Above and Below the Square

I didn’t have any tours booked in the afternoon, so decided I’d spend the afternoon exploring around the main square of Krakow, which apparently is the largest central town square in Europe. Smack in the centre is the old Cloth hall which has a few bars and shops around the outside and on the inside is lined with trinket and souvenir stalls.

I’d been looking at a few foods for sale that are native to Poland, and high on the list was Obwarzanek Krakowski which is a bit like a cross between a large pretzel and a bagel. I had a salted sesame one. Delicious!

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The other item was a Pączki (Polish Donut) which of course looks like its loaded with calories, but I don’t think they count when you are on holidays, so I decided take one of these back to the apartment to try later. I can confirm it was utterly delicious and if you come to Krakow you must try one. This one had a “fruit of the forest” jam on the inside.

I wandered into the Cloth Hall and picked up a couple of little light things. Krakow like to say that this Cloth Hall was the first shopping mall every invented. Its very orderly, wasn’t too crowded and everyone selling things there spoke English.

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Right underneath the main square is this massive underground display called Rynek Underground. A number of items were discovered when digging on the main square, so the government took the bold decision to excavate the entire square down a few meters to see what else they could find. They found stacks of artefacts and building remains and its all on display right under your feet on the main square. Surprisingly its not well advertised at all. If I hadn’t see it on Atlas Obscura and been told about it, I could have visited Krakow and completely missed it. The entry is on the side of the Cloth Hall on the corner closest to Florinska street. To get a ticket you have to purchase one from the ticket office on the opposite side of the Cloth Hall. This ticket office tells tickets to other attractions as well. Below is a photo of the entrance.

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Here a few photos of what it looks like underground. Its massive, and its all hidden. You would never know this is right under the main square. It also has some funky looking bars under here. On a cold night this would be a fantastic place to hang out with friends.

 

Here are some photos of the square when it was being excavated for the archeological dig in 2005.

Remains of an old road, the foundations holding up the Cloth Hall and one of the funky lounge areas of the bar. Not sure you can get to the bar without purchasing museum entry, but as its only AUD$6 thats not a drama.

Later in the evening I wasn’t really hungry (re: Donut and Obwarzanek) I’d eaten earlier and had no inspiration for dinner and didn’t really feel like siting in a restaurant so thought I’d see if there were any take out options. Just wandering past the square a little I stumbled upon a street market, so got some dumplings and a steak. Fantastic !

After dinner wandered up to the Florianska gate, the only fully intact section of the old fortification wall around the old town in Krakow. Photo on the left is the main square, on the right the gate.

Subterranean Coffee – Salt Mine Tour

Just outside Krakow is an old Salt mine. It’s a world heritage site due to all the carvings the miners made, all completely out of solid rock salt. Today I took a tour of the mine. For this I booked through KrakowShuttle.com. I was picked up in a lovey Mercedes van with 6 other tourists and taken to the salt mine site (about 20 minutes drive). Here we met up with a group of about 30 others. Only about 35-40 people are taken through the mine in groups. I would recommend doing this with a company like KrakowShuttle, we just breezed past the lines of people queuing and only waited a few minutes. You are given a headset so you can hear the guide telling you about the mine as you walk through it.

The tour descends down to a total of about 160 metres. You take a few hundred stairs down to 61 metres then slowly descend further as you complete the tour. The entire tour lasts about 3 hours and you walk about 4km in total. Thankfully the return to the surface is via a very modern, corporate style lift. Its not a typical mine shaft lift.

The mine is amazing, massive caverns inside with underground churches carved completely out of salt. Almost everything except some wood support structures is salt. Not sure why, but my immediate thought on going down was “umm, everything made of salt, this place won’t have a snail or slug problem”. During the standard introduction our guide Simon, asked if there were any British, Americans, Canadians etc. When he got to “Any Australians” three of us raised our hands, myself and the two guys who happened to be standing next to me. Both Joe and Andrew are also from Sydney and Andrew is also in the Sutherland Shire (Cronulla). It’s truly a small world !

