Even though the train made multiple stops that always woke us up, the private cabin in the overnight train was definitely the way to go. Plus with an overnight train you basically get two extra full days in each town, as opposed to knocking out one whole day just traveling, AND don’t have to pay for a hotel room. We are definitely making a mental note of this for future vacations.
That being said, we arrived in Krakow (or Cracow as they translate it in English) at 6AM and couldn’t meet the lady to let us into our apartment until 8. So we found a park nearby and watched the Polish people wake up and head to work.
Sidebar: This trip we have opted for staying in apartments most of our trip. After doing much research on hotels, hostels, etc., we found that it is just as cheap, if not cheaper, to get a small apartment. We tested this theory last summer in Brussels and it worked out great. You get a full kitchen and more space to spread out, but most importantly you usually get a WASHER AND DRYER. (Or at least a washer… turns out Europeans don’t believe in quick-drying your clothes.)
We got checked in with our landlady Natalia, ate breakfast at a small, awesome place called Café Camelot, and went exploring. Our place ended up being on a popular street known for its coffee shops, jazz, and places where students held secret meetings during communist days. And it also apparently was where people got late night kebabs and yelled until 4 A.M. (but that’s a different story).
As usual, we busted out the Rick Steves walking tours and made our way around town hitting the highlights: the Main Market Square, Cloth Hall, the old city walls, this awesome head statue, and finally up to Wawel Castle.
One thing we were amazed (read: annoyed) by was the amount of school kids – from elementary school to college – touring the city with their teachers. I usually expect to see giant clumps of Americans, Asians, and English, and curse them under my breath as they block every path and ruin every picture and ask stupid questions and rock their fanny packs with Old Navy 4th of July t-shirts. But I don’t expect giant groups of school kids, somewhat doing the same thing. It threw me off and I wasn’t sure how to react, so I went with indifference. At least they were there to learn (and probably hook up, as high schoolers are wont to do on excursions). At first we thought it was maybe some sort of holiday because the littlest kids were dressed as they were working at Medieval Times in all sorts of costumes and carrying banners. But Natalia said there wasn’t anything going on, so we assume that is just how they do field trips.
And these groups were swarming the castle. So we held back while they all piled into the cathedral – which turns out is pretty much the Westminster Abbey of Poland – just to find out that when we finally went up to the entrance, they had stopped letting people in one minute before. Stupid kids. So we walked around the castle a little and as it turns out that according to a couple sources one corner is the location of one of the seven chakra points on the globe. Apparently the seven chakra points on the body correspond with seven sacred stones the Hindu deity Shiva flung across the earth as a gift to mankind, landing in Rome, Mecca, Delhi, Delphi, Jerusalem, Velehrad, and Wawel Hill in Krakow, specifically the northwestern corner of the castle’s courtyard. People from all over the globe travel to this exact spot to sit for hours and take in the energy. (Notice the dirt on the walls from everyone chakra-sitting.) And it turns out the castle people HATE this because they have done everything they can within reason to block people from the corner without being rude. There was even a guy standing close-ish by who started to come over and ask us something while we were taking pictures, but we used all of our built up chakra energy and bolted before he knew what hit him.
So we made our way back down, stopping at the river to do some park sittin’, and headed to St. Francis’ Basilica, which was Pope John Paul II home church while he was archbishop of Krakow. This turned out to be one of the highlights of Krakow, painted in exuberant colors (apparently by two artists trying to out-do each other) and displaying a replica of the Shroud of Turin, which had apparently once touched the original shroud and was now considered holy itself. And we took a seat where the ol’ Pope himself used to sit for hours and pray.
Afterwards, we stopped at a place translated to “Milk Bar.” These were popular cafeterias back in communist times because they were subsidized and you could get good little bites for super cheap. They still continue the tradition today, and we piled up a plate of pirogis because we heard they were all the rave in Poland. Turns out, delicious.
We ended the night with an amazing Polish dinner consisting of pork (of course) with figs in a wine sauce, potatoes (of course), lard bread, beer (of course), and some delicious cooked apple stuffed with cranberries. And all for super cheap. (Thanks tanking European economies!)
The next day we headed to Auschwitz, about 1.5 hours away from Krakow. Two years ago I made Kristi go visit Dachau again when we were in Munich because I had not visited a concentration camp and that one was the template that all others followed. And when we planned this trip to Krakow, we knew that we needed to visit Auschwitz for obvious reasons. It is not that I enjoy going to these, all former concentration camps are always extremely difficult to walk through, but it is important to both memorialize the victims and remind people of the atrocities that went on there so history never repeats itself. I will not go into too much detail but will tell every person that if they are ever in the area, this is a memorial that you must go see for yourself. The only way I can put it was that it was extremely moving and more than a few times makes you weak at the knees.
We got back to Krakow and followed some giant American guys around for a while (not on purpose) who turned out were basketball players from Virginia and some other US college. We never found out why they were there, but we assume it was for an exhibition. That or they were just there for the delicious kebabs (they ate so many kebabs). Oh, and we found a very American cupcake place so we had to stop.
As it turns out, Kristi has some college friends, Richie and Stefanie Auter (who are married, to each other), who live in Budapest and happened to be in Krakow for the weekend. So we met up with them for a few beers in the main square and they invited us to visit them when we got to Budapest. It was great meeting up with fellow Aggies and being able to carry a long conversation in English with other people. We then had to head back to the train station for another overnight train, this time to Vienna!