Jake and I arrived at our home for the week, a two bedroom apartment near the Wawel Castle, right near the water of the Wisutla River. We were a bit surprised by the place - the listing on Airbnb was called "Castle View", and was anything but. We were certainly near the castle, and if you stuck your head out the window you could see the castle wall, but the apartment certainly did not have a "castle view". We checked in with a woman who works for our host, Miko. Miko owns and rents out 10 different apartments on Airbnb, and has people assist him with check ins and the management of the units. She showed us around and awkwardly went over the "House Rules" with us (no loud music, make sure the windows are closed, nothing out of the ordinary), and left. Her demeanor just seemed a bit strange, and I can't quite seem to define why. There was just something awkward about her interaction with us. Maybe it's because she knew we weren't going to be thrilled with the apartment once we were settled. Or maybe she's just a little strange. Who knows.
When I was searching for apartments in Krakow, I had a hard time finding what I wanted - a two bedroom place, relatively close to the Old Town, with wifi, or an affordable price. Most of the listings advertised as "2 Bedrooms" were actually one bedroom with a pullout couch in the living room. Since Jake's parents, Joan and Al, were joining us, that wasn't going to cut it. I wanted a place with two real bedrooms. I found some of Miko's other listings and contacted him, letting him know what I was looking for. He responded with the suggestion to book his "Castle View" apartment, stating that it was his most popular listing. I reviewed the amenities, just what we wanted, I checked for two real bedrooms, great, and I read the reviews, perfect. The price was a bit more than I was hoping for, but everything else seemed right and we were running out of time, so I booked it. Miko was great to work with at the beginning - he sent suggestions for sightseeing, offers to arrange drivers and tours, and recommendations for dinner. We were looking forward to staying in, what we thought would be, a place that was perhaps a step up from our other apartments. Turns out, our expectations were too high. As Jake and I were getting ready for bed the first night, we tried to pinpoint why were not so thrilled with the place that we had been so excited about. All of a sudden we had a list of 10 things that either needed some attention from him or his crew (like light bulbs being burned out in every room, the faucet in the kitchen wobbled so much we thought we would pull it off, the shower head holder was broken), and things that were a bit surprising (the bedroom doors were glass - plain glass that you could see through, the placed is advertised to fit 6 people but the pots and pans available are so small that you can only cook for 2 at a time, the sofa bed starts to slip out each time we sat on the sofa), and some suggestions that might make his guests more comfortable in the future (like providing simple kitchen items like pepper, or more than 1 dishtowel, and having pillows that aren't so thin that you're basically not using a pillow at all) and mentioning our confusion regarding the name of the apartment, "Castle View" since we certainly did not have a view of the castle at all. We were trying to offer some useful feedback or suggestions that might make his listing even better, as most hosts have told us that they want feedback from their guests. Well, apparently not Miko. Miko replied the next morning and explained why many things are the way that they are, making sense to us, but then got extremely defensive when responding about the "Castle View". He stated we were "nit-picking" about the title and called us exaggerators. Well, there's no exaggerating what you can and cannot see out the window. We replied, thanking him for his explanations, and asked for clarification on the "Castle View" because we couldn't find it, to which he replied again with, "No Comment." His emails got more and more defensive and argumentative. Jake and I finally decided that fighting with him was not going to help anything, and all we wanted to do was help him make his place better. I tried to tell him that I, too, have worked in the hospitality industry and understand that meeting and exceeding the expectations of every guest is impossible, and that all I wanted to do was help him make sure his guests have a great experience. He simply said, "Airbnb is not hospitality. You cannot compare the two." Umm…well, you're wrong. But I'll let that one go too. Long story short, we weren't pleased with the apartment, we let the host know, he flipped out, we said sorry for upsetting him, he said he overreacted, we said have a nice week. Sheesh! (Update from January 25, 2016 - he changed the title of his listing to "Castle View"! Success!)