During the dark and middle ages, and up until the invention of refrigeration and mechanical extraction of salt from sea water, naturally occurring salt was an extremely valuable commodity. Much like how we value oil and other energy commodities today. Krakow and Poland grew rich at this time from salt.

The entry and new up the stairwell.

Every carving and even the floor is made of Salt.

In this section you had to pay an additional 10 zloty (AUD$3) to take photos. Make sure you have some cash or coins on you.

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I couldn’t believe my luck, they sell coffee at the bottom of the mine. First coffee I’ve ever had 160m below the surface. It was crappy machine made coffee, but come on guys, journey to the centre of the earth and everything, with coffee !!

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Fellow Aussie Adventurers Andrew and Joe

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Video from the Salt Mine Tour

Bump Day Coffee

Can’t believe it’s Wednesday already and my time in Krakow is half over. I’m back at Nakielny Cafe for breakfast before I head on a salt mine tour at 9.20

Breakfast today was a nice local cherry yoghurt and coffee (of course).

I’d planned to work on my Auschwitz post from yesterday over breakfast, the apartment has a portable wifi I can take with me, however it’s not getting reception in the cafe and with my phone, this SIM card whilst excellent for Europe wide roaming won’t allow hotspot tethering.

As my mate Chris says I’m such a tourist. Lol, he is 100% correct.

I caught up with Chris and two of his work colleagues (John & Lee) for dinner and drinks last night as he is in Krakow for work. That was at the Ed Red restaurant and the steak was phenomenal. They even had Australian steak and wine on the menu, although I tried a Polish steak. As much as I love supporting our local industry, I didn’t travel 20,000km to eat Australian food 🙂

Krakow is awesome value. Steak, salad, wine, desert and port in a top rated restaurant right in the centre of the city was AUD$75 each

Oswiecim Afternoon Coffee Report

I’m waiting for the return train to Krakow and had a bit of time to kill at the station. My actual post on Auschwitz-Birkenau will come later as it needs more editing time to do it justice.

I was motivated to get from the main memorial/museum to the station quickly as an electrical storm was approaching. When planning today I’d imagined I’d just walk as it’s only 2km. There were heaps of taxis there so I just got one to the station for 20zl ($7). Fantastic Mercedes

There is virtually nothing at Oswiecim Station. Its basically a communist era shit-hole. There is no other way really to describe it. Soviet style massive concrete building it terrible condition. No way through it to the platforms, you have to walk around it. Broken concrete ground level platforms where you need to cross the tracks and had to pay 2 zloty to use the toilet (70c). It’s only redeeming feature is the waiting room which is hand considering the electrical storm raging outside.

Of course no coffee shop just a coffee vending machine. I was surprised how good it tasted until I realised I’d accidentally pushed the button for one with 2 sugars. Sugar makes almost anything taste ok!

Auschwitz-Birkenau

Today my plan was to catch the train from Krakow out to Auschwitz. Like always I’d over researched everything and planned it all out. Before I’d even left Krakow those plans were thrown out the window. I had an 8.40 entry time into the museum/memorial so I only really had one window of time to travel the 50 odd km. I’d prebooked a ticket on the train and there was one that left at 5.56am. They don’t run frequently in the morning.

When I got to the station the train has been changed to a bus, however in the bus terminal there was no indication which bus it was and the info desk was closed and no one could help me find it. I could have just cut my losses for the day and done a prebooked tour on Thursday instead, but if that fell through or one wasn’t available at late notice I would have lost my opportunity to visit this site completely. So I just walked back into Krakow and ordered an Uber. This cost me $70. The uber was way faster than the train and I had enough time to get breakfast and coffee.

The main website is not clear, but there is food available at the main Auschwitz site (nothing at Birkenau though). There are also three bookshops there, they are all independent and the same book can be a different price.

I will update a seperate page later on the actual logistics of visiting Auschwitz and some of the options available and link to it from here.

Why visit Auschwitz ? This is a part of WW2 history that has interested me for a long time and given I had a few free days in Europe to see what ever I wanted, this was high on my list of potential candidates. Its a strange place to visit. Its a museum, a grave yard and the largest crime scene in human history.

