Krakow, Poland was a place I came to for one reason, to see Auschwitz-Birkenau. Why? Because I love history and for whatever reason I’ve always had a fascination with World War 2 from playing first-person shooter games like Medal of Honor on Playstation 1 to re-watching films like Inglorious Bastards and The Pianist multiple times throughout the years. Quite simply learning about what people are capable of doing and enduring, good and bad, intrigues me in every way.
Krakow is the former capital of Poland and arguably the most popular city known for it’s eccentric cuisine, nightlife, and tours to attractions such as the Wieliczka Salt Mine and my reason for coming, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Here are my favorite escapades during my time here.
Feed the pigeons in Rynek Glowny (Market Square): Not necessary ill-advised but not the wisest decision either, feeding the pigeons will instantaneously bring a flock to you and extending your arms while holding food will lead to a few pigeons adoring your arm for a quick photo op. Be warned the risk of bird poop and bird flu increases exponentially the more times you attempt this feat because now they are expecting food from you.
Wait for the bells at St. Mary’s Basilica:
Make your way up Wawel Hill to see it’s cathedral:
Try Solplica vodka at Cafe Philo: Soplica is Poland’s version of America’s Three Olives. A very sweet, rich, yet inexpensive vodka that comes in a variety of flavors such as hazelnut and quince.
Try some eccentric Polish food in Jewish Square: I had beef tongue (top left) and still don’t know how I feel about it. It tasted pretty good but my issue is that you can tell you’re eating tongue the whole time by the texture alone. I also enjoyed some traditional Polish cheese with cranberry sauce and black pudding which is essentially rich sausages made with blood.
Keep in mind one US dollar equates to four Polish zloty so an average meal should cost between $5-6 or 20-24 zloty.
Take a selfie at Florian’s Gate:
Pay your respects at the New Jewish Cemetery: Poland, along with Germany, share a lot of memorials and remembrances for victims of World War II. A very sensitive subject was the roles of Poles during WWII regarding if they were more so victims or perpetrators. They are historically both as Poles were the second most killed behind Jews in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. However, several Poles were given the choice to become a solider or risk becoming a prisoner. The majority of Poles became prisoners but the argument is how big or small of a percentage helped the Nazis? Frankly, a meager percentage aided the Nazis in order to protect themselves or because they were already lowlifes and criminals frowned upon by society. This argues the point that Poland is not completely innocent in the war crimes committed during WWII.
Take a tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps: Even though Auschwitz-Birkenau is not even an hour drive away from Krakow I personally would not recommend going to Auschwitz without a tour for a few reasons. A good tour deal will be a bus that picks you up and takes you there and back, it will also provide a knowledgeable tour guide who has a plethora of history that you will not be able to easily learn on your own. Mine was a local Polish woman whose family members were victims of Auschwitz. She was in fact born and raised in Oswiecim, the town where Auschwitz resides.
There are actually three Auschwitz camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz which was destroyed and is now nothing more than ruins. Quite frankly it’s very possible to spend a day in either of the two remaining camps but seeing some of the key aspects of the camps can be done in several hours. Unfortunately many of the prison barracks are getting old and crumbling so access inside the majority are off limits to general guests.
I had walked by this little pond ahead of my tour group and thought how weird it was to have a little pond in the middle of Auschwitz. Then the tour guide explained that the ashes of gas chamber victims were thrown into the water because it was the best available method of disposal that didn’t bring alarm to the unaware prisoners. A pretty chilling historical fact that hundreds upon thousands of human remains were thrown into this little pond. Thrown in like nothing.
Adjoined with a gas chamber and furnace here is what remains of the office of the mad scientist Josef Mengele who was famous for his experiments on prisoners especially twins and women. His goals was to find a way to alter human genetics so that German women would have only twins who were blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and had fair skin like an exemplary German. His experiments were a complete failure and led to nothing more than the mutilation of prisoners from castrating children to burning them alive. The bastard escaped imprisonment after the war and died several years later in Bertioga, he was never punished for his war crimes.
Auschwitz were considered death camps not labor camps, in other words, they were intended to be used to exterminate the inferior races. Poland was chosen for three reasons. It’s center location in Europe, it’s large population of Jews, and it’s excellent railway system allowing the easy sending of prisoners to and from camps when desired.
Just a fraction of the numerous shoes and kitchen utensils left behind by the dead.
Go on a day trip to Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains: Only a two hour bus drive from Krakow, Zakopane is the Gatlinburg of Poland. The Tatra Mountains range between south Poland and north Slovakia and offer a wide variety of not to miss trails for a park entrance fee of $1.25
Not up for a hike? No problem! Take the incline up for $4 to mountains like Gubalowka.
I almost died on this hike. How? I was foolish enough to brave the sleek ice trails with no actual hiking equipment while wearing only a worn-out pair of old Pumas.The steps were frozen over and there was no form of handrails. Essentially, I hiked a dozen kilometers on a makeshift ski slope that had a steep overhang. I made it about 250 meters from the summit when I slipped on the ice and took a fall that sent me tumbling down and nearly over the edge. I despaired and finally let my rationality get the best of me and decided to hike down which was primarily me sitting on my butt using a tree branch to ski myself down.
I almost died again on this same hike trying to get a photo of this petite waterfall from the bottom facing up at the stream. Instead a huge block of ice fell from the top and was so close to hitting me I could feel the wind of it as it fell an inch away from my face and into the pool. If I am ever reincarnated I will be reborn as a cat with nine lives.
Did I intentionally buy a local Tatra beer to specifically drink it in the Tatra Mountains and take a photo if it? Damn right I did, Tatra I would love a beer sponsor.