Friday, June 13, 2014

Krakow Poland (with a trip to Auschwitz)

Photos of of Krakow are here:

Photos of Auschwitz are here:


I was off to Poland, a country I had never visited.  I didn’t really know what to expect, but I assumed it would be closer to “civilization” than what I had been experiencing in Nepal and Cambodia.  It had also been about a month since I devoured a nice juicy piece of beef.  By nature, I am a blood thirsty carnivore.  So as odd as it may sound, among the two things I looked forward to most in Poland were internet connections faster than circa 1990, and a medium-rare steak or burger.

I flew out of Kathmandu on a Qatar Air evening flight to Doha, where I would connect to a redeye into Warsaw.  Qatar had just started operating out of the new Doha airport, which was quite impressive as one might imagine with all that Middle East money sloshing around.  One caveat: there was no lounge service yet.  The Qatar lounge had in fact opened, but for some unexplained reason, it was not yet ready to accept business class passengers.  They only admitted local card holders.  Qatar Air gave me a $50 Duty Free voucher for the trouble.  I had nothing I really wanted to buy.  I just picked up some cigars.

I slept OK on the redeye, even though neither leg offered flat-bed seats.  I probably ate too much, however, between dinner at the Kathmandu lounge and a meal each on both legs of my flight.  I guess I was more tired of South Asian food than I realized.

The flight landed in Warsaw a bit early.  Immigration was a bit of a joke, with almost no staff and no paperwork.  The guy just glanced at my passport for a nanosecond, stamped it, and waved me through.  My bags arrived almost instantly, and I breezed through customs since no staff was working.  In all, that was one of the fasted international clearances ever, and I was out by 6:30 am.  I guess no one tries to sneak in or smuggle contraband into Poland.

From Warsaw, I was on immediately to Krakow, which many consider to be the best and most important city in Poland.  I had contemplated a 7:30am LOT flight, but given the uncertainty of arrival times had booked a train journey instead.  I grimaced as I walked toward the shuttle to the train station, thinking that I would have been fine booking that much quicker cheap morning flight. I hate wasting time almost as much as wasting money...well, maybe even more.

Shuttle train connections run frequently from Warsaw airport to its central train terminal.  It was a frigid (!) and rainy day.  The change in climate from my past month of tropical  travel shocked my system a bit.  I had packed a sweatshirt and jacket “just in case”, and that moment had arrived.

Still at the airport, I walked outside through the rain to the train platforms, and approached the ticket kiosk.  The kiosk was a bit confusing and I couldn’t figure out which ticket to buy.  Some guy helped me, but then the kiosk refused my credit card since there was no PIN associated with it.  The kiosk also refused my ATM debit card for an unknown reason, and would only accept cash of P10 or lower.  I had just withdrawn money from an ATM, but the smallest bill I had was a P20, so I had to find someone in the early morning hours to break my bill.  The ticket was something like P4.

I descended the platform and boarded a train, since all trains go on to the Warsaw Central Station (where I would then connect to a train to Krakow).  When I looked at the signage, however, it wasn’t clear which one was my stop.  There was no stop called “Warsaw Central” or anything like that.   The train was also empty in the early morning hour.  Eventually, another person entered and instructed me where to disembark.  "Obviously" my stop was Warszawa Śródmieście.

When I arrived at Warsaw’s main train station, the board showed an 8:15 am train to Krakow.  To be safe and to avoid stress, I had pre-booked a 10:30 am train instead.  I queued up to exchange my ticket, only to find that it was not exchangeable.  So while I avoided stress, I ended up with several hours of dead time in cold and rainy Warsaw, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in the train station.

Ultimately, the train ride itself was fine.  The country side was quite scenic, even with the rain and dark skies, but I couldn’t take any good photos.  My camera’s issues had gotten much worse, and between its flakiness and the train’s speed, almost all of my photos out the train windows were crap.

I had one other complaint.  I was seated next to a loud, obnoxious, and ignorant retired couple from Britain.  I’m not sure why they booked the two aisle seats instead of sitting next to each other; perhaps it was because they were both a bit rotund and worried about fitting side by side.  Anyway, between their loud, utterly inane yapping and pieces of the Mrs.’ flesh pouring over the arm seat and into my lap, I began to wonder why I thought Indian trains were so bad.  Then the Mrs started to snore loudly, and I mean loudly, and kept rolling her head on my shoulder.  I worried that she would drool on me.  When I asked her to lean the other way, she got a quite snippety and yapped even more…before quickly snoring away again.  I couldn’t get to Krakow fast enough.

