This trip has got to be the most exciting one I’ve ever had. We carpooled our way from Graz to Krakow. It was a very long drive in an awesome Mercedes, going at over 180km/h on straight, empty roads. Our driver was a nice Austrian guy with a girlfriend from Krakow, and he was visiting her over the weekend, so he would drive us back to Graz on the Sunday too. I spent most of the journey chitchatting with him while Peiwen and Franco dozed off in the backseat. I surprised myself at how much I could talk to him.
We arrived in Krakow at almost midnight. The wind was crazy and just a minute out of the car was unbearable. We were Couchsurfing again. After our driver dropped us off, we tried buzzing our host through the telecom, but it didn’t work and neither did we understand the instructions because they were written in Polish. Polish, by the way, not the easiest language to learn.
After standing in the cold for what seemed like an hour (but probably was about half the time), we found our host (by the grace of God) and we slept peacefully that night in his room. The next morning, we cooked breakfast together before leaving for the Old Town. We only stayed one night at our first host’s place, as he was going out of the country. We were going to move to another place later that night.
As we were leaving, it started to snow. This was my first time seeing snow in almost two decades (excluding from inside the car on the way to Krakow)! We were all so excited!
Spot tiny specks of snow!
Battle of Grunwald monument
St. Florian’s Gate and the Barbican
St. Florian’s Gate is the main entryway into the Old Town. Together with the barbican, it served as a fortification against the Turkish attacks during the 14th century.
St. Florian’s Street (Ulica Floriańska)
We entered the historical centre via St. Florian’s Gate, down St. Florian’s Street and towards the Main Market Square. As it was Christmas season, there was quite a big Christmas market that occupied almost the entire square.
Main Market Square (Rynek Główny)
From hot food, mulled wine, ornaments, trinkets to candy, it was definitely one of the bigger Christmas markets I’d seen thus far. Of course, we couldn’t resist the delicious smelling food.
We ordered some pan roasted potatoes and mushrooms, and some grilled pork to share. The perfect hearty meal for the cold weather! The wind was so strong as we sat down to eat (and it was snowing a little) that as we finished about half of our food, the wind started blowing our plates away!
Our first host also recommended that we tried the grilled cheese served piping hot with a sweet cranberry sauce. We managed to find it, and oh, was it divine! The ultimate treat for cheese lovers.
Oscypek cheese with cranberry sauce
The cheese is a smoked cheese made out of salted sheep milk from the Tartar Mountains area of Poland. The cranberry sauce definitely cuts the saltiness of the smoked cheese. And cranberries just spell Christmas!
We wondered around the Main Market Square until it was time for dinner. It was really cold and we had to seek shelter in a café to get a hot drink and some cake to warm us up!
For dinner, we searched for another recommendation for authentic Polish pierogi. Yes, it seems like non-stop eating here! It was a place called Przystanek Pierogarnia. By evening, the snow was starting to fall really hard, and thanks to the wind, the snow didn’t fall so gracefully, but rather, was being blown horizontally. It was terrible! Think water out of a hose! Soon enough, the cars were covered under a blanket of snow, with passersby scribbling all sort of vulgarities on them.
When we finally found Przystanek Pierogarnia, we were shocked to see how tiny the place really was. It was small and packed with locals getting their pierogi fix. We ordered a serving of assorted pierogi and a kluski dish with a tomato sauce.
Kluski is pretty similar to the gnocchi – chewy and delicious! We enjoyed the dishes very much. It is definitely another perfect winter dish – extremely hearty. Did I also mention that the whole meal cost us only a small sum of money? I think it was less than 8 Euros for both plates!
Notes left by satisfied customers
After dinner, we took the tram towards our second Couchsurfing host’s place. This is an extremely long story, but it is certainly an interesting one. In summary, our host was a druggie, threatened to show us his cellar (think Josef Fritzl), was extremely offended by our desire to visit Auschwitz, drank too much, requested for a Taiwanese sandwich which he very rudely commented was too f-ing sweet, and asked me to translate “I want to kill you and take your liver” in Chinese. Now, I think you can understand why we slept with a knife that night and escaped early in the morning by jumping over his fence. Feel free to ask me for the full story. I think it would make a great movie.
After our escape, we took the first tram towards the Old Town and found ourselves a hostel. That very morning, we booked ourselves for the Auschwitz tour at the tourist office. Auschwitz is one of the places that you just have to visit when you are in Krakow. It is such an important reminder of the wrongdoings of the Holocaust. It is hard to imagine that humans could be capable of such atrocities. Of course, the Holocaust is just one of the many genocides that have taken place, and in some places, are still occurring.
Before the start of the tour of Auschwitz I camp
“Arbeit Macht Frei”
The words Arbeit Macht Frei means “work makes free” or “work sets you free”. They were placed over many of the entrances of Nazi concentration camps. Of course, no matter how much they tolled, the prisoners would never be free men again.
