In May the husband and I spent a long weekend in Krakow. I have lived in Europe for 10 years now and Krakow has been on my list all that time. My maternal grandparents were from Krakow and lived there until they moved to Australia in 1950. My grandfather was part of the Polish underground who worked against the Nazis during WWII and then against the Russian occupation, and my grandmother wrote a novel based on their experiences (which I painstakingly translated in order to read). I literally have no idea what took me so long to get around to going!!
One of my main goals was to eat as much good food as possible! Food I haven’t been able to indulge in now that my mother lives so far away! Pierogi (lots and lots of pierogi), Polish sausage, Golabki (cabbage rolls stuffed with meat in a tomato sauce), Placki (potato pancakes), and more pierogi. As well as seeking out restaurants, we went on the Saturday to the local street food area in Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter) to try what was on offer! There was also a surprising amount of ice-cream, with ice-cream parlours all over the city with long queues and open late into the night. Not complaining!!
I didn’t have a list of sites I wanted to see, I mostly just wanted to soak in the culture in general. One exception was the university, as my grandparents went there and it featured almost as a character in my grandmother’s book (oh, and Copernicus studied there too…). We went to the Collegium Maius (part of the Jagiellonian University) on Saturday morning. The building was originally built in the 14th Century, and in the 1960s was restored to how it looked in the 1840s. Despite currently dwelling in ‘the’ old university town (or perhaps because if it), I very much appreciated the architecture and the atmosphere. We also joined a crowd for a special chiming of the clock – that, I didn’t get.
We had no problem just soaking up the culture as I (without realising it) booked a hotel right on the central square. They had building works happening while we were there, which must have been why it was in my budget, but it was ideal!
Krakow was much more like the Western European cities of France and Germany than I had expected with a big cafe culture. People we spoke to said that this was a relatively new thing in the city, partially linked with major work on the Market Square. Archaeologists excavated under the square in the 2000s, revealing a lot about the history of the city, and built it over with a fancy new square, and an interesting museum underneath where you can look around the excavations which opened in 2010. We had a look around the museum – the Rynek Underground – and it was definitely interesting, but probably didn’t have enough interpretation (in Polish or English) to really get me engaged. After looking around at the spectacle of what they had achieved, I then found the content fell a bit flat. Also, this, and it seemed to me all the tourist sites in Krakow were very busy and you had to book a timed ticket hours and hours in advance. We found the same thing when we went walked up to Wawel Hill, where we only managed to go inside into the Armoury because of the restrictions with timed tickets. It was cool though, the had lots of winged armour – angelic!
In fact, the most enjoyable museum visit we made during our trip was to the Museum of Pharmacy, which seemed a bit obscure, but I love history of science museums and it seemed like a a must see. As well as being fascinated by the sometimes delightfully macabre instruments on display, I was also relatively impressed with how they managed their interpretation. It was so simple, at the entrance to each room they had a wall mounted rack with laminated copies of the interpretation in various languages. So simple, but so effective. I spend a lot of time at work thinking about new ways we can use people’s mobile devices to deliver them new and interesting content about our collections, but as a tourist who had just popped in, this was exactly what I needed. So just a reminder for me that sometimes simple is best.
On Sunday we booked on a group trip to Aushwitz – not trying to be a ‘dark tourist’ or anything, but it seemed like something that I had to see. We went on an organised trip that I booked through Viator and would highly recommend. On the bus on the way there we watched a video based on footage taken by one of the Russians who was part of the team that liberated the camp. When we arrived we had about a 2-3 hour tour around Auschwitz and Berkinau. I don’t think that there is a better way to describe it than harrowing. Seeing the conditions in which people lived, crammed into overpacked dorms, and the gas chambers themselves where people were sent to die.
My brother had previously been to the camp and he told me that for him the most disturbing thing was the hair. In one area of the camp they collected piles of things that they confiscated from the prisoners which they intended to sell. Alongside shoes, glasses and combs was tonnes of hair. They shaved the heads of inmates when they arrived, which they would sell on to be made into fabrics. This was disturbing, but for me the thing that stuck in my mind most was a hallway lined with pictures of inmates, staring back at you. When they first opened the camp, the first people sent there were Polish dissidents rather than Jews, and they took pictures of prisoners when they arrived. They stopped doing this once they started to send Jews to the camp as there were too many arrivals, and clearly they deemed it wasn’t worth it. I found it startling how looking at the faces captured in the pictures made me feel. In general, with all the stories that were relayed to us throughout the tour, the most disturbing thing was how those running the camp clearly saw those sent there as less than human, choosing who lived or died based on what use they could be, like cattle. It is hard to imagine seeing other human beings in that way – or at least I hope it is.
It was a long and hungry day, and when we got back we were starving, so went to Ed Red for an amazing steak dinner. We then really took the edge off by going to a karaoke bar. It was amazing, there was about half a dozen men there who clearly took their karaoke very seriously, they sung often, and were amazing! There was one guy who was sitting quietly in the corer, and then the first time he got up to sing he belted out an amazing operatic number, and then sat down quietly in his corner again. It was clear this group of men knew each other and went around to wherever karaoke was on regularly. It was great for us to sit back, have a drink and sing-a-long, letting off some stress and steam before heading home in the morning.