I had booked at the Mosquito Hostel in Krakow, which is very centrally located and only a few minutes walk from the train station.  I followed the easy instructions to the hostel and checked into my room which was ready.  I had booked my own double room for $60 per night.  It didn’t have a bathroom, but breakfast  and dinner were included.

Overall, I liked the hostel.  The staff was super friendly and helpful, and I had fun chatting with the other guests, most of who seemed to be in their mid-to-late 20s.  This created the usual noise issues from these boisterous party goers, particularly since my room was located immediately adjacent to the reception desk and entrance way, but I didn’t mind too much.  As with most hostels, it was like being back in a college dorm, and I had already learned to sleep through that kind of racket a long time ago.

The weather in Krakow was equally cold and gloomy.  The rain had stopped, but the overcast skies bummed me out.   I settled in, and it wasn’t until about 3:30pm that I finally made it out.  I decided to check out the Old Town area, especially around Market Square, and then head to the river.  Immediately outside the hostel is a bit of greenery that leads to the main gate into Old Town.

Again, I had been unsure of what to expect; my first impressions of Krakow, however, were quite positive.  Having been to other eastern and central European cities, I naturally compared Krakow to Prague or Budapest.  I really love those cities.  With that first glance of Krakow, I looked forward to a similar good time.

The Market Square area is the heart and soul of Old Town, with Town Hall Tower and St. Mary’s Church flanking either side.   Actually, it seemed more like two squares back-to-back, separated by the market building.  The square was pretty even in the inclement weather which had driven many tourists away.

On the hour, a trumpet player emerges from a window in one of the mismatched towers in St. Mary’s (pictured immediately above).  He plays briefly, before stopping abruptly.  He then repeats it from several other windows, again stopping abruptly after a short performance.  This is a re-creation of a warning trumpet from centuries ago, where the trumpeter succeeded in alerting of an invasion but was cut short by an arrow to the throat.  The hourly reenactment is cute, and set the tone for my wanderings.

I next headed to the river, where I had heard good things about the promenade.  This was a little disappointing.  As compared to other river European walkways, Krakow’s was not particularly scenic or well laid out, although to be fair the gloomy weather didn't help.  I wandered about for awhile.

Ultimately, I headed toward the city’s biggest tourist attraction, the Wawel Royal Castle complex.  It’s free to wander the grounds, so I did.  I planned to return on a different day to explore the interior, though perhaps the lousy weather would have been a good excuse to do so now.  But for today, however, I was more interested in getting a lay of the land of the city.

I continued to wander around Old Town and eventually it struck me.  My first impression was wrong.  Certainly, Krakow’s Old Town had nice historic buildings and the like, but it was also much smaller than similar squares and areas in other European cities.  Moreover, the number and quality of interesting historical architecture pales in comparison.  Don’t get me wrong, I still liked and looked forward to getting to know Krakow.  It became obvious, however, that a day or so would be all I needed for exploration.

I later discovered that many tourists really come to Krakow mainly to party.  Compared to much of the rest of Europe, everything is fairly inexpensive, especially the alcohol.  Bars routinely serve mugs of beer or vodka shots for only 1 euro.  Compare that to paying 10 euros for a beer in a grocery store in Oslo.  So between cheap booze and good looking Polish men and women seeking to get drunk with perhaps average looking travelers from abroad, the city (well Old Town anyway) struck me as a destination more for affordable drunken nightlife than serious tourism.  (Auschwitz is a different matter, and more on that later.) I love to drink good wine and enjoy having a good time with my friends, but the days of randomly bar hopping are long gone for me.  Perhaps I could find some good live music venues instead.

Speaking of which, as I walked through the main square once more on my way back to my hostel, a group of musicians started performing on a makeshift bandstand.  The lady balladeer was strikingly good.  I stood around for awhile really enjoying the performance, and others in the sparse audience did as well.  One rambunctious guy started dancing a little too aggressively perhaps.  The police soon arrived and carted him away.

I debated whether to go out for dinner, but the hostel’s Polish chili actually smelled pretty good. And it was free, or at least included in the room price.  I ate in the kitchen area with the other guests, getting to know them.  For the most part, they were pleasant, young people travelling through eastern Europe and stopping in Krakow for a few days.  People bonded easily, and the hostel fosters a party-favorable atmosphere, including a nightly pub crawl that starts around 11pm.  Most of the other guests were here to get drunk as much as anything, as that seemed to dominate the dinner conversation.  In fact, a birthday party for one of the staff members started at 930 pm that evening.  Feeling my age, a bit jet lagged, and quite tired, I bowed out and went to my room to do some work, before retiring early for the evening.

