Europe-land Part 2 – Poland

Part 2 of my Europe-land trip! Poland was such a unique experience I’m giving it its own post. And here is where you can read all about it!

After Inna left to go home (she ran out of vacation days), my buddy Matt and I flew in from Dublin, arriving at night. And at night, just as (as we’ll discover tomorrow) during the day, Krakow is beautiful. Beautiful and amazing.

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Nighttime at Krakow’s Main Market Square, the largest ancient market square in Europe.

DAY 11 – Time to explore Krakow. We took a walking tour through the Old City and learned all about Poland and its second largest city. Most interestingly, Krakow, one of the oldest cities in Europe, was the only Polish city to survive WWII. It survived because it was founded by Germanic tribes, so the Nazis considered it a German city and let it stand. As a result, most of Poland’s history is in Krakow and despite no longer being its capital, Krakow is still considered the country’s cultural, academic, and artistic capital.

A quick note about history. We learned a ton of history on this trip. European history as studied in America is mainly Italian (renaissance), French (French revolution, Napoleon, WWI, imperialism), German (WWI and WWII), and Russian (WWII, communism, the cold war). There’s also England (the crusades, the scientific and industrial revolutions, WWII, imperialism) but it’s nothing compared to what you learn when visiting the country. English history is a complex series of peoples (both royal and not), ideas, discoveries, creations, battles, wars, and other events that shaped the world and made it what it is today (although they definitely downplay imperialism and the crusades). Scotland’s history is simpler: hey Brits, stop fucking with our shit. Ireland’s history is even simpler: hey Brits, get off our fucking island! Poland’s history is more complicated, mainly consisting of: we tried this and we failed and we tried that and we failed. We got beat up a lot. One time, we asked Britain (and France) for help; they said they would but when time came, they didn’t. But we’re still here.

Okay, back to Krakow. The most striking part of the city (and my favorite place in it) was the Main Market Square. It is the largest ancient market square in Europe and had beautiful souvenirs for incredibly cheap. It also has a 1000 year old church, a clocktower, an indoor marketplace built during the renaissance (pictured above, night of day 10), and the most beautiful and famous church in Krakow (pictured below). Additionally, the square contains lots of restaurants, shops, vendors, street performers, dragons (the symbol of the city), locals, tourists, artwork, pigeons; it was incredible.

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Main Market Square (at least part of it, the square is too large to capture in one photo) and Krakow’s most famous church, St. Mary’s Basilica. Did you know: Krakow has more churches per square mile than any city but Rome. In fact, in the past, it was called “Northern Rome”.

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Every hour, a trumpet blares the Hejnal Mariacki from the top of St Mary’s Basilica, only to be cut off midtune. This is done as a tribute to a 13th century Polish trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding an alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. 

Also in the city, we saw the remnants of the wall that once surrounded the city (now a giant park, but one section of the wall still stands), a McDonalds with a medieval basement dining hall (discovered during excavation), Pope John Paul’s living quarters, The Bonerowski Palace (formerly called The Boner Palace before they learned what Boner, someone’s last name in Poland, means in English), and next most impressively after the market square: the Wawel Castle/Cathedral.

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The Wawel Castle/Cathedral. It was cool to see a castle and cathedral with different architecture than the rest of Europe. I guess this means I need to explore more of Eastern Europe!

After the old town tour, we took a tour of the Jewish district. Poland has a strong history with Jews; historically they were one of the few places that had been welcoming to them. In fact, when the rest of Europe was kicking their Jews out, Poland was inviting them in. As a result, by the start of WWII, one-third of all European Jews (3.5 million) lived in Poland. During WWII and the holocaust, 99% were killed and most who survived were deported by Stalin. Poland now has about 3000 Jews. In Krakow alone, the Jewish population dropped from 65,000 to 98.

Krakow’s Jewish history was made particularly famous because Oskar Schindler’s story took place here. Both the ghetto Schindler started his factory from and the factory itself are located within city limits. Most powerful was the main square of the ghetto, converted into the tribute pictured below.

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The Krakow ghetto memorial, each chair representing 1000 victims and facing the concentration/death camps they were sent to. One chair, not pictured, faces the opposite direction, towards Schindler’s factory. Also, not pictured is Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s pharmacy, just out of frame to the right.

That second walk was heavy, and so afterwards, Matt and I went to our hostel to rest. That night we went out on a pub crawl, not a good as Dublin, but still awesome fun, drinking lots of beer and vodka (including Polish bison grass vodka), meeting Poles and our hostel mates from all over the world. And can I mention that every single Polish girl was beautiful? Every single one. They love Americans too; it was ridiculous.