I expected the place to be really spooky and inside some of the buildings it truly is (especially the crematorium and the displays with human hair, luggage, shoes, glasses). I think it was the shoes that stunned me the most, over 1 million people were killed here yet there is only a small selection the shoes on display, but its none the less vast. It ran almost the entire length of the building and there would be enough shoes (including children’s shoes) to fill a number of shipping containers. There was also human hair that had been *woven* into fabric. After leaving that building I really felt like I just wanted to vomit.

One thing that I didn’t think about at the time but I realise now since I’ve left is that while there were people everywhere, apart from the odd guide talking the place is virtually silent inside the grounds. The only thing you hear really are people walking around and birds chirping. Photographs were allowed in most places except the crematorium and the rooms with actual human remains.

Auschwitz gets a lot of tourists and they do a good job of managing the sheer number of people that want to visit. I was here in the peak summer period, and yes it was crowded but also it wasn’t. In some sections I had difficultly manoeuvring around the guided tours that were stopped in building looking at things and at other times I was the only person there looking at displays. There is so much to see here, if you were to read every display in every building it would take you days. I spent about 3 hours just at the Auschwitz 1 camp before taking the shuttle to the Birkenau camp.

Not everyone realises that Auschwitz is not just “one” place. There were multiple camps here all serving multiple purposes in the shared goal of death on an Industrial scale. Whilst thousands upon thousands were killed at the Auschwitz 1 camp, the majority of people were killed at the Birkenau camp. Thats the one where you see the iconic railway tracks going into the camp. The other iconic symbol of Nazi death  the “Albeit Macht Frei” sign (“Work sets you free”) is at the Auschwitz 1 camp. Auschwitz 1 is on the left, and Birkenau is on the right. They are about 3km from each other and there is a free shuttle bus between them every few minutes.

 

On the second photo you see where the train entered the death camp and the majority of people were sent directly to the gas chambers to be murdered. This is something I’ve not seen anywhere else on the web, the train tracks leading away from the camp. Something almost everyone who went here never saw themselves.

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Some Photos from around the grounds of the main Auschwitz camp. They have tried to keep it in as original condition as possible. The suggested route around the camp is very well marked and you can enter a significant number of buildings. To escape the suffering and horrors some prisoners threw themselves on the electric fences.

 

 

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Model of what the gas chambers looked like :-

 

Used canisters of Zyklon B (Cyclone B) which produced cyanide gas when exposed to air. This would be been a slow scary death. Utterly horrifying.

 

Living, washing and toilet facilities in one of the brick buildings.

 

Wall between block 10 and 11 where many people were shot.

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Each country that lost people to the holocaust have their own display in a building. They are all slightly different but convey the horrors suffered by their people in various ways. the French one was a little terrifying with the sounds of train shunting playing loudly as you read the display about how people were rounded up and shipped off like cattle in train carriages to their ultimate death. You could spend 2 hours going through each building in detail here at Auschwitz, and there are at least 10 open to the public. You will end up skipping some sections. Read the guide book first and decide what you really want to see.

 

The Dutch display had a partial focus on the Frank family with various pictures of Anne, as well as the story and her book. There was also a very moving display of what looked like patterned wallpaper but on closer inspection is the name of every Dutch person who was killed in the holocaust. Its scarily massive.

 

 

 

The Hungarian display had you walk around on glass over train tracks and through a glass train carriage as you learnt about the holocaust from the Hungarian perspective.

 

 

During the renovation of one building, a stash of tools and supplies was found. It is presumed someone had planned an escape. If would seem he never did.

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The last building I visited at Auschwitz 1 before taking the shuttle bus to Birkenau was the crematorium and gas chambers (reconstructed versions). I didn’t take any pictures inside, but this website has a good overview of it.

 

After this, I waited a few minute and took a shuttle out to the Birkenau camp. The thing that took me aback about Birkenau was the sheer scale of the place. The documentaries just don’t convey the true scale. I only spent about an hour here as there was an  Electrical Thunderstorm coming and I did not want to be caught in the open in the middle of it.

