Poland - 2007

I decided to utilize the long weekend at Easter time to visit the town of Krakow. The reasons for this were the rumours of the extraordinary beauty of the city, interesting sights and history in the surrounding area and the just the fact of getting bored with the Finnish winter. And on top of that the free flights (paid with frequent flyer miles) made this trip a really cheap one.

Check out the photo gallery.

I spent four nights which is pretty much enough to see the most interesting sights and enjoy the laidback atmosphere of the old town. The old town was impressive but calling it  "the most beautiful city in Europe" is not quite justified. I would say that Prague, Vilnius and Riga are equally attractive. The highlights of this trip were the visits to Auschwitz and Wieliczka salt mines. Auschwitz is definitely one of the most memorable sights ever - just seeing the sheer size of Birkenau camp gives you shivers.

In general Krakow is a nice city for a couple of days getaway. Obviously it was not high season yet so it can be much more packed in the summertime.

08.04.2007 Helsinki - Krakow
A quick and convenient flight this time - it takes only 1,5 hours from Helsinki to Krakow. It was already dark when I arrived so there was not much to be seen. And because it was Easter Sunday practically all the shops, bars and restaurants were closed.

I take the train from airport (about 15 minutes to the city center) and easily locate my hotel near the central railway station. As the flights were basically free I decided to book a decent 3-star hotel (Hotel Polonia). Pretty comfortable place even though the room is small.

09.04.2007 Krakow
I did not sleep well for some reason but I anyway decide to start exploring the city early in the morning. The complimentary breakfast buffet is very good indeed and keeps you going for a long time. The hotel is located on the outskirts of the old town so as first thing I head to the most obvious location of a medieval town - the central market square. There seems to be a lot of activities going on - everything from singing and dancing to local food and souvenirs is available.

The old town area is quite big and basically intact in a sense that there are no ugly buildings from the late 20th century. The buildings could be in a better condition - but on the other hand the rundown houses are part of the overall atmosphere... After some pointless wandering I find Wawel - the ancient seat of Polish kings which is in practice a big complex of castles and churches on a hill. The place is pretty impressive and reminds me of the similar complex in Prague. Only part of the castle is open for the public today - surprisingly the admission is free! Inside there is the usual share of old old furniture and artwork - not quite my cup of tea so I leave quickly. What is more interesting is the gothic church with several catacombs in the basement. The artwork inside is really fascinating and I spend quite a long time admiring the carefully sculpted statues and paintings.

After several kilometers of walking I return to the central marketplace. I visit the most famous church in town - St Mary's church which is even more impressive than the one in Wawel. Unbelievable amount of gold and the height of the main hall are a sight for sore eyes. Interestingly there are two areas - one for prayers and one for tourists (who must pay for the admission).

After a lot of walking I'm getting tired and hungry. I somehow end up in a Georgian restaurant where the names of dishes in the menu are rather cryptic. I get some kind of pie stuffed with meat on my plate - pretty good and heavy stuff. Being pretty exhausted I return to the hotel and spend the rest of the evening reading a book.

10.04.2007 Krakow
There were two alternative activities for this day - either to visit Wieliczka salt mines or Auschwitz. As the weather was looking somewhat rainy I decided to leave Auscwitz for tomorrow and go to the salt mines. The place was locates some 10 kilometres outside the city center so the easiest way to get there was to book a half-day trip from a nearby travel agency. After a half an hour bus ride we arrived in the mine area. It did not actually look like a mine - there was just a parking lot and an old brick building. Maybe the still operational parts of the mine were further away?

Anyway the tour started with 50-meter descent using wooden stairs (which felt pretty much endless). The tour was basically a maze of old mine corridors and chambers with installations or artwork made from salt stone. There was only small part of the mine open for the public - it was said that there are about 300 km of corridors in the area!

It was quite unbelievable what was made from salt stone: there were numerous sculptures and a couple of chapels. The highlight of the tour was the enormous chapel some 100 metres under the ground level - people have weddings there nowadays! There were also some underground ponds and a river - quite a place. The only thing that was bugging me was the number of artificial installations - I would like to have seen more of the mine in its original state.

We returned to downtown later in the afternoon. I took a nap in the hotel and then did some further exploring in the downtown area. I also visited a nearby shopping center which a huge complex filled with familiar chains like H&M and numerous designer stores. I did not feel like shopping though (no surprise!). As I was about to head for Auschwitz tomorrow I soon returned to hotel and went to bed early.

11.04.2007 Krakow - Auschwitz
The main activity for this day would be the visit to Auschwitz. I thought about booking a tour from a travel agency but actually there were direct buses from the nearby bus station so using a travel agency did not add any value. So I took an early morning bus and after about 1,5 hours I arrived in Auschwitz 1 gate (I did not realize that there were actually two camps - the bigger Birkenau camp was some 3 kilometres from Auschwitz 1).

There was no admission fee to visit the area but you had to pay for guide services. I thought that taking a guided tour would be a good idea so I joined a group. This proved to be a good alternative as the guide spoke proper English and had lots of interesting stories about the history of the area.

We spent first a couple of hours in the Auschwitz 1 area and visited several buildings. The old brick houses did not look that scary but there were lots of exhibitions inside that were pretty much horrible - for example the house filled with unbelievable amount of objects taken from prisoners (including a room full of human hair). There was not much of Nazi memorabilia to be seen - only some signs in German. Lots of (electrified) barbed wire everywhere. This part of the tour ended in the original gas chamber and the crematory - seeing those big ovens was quite shocking.

The second part of the tour was Auschwitz 2 a.k.a Birkenau. There was a short bus ride to the area and as soon as you entered from the main gate you realized the huge size of the area. Auscwitz 1 was quite small but seeing the endless number of burned houses made you quickly understad the scope of this place also known as "killing factory".

There was not that much to be seen as majority of the buildings were either burned or destroyed as nazis tried to hide their crimes when they were fleeing. There houses where prisoners were kept were actually horse stables - the most shocking part was to see the crude wooden beds where at least three people shared one bed. The main gas chambers were in Birkenau - they were more or less completely destroyed so there was not much more than a big pile of old bricks there.

After the guided tour ended I spent quite a lot of time just walking around in the area. It was quite an eerie feeling to walk there  in the beautiful sunshine and enjoy the spring weather in a place where a million people have been killed some 50 years ago... Later in the afternoon I returned to Auscwitz 1 and catched a bus back to Krakow.

I tried to find a place that serves traditional local food and after some walking found one. I had a full menu of local sausages, beatroot soup and pork meat with some local beer. Quite a heavy dish and I could barely walk to hotel as I was so full. Quite a day - even though Auschwitz is one of the most shocking places I have ever visited it was also one of the most interesting ones. Definitely recommend for everybody interested in history.

12.04.2007 Krakow - Helsinki
Time to go home (and back to work in the afternoon). I had my laptop with me so the first activity in the morning was to visit a local Internet cafe and replicate my email. After that I rushed to the airport and started to process some work related stuff. Krakow airport is one of the smallest in major European cities and the services are more than limited - just a tiny taxfree store and one cafe. So do your shopping beforehand!

The flight was in time and uneventful so after 1,5 hours it was the time to take a taxi to the office after a quick visit to home. Anyway the trip was a good break for the hectic winter season and spring is basically in the air already... 

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