We didn't do much for the first two nights in Krakow except write, edit pictures, research what to do/see in the area, and plan out our visit with Joan and Al (I know many of you will laugh at me when I say this, but this whole extended traveling thing is like a full time job sometimes - with research, booking, writing, and doing photography, Jake and I spend a good chunk of time every week "working"). I wanted to be ready to hit the ground running when my in-laws arrived! One bonus for me - my husband cooked me a fantastic carbonara dinner! I love when he cooks for me!
The morning after Al and Joan got in, we started our exploration with a fee walking tour of the Old Town with our guide, Alicja. This is the same walking tour company that we used in Warsaw. Even though it was raining for the majority of the tour, we had fun learning about the different old buildings. Alicja was very knowledgeable about Krakow, her home, and was well practiced in her script. She made it crystal clear that she does not like Warsaw, and took every chance she had to say that Krakow is better in every possible way. We were warned about this kind of attitude by our friends in Warsaw, and laughed heartily when we finally heard it ourselves. When Alicja showed us around the Wawel Castle, the original capital of Poland before King Sigismund moved it to Warsaw, she stated "Unofficially, Warsaw is the capital of Poland. But officially, the royal capital, the heart of the country is here in Krakow." Well, officially, Warsaw is the capital, but I understand her sentiment. Jake indulged her Krakow-centered thinking with a joke - as Alicja was explaining that names in the bricks that make the outer wall of the castle belong to those people who helped rebuild the castle and cathedral in the 1920s. Under the name was the place the donor was from. Alicja talked about how interesting it was that many Jewish families donated to help restore the cathedral, and talked about how the people of Krakow, and others from all over the world (like Buffalo NY), came together to save such an important part of Poland's history. Jake piped up and said, "Even more strange than the Jewish families donating to save a catholic church has got to be the people from Warsaw! No one likes them!" Alicja high-fived him and beamed from ear to ear.
Another highlight was catching the famous bugler who plays his sorrowful song every hour, on the hour, 24 hours a day, from the tower of St. Mary's Church. The bugler plays from four different windows facing north, south, east, and west, as he did hundreds of years ago. The song, the same one played at each window, always stops abruptly and on a sour note. According to legend, hundreds of years ago the bugler played to announce when trouble was coming. The city was about to be ambushed by the Ottomans and the bugler saw them approaching. He started to play his song to warn the city. In the middle of the song, an enemy archer launched an arrow that landed right in the bugler's neck, killing him, and thus, ending his song on an unexpected and unfinished note. The buglers today play the song to the that moment, and end the song that way it ended years ago. Our guide, Alicja, told us that if the player waves out the window after his song, it's good luck, and if he waves with his bugle in hand, it's "double lucky". We got the bugle, so we were all double lucky!
The tour worked up our appetites, so after we said goodbye to our guide the four of us wandered into the pouring down rain to find pierogi. We noticed a small Zapiecek Express, a relation to the same restaurant that we loved so much in Warsaw, on quiet street in the Old Town and were dying to introduce Al and Joan to the amazingness that is their dumplings. We arrived and noticed some immediate differences - it's open 24 hours a day and is typically frequented by drunk students in the middle of the night, the menu is extremely limited, and the place is tiny. We decided to give it a try, hoping the experience would be just as good. Unfortunately, the pierogi didn't seem as fresh as the others, and the fillings that were available weren't quite as flavorful. But it was still pretty good and we were happy to share our culinary experience with Jake's mom and dad.