 

 

In the remains of these two underground gas chambers which the Nazi’s destroyed to hid the evidence of their crimes, over 1 million human beings were murdered.

 

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The Nazis did unspeakable horrors at Auschwitz-Birkenau (and elsewhere all over Poland and Europe), but we need to speak about them and remember them to prevent them happening again.

 

Krakow City Bike Tour

As well as the Communist Tour today, I also did a cycle tour of the city in the afternoon. These tours are a stack of fun, you meet some great people on the tour with you and you see so much more in the same time period vs a walking tour.

As an added bonus, the tour stopped for coffee, and this was even better than this mornings coffee. A sure 8/10 on this coffee. This tour visited the main square, the old Jewish Quarter of town, the old Jewish ghetto where the Nazis’s located all the Jewish people before sending them to Auschwitz. The Jewish Quarter and the old ghetto are two seperate areas of town. We also rode along the river past the castle where there is a bronze dragon that spits real fire (in the video below). Also rode around the “Planty” which is the park around the old town.

One of the stops is Schindler’s factory, one of the places I’ll visit on Wednesday

The fantastic coffee and one of the bridges we crossed.

Link to the bike tour company is here. Big thanks to Max for the excellent tour

Crazy Communist Tour

This morning I did a “Crazy Communist Tour” where you are picked up at 8.30am in an old East German Trabant “car” and taken around Krakow and shown some sites that are relevant the Soviet occupation period, especially the “Nova Huta” area, which was a model communist village built to house workers on the giant steel plant.

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For those that don’t know what a Trabant is, this was the most common communist “car” made in East Germany from the mid 1950s to about 1990 when communism collapsed. They never really changed it, it remained pretty much the same design for about 30 years of manufacture. 

It has about a 30 horse power engine. When I say horse, I mean Communist Rocking horses. The ride in the Trabant was fantastic, imagine riding in traffic on a ride on lawnmower with a plastic roof, and that just about sums up what the experience is. Noisy, smelly, slow and with a tinge of danger. Almost everyone you pass turns their head to look at it and smiles as you chug past and leave them a cloud of exhaust pollutants accelerating from 0 to 60 in Stalin’s life time.

The “car” has seatbelts in the front, but I doubt they would actually help in an accident give the structure and layout of the car. The fuel tank is located in the engine bay, which just adds to the excitement knowing not only would you most likely die if stuck by another car, it would probably end in a spectacular fireball as well.

I highly recommend a ride !!

Nova Huta was built by the communist government for political as well as economic reasons, Krakow was considered rather “Elitist” at the time given its history as a University town and the government wanted to move “workers” into the area to dilute the political influence of the existing residents. Many people wanted to move from other areas of Poland to get an apartment as they had running water, electricity and central heating which was unheard of in the 1950s. It has wide Avenues, it was sort of modelled off Paris, although in reality its nothing like Paris, apart from being located in Europe.

 

 

We also visited a communist restaurant where we were shown some various pictures of when Nova Huta was built and had a shot of vodka (mine was a hazelnut flavour) then drove to an area where we took some photos near the entrance to the steel works and visited an area where there is an old Soviet built tank on display.

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After this we went to an apartment that is in original condition, surprised how spacious, bigger than some 2 bedroom units in Australia. We were shown an old propaganda film, had some more Vodka and a polish pickle. Both were quite delicious. The apartment contained lots of old products from the communist time. Apparently toilet paper was an extremely rationed product, and everyone was granted a yearly allotment of 10 roles each !

At the end of the tour we went to traditional polish “milk bar” where the cost of all food (except the meat) is subsidised by the government. very popular with pensioners. There used to be thousands in Poland, now only about 100 left, and 5 are in Nova Huta. The food was extremely cheap, the cost of the meal for three of us was about AUD$5 and there was more food than we could finish.

This was a fantastic tour and I highly recommend doing it you visit Krakow. Here is a link to the website where I booked the tour.

Here is a little video I put together with the GoPro “QuickView” software:-