The red brick barracks of Auschwitz I
Prisoners lived in horrid conditions and disease was rampant. They were also made to endure the long and painful Polish winters without the proper clothing and footwear. Many died of pneumonia. Of course, many were malnourished and died of sheer exhaustion from the amount of manual labour they were made to endure.
The tour brought us to a few rooms where the belongings of prisoners were kept. These rooms were filled with some of the most disturbing things – from prosthetic limbs, shoes and leather suitcases, to a room full of hair cut (a few thousand kilograms worth) from over 100,000 victims. They did not allow us to take photographs of the hair, and even if they did, I doubt I would have. It was just too sickening for me. I didn’t linger in that room for long. These items were then sold or used to manufacture other products. For example, the hair was sent to be made into coats for the winter. The things some people do for money.
Shoes of victims
They brought us into various bunkers, and into some of the cells of the victims. There was one with rows and rows of portraits of the demised. To think that they would never have enough space if they were to put up photos of every single one of the victims.
Portraits of the victims
Layers of barbed wire to prevent escape
The tour brought us from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
There was something even more solemn about Birkenau than Auschwitz I. Maybe it was because the snow storm started again and it was getting dark, but the whole experience at Birkenau we were suffering because of the chill, and that made me wonder how the victims felt having to endure all of that day after day.
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”
I wouldn’t say that it was scary being in a place where so many perished; it was just a very sad time. Needless to say, I did a lot of reflecting and prayed many prayers.
We returned back to the Old Town in time for dinner.
Our friend recommended finding a burger joint which is situated in the heart of the Old Town, just a street off the Main Market Square. Moaburger offers various choices of delicious burgers from the classic beef, to a surf & turf rendition and even vegetarian options such as goat cheese and bean burgers.
We ordered The Classic, the Classic + Cheese and the Chicken. Definitely one of the best burgers I have had in this lifetime. Not to mention that the burgers were pretty big. Krakow certainly has good food!
After dinner, we headed to the mall for some window shopping and dessert. Peiwen also lost her phone in the mall ):
Christmas tree outside the mall
On our last day in Krakow, we took the free walking tour. The starting point was St. Mary’s Basilica, the church that dominates the Main Market Square. This 14th century gothic church is famous for the trumpeter that plays on the hour from the top of the taller tower. The tune breaks off midway, commemorating the trumpeter that was shot in the neck while sounding the alarm to warn of the Mongol attacks.
St. Mary’s Church (Kosciól Mariacki)
Be sure to admire the stunning altarpiece too.
Our guide was a funny local who gave us some tips on surviving the winter in Krakow. Tips include shrugging your shoulders and arms repeatedly in a penguin-like fashion, and kicking the ground with your toes (with boots on, preferably) to keep the blood flowing to the extremities. We must have looked like fools, all thirty or so of us.
The tour brought us all round the Old Town, and also gave us a couple of breaks to warm up or have something light to eat. The highlight of the tour for me was Wawel.
Wawel is a fortified complex which houses the Royal Castle and the Wawel Cathedral.
The walls of Wawel
For centuries, Wawel Castle served as the residence of the kings. You can also find Poland’s Crown Jewels at Wawel.
The Royal Castle’s arcaded courtyard
The Wawel Dragon Statue along the Vistula River as seen from the top of the Wawel Hill
According to legend, the Dragon of Wawel Hill had a lair in the foot of Wawel Hill. The dragon killed many civilians and devoured their livestock. King Krakus, the founder of the city, promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the Wawel Dragon. However, many warriors failed. One day, a poor cobbler named Skuba took up the challenge. He stuffed a lamb with sulphur and set it into the dragon’s lair. The dragon was then tricked into eating it. It got so thirsty that it ran out to the Vistula River and drank until it could not hold anymore water and exploded. Now, it’s stories like these that make life so much more interesting!
Friends at Wawel
We ended the tour at Wawel and headed for lunch in search of zapiekanka. But first, we stopped by a café in the Jewish District (Kazimierz) to grab a light meal.
Hot chocolate and apple pie a la mode
Polish sour rye soup (żurek)
Once again, the food was wonderful. I loved the sour rye soup.
We didn’t have to walk far to find our zapiekanka, which is a baguette grilled with various toppings. We got ours at Zapiekanki Królewskie, one of the more popular places.
Zapiekanka from Zapiekanki Królewskie
The baguette was perfectly toasted, the cheese nice and stringy and served piping hot off the grill! We finished it too quickly for people who just had lunch.
We ended our day with a quick look at the New Jewish Cemetery.
The Star of David at the New Jewish Cemetery
The cemetery covers a total of 11 acres and contains over 10,000 tombs.
The Krakow trip is definitely the most memorable one I’ve had. I certainly will not be forgetting running for our dear lives or our haunting experience at Auschwitz. And of course, Peiwen and Franco are one of the best travel buddies I could ever ask for.