That evening we checked out one of Krakow's newest attractions, the Underground Museum. In 2005, during some construction in Main Market Square, the workers stumbled upon the medieval city of Krakow that had long since been buried; cobble stone streets, long rows of arch covered stalls, grave sites with bodies of men and women with their arms and legs tied (preventive measures against possible vampires…seriously), bridges and wooden curbs. Soon the entire square around Cloth Hall (the ancient merchant hall) was being excavated. The museum is only a few years old and shows an interesting glimpse into the past. I really enjoyed walking through the passage way between the ancient merchant stalls, surrounded by 13th century white stone. For dinner, we met up with Jake's cousin Adam! He happened to be in Krakow with a school group, the Central European Travel Seminar, finishing up a month of travel. How fortuitous that the five of us could all meet up in Poland! We met for dinner at a place that Alicja had recommended, Kompania Kuflowa - "it's really fun, they serve beer in liter glasses!". Over a delicious and filling meal (ribs, potatoes, and sauerkraut for me, schnitzel and potatoes for Jake), we listened to Adam's stories about his trip. This is one well spoken, smart kid and I had so much fun chatting with him! My cousins are extremely important to me, and I'm so happy that I married into a family who also has awesome cousins. :)
As Jake and I usually do, we made friends with our server, Michal. "I am Polish Michael" he said, when we asked how to pronounce the name written on his tag. Michal is born and raised in Krakow, so of course we asked him how he feels about Warsaw. At first, he was polite and said, "It's ok, I like it." But after some goading from us, he let us know the truth - he's not really a fan of the place. "The people there, they do not enjoy life. They are like the US, people are always rushing to get somewhere, they are always running.
They never slow down or take time to enjoy. People in Krakow, they enjoy life, they have more fun and worry less." It was an interesting point - we did certainly see many suits rushing here and there, and perhaps it is similar to cities in the US. Perhaps that's why we liked it so much - it probably felt familiar! Michal made some great recommendations for dinner (I basically asked him to pick everything for me and it's one of my favorite meals I've had in Central Europe). For dessert, we couldn't pass up the apple strudel, and we asked him to surprise us with a second dessert. With our delicious and warm strudel, Michal brought us tiny glasses of cherry vodka. "This is on the house, from me. I think you are all quite full from a large dinner, so the dessert I choose is my favorite, vodka!" The sweet red liquor reminded me a bit of Robitussen, but it was still pretty good. Michal surprised us again with a second round - I love this guy - and wouldn't let us leave without some suggestions of things to do and see around town. And we wouldn't leave without a selfie with our new buddy. He offered to show us around on Wednesday, his day off, but we already had tickets to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine. What a sweetheart!
The four of us got up early the next morning to catch a bus to see, what I think, is one of the most important historical sites in the world, Auschwitz. The 1.5 hour bus ride was completely full. Auschwitz, once the site of the biggest extermination camps in history, is now a free museum. If you arrive before 10am or after 3pm, you are free to walk around the grounds on your own, without a guide. Otherwise, you must pay to join a guided tour. In the research I had done, I read many reviews of the group tours that said like "I felt rushed," and "Interesting, but we moved fast and only saw a few sites." I didn't want that kind of experience. I also read that people who walked around on their own felt like the signs posted around the grounds and in exhibits provided a great amount of information and detail, and that they were glad they were free to walk at their own pace and take time to reflect. That's what I was looking for. I wanted to be sure to give this place as much time as it required of me in order to try to process what I was seeing. We spent about three hours walking around the grounds of Auschwitz 1, and another two hours at Auschwitz 2, aka Birkenau, and still haven't processed everything. It's one thing to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust in school, and to see pictures and video. It's another to stand on the ground where so many people suffered, to walk through the "Work is Liberating" gate, to see the unfathomable size of Birkenau. It was a hard day.
