sorts accompanied by the music of Bach that lasted about 3-4 minutes - yeah, it was a bit lame.
Just as you exit the mines there is an incredible looking dining hall that sometimes plays host to concerts and other events - this would certainly be a really cool and unique venue.
The most exciting part of the tour was arguably the lift back to the surface. The lift was no higher than about 2m, and could only just fit 8 people in. It was pretty cosy to say the least. Whizzing up at fair rate of notch, you could see the shadows of the mine pass you by through the grills in the lift, hear the cranking of the lift, and feel the wind
Chapel of St. Kinga
Amazing chapel created entriely of salt more than 100m underground, chiselled completely by hand.
of the ascent. You were almost waiting for the thing to suddenly drop like some sort of amusement park ride.
Overall, I thought the mines were pretty cool and definitely worth a visit - just a shame I was too hungover to fully appreciate it.
When we got back to town, we were starving so it was off to a Polish restaurant for a feed of local cuisine. The restaurant we had chosen was pretty cool and looked in every way like an old Polish village kitchen in some hut out in the country.
First thing to come out was some bread with lard
. The lard was tasty-as with bits of bacon and other assorted stocks in it, but probably not best for your health. The pierogi
(Polish dough dumplings stuffed with meats and vegetables) was a hit as we chowed down a mixed platter of these beauties. My entrée was the Russian pancakes served with a thick cream and a dash of caviar - very, very nice and could easily have been eaten with sweet toppings. I told you we were living like kings. The main course was a garlic and honey roasted pork knuckle - the side
The roast potatoes were completely unnecessary.
of roast potatoes was completely unnecessary ;-)
Suffice to say, dessert was not taken up and we once again enjoyed a beer while people-watching in the main square before returning to the hostel. The main square is such a hive of activity that there really aren’t many places better to watch the world go by.
Having slept about 6 hours in the last 48, there was to be no Partying tonight, and it didn’t take me long fall asleep.
The next day it was straight out to Auschwitz to see the old concentration camp out there from World War II. The “bus” out there was quite funny as it was nothing more than a glorified van that squeezed in about 20 people with absolutely no room to move. At least it didn’t smell like urine I suppose.
This was to be my second concentration camp visit after previously having gone to the Dachau concentration camp just outside Munich about three years ago.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is perhaps the most of infamous of all the concentration camps as it is the location of where 1.1 million people were murdered by the Nazis. Therefore I was expecting a more chilling experience here than
Arbeit Macht Frei
Entrance to Auschwitz; "Work will set you free".
I did at Dachau.
Visiting old concentration camps is by no means a fun thing to do, but is definitely something that as a human being, I felt I had to do.
With blue skies and green trees rustling in a light breeze, it was an ironically idyllic setting for a place of such horror. As the tour guide led us under the infamous iron gates that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will set you free”), he began to tell us of the horrific events that took place here. One of the more touching stories was that of prisoner who sacrificed himself to be killed in place of another prisoner who eventually survived the camp and was reunited with his family after the war. The two men were complete strangers.
Among other things, the guide showed us the “standing cells” where four prisoners were forced into a cell no larger than a square metre and were forced to stand, an execution wall were prisoners were shot with a bullet to the head, and the squalid living conditions that the prisoners were subject to. One of the things that gave me a real chill down my spine were exhibitions of vast
Those caught attempting to escaped were hung here to set an example to the other prisoners.
piles of shoes, combs and suitcases - personal possessions taken from the prisoners for re-use by the Nazis. Nothing went to waste. Even hair from female corpses were removed and sold to German textile companies. One of the exhibits was a colossal pile of human hair - this was sick.
Prisoners came here from all over Europe and from as far away as Oslo, Norway. The majority were Jews, but prisoners also included Poles, Roma (gypsies), and Soviet prisoners of war. Upon arrival, those considered “strong” were kept alive to work, while those considered “weak” were to be executed almost immediately. Most prisoners were executed via the gas chambers, but other methods of execution included systematic starvation, forced labour, disease, hangings and ghastly “medical experiments”.
The most eerie and chilling experience of the afternoon was walking through the gas chambers. To know that thousands upon thousands of people were murdered in the very room I was standing in was almost nauseating. What was worse was that in the crematorium next door, “strong” Jews had to remove gold teeth and hair from the corpses of their own people before incinerating them in the furnaces. Words can’t describe the absolute horror of
Hell On Earth
Not only were there multiple barbed wire fences, they were electric too.
what happened here.
I don’t think that anyone can possibly comprehend the murder that occurred here on such a grand scale - I am thankful that such horrific events will never, ever be repeated.
The tour also included a trip to the ruins of the extermination camp at nearby Birkenau. Davies, Kelley and I were unable to do this part of the tour as we had to catch a bus back to Krakow, but Michael stayed on.
It was a good thing that there was a long bus ride to get back after visiting Auschwitz, as you kind of need it to let your sombreness wear off.
The reason we had to get back to Krakow was because our hostel had kindly arranged a session at a shooting gallery!
Not before yet more travel drama however - we got off at what I thought was a place very close to our hostel but it turned out I was quite wrong. Luckily we were not on the other side of town and a couple of phone calls from the hostel, some directions from a couple of local girls and a 15 minute run later, we made it back to the
Letting off some steam with a shotgun.
hostel to meet the guy who was to drive us to the shooting range. We were lucky that being 20 minutes late was not to cost us anything and another 20 minutes later, we arrived at a dinky little shooting range next to a fairly swanky hotel in what seemed like the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Krakow.
So dinky was the small back yard with paper targets set up in front huge a mound of dirt, that I joked about whether we were indeed going to be shooters or the shootees.
After telling us about his love of New Zealand and the “Ring of Lords”, our rather burly instructor gave us some simple instructions before letting us at it.
First up for me was the AK-47. I felt like Rambo. Next up was the 1.5m long shotgun complete with reload sequence. This had by far the biggest recoil effect on my shoulder. If I didn’t feel like a man before, then reloading the shotgun while seeing a 3-inch cartridge pop out of it certainly did. Next up was the automatic Uzi. This was by far the most fun. I didn’t really care about hitting the target I
Ready, Aim, Fire!
Kelley takes aim with the Uzi.
just wanted to strafe the motherf*cker a la Schwarznegger in Commando. In any case the paper target went flying. I finished off with 5 shots with a glock pistol.
The whole thing was over pretty quickly and at 300zl (£60) it was by far the most expensive thing we did, but it was definitely worth it.
With our testosterone levels going through the roof we had one last steak and sausage from the grill across from Wawel Hill before meeting up with Michael and taking the short 15 minute train ride to the airport. At 8zl for the ride this had to be way better than airport transfers in London.
Overall this was a bloody awesome weekend away and it sucked having to go back to London for work. I was never bored or not enjoying myself at any point of the trip which is all you can really ask for in terms of a holiday. So if you’re looking for a cheap holiday away with loads to see and do and with an excellent nightlife, I cannot recommend Krakow enough.
I haven’t planned my next trip away yet, (although a return to Stockholm
in July is on
A Polish Fairytale
Complete with horse and carriage.
the agenda) but let’s hope that it won’t be too long.
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