Welcome to Poland! That’s what the title says in Polish. Well, should say at least; I apologize if it’s wrong. I don’t speak Polish. I think I mentioned at the end of my last post that NUIM students had a two week break after St. Patty’s Day. Two of my friends, Katherine M. and Bridget, and I decided to make the most of these two weeks and travel to some places that none of us had ever been to before. After throwing some ideas and places around and after looking at hostel and plane prices, we had our trip mapped out. First stop on the list, Poland. Specifically, Krakow, Poland, one of the oldest and most famous cities in the country.
Despite having to catch an early flight out of Dublin, we were excited to begin our adventure. Upon arriving in Krakow, the first thing we noticed was that everything was covered in a few inches of snow. We had kind of expected this but still weren’t completely prepared for the cold. Because we were flying Ryanair for most of our two week excursion and we wanted to have room for souvenirs, we tried to pack lightly so I think we each had maybe one adequate outfit for Poland. But it was fine, we survived. From the airport we had to take a train into the actual city. That was a little worrying because we had to buy the train tickets from a machine and we weren’t 100% sure what we were doing but the people that helped us were really nice.
Finding the hostel probably took the most time consuming of this process of traveling to Krakow. The hostel itself was amazing if I do say so myself (I picked it). It was pretty great. Finding it was the difficult part because the sign for it was small and easy to miss as we found out because we looked for a good half hour or so walking up and down the same street looking for it. We passed it four or five times but we knew it was across the street from the mall so we knew that we were in the right place. The three of us ended up stepping into the tourist office to ask directions only to be told it was directly next door. That was a little embarrassing.
The hostel, Greg and Tom Hostel (not the party one), is across the street from the mall by the train station and next door to what hostel residents referred to as “the cage” which was a 24/7 convenience store that mostly sold alcohol. The reason it was dubbed “the cage” is because after a certain time (8 or 9 pm I think) you can no longer walk into the store fully, you are separated by a metal cage-looking device. Any purchases made after that time must be conducted from behind this barred metal walk-in. The cashier will fetch your items and handle your money through this cage-like contraption. It was pretty interesting and definitely something that none of us had seen before or has seen since. As for the actual hostel itself, it’s great. I would really recommend it. I’ll try and put a link to it at the bottom of this post. The people who ran it were really nice and relaxed. Since it is in an apartment-type building there are two floors. Each one is equipped with a kitchen, rooms, computers, and a bathroom. Breakfast and dinner are served in the upper kitchen each day for free. Dinner menus and night activities for the week are also posted on doors throughout the hostel. We stayed in while there and were able to rent movies from a list that they had and one of the worker even brought us popcorn. It was just a great experience overall other than the trouble finding it initially.
That was pretty much all we did the first day that we were in Poland. Did I mention that Poland has its own currency? Well, it does and the exchange rate to US Dollars wasn’t bad when we were there. When we arrived at the airport, the first thing the three of us did after going through Customs was find an ATM. I took out 300 PLN (which is the Polish currency) and that was equivalent to about $104. And I think that lasted me the whole time we were in Poland (3 days) including meals, transportation, and souvenirs.
If we took it easy the first day in Krakow, we definitely did as much as we could the next two. I’m going to do a separate post for our second day in Poland because we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau which was an indescribable experience. Our third and last full day in Krakow, we explored the city. And we really did explore; we did so much. In the morning we walked over and wandered through a bit of the Old Town and saw St Mary’s church, Florian’s Gate, Rynek Glowny (Grand Market, also called Market Square) and of course, could not pass up the opportunity to walk through Cloth Hall. Cloth Hall is possibly the oldest shopping market in the world. It’s been in business for over 700 years. That’s a long time. It’s called Cloth Hall because back around 1300 I believe when things first started, the stalls mostly dealt in textile. Originally the hall was just two rows of stalls with a roof but that was later expanded into the Gothic structure that stands today in the second half of the 14th century. It was so cool walking through here and just looking at what the various stalls were selling. Amber is kind of like the color or the stone of the area because it was everywhere. I wanted to get something that represented that so I ended up getting this really nice but simply designed amber ring (which was later lost somehow in Scotland. I was not a happy camper). At breakfast that morning we’d talked with one or two of the people who were working the desk at the hostel who gave us some brochures and had recommended this walking tour that was free (though a tip at the end is customary). There was one around the Old Town and one that wandered the Jewish Quarter. We decided to go for the Jewish Quarter.
We got lunch from a vendor in Market Square and met up with the guide there. She was very nice and carried a sign that read “Cracow Free Walking Tour.” The three of us ended up being the only ones to go on the tour that particular day which was kind of cool because we really got to talk with the guide and ask questions and could hear everything she said clearly. It was great. We toured the Jewish Square, saw several synagogues including the Old Synagogue, a fancier designed one, and the newer one which was one of the only ones functioning. The Old Synagogue was at one end of the square and used to be only for men (making it Orthodox I believe?). Later a second area was built onto the original building for the women. Our guide pointed out where the line was distinguishing the original building from the add-on. Behind one of the synagogues was a cemetery. That was interesting for me because I’d never seen one before. The Star of David was about as common as a cross would be in a Christian cemetery and a lot of the tombstones, particularly the older ones were inscribed in Hebrew.
There was also a memorial in the square. Inscribed on a plaque embedded in the giant rock is a message written in Polish, English, and Hebrew saying, “Place of meditation upon the martyrdom of 65 thousand Polish citizens of Jewish nationality from Cracow and its environs killed by the Nazis during World War II.” Along the edge of the memorial are piles of little rocks. I didn’t know this but apparently it’s an old Jewish custom. The rocks are permanent reminders that a loved one, usually family or friends, have visited the grave or tombstone and are considered to offer consolation to the deceased. It’s a sign of respect. The three of us also noted that some had left stones at the memorial in Auschwitz.
As we walked through the streets near the square, we saw some graffiti saying Kazimierz, which was the name of the Jewish District. When the Nazis invaded Krakow, they pushed the Jews into what’s called the Krakow Ghetto which was located in the Podgorze District. Oscar Schindler’s factory is also in this area though we didn’t see it. Parts of the movie Schindler’s List was filmed in the ghetto and the Jewish Quarter. The tour ended in Plac Zgody where the Empty Chairs Memorial stands today. This square is where the deportation process took place. The chairs, of varying heights, are spread out throughout the square. They represent the Jews that were killed as well as the furniture and other items that were left when their owners were gone. It was a bit of a chilling experience walking through and looking at these empty metal chairs with our guide telling us the story behind them.
And that, in a nutshell, was our experience in Poland. The next post will be about our second day in Krakow when we visited Auschwitz. I can’t speak for either of my travel buddies but I know that I learned so much while I was here. I’m really happy that we were able to visit. Alright, so I’ll leave you guys with the links to the hostel that we stayed at and the walking tour that we took for anyone who may be interested.Greg and Tom Hostel on Hostelworld: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Greg-and-Tom-Hostel/Krakow/7327
Cracow Free Walking Tours: http://www.cracowfreewalkingtour.com/