I woke early the next morning, hoping to make it to Auschwitz.  The breakfast layout was quite good, with toast and cold cuts.  True, it seemed more like lunch than breakfast, but I ate my full.  I had wanted to catch the 7:40 am tour, but couldn’t because I didn’t book it the night before.  Instead, I joined the 9:15 am group.

The bus ride went by fairly quickly, as they played a decent documentary on the bus video system.  Predictably, one of the passengers got car sick.  Once again, I was impressed with the Polish country side and tried to take photographs out the bus window.  The photos turned out worthless.

We arrived in Auschwitz, and the place was packed with tourists, which weirded me out a bit.

On one hand, the camp is an important historical site, and offers a slice of the past that none of us should ever forget.  On the other hand, the huge tour groups somehow made the camp seem less serious and more like a park.  It’s difficult for me to explain, but the atmosphere seemed more zoo-like than appropriate.  At least the gloomy, dark, and cold weather added a bit of gravity to the site.

Our tour minibus had about a dozen people, but the organizers merged us with a much larger group.   My experience with tour groups is mixed at best, with the vast majority of them being less useful than a good guide book.  Auschwitz was the exception.  We had an articulate, knowledgeable guide who clearly cared about the subject matter and knew how to hold his audience.   He was excellent and, notwithstanding the size of our group, made the tour much more informative and meaningful.

We started at Auschwitz-1, the original camp.  From the outside, it could actually pass as a pre-war apartment complex, other than the barbed wires.  The actual exterior of the brick buildings seemed innocuous.

As the guide led us through the interior exhibits, however, the true horror of Auschwitz came out.  The cold Nazi barbarism blows the mind, especially given how meticulous the Nazis were in recording their inhumane  program.  The Germans tried to destroy the evidence of the atrocities near the war’s end, but enough documents survived to chill one’s blood.  Walls are filled with photographs of many of the victims, where the Nazis had recorded their name, age, date of entry, and date of execution.  The guide pointed to one Jew who survived only a single day.  I began to understand how Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge might have been inspired to copy this in their progrom against their own citizens.

The remnants of the camp were haunting in many ways.

After Auschwitz-1, we reboarded the bus and made the short drive to Auschwitz-2, or Berkenau, , which the Nazis had built after deciding that they couldn’t kill Jews fast enough in the original camp.  The guide explained that A-1’s limitation was not in the gassing, but in getting rid of the bodies as the furnaces were incapable of burning them fast enough.  Thus, the Germans built Berkenau to be a more efficient killing vehicle.

The Jews were separated upon incarceration between those who could work, and those who could not.  They immediately killed the latter.  As for the former, the Nazis subjected them to barbaric living conditions, with almost no food or sanitary conditions, recognizing that at some point the slave labor would simply die of starvation.  But that was the point, wasn’t it?  And new incoming Jews would take their place in the factories.

When I had thought of Auschwitz, I always pictured something closer to Berkenau.  The site is apparently very accurate historically, other than the grass.  Survivors recall that only mud surrounded the barracks.  The camp prisoners would eat any greenery if they found it.  I consider myself fairly well versed in the history of WWII and the holocaust, but walking through the camp made the horrors much worse than I had imagined.  The Jews say “Never Forget.”   We shouldn’t.  To quote Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

In all, it was about a seven hour trip, and about 4pm when we returned to Old Town.  I had not eaten lunch, frankly because I couldn’t get myself to eat anything during the short break between the original camp and Berkenau.   I still wasn’t hungry, but thought I’d better eat something at least, and found a traditional Polish place where I had a traditional sampler plate.

It wasn’t bad, and seemed like a pretty good representation of local food.  It was also fairly cheap.  In fact, Krakow is one of the most affordable cities I have been to in Europe.  Though it is still more expensive than Southeast Asia, it was a nice price transition before heading into the ridiculously expensive parts of Europe.

After my meal, I walked through one of the parks.  The weather was still dark and cloudy, but people still roamed about. Some seemed more interested in roaming each other than the park though.

I still couldn’t shake the sadness of my earlier day tour.  I headed back to the hostel, where they had started to serve the group dinner of Polish casserole.  I ate just a bit, but mostly stayed to chat with the other guests.  Soon enough, they started playing drinking games again, and I bowed out and wandered back into Old Town.  I felt like I needed to do something that felt “alive” compared to my morning.  Crowds had gathered already in many of the bars, and the noisy party atmosphere spilt out into the streets.  I was more in the mood for music, and I luckily found it.

A local band was playing classic rock inside the Lizard King.  The place had many guests, but wasn’t really packed by any stretch, perhaps because of the $4 cover.  I suppose that’s expensive in Krakow.  It was a slightly older crowd, and many of them were on the dance floor as the band played classic rock hits.  I had found my kind of place.  I forgot momentarily about Auschwitz's horrors, as I drank my $6 cocktails and tapped my foot to the music I grew up with.  I felt “life” return.