We arrived at 9:30, so we did not need to join a group. We entered the camp the same way over a million others did, through the main gate with the words "WORK IS LIBERATING", written in German, above it. Prisoners would have to march through this gate every day on their way to and from hard labor sites. We walked by the gallows, where the largest public execution took place when the Nazis hanged 12 men. We walked through the different blocks where men, women, and children were kept in squalor, experimented on, and abused. Many of the blocks have been turned into exhibitions for the museum. Some show the living conditions in the bunk rooms and latrines, some highlight the deportation of specific groups of people (one block is devoted to Hungary, another to Slovakia, another to Begium, for example), one showed the liberation of the camp. The most awful of the exhibits, the hardest for me to see, where the rooms and rooms and rooms full of proof of the atrocities. Rooms 25 meters long were filled with suitcases that were taken away from prisoners on arrival, combs and brushes, men's shaving kits, and prosthetic limbs crutches and other supports that had been used by the ill, injured, and elderly prior to their arrival at Auschwitz, and shoes. So many shoes. After learning about the extermination by gas chamber in one room, I walked into another long, narrow, dark room. As soon as I realized what I was looking at from the other side of the glass, I had to walk out. I couldn't handle looking at it. Hair. Tons and tons (literally) of hair that was violently cut from the heads of prisoners the day they arrived, or shaved from their heads after they were murdered. Some of the locks were even still braided. A sign posted nearby said that the hair was sold to the German textile industry. And that, after the war, the hair tested positive for traces of poison used in Zyklon B that filled the gas chambers. We saw prayer shawls, a shipping container full of pots and pitchers and pans and china, and little tiny baby shoes. We saw pictures of survivors after receiving four months of medical treatment right after liberation, still only weighing 35kg. We walked through the gas chamber and the crematorium, the only one still standing at Auschwitz since, the day before liberation, the Nazis tried to hide what they were doing and blew up the other 5 that had been in use at Birkenau. We paid our respects at the Death Wall, where several thousands were executed by firing squad. The wall was decorated with flowers left by mourners, extended family, and military. We even saw a large group of military men and women in uniform walking through the camp with a giant floral display that they left in front of the wall. The sign outside the execution area asks visitors to respect the area by maintaining silence in the courtyard of the wall. Unfortunately, not many people observed this request; large tour groups were listening to their respective guides talk loudly, and other individual groups were discussing things in normal volume. I glared at one woman who said to me, "No, no, no wait. Wait!" as I approached the wall. She was trying to take a picture of it and didn't want me in her frame. I was annoyed by her for many reasons - 1, move closer if I'm in your frame, or just deal with it, 2, stop talking you disrespectful jerk, 3, after this request she had a friend take her picture, smiling in front of the wall next to the memorial flowers. She disgusts me, and I made sure she knew it. That's something I don't understand - people who wanted pictures of themselves, smiling in front of something terrible like the Death Wall, or in the gas chamber, or on the terrifying train tracks at the Birkenau entrance. What the hell is wrong with people? Why would they want that photo? Why do they think this is a place for smiling pictures? Are they happy? I don't get it. I will never get it.
We ate lunch outside the camp before getting the free shuttle to Auschwitz 2, Birkenau. When we arrived, we were immediately shocked at the sheer size of the place. Unlike Auschwitz 1, the grounds at Birkenau were free of trees except on the outskirts of the death camp. Acre after acre of old chimney stacks stood in the open fields, the haunting remnants of barracks that are no longer standing. We entered through a doorway near "The Gate of Death", the gatehouse built around the train tracks that ended in the center of the camp, where prisoners were immediately sorted. We spent two hours walking the perimeter of the huge camp, past the quarantine barracks that were originally barns that each housed 52 horses but used as sleeping quarters for over 400 people, in each building. We walked by the family barracks, the men's sections and the women's sections. We walked through the forest next to the gas chambers, where prisoners would wait to be called to the chamber, thinking they were getting a shower. We walked by the pond and fields where ashes were dumped after being cleared (by other prisoners) from the crematoriums. We saw the gas chambers that the Nazis blew up in attempt to hide what they had done. We walked the corridors of the Sauna, where prisoners who were not immediately put to death in the gas chambers were processed and "disinfected". They were stripped naked, their clothes put through autoclaves, they were forced to bath in either freezing cold or scalding hot water, then given camp uniforms, had their hair cut, and received their assignments. We paused for a moment in front of the international memorial, and saw a group of teenagers taking turns having their picture taken on the train tracks. Gross. We saw one of the train cars that brought hundreds of people into the camp - it looked like it should only fit about 6 cows. We walked the road that became the last walk for hundreds of thousands of people, one that lead directly to the gas chamber from the sorting station at the train tracks. To be standing where so many people suffered, where so much hatred was exacted, I will never forget how I felt there, or what it was like to see that place. It's so big. It's just so big. I can't understand how anyone could have done this to a human being, let alone millions. Later I expressed to Jake how weird it was to me that the grounds of both sites were actually so beautiful, bright green grass grew beneath tall, full, lush, trees. The forests were really very pretty. "It's kinda messed up that such a horrible place could be so pretty." He sees it a different way, "I think it's good. It shows that even a place as awful as this can recover." Good point, my love.