DAY 12 – Krakow is a small city and between yesterday’s two walking tours, we’d seen almost all of it. But there was still plenty more to do. As if the Jewish walking tour wasn’t enough, ninety minutes away from Krakow is Auschwitz. So Matt and I took another tour out there.

Two of the three camps at Auschwitz still stand, and so those were the ones we saw. Most of the stuff I had already seen in Night and Fog, but it took a whole new meaning seeing it in person, especially the giant pile of women’s hair (no pictures allowed but featured in the aforementioned film), the starvation and standing cells, and the one surviving gas chamber (one was destroyed in a revolt and the Nazi’s destroyed the others in an attempt to cover their crimes). Not to mention the sheer size of Auschwitz II – Birkenau, with the most heinous building ever built welcoming you. The walk from the train platform to the selections area and from the selections area to the gas chambers was also chilling, as were the living quarters, especially the toilets.

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Work sets you free. Entrance to Auschwitz I.

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The prison barracks. Auschwitz I was a former Polish military barracks. This is why it was built so sturdy.

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The execution wall, windows boarded up so no one could see what was happening (although they heard it, I’m sure).

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Halt! Stop! Still standing, seventy years later.

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The only surviving gas chamber at Auschwitz. This one was a military bunker converter to gas chamber; it was not built specifically for the purpose of extermination, as the ones in Auschwitz II were.

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Entrance to Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

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Look how far down it goes. It also goes left about as far as it goes down. And there are still more rows of barracks behind me.

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The walls, preventing escape.

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Destroyed barracks. Attempting to hide their tracks, the Nazis burned down most of their wooden barracks. The stone chimneys (which did not work and were only built to fool the Red Cross inspectors who never came) remain standing to this day.

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All that remains of the Birkenau gas chambers. There were four in total, one was destroyed during an uprising inside the camp, the other three were destroyed by the Nazis, again attempting to hide their tracks.

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Toilets

Okay, enough Auschwitz pictures, although there are plenty more I could show. After Auschwitz, Matt and I went home and slept. Then we went out on another vodka focused pub crawl.

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Pregaming at the hostel, which this night consisted of nothing but dudes. Good thing the city is filled with beautiful girls. The bison grass vodka is in the foreground.

DAY 13 – There’s one more day trip worth doing from Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I’ve heard nothing but good things, but I was way toured out by this point. Plus this was my last full day in Europe, so I wasn’t feeling it. Matt, who had visited some really lame salt mines in California, wasn’t feeling it either. Krakow also has a communist tour, but that was a little pricy (and touristy) and like I said, I was toured out, so instead, we decided to hang out and relax and enjoy our last day in Krakow.

Krakow’s Old and New Jewish Cemeteries, established in 1535 and 1800 respectively, were decimated by the Nazis. Since then, the cemeteries have been restored as much as possible, with the gravestones too decimated to be destroyed turned into artwork.

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Food from a Milk Bar. A leftover from communist times, these cafeteria style restaurants provide decent food for incredibly cheap (they are subsidized by the government). The pictured plate and drink cost about $4. That combined with our $15/day hostel, which included a nice breakfast and home cooked dinner, as well as hot tea, internet, and the nicest showers of any hostel I’ve been in, and you can live pretty reasonably in Krakow for less than $20 per day.

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Try pronouncing that! Despite buying a Polish phrase book (with gems like “don’t worry, I’ll finish myself” and “it helps to have a sense of humor” in the sex section), in our 3.5 days in Poland, I only learned three words: bankomat (ATM), cheshch (hello), and dziekuje (thank you). That third one was particularly difficult. I of course already knew na zdrowie (cheers) from Inna and her family.

At the end of day 13 we flew back to England and crashed at Matt’s place. Day 14 I took the train to London, the tube to Heathrow, and Virgin Atlantic back to Los Angeles. All in all, it was a great trip!

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Our crazy, roundabout trip Europe-land trip. It’s actually straightforward if you take out Krakow, which we only did to be random, because it was super cheap (the four days cost only $400, including airfare), and because we heard it was awesome (it was). All told, we traveled 2223 miles by air (not counting our trip to and from Los Angeles), ~470 miles by train, 90 miles by car, and 325 miles by shuttle buses. 

FYI: the other “lands” in Europe: Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Deutschland. Oh, and Iceland, shoot, that means this trip was to less than half of the “lands” in Europe. But it was close!

 

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