Before my solo journey to Kraków, I had romanticized travel by overnight train. Perhaps it would involve a dining car full of interesting strangers and cozy quarters where the train’s gentle rumble lulled passengers to sleep. I’m not sure where I got this notion from, but my overtrain train to Kraków fully disillusioned me. I’d reserved a couchette, which meant a middle bunk in a shockingly tiny room crammed with three bunk beds on each side and a space barely big enough to stand in between. It was hard to sleep because the train made frequent stops, and the snores and conversations from other rooms carried. The train left Vienna at 10:30 pm and arrived into Kraków at 6:30 am. When the gruff attendant shook me awake I gathered my things, instantly regretting my decision to leave in my contact lenses (probably still flecked with dust from caving). Despite the rough journey, I felt like a seasoned veteran of travel now that I’d taken an overnight train.
I checked into my hostel and slept for a few more hours, waking up in time for a stellar free breakfast. Greg & Tom Home Hostel was by far the nicest hostel I’d stayed in. It included free breakfast, free beer, and free dinner; and it cost the equivalent of €12 a night. (Eastern Europe is where you can travel on the ultra-cheap.) As an added bonus, my 6-bed room was empty the first night.
I took in the sunshine as I wandered around the Christmas market in Market Square, in the Old Town. Like the others I’d seen, there were stalls of goods, hanging sausages, and frying food. Horse and carriages whisked tourists away through the streets. It was a pretty plaza, central in a city that’s so small you can walk almost everywhere in 2o minutes.
A free walking tour began at 2 pm. The tour led our group through the Kazimierz, Kraków’s Jewish Quarter, then to the site of the Jewish Ghetto during World War II. I liked the architecture and colors of the Kazimierz, which brims with historical and religious importance. The neighborhood is a hub of restaurants, nightlife, and religious life (with seven synagogues in one small area). The quarter’s interesting street art caught my eye as well.
We crossed a bridge over the Wisla River that our guide called “the most romantic spot in Kraków”. The bridge’s fence was studded with padlocks, something I’d noticed on certain bridges elsewhere in Europe. Couples inscribe their names on the locks, affix them to the bridge, and throw the keys into the water to symbolize their eternal love. We entered the former Jewish Ghetto. When the Nazis took control of Kraków, Jews were removed from their homes in the Kazimierz to reinforce their newly downgraded status. Some scenes of the famous 1993 movie Schindler’s List were filmed in the streets of the Ghetto. I was glad to hear so much of the city’s history of the area, though it was incredibly sad.
After the walking tour I popped back into the Christmas market to buy five pierogi, Polish dumplings made from unleavened dough, for only seven PLN (about €1.70). The traditional “Ruskie” style is filled with cabbage and cheese. Delicious! I walked around some more then returned to the hostel for its free dinner and had an early night.
The next day I woke up early to catch the bus for the group tour of the Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The bus took an hour and a half. Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) are part of one huge concentration camp complex. What remained after the war was preserved and converted into a museum for visitors. Our Auschwitz tour guide was excellent, balancing history, statistics, and anecdotes to give us a thorough view of the place and what transpired there during the Holocaust.
I felt a sense of foreboding as we passed through the entrance to Auschwitz I. Its ironic sign reads “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning, “Work Sets You Free.” The camp wasn’t what I expected, as it was created using the brick buildings of a former army barracks. (We learned that seven small Polish villages were leveled to make room for the entire complex.) Birkenau, the other camp, is what’s represented more in films and images. Much of the camp had been dismantled or destroyed but we saw one of the remaining wooden barracks, where prisoners slept 5 to 7 per “bed” in columns of three pallets. Our guide told us to return when the temperature is below zero to get the full effect of the barracks. Birkenau was a grim, desolate place, a true “death camp.”
Hearing the horrifying stories of Auschwitz and Birkenau and seeing their artifacts was difficult, to say the least. The Nazis were remarkably systematic, precise, and efficient in their brutal genocide. It was hard to believe that I was actually standing in the actual gas chambers and rooms that I’d read and learned so much about in school. We can be so desensitized to violence and war these days; it was important to me to visit a site of such tragic significance for world history. It was a powerful, absorbing, and emotionally draining tour.
That night I took a long spin around the Old Town, noshing on more pierogis. I couldn’t get enough! I also popped into St. Mary’s Basilica in Market Square, a cathedral dating to the 13th century. Then I had a big, delicious, free, Polish dinner at the hostel. I met a bunch of other travelers from Brazil and Mexico. We went out as a group but I called it a night early.
The next day was my last in Kraków. After breakfast I made my way slowly to Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral in the Stradom neighborhood. Wawel Cathedral was richly decorated inside and beautiful, but I was suffering from what I call “cathedral fatigue.” It’s an ailment that arises when one has visited far too many cathedrals and has subsequently lost the ability to feel the appropriate awe and appreciation. I walked through the grounds but didn’t see inside the castle because most of the rooms were closed to the public on Sunday, and I couldn’t return to the open ones until a designated time hours later. No, thank you.
I made my way to the loveliest little bookstore and café, where I ordered a hot chocolate that was basically thick, melted chocolate with cream and wrote in my journal for a spell. One of the great pleasures of traveling alone is the ability to do whatever you want, even if it’s forgoing tourist attractions to relax at a café for an hour or two. I explored the area then went to Restauracja Pod Baranem, a slightly kitschy, traditional Polish restaurant recommended by the hostel staff and my 36 Hours: 125 Weekends in Europe book, which loved its “hokey furnishings and moody oil paintings.” Sometimes I’m intimidated by eating out alone but it can be just wonderful. When you eat alone you can truly savor your food and spend some quality time with yourself. Plus, you can people-watch. I ordered a feast at a cheap Polish price. I started with a cream of wild mushroom soup served in a bread bowl, then continued with a steak and sides of creamed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes. I’m so used to eating tapas these days that a big, full meal feels luxurious.
Back at the hostel I grabbed my bags and headed to the airport for a miserable, late flight to Madrid. My travels in Eastern Europe were over, for now. It was time for two nights of recuperation at home before a few days at the beach in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.