There were three reasons why we wanted to visit Poland: Auschwitz, Pope John Paul II, and sausages! Poles and Pinoys have a lot in common: Predominantly catholic, growing immigrant population in Great Britain, hard working, and family-oriented. So we knew it was a welcoming Central European city.
Between Krakow (pronounced as ‘kra-kov’) and Warsaw, Krakow has more to offer first time tourists. The historic city centre is a Unesco World Heritage site! For Catholics, there are a few must visit places: JP II’s hometown, the Divine Mercy sanctuary, and the resting place of Sister Faustina.
Side story: When we checked in our hotel, the Front Desk receptionist asked where we’re from. We said, ‘The Philippines’. She laughed and asked us innocently, ‘What are you doing in Poland?! It’s so warm and beautiful in your country!’. Turns out she visited our motherland recently.
Overall, we were all pleasantly surprised at how charming Krakow was! I would not hesitate recommending this city to travellers looking for a worthwhile (long) weekend break.
My top tens…
(10) Jewish District – Kazimierz
There always seems to be a Jewish Quarter in most European cities. A few hundred years ago, Kazimierz was home to Jewish Poles. It still is these days. Lots of interesting and historic synagogues here too. We did a golf cart tour of Kazimierz, just because our legs were complaining from walking all day, and we had a bit of time to kill in the afternoon. We noticed that there were a lot of bars in this area. The best lody (Polish word for ice cream) can be found here!
(9) Ghetto and Schindler’s Factory
Our golf cart tour took us to see the Ghetto and Schindler’s factory. During the second World War, the Nazis segregated and confined the jews in ghettos. Living conditions then in these designated areas then were said to be inhuman and appalling. Ghettos were extremely crowded and unsanitary. The Ghetto these days has thankfully changed. The main thing to see here are these chairs (Memorial to Jews from the Krakow Ghetto).
Fans of Schindler’s List will most definitely want to visit Oskar Schindler’s factory. I have not seen this film, which is a crime considering I loooove the movies and this is probably Spielberg’s best film. Some travel reviews say that it’s not really worth dishing out the extra zloty to go inside. So we opted to just check out the building facade and the reception area, which was filled with stills from the movie and photos of the people Oskar saved.
(8) Wawel Royal Castle
If you’ve seen one castle, you’ve probably seen them all. Wawel Royal Castle? Well. It’s an interesting castle. The Poles are very proud of Wawel Castle, home to the Polish royalty for five centuries. It’s a big complex with museums, sprawling lawns, and a large collection of Flemish tapestries. Our free walking tour took us by foot around most of the castle’s open area. Honestly, I wasn’t all that interested to go inside the museum. It was a nice walk up Wawel Hill though.
(7) Wieliczka Salt Mine
Would you believe that at one point in history, Poland’s wealth primarily came from their bustling salt trade?! After a morning in Auschwitz (more about that later), we spent most of the afternoon exploring the Wieliczka Salt Mine. I have to say! It’s one of the most surprisingly interesting places in Europe that I’ve ever been to. Lots of tourist flock these salt mines, and the orderliness’s pretty impressive. We had to climb down several flights of stairs (about 400 steps!) before the actual tour started. It was cool and dimly lit. There are several interesting things to see: the chapel where weddings are held to this day, statues of notable visitors (all made of salt by the miners!), and chandeliers (which were, you guessed it!, made of salt as well!).
(6) Friendly Poles
We encountered a couple of them in cafes/restaurants and loads of them in the market square. There’s just a jolly atmosphere around. While we were shopping with our eager eyes for dinner at one of the food stalls, a friendly Polish woman gave us free advice about what to eat. She even spoke to the server in Polish for us. Friendly locals are always a plus!
(5) John Paul II the rockstar
This man holds a very special place in my heart. 19 years ago, the Pope went to Manila for World Youth Day and I was so blessed for having the chance to participate (I was part of a choir who sang for a mass he officiated). Although he wasn’t within reach, I could see him for afaaaaar. And there was an inexplicable feeling of joy. I cried when he passed a few years later.
So anyway! This man, endeared to so many people around the world, is a hero in Poland. Already a saint. A national treasure. “The greatest citizen of Krakow”. He’s achieved rockstar status! There are sooo many statues/monuments of JP II all over Krakow. You turn a corner, and boom! There he is again. Smiling, or sporting a pensive look.
(4) Basilica of Virgin Mary, Kosciol Mariacki
This 13th century gothic church stands in one corner of the the Grand Square, angled in an unusual way. This seems to be the most famous church in Poland (I could be wrong!). We heard Sunday morning mass in the church and we were lucky to get seats. It’s easy to be distracted by the beautiful carvings and details inside the church. I love, love, love the blues, black, and gold. The trumpeters, who take turns playing the trumpet signal every hour, have distinct personalities. People flock around the church to catch him every hour. Some wave, some finish the signal, some stop playing midway.
(3) Polish eats!
Polish sausages?! My oh my. Tip. Of. The. Iceberg. We were very, very happy with the polish food we feasted on every meal (and in between!). Seems like, just like us Pinoys, the Poles have a love affair with pork! We had pierogi (dumplings), kielbasa (polish sausages), an assortment of roasted meats, and oscypek (grilled smoked cheese) with lingonberry jam, and melange of meat dishes. Heaven! There seems to be German, Austrian, and Russian influences. Polish vodka is also pretty famous. But often, we were too satiated to actually just have a drink and chill. Worth trying next time!
Where do I begin?? First of all, visiting Auschwitz is not a pleasant experience. But it’s a trip that every human being should make at some point in their lives. I was in Berlin earlier that year, and I felt like I saw the German side of the war. I’d come full circle, in my visit to Auschwitz. There are three concentration camps, and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is the biggest one. The main museum (Auschwitz I), had one of the most harrowing displays of war artefacts I’ve ever seen. And they barely scratch the surface of the atrocities of the holocaust.
The systematic mass murder of Jews. Hell on earth. Our tour guide said these words over and over again. We spent a good three hours in two concentration camps and I was just struggling with a wave of many emotions. I felt relieved that I belong to a different generation. I felt angry that about six million people died just because they had the ‘wrong’ religion or had a different lifestyle. I felt sad, almost depressed, that so many people suffered needlessly.
‘Abreit Macht Frei’. ‘Work makes (you) free’. The empty promise to all those who passed through the gates of the camp. Part of the Nazi propaganda, raising prisoners hopes that they were leaving their lives behind for a better one. We were there on a sunny summer day, and the blue sky background was just an ironic contrast to the horrors this place has seen.
Going through room to room in Auschwitz I, my heart just jumped to my throat. I had a heavy feeling, looking through the mounds of left suitcases with people’s names on it. Left by their owners when they got off the train, emblazoned with names and addresses, in the hopes that they would retrieve their most precious belongings, in a few weeks. I could not hold back tears when I entered the room full of shoes of varying sizes. Children’s shoes. Infant shoes. But my heart just sank and tears started to flow when I entered the room of hair (no pictures allowed). Victims had their body hair removed to prevent typhus. Just made all the murders more real. Even more atrocious was the fact that hair was reused as pillow fillings and carpets by the Nazis.
(1) Market Square
The Market Square in Old Town is our favourite part of the city. This is where everything happens! It’s a pretty site, lots of nice historic buildings. Picture perfect both during the day and at night time. This part of town is lively throughout the day. There are market stalls abound selling a variety of things. From the classic Polish treats to (slightly pricey) souvenir items. Sundays are quite festive! There are tourists and locals spending a lazy afternoon people watching or chasing pigeons. The atmosphere’s just… infectious. Krakow’s a happy place!