I soon realized that most of the crowd were groups of middle aged women dancing on the floor, with groups of middle aged guys looking at them.  It cracked me up.  Some things really are universal.  I had a blast listening to the band, but watching the local pick up scene also made me laugh.  I imagined I was some renegade anthropologist observing the local species.  I stayed until 2am before returning to my hostel.

I awoke to a gorgeous day the next morning.  For the first time, the skies were clear with nice puffy pretty clouds.  I had gotten a late start since I was tired from the prior night, but I knew I had to get going because this was an ideal photo day.  My original plan was to go see Wawel Castle and the Shindler Museum, but now I decided to retrace much of my prior steps as well to retake some photos in the much better light.

My camera still proved temperamental, and I actually had to smack it occasionally to get it to work.  I reshot many photos from the prior days, and then finally headed to Wawel Castle.  I waited in line to get tickets for the interior.  When the lady at the ticket counter told me that photos were not permitted inside the staterooms, I decided to pass and just buy the tickets for the tower and Dragon’s Lair.  I had wasted 30 minutes in line, but having seen enough castle interiors in my life, there was little point in seeing that of a secondary castle if I couldn’t at least take photos.

I walked around the grounds, which were absolutely packed with people.  There was some sort of celebration happening near the Cathedral.  I couldn’t figure out what it was, but a traditional Polish band played and many people were dressed in costume.  I took a couple photos of the festivities, and then headed to the tower.

Both the tower and the Dragon’s Lair cave proved disappointing.

There was some sort of carnival going on along the riverside just outside the castle, so I roamed that a bit.  I thought about eating some fairground food, but wasn’t that hungry yet so headed off to explore the Jewish Quarter.

The Quarter was much smaller than I had imagined, and several of the synagogues were closed to visitors.

I covered the grounds fairly quickly, and stopped off at a restaurant where I finally sated my carnivore desires with a bacon loaded hamburger.  It was so satisfying!

My last stop for the day was the Shindler Factory Museum.  Like most people, I first heard the story of Oscar Shindler when the movie came out.  In truth, the guy was a conniving rascal for most of his life, and yet when faced with the moment of truth, he behaved truly heroically and saved countless lives.  I was eager to learn more.  I had trouble finding the museum, as the directions are unclear, but eventually found it after wandering the neighborhood for awhile.

Overall, I thought the museum was an informative recounting of Krakow under Nazi occupation, but the amount devoted to the Shindler story was extremely limited.  They showed a documentary in the front of the museum with interviews of survivors, and had one other small room dedicated to some of his office memorabilia.  I understand the need for creative marketing, but clearly the museum is banking on the fame of the movie to promote a museum that is really about a different (albeit related) topic.  Like many visitors, I probably wouldn’t have gone if they had correctly named the museum Krakow World War II Museum.  But again, that’s the point, I suppose.

Afterwards, I was too tired to walk back so I took a taxi to Market Square for some final photos.  Taxis in Poland are largely unregulated, so you need to be careful with the tariffs.  It was about $7 for the short ride.

I walked around the square, and contemplated getting some ice cream, but I ended up just walking back to the hostel after some photos.

The hostel served Polish dumplings for the group dinner.  It was neither good nor bad, although no one liked the one filled with strawberry jam.  When they started playing the Janga drinking game, they finally convinced me to stay for awhile.  I quickly saw the point of the game was that everybody basically does a bunch of Polish vodka shots, whether you “win” or “lose.”  Ahh, the youth is wasted on the young.

After downing several different flavored shots, I begged off.  The group soon left for the pub crawl, and  I once again demurred.  I had an 8:30 am train to Warsaw, and wanted to get some shut eye.  I was also angry and bothered over an email exchange over the day, and really wasn’t in the mood to go out.

I got up relatively early the next morning, and bid a fond goodbye to Krakow.  It was a good trip.  The Auschwitz visit was sobering, but extremely worthwhile, and I had a good time overall in the Old Town.  From a “tourist” perspective, I don’t think one needs to spend many days in Krakow, but it can be a fun city.  Maybe that’s what the young hostel guests had figured out long before me.  As an aside, the hostel has an age limit for its dorm rooms, as opposed to the single rooms.  Some really old guy came on my last day and clearly lied about his age to stay in a dorm room.  I guess he wanted to party with youngsters?  In any case, Krakow may be smaller and less impressive than some of its eastern European peers, but I can recommend coming here.  On to Warsaw!


Photos of of Krakow are here:

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