16 & 17 August 2017
Now for our two ‘Discover Krakow’ days – ‘Discover Krakow’ being the company we were booked with. Our first day was a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau with a mid-day pick-up just off the Main Square. This was not the private tour Danny had experienced with the boys in 2014. This was a Mercedes mini-bus packed with 16 people and inadequate air-con. We were crammed in at the back so we had no view and to make things worse the sandwiches we had picked up at Carrefour were inedible. An uncomfortable 1½ hrs later we pulled up at Auschwitz which was hot and and heaving – August.
We were issued with headphones so we could hear what our guide, Margaret, was saying and the minor annoyances quickly disappeared as she walked and talked us around Auschwitz for 2 sombre hours. The place was so busy it was difficult to pick up the atmosphere in the way Danny had been able to on his much quieter October visit, but even having to crocodile our way through the buildings and their exhibits with thousands of others didn’t detract from the appalling human tragedy that Auschwitz stands witness to.
Then a subdued transfer to Birkenau, where the sheer scale of the place was horrifying. This was where Schindlers List was set but even seeing the film or wartime footage does not prepare you for it. The only brick buildings after the entrance were the twisted remains of the gas chambers and crematoria, testimony to the dead, like the monument that has been erected amongst them.
A high note was seeing a large and exuberant group of Israeli students, carrying their country’s flag, laughing for a group photograph amongst the remains of the attempt to obliterate them. A satisfying reminder of the failure of the Third Reich.
Nothing we can write in this blog can adequately reflect the experience.
We were not back to Krakow until after 7pm and went straight to Kasimierz where we had dinner booked at ‘Once Upon a Time in Kasimierz’. It was just getting dark when we arrived and it was as well we had booked as there were no free tables. The place has a lovely atmosphere, candle-lit with old furnishings and memorabilia to invoke the 3 jewish shops that once occupied the space:
We were just starting our main course when a large group came in and squeezed themselves around the small remaining table, next to the guy on the electric piano. Then they started singing Jewish songs, we assume in Hebrew. It was great. They passed the microphone between themselves – there were some great voices – and other customers in the restaurant sang along. Actually a perfect way to end that particular day.
Discover Krakow Day 2 was less intense, the salt mines, and it meant an early start to get to the 8am pick-up – which was of course late. Given our previous day’s experience we elbowed our way to the front of the queue and ensured we weren’t at the back of the packed bus.
A mere 25 minutes got us to the Wieliczka Salt Mines – no, we can’t pronounce it either. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, they opened in the 13th century and produced rock salt continuously until 2007. We were completely unaware that it is also one of the largest tourist attractions in Poland with over a million visitors each year. Most of them seemed to be there when we arrived just before 9am. We queued behind other tour groups to go into the mines with our professional young guide.
We accessed the first level of the mine – 210ft – via a wooden staircase of around 400 steps and started our 2-hour, 3km tour. We walked through corridors, rooms and chapels, past exhibits on the history of salt mining and into caves with underground lakes where the water is so salty you can’t sink or even swim. There were grottos where miners have carved historic statues and mythical figures out of the rock salt, including dwarves who they believed in. The floors, walls and ceilings in the mine are carved out from the dark grey rock-salt although in places huge quantities of timber have been used to protect and support, sometimes painted white and in quite intricate structures.
The mine has some very large chambers a couple of which we visited including the biggest which has been used for 2 Guinness World Record’s – a bungee-jump and a hot-air balloon flight. Probably the most impressive chamber was the church with its illuminated carvings and chandeliers with rock-salt crystals. Services are held here each Sunday and it is often referred to as “the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland”.
We descended to a depth of 1073ft (327m) before returning to the surface crammed into a small 9-person mining elevator which gave Kate a nervous 30-second ride.
Back in Krakow for mid-day we continued our foreign food theme with excellent doner kebab before returning to camp to sort out things for our departure. We were back in the city centre that night as Trip Advisor had advised that the best curry house in Krakow was the originally named ‘A Taste of India’. What can we say – the samosas and sheek kebab were ok but the actual main courses were not. Very spicy and vindaloo hot translated into mild and lacking in flavour. Trip Advisor was not popular, with Kate’s eagerly anticipated chilli-fix unsatisfied.
To finish on a high note we went to say goodbye to Kazimierz and sipped rosé on the square to finish our Krakow experience. Well worth coming but now we needed to get out of the city.