Lublin, Krakow, the Tatras Mountains and into Slovakia!

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July 18th 2011
Published: July 24th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Lublin, which is the largest city in South-east Poland, turned out to be far from the highlight of my time in Poland. I only stayed one night, which was fortunate, as I really didn't like the city at all. It's main draw is its medieval old town, but as Lublin has been made the European Capital of Culture 2016 (as banners everywhere inform visitors), most of the major buildings were covered in scaffolding and undergoing some sort of restoration, so there really wasn't that much to see. If I had known this, I probably would have knocked Lublin off my itinerary. Anyway, that's enough about Lublin. From there, I took a minibus to Krakow, the historic capital of Poland and current third city. I had high expectations for Krakow, and it really didn't disappoint. Without question one of the best cities I've been to on this trip. The centre, which escaped devastation in the war, is the oldest in Poland, with Krakow having been the capital until the 16th century. As such, the city has a regal splendour, focussed on the largest medieval square in Europe (it really is enormous) and the Royal Castle. The gigantic market square was brimming with tourists, horse and carts offering tourist rides, overpriced restaurants and the large Cloth Hall, which has has been turned into a souvenir market. St Mary's Church, with its strangely unsymmetrical towers, and the tower from the old Town Hall, dominate either end of the square. Most of the other attractions in the old town are located on the 12 roads that lead off the Market Square, including other squares, part of the medieval town wall and one of the city's original gates, and a fair number of churches. South of the market square, past another couple of ornate churches and the house Pope John Paul II used to live in, is the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill, where the Kings of Poland were traditionally crowned and buried. From the top of one of the towers was a great view of the castle as well as Vistula River. Just outside of the old town is the old Jewish quarter, which somehow also survived the war relatively intact, with 4 synagogues still standing (1 from the 16th century). And just past the Jewish quarter is the factory owned by Oscar Schindler, where he managed to save a significant number of Jews in the war. With so much to see in the city as well as outside it, it's no wonder Krakow is by far Poland's number 1 tourist destination.

My most memorable experience in Krakow has to be visiting Oświęcim. On first appearances, Oświęcim seems to be a run of the mill Polish town, but in fact it is one of the most well-known and infamous places in the world, better known by its German name, Auschwitz. Auschwitz is actually 3 camps, with the original Auschwitz I located on the edge of Oświęcim town. I took a guided tour from here, which from the offset was chillingly disturbing. Seeing the squalid living conditions for the prisoners was quite moving, but nothing compared to seeing the “Death Wall” where victims were shot before the Nazis started using the gas chambers on mass. Adjacent to the “Death Wall” are the cells punishment cells, where disruptive prisoners were either starved to death or were placed in cramped cells with no light and room only to stand. Some of the living quarters have been converted into a museum, with different rooms filled to the brim with items taken from the people who died here. For example there was a room filled with human hair, shaved off the corpses by Jewish prisoners, which would have been sent to Germany like so many similar shipments previously had been, had the camp not have been liberated . Other rooms were filled with shoes, clothes, luggage etc – all that remained from the thousands of people who perished here. On the walls were photos of many of the people who came here, including how long they survived – the average was 3 months. The tour of Auschwitz 1 ended at the only intact gas chamber and crematorium, where the “final solution” was implemented until they decided they needed to build bigger gas chambers as Auschwitz II. There are no mass graves at Auschwitz – there is just 1 urn in the museum containing ashes from the incinerated bodies – all that remains of the 1.2 million people who died here. Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was unbelievably even worse than Auschwitz I. The 170 hectare site, 3km from Auschwitz I, is 25 as big, and was built by the Nazis to make the death factory more efficient. The living conditions actually made Auschwitz I look luxurious in comparison. Half of the site was made of wooden stables which were converted into cramped living quarters – most of these have not survived, nor have the 5 gas chambers which were blown up by the Nazis in 1945 to try and cover up the atrocities that were carried out here (except 1 which the inmates actually managed to blow up in 1944). The guide was very good at bringing the ruins to life and telling us their story; obviously an incredibly sad place, but one I'm glad I was able to see first hand. We all got absolutely soaked in touring Auschwitz II as the tour ended amidst a thunder and lighting storm, but this added to the sombre mood of the camp.

The other trip outside of the city I did was to Wieliczka, famous for having one of the oldest salt mines in the world. The salt mine, as well as Krakow Old Town, were 2 of the first 12 entries on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and although the history of the mine is undoubtedly important, the visit wasn't that interesting. Being easily the most expensive attraction I saw in Poland (€20 to get in!) I was expecting more than a run-of-the-mill 2 ½ hour tour. Some of the chambers and the history behind them were interesting, but the mine was nowhere near as interesting or as beautiful as the Zipaquira mine I visited in Colombia last year – maybe if I hadn't been there, I would have been more impressed. To get out of the mine, after having descended 330 or so metres, we had to queue for a lift to get back to the surface. When we eventually got to the top, we ended up going through a medical centre before then being escorted back to the main visitor centre where they counted us the check no-one had been left behind in the mine – the fact that some people didn't follow us back to the visitor centre for this count must have caused issues for the management.

