Krakow was the top destination on my Poland map and so a friend and I booked tickets for Easter weekend arriving on Saturday morning and leaving Tuesday morning.
The hostel was located just off of the marvelous Market square. Our first stop after checking in was the Salt mines. We jumped on a bus which took us on about a 30 minute drive to the little village town of Wieliczka. We joined up with the last English tour leaving for the day and queued up in a long hallway. The guide informed us we would then begin the initial descent down 378 steps to the 64 meter level of the mine.
The continuous walking, winding, stepping was a little arduous and the impact was made greater when I stopped to peek over the side of the rail and saw the distance till the bottom. It seemed like the distance was not growing shorter the further we descended.
Once we arrived at the level we walked through a series of wooden doors which the guide instructed us to close before opening the next ones.
The next several ‘rooms’ we walked through were magnificent grey caverns of rock salt, with statues and reliefs all carved out of the salt walls. In each section the guide would give us information about the initial construction of the mine, the various sites we were viewing and the legends and stories behind the reliefs which had been carved. As we walked through the corridors which separated the sections the guide would tell us ‘try the walls’. I felt like I was in a strange version of Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory. We reached up and pinched off a piece of the wall and sure enough it tasted like salt. There were three different types of salt: the rock salt which was the most prominent, the cauliflower looking white salt and the crystal salt.
One of the most impressive parts was the massive reception/banquet hall where weddings and concerts are held. The walls were covered in various relief’s and massive salt chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
Exiting the mines was a claustrophobic's worst nightmare. There are two lifts which can hold 9 people each at a time and it is a very tight fit. The lifts aren’t exactly made for comfort or show, with functionality as their only feature. I was relieved to get back outside into the natural light.
We took a walk around the little town which seemed to be devoid of its community, until we came across a Saturday afternoon mass in the open air outside the church. A nice tradition of blessing baskets of food was one of the features of the Polish Easter mass.
Once we were back in the old town, the top priority on both our agendas was food! There was an Easter market set up in the square similar to the Christmas markets of Germany. All of the food looked warm and inviting and I was given a little sample of the Polish soup żurek to try. It was delicious and exactly what I needed on that cold evening. We followed that with a plate of cheese and potato pierogi, a perfectly soft and savory snack.
We followed these with a type of grilled cheese which tasted suspiciously like fish. We ate them but weren’t in a big hurry to relive the fishy cheese experience. I spotted some interesting looking golden snacks which people were buying with a dollop of cranberry sauce on the side. We bought a couple and no sooner had I lifted the small plastic fork to my mouth than I smelled the familiar fishy, smoky smell. It was the same strange cheese disguised with a pretty sauce. I couldn’t finish mine and that put an end to my Easter market snack sampling.
The temperature had plummeted since we returned from Wieliczka but we wanted to remain outside and explore the square and little streets around it. We walked inside a church where a mass was being celebrated. The interior was beautifully ornate, in red, blue and gold. We finished our evening with a couple of bowls of Borscht, beer and apple pies in a lively restaurant.
Unfortunately our return to the hostel wasn’t timed as well as we had thought. Upon arriving back at midnight we discovered a party in full force outside our dorm. Needless to say we were kept awake for the next several hours. I think this experience deserves a blog post in itself. The audacity of these travelers was astounding. I’m no stranger to hostels and backpacking but in all my travel I’ve never come across the disrespect and complete lack of acknowledgement that these guests exerted.
Easter Sunday in Poland saw almost every shop and restaurant closed for the holiday. There was heavy snow on that day which left the footpaths covered in a cold slush and my boots didn’t hold up for long in these conditions. We met up with a group to take part in a walking tour around the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. We saw various sites including where a couple of scenes from Schindlers list were filmed and synagogues which were closed by the Nazi's and never since reopened.
After a much needed coffee break in one of the only open cafes nearby we headed up to the Wawel castle. The castle grounds were vast with several different buildings erected on the site. We weren't able to go inside any of the buildings due to the holiday but walking around the buildings was interesting and there were some stunning views of Krakow from the castle walls.
Dinner that night was spent in a very large, bustling restaurant with waiters rushing around with four, liter steins in each hand. We ordered more pierogi, goulash and bigos – a stew served inside a massive hollowed out bread bowl.
The next morning we were picked up by the tour bus to drive out to Auschwitz. The entire tour took up around five hours. We were told beforehand that if we had decided to try to make our own way out to the town of Oświęcim it would take three hours as opposed to the direct transport of a tour bus which was just under an hour. To anyone thinking of going to Auschwitz I would recommend trying to avoid going as part of a tour group but trying to find private transportation to the site rather than taking public transport. I need to write a completely separate post about Auschwitz.
The weather had improved significantly by the time we returned and we went for another walk around the Jewish quarter to the square where thousands of Jews had discarded pieces of furniture after realising they would not be able to take it with them into the ghetto. The square is now a memorial with large chairs interspersed along the grounds, each one representing 1000 murdered Jews.
Close by is the Oscar Schindler factory, which was also unfortunately closed for the Easter weekend, but at least we got to see the outside of the building.
We were again ravenous when we returned to the square and I couldn't leave Poland without one last serving of pierogi and zurek. We ended the night in a lovely restaurant nearby the market square. Our super sweet waiter brought us a 'small surprise' of salty, herb bread with garlic butter and complimentary shots of lemon vodka.
It was a fantastic weekend marred only by the weather and closure of some sites and shops due to Easter - something I should have taken into consideration when booking. The city itself is full of fascinating sites, beautiful architecture and delicious food. I definitely recommend a trip to Krakow and three days was a good amount of time for us although one extra day would have been ideal.