Kraków or Cracow?

Apparently, it’s both. Some countries call it Kraków, others call is Cracow. Who knew? (Probably a lot of people – I just didn’t).

I was only actually in Poland for a little over a day and a half, and only had about 3 hours of daylight to explore Kraków on Easter Sunday. When JD and I had initially booked the tickets we were mostly interested in doing the tour of Auschwitz and didn’t look into everything Kraków has to offer – if I could do it over again, I would spend another full day there to explore more of the city. Considering how little I’ve heard about people going to visit it, I’d say it’s very underrated. I thought the city was beautiful and had a lot of historic sites and buildings to see, and I would have loved an extra day just to see a little bit more.

The first place we visited was Wawel Castle, which was less than a 10 minute walk from our airbnb. The hill that the castle site on (Wawel Hill) was formed about 150 million years ago and is the setting of a lot of medieval legends. On the hill, the Wawel Cathedrals and the first structures of the castle were built in the 11th century. In the 14th century, the castle was expanded upon considerably and although parts of the castle have suffered from various fires, they have since been restored and the castle still stands today.

After walking through the grounds of the castle, JD and I left and went to the nearby park. There was a sign at the entrance with a map and a lot of interesting monuments and buildings were within this ginormous park, so we just kind of started walking through it and eventually ended up in the Old Town Square.

One of the really cool parts about spending Easter Sunday in Kraków was that the Easter Market was happening in Old Town Square, so there were dozens of little stands selling homemade goods and yummy food. Of the 3 hours we had in Kraków, we spent a good chunk of it wandering through the market. Another perk of Kraków is that it’s SUPER cheap compared to everywhere else I have been. The currency in Poland is worth around 1/4 of a Euro, and most of the food and gifts I bought added up to the equivalent of less than 2 Euro each.

Our second day in Kraków was a reallllly long one. Thankfully we had just gone back to the airbnb to go to bed early after it got dark and we left the Easter Market, but we had to be up early to take a day tour of the Auschwitz Museum, Auschwitz Birkenau, and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. We were very grateful that we had such beautiful weather considering the majority of the tour was outside, but honestly, I don’t have a whole lot of words for my experience on the tour through Auschwitz. It was a very emotionally heavy and exhausting day. I spent the majority of my time there listening to the tour guide and reading all of the signs about all of the history. It’s one thing to read about the violence and tragedy of the Holocaust and WWII, and learn about what took place at the concentration camps at school, but to actually walk the grounds of where so much of that happened less than 100 years ago offered an entirely new perspective and taught me a lot.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” – A German phrase meaning “work sets you free”

Our tour group was relatively small and was made up of less than 20 people, which I think made is much easier to pay attention and really take in all of my surroundings throughout the duration of the tour. I also found that people were much quieter and more respectful during this tour than many of the other tours I have been on. At the end of the tour I also found out that our tour guide’s parents were both also tour guides of Auschwitz, and her that her grandfather was actually a prisoner during the Holocaust.

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Rather than writing paragraphs about some of the things I learned during the tour, I’d rather just make a list. I also learned a lot more than just what I’m choosing to note here, but don’t really feel the need to list everything. So anyway,

  • Block 10 was the experimental block, where numerous medical experiments were conducted
  • The Wall of Death was where hundreds of executions took place
  • The windows of the blocks on either side of the Wall of Death were boarded up so other prisoners couldn’t watch the murders and executions that took place, but all of them knew what was going on
  • Crematoriums 2 and 3 were destroyed by the Nazis trying to hide the evidence
  • The museum has various rooms containing the prisoners belongings, including suitcases, kitchenware, eyeglasses, shoes, hairbrushes, and even the hair that was shaved from the heads of the prisoners that entered the camp
  • Prisoners in the camp were only photographed upon entering until mid-1943
  • Most of the photographs in the museum are of Poles, because that’s who the camps were initially designed for

After the tour of the Auschwitz Museum, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the second part of the tour. This part of the concentration camp is much larger area-wise than the first part of the tour, and (although obviously maintained) is much less of a museum and is kept closer to what it looked like after liberation.

All of the barracks in Birkenau center B1 are original, and in the death barracks people

Sleeping shelf in a death barrack

had to sleep 4 or 5 to a shelf. To put it into perspective, the photo on the right is of one of the shelves. The barrack we walked into was lined with shelves like this – all along every wall, and two lines of them down the middle. When you think about how hard these people were forced to work and how little they were allowed to bathe, and how infrequently they could use the bathroom, it’s impossible to even imagine what it was like to sleep so closely in these barracks.

I think the most horrifying thing I saw throughout the whole tour was the graffiti some people left on the walls of the death barracks. Not even hateful graffiti…literally people carving their names into the wall…but I’m still just appalled at how disrespectful some people can be. Nearly 1.5 million people died in these camps and only 7,000 were liberated, and I will just never understand why people can’t resist scratching their names into a place so full of emotion for so many.

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On a bit of a lighter note, after the tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we were taken to the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Kraków, which is on UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage List, for a tour. Wieliczka is one of the worlds oldest salt mines, and was still making table salt up until 2007. All throughout the mine are dozens of statues carved from the rock salt as well as 4 (or maybe 5?) chapels, a few lakes, and even some shops and a restaurant. The mine is over 1,000 feet deep, and although the tour didn’t take us all the way to the bottom of the mine, we were able to venture down a little over 425 feet. I didn’t really know what to expect coming into this tour, and I certainly didn’t expect to see so much craft, beauty, and amazing works of art and architecture.

Due to the lighting in the mine the pictures didn’t come out fantastic, but I still think they’re worth sharing!

After returning from the tour of Auschwitz and the Salt Mine, JD and I had to go back to our airbnb to grab our bags, and then walk to the train station to wait for a few hours until our sleeper train to Prague arrived. The train station didn’t end up being much of a station at all and was just outside, and a the mall beside it was closed for Easter Monday, so we ended up finding the bus station (which thankfully had a place to sit inside), found a place to get food, and waited there until it was time to go to the train.

I didn’t expect to be able to sleep well on the train at all – it was extremely uncomfortable, we had 2 other people in our cabin (one of which snored), and the train itself was really loud.

I slept the entire time. It had been one exhausting day.


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