My next stop was the town of Zakopane, 2 hours to the south of Krakow at the base of the Tatras Mountains – the largest in central Europe. The roads going in to Zakopane were ridiculously jammed – it felt a bit like the summer queues getting into Cornwall. As a result, the bus was over an hour late. I can see why this area is so popular with Polish holiday makers – the landscape between Krakow and Zakopane is simply stunning – definitely the highlight of this predominantly flat country. The Tatras Mountains mark the border between Poland and Slovakia, but as 75% of the mountains are across the border, and Poles don't seem to like visiting the Slovakian side as much as their own side, the compact Polish part of the mountain range was jammed pretty much everywhere. Zakopane town itself, which although has a beautiful setting with the Tatras looming above it, was just a nondescript tourist centre filled with the usual tourist things. On the main roads into the town, there were literally hundreds of people (mostly pensioners) standing on the pavement waving signs offering rooms to passing motorists.

Just outside of the town is a cable car which climbs all the way to Kasprowy Wierch, a mountain right on the border, standing at 1987m. This is one of the most popular things to do in the area, but I wasn't anticipating it to be as busy as it was – in the end I was queueing for just over 2 hours to get in the cable car. For some reason, on the way up they only load 36 people into the 2 cable cars, but on the way down they fill it to capacity (60), which is why there were massive queues at the bottom and none at the top. In any case, the wait was worth it – the top of Kasprowy Wierch was truly beautiful. I walked along a trail on the arret which marks the border between Poland and Slovakia; the paths more than 5 minutes away from the top station were empty, whereas the area around the station itself were incredibly jammed. A lot of the people didn't seem to realise that the weather on top of the mountain would be different from in town, so were wearing shorts/t-shirt, sandals, and in one case high-heels, none of which really suited the exposed and cold mountain top.

The next day I fitted in a full day hike in the Tatras National Park. Morskie Oko is the most popular hike in the Polish Tatras, but it was still surprising to see how many cars and people were at the beginning of the trek ½ away from Zakopane, especially given it was only 8:30. The trail started at around 980m above sea level, before climbing to Morskie Oko lake at 1395m, along a crowded tarmacked track. A very easy hike, taking only 90 minutes. I wasn't quite sure where to go after Morskie Oko, as the map I had wasn't the best, but I ended up on a path which climbed up above the lake, which was a lot steeper and longer than I thought, but was definitely worth it, as the views of both Morskie Oko lake below and another lake, with a waterfall connecting it to Morskie Oko. Behind this second lake rises Poland's tallest mountain, Mt Rysy (2499m). After walking around this lake for a bit, I then went back down to Morskie Oko, all the way around it, and then along a different path which I hoped would avoid the crowds that were now arriving at Morskie Oko. This path was much more of a proper hike – a 2 hour climb to a mountain called Staw Polski, which offered fantastic views of both Morskie Oko and the Tatras mountains. I thought I had reached the top of Staw Polski a few times before I then saw the trail keep heading upwards, but eventually I got to the top (1665m), from where I could see “The Valley of Five Lakes” below. The trail down to where I started in the morning (and where the buses leave from) took another couple of hours, and was made quite tricky by a short sharp shower which made the steep rock steps slippery until the sun came out. The trail was also quite busy, but on occasions I could see the main Morskie Oko trail way below, which was jam packed. The hike lasted 8 hours in total, and was unquestionably one of the most picturesque trips I've done so far. Absolutely brilliant.

On my last day in Zakopane, I hiked up the hill just above the town, Gubalowka, getting lost several times along the way when the trail suddenly stopped. The top of the hill offered panoramic views of the whole of the Tatra Mountain range, unfortunately partially obscured with cloud. The stretch between funicular railway station and the chair lift station, by which most people reach the top, was crammed with tacky souvenir stands and arcades. Instead of following the official trail back down that was impossible to follow, I just followed the path below one of the chairlifts, which made it a lot easier to get back into town.

I got to the bus station in time for the bus I had been hoping to catch to the town in Slovakia that I was trying to get to, only to learn that of the 8 times listed for the bus to Slovakia, only 2 a day were currently running (even though it is peak summer season). There was an asterisk and a lot of text in Polish only next to all of these bus times, but of course I didn't understand any of it. In short, I had to wait 4 hours until the next bus left, so got absolutely drenched making my way back to the hostel to wait there. In the end, I did fortunately make it across the border – only 35km away, to the small village of Zdiar. So it's Do widzenia (goodbye) to Poland from me - having spent 2 weeks in the country , I've been quite impressed with some of the sites I've been too – Gdansk in the north was lovely, but Krakow and the Tatras definitely
Typical living conditions at AuschwitzTypical living conditions at AuschwitzTypical living conditions at Auschwitz

Up to 6 people sleeping on each level
stand out for me, and are probably places I'd like to come back to in the future. I've seen more or less everything I wanted to see in the country with the exception of Wroclaw in the far west, and I'll be popping back into Poland in a couple of weeks to complete my Poland itinerary.