After our day, we were all exhausted. We grabbed dinner at a little place called Chtopskie Jodta, stuffed ourselves on rye soup and potato pancakes with goulash, played some cards at home, and called it a night. What an important and difficult day.
After a relaxing morning, we were ready to explore more of the city of Krakow. Before our guided tour of Kazimierz, the Jewish district (we used the same company, Free Walking Tour) that was the center of Polish Jewish life for over 500 years, we grabbed lunch at a food stand in Maly Rynek, "Little Market Square". During the summer months, the square is full of food stands selling giant kebabs, sauerkraut, sausages, veggies, and baked goods. Other merchants sell pottery, lace, and other small souvenirs. After enjoying our giant kebabs, we check out the interior of St. Mary's Church to see Europe's largest wooden altarpiece. The church was pretty, very ornate and detailed, but it wasn't our favorite. So far, our favorite churches have had free admittance (Sacre Couer, St. Ignazio, etc). This church was beautiful, just not quite as beautiful as the others.
We joined our tour group and guide, Jacob, and headed into Kazimierz. In the early 1900s, the governing Austrians ordered that all Jews relocate to Kazimierz, and the rich culture of the people flourished with a population of about 32,000. Many small synagogues popped up all over the area (they were small because there was a law that said synagogues had to be smaller than churches), and Orthodox and reformed families lived in peace. Of course, that all changed in 1941 during Nazi Occupation. The Jews were forced to move across the river to Podgórze, which became the Jewish Ghetto. Our guide, Jacob, described what life was like as the Nazis took over and started abusing the Jews, "There were armed guards, all the time, and while they let the Jews live their lives, have stores and go to work, their jobs were to make the Jews feel like they don't matter. They were bullies, and they would humiliate the Jews, sometimes they would make them drop things they were carrying, or say horrible things. And because they were armed, no one would speak up and defend their friends. Non-Jews would not do anything because they were afraid. And soon, because no one would stand up to defend them, people started to expect it and got desensitized to it. And that is how this mistreatment spread so fast. People started to think that this treatment of people is ok, and even started doing it themselves. I see it happening again, it happens all over, all the time. We must be aware of how we treat each other and stand up for people and speak out about what is right, or else something terrible could happen again." As we toured the old Ghetto, Jacob showed us the gates of Schindler's Factory, and the Empty Chairs Memorial where 70 empty bronze chairs stand, one chair representing 1000 Jewish victims from the Ghetto. One thing we noticed during our tour was the use of the word "German" rather than "Nazi". The plaques explaining significant buildings in Kazimierz and the old Ghetto all say "The Germans…", and Jacob's stories about Nazi occupation also use "German". He rarely said "Nazi". One member of the group asked why that is. Jacob explained simply that the Nazis were German, and the German people are who murdered so many and destroyed so much of Poland. "They are Nazis, yes, and they are German. All Polish people will say German because we know, we remember they are German." The woman who raised the question was not happy with this answer, stating that using "Germans" is too generic and could be offensive to Germans when used in the context of his stories, and urged him to use "Nazi" instead. Jacob explained that this is just part of Polish culture, and that he asked his grandpa what word he should use. "My grandpa told me to say Germans, because not everyone was a Nazi, they were following orders. The Germans are who did this." I understand his point.