So into Slovakia - the Slovakian Tatras were substantially quieter than the Tatras across the border – they cover a much larger area and there are probably fewer visitors. The biggest difference for me was the weather – I didn't actually manage to see the Slovakian Tatras until the morning I had to leave due to 3 days of low cloud completely obscuring the range, which as you can imagine, was a bit of a shame. That said, I still braved the weather to try and see at least some of the area. The village I was staying in, Zdiar, was well connected by bus, and there is also the Tatras Electric railway nearby, linking most of the major sites in the Slovakian Tatras. Zdiar is a very linear village, with all of the houses located on just one road, some 6 kilometres in length. The numbering system was just a bit confusing though – I got off the bus from Poland trying to find house number 461 – after walking for 20 minutes uphill with all my luggage I found houses 459, 460, another 459, but no 461. 461 turned out to be about 3km back down the hill in the village, next to 161 – when they build new houses, they seem to allocate random numbers rather than have a logical sequence. It took me ages to find my hotel!

Bright and early the next day I went to one of the main tourist towns in the area, Tatranská Lomnica, hoping to take the cable car up to Lomnický štít (2634m), the 2nd highest peak in the whole range, but with all the low cloud, there would have been no point. Instead I went half way up and followed some walking trails, but with no views and a lot of rain, it wasn't exactly the best hike ever. In the afternoon the skies completely opened up, so I called it a day and went back to Zdiar. The next day the weather wasn't that much better, with the persistent low cloud still masking the peaks, but at least it was (predominantly) dry. I went to the other main tourist town, Stary Smokovec and spent the morning hiking above the town. I abandoned the plan for the full day hike when the rain came again, and instead went to the nearest city, Poprad, which is just 15 minutes away from Stary Smokovec. I feared Poprad, Slovakia's 10th city, would just be a transportation hub, and so it turned out to be. Poprad was also ridiculously cold – much more so than the mountain towns – I don't think I've ever been so cold in July (in the northern hemisphere at least). I quickly moved on to another nearby city, Levoca, which is must more historic and definitely more deserving of a visit than Poprad. Levoca is a quaint medieval town, with preserved city walls and a beautiful main square. One of those towns where it's nice to spend a couple of hours, but there's not much to do once you've seen the few streets and squares in the historic centre. Overlooking the city is a large hill with a church on top – I thought it would offer a good view point of the city and the surrounding countryside. I followed the signs, which turned out to be a bad idea, as it ended up taking an hour and a half to get to the top, being as the route followed a road and was incredibly indirect.
The views from the top were worth it though, especially as the sun even made an appearance. The route back down was much more direct – just 20 minutes. From there I headed back to Poprad and back to Zdiar - where it was still cloudy and raining.

On my last day in Slovakia I wanted to cram a fair amount in, but as it was a Saturday, a lot of the buses were not running, and as I had a train to catch to Budapest from Košice (Ko-shi-tse), I decided not to risk getting stuck somewhere else and missing the connection. And irony being what it is, that day the sun came out and the clouds disappeared – I finally got to see the Slovakian Tatras, but unfortunately I had to move on. Luckily I liked Košice, Slovakia's second city, and I managed to pass most of the day there until my evening train without too many problems. The city is centred around one broad street, where all of the attractions and restaurants are located. I thought the centre had a distinctive French feeling, in terms of the architecture at least, highlighted by the 14th century St Elizabeth's Cathedral (the easternmost Gothic cathedral in Europe) and the State Theatre, which has a very French palatial feel. Unfortunately I could not go inside the cathedral as there was a wedding on at the time. In fact, besides this wedding, the centre was eerily quiet for a Saturday. Nearly all of the shops were shut and most of the streets deserted; the only exception besides the wedding party was a beach volleyball tournament happening right outside the cathedral and a lively chess tournament happening further up the street. Very strange that the centre of the country's second city can be so empty. The rest of the main street was filled with ornate buildings, many technically classed as palaces but perhaps not that grand, as well as the usual few ornate churches. Everything in the city seemed so cheap – I've never eaten out in Europe for so little money – most things seemed ridiculously underpriced. I assumed that as Slovakia uses the Euro, it would be more expensive than Poland, but this is definitely not the case. I saw some jobs being advertised for €1.30 an hour, which probably explains why everything does cost so little.

So my brief stay in Slovakia has finished – for now – and even though I haven't spent that long in the country, I've liked what I've seen so far. I'm now going to Budapest, before heading back to Slovakia for the capital Bratislava, before then crossing into Austria for Vienna.

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