That night we continued our Jewish themed day with dinner in Kazimierz at Restauracja Starka, the top rated restaurant in Krakow on Trip Advisor. True to its rating, Starka served up a delicious meal! I loved my bacon wrapped pork loin with plum sauce, and Jake enjoyed his ribs. With our apple cake dessert, our server brought complementary vodka to the table (I'm starting to sense a theme here), cherry and hazelnut favors. The cherry tasted pretty much the same as the one at Kompania, but the hazelnut was actually pretty good! We got out of there before I had the chance to order more…good idea.
For our last full day, we headed to the train station for a short excursion to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, where Poles mined salt for over 700 years! Ready for adventure, we signed up for the Miners Route and donned coveralls and a helmet. Equipped with a headlamp and a smoke absorber (for safety in case of fire), we were guided around the oldest part of the mine, 101 meters below the surface. We learned about the three kinds of animals that lived in the mine - horses (who would stay down there for 10-12 years as going up and down the elevator was too traumatizing. I was assured by the guide that the horses lived good lives in the mine…sure.), mice (who hitchhiked in on hay bales for the horses), and cats (who were brought in to control the mice problem). We walked down pitch black tunnels, sat in a chapel, and learned how miners would pump water out of the mine. It was a pretty interesting 2.5 hour tour that ended with us receiving certificates stating we were trained in the skill of salt mining. I'll be sure to add it to my resume. This was, by far, the most touristy thing we've done on our trip, but it sure was fun!
Hungry by the time we got back to Krakow, we went on the hunt for better pierogi. Our first guide, Alicja, had recommended a tiny place run by a young couple who serves cheap pierogi, Przystanek Pierogarnia. The place was tiny, and packed with people, and only had two tables outside, that were full, so we knew it had to be good. It lived up to the hype - these pierogi were SO good! Jake and I were excited to give Al and Joan a proper pierogi experience, especially since Zapiecek Express didn't deliver. As we devoured the last bites of our sweet, cherry filled dumplings, we saw our guide, Alicja, with a big tour group! Przystanek was a stop on the Food Tour that she leads, and she popped inside to grab several plates of fresh dumplings for her crowd. We thanked her for the great recommendation, and she blew us a kiss before taking her group to the next stop.
We took is easy on our last night in Poland. Still full from pierogi, we nibbled on cheese, veggies, and salami for dinner before taking a leisurely walk to the Krakow dragon statue as the sun set. The dragon, who is fabled to have lived in a cave under the Wawel Castle, blows fire every 3 minutes. We caught him just at the right moment, and were unimpressed with the wimpy 2 second burst of flames. But it was fun to see and clap along with the other tourists. We strolled through the castle grounds again, admiring how the light fell on the Cathedral and the other beautiful buildings, before being ushered out by the police at closing time.
While we had a wonderful time in Krakow and learned so much about this historical place, Jake and I agree that we like Warsaw better. Sure, Krakow is "original", it wasn't destroyed, it's the "heart of Poland" according to the locals, but it lacks friendliness. Our impression of most of the people we met is that they are a bit arrogant, and think themselves to be superior to their fellow Poles (especially those from Warsaw). But the thing we noticed the most is that people are CRANKY with a capital C (which works perfectly because the local spelling is Cracow). Train conductors, checkers at the grocery store, our own Airbnb host, random people we saw on the street - they all seem less than friendly. Maybe it's the angry resting face they all seem to share. Maybe they need more sleep. I don't know what it is but it sure was noticeable. So, when our wonderful server, Michal (who really was very friendly!), explained that the people of Krakow enjoy life more than people of Warsaw, we just couldn't agree with him. We think it's the other way around, and perhaps the people of Krakow need to lighten up a bit. Or at least come down off that high horse.
The Wysockis are finished exploring the mother land. Time to head to the Czech Republic!