Krakow: three day and three tours

Usually I don’t tour on holidays. I take the pay as you go, choose your own adventure, where I decide what I learn, when I learn it and how. I decided change my default behaviour on my trip to Poland and let someone else lead me around for a change. I now remember why I do it myself. Let me take you through the tours:

Wieliczka Salt mine tour – Saturday, 10:45am

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is about 30 minutes private minivan trip out of Krakow. I like to embrace every moment I have on holidays, so I decided a nap was most appropriate after a busy night out.

It was in the top five attractions to visit in Krakow, so why not, we thought. Sadly that Saturday morning, 1000 other people also had that same desire to add a little sodium to their life.

After a fifty minute wait for our guide, the dark tunnels whispered our names and we found ourselves locked in a red cage and being serenaded by a large bell for the duration of the ride down.

Two people piked due to claustrophobia. Strange considering the mine tunnels were on par with London underground tube stations and for the simple fact that they would have had to know the tour was, as you guessed, underground.

For three hours, we were lead through the maze by a very dry humoured, monotone, tortoise-pacing woman.

The mines history can be traced back hundreds of years. It officially opened in the 1770’s and only stopped active mining in 1996. It is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, visited by over one million people each year, so I was prepared to be impressed.

Unfortunately, the tour just turned into a three hour slow paced walk underground for me. I can only imagine that this may have been somewhat more interesting to the people that had never been underground before. The novelty of opening and closing ventilation doors, comparing tunnel sizes and water storage was lost on me.

I was however thoroughly impressed by the intricate and spectacular salt sculptures, the endless number of churches and grand rooms built for special occasions.

I was saddened to learn that horses were used for labour right up until the end. They lived underground their entire life and only saw sunlight in their dying days of retirement. It must have been a big effort to get them down there.

As we approached the middle, two situations intrigued me.

  1. Photograph payment booth: we passed an official, who was took 10PLN payments for anyone who wanted to take photographs underground. Funny that, because she were already half way through the tour and people had already been unknowingly snapping away. Luckily the payments weren’t policed, and many on our tour continued to snap away, despite the absence of an official photograph sticker.
  2. Facilities: I found myself walking into a hall with a restaurant, toilets and a souvenir shop. The demand for sustenance and gifts must have been so great that they established such facilities underground! Amazing.

In an attempt to influence the pace of our guide, we walked beside her little squares in school. We sailed through the 1st floor, 64 metres down and over two and a half hours walking; we arrived at the third and final floor, 135 metres below the surface. I hadn’t been so excited to see the shinning doors of a lift open to daylight, and the end to the tour.

Wieliczka Salt Mines – not something I’d recommend to my friends to do, despite it being a favourite tourist attraction for Krakow.

The details: We booked through Mosquito Hostel for a private tour, including transfers and tickets at a cost of 125 PLN. I have been told it’s extremely easy and cheaper to get there via public transport, but you will have to wait in line for a ticket

Kazimierz Old Jewish Quarter Tour, Sunday 2pm

This was actually the pick of the tours for me this trip around. On advice from Mosquito, we headed down to the Old Town for of the Old Jewish Quarters Tour with Ela who I later found out was the founder of Cracow Free Tours. She was born and bred in Krakow, so I trusted her knowledge and was eager to hear her stories. We met in front of St Mary’s Church as the trumpet player belted out his tunes from the top of the tower to the west, then to the east, south and north. Everyday, the trumpet player stops mid tune to signify a trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding an attack alarm on the city back in the 13th century.

Ela weaved us around Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarters, showing us synagogues, famous streets, the market squares and churches.

It was only after Steven Spielberg landed in Krakow in 1993 to make ‘ Schindler’s List’ that the world put the city on their destination lists. I had watched the movie many times at home and only at that moment that I realised I was walking the streets where all those horrible atrocities happened in real life.

Ela told us that World War 2 had claimed the lives of more than 63,000 Jewish people who lived in Cracow. In the end, only 600 stayed to salvage what life they could while over 1000 left in search of finding a new place to call home.

I stood in the ghetto and I found it difficult to understand what life would have been like. Contained by tall walls, 15,000 people were moved to the small area of town that only had the capacity to fit 3000 souls.

Ghetto Hero's Square

The tour finished with our group standing in the Ghetto Heroes Square, a place where the Jews were gathered to have their fate decided. There are 33 steel seats scattered around the area, a permanent memorial to commemorate those hideous times.

How could one human being possibly manage to influence and brainwash the minds of hundreds of thousands of people to believe in his barbaric beliefs? Just how?

Unfortunately Schindler’s factory tour was closed over the Easter break. If I had my time again, I would swap out the Salt Mine Tour and sub in the Schindler’s Factory Tour.

If you decided to take this tour, you can’t leave without getting a Zapiekanki (long flat bun covered in cheese, mushroom and your chose of topping) for around 10 PLN from the Okrąglak, the round building in the centre of Plac Nowy.

The details: Cracow Free Tours – The tour takes 2 hours. No bookings are required. You meet at the front of St Mary’s Church at 2pm. The tour is ‘free’ but you are asked to make a donation at the end of the trip, of which you should pay. These tours are of quality, with qualified hosts.

Auschwitz – Birkenau, Monday 11am

The last tour we booked through the hostel, the Auschwitz Birkenau tour was the most popular, therefore the hardest to get into. I recommend booking ahead if you can to ensure you secure a place.

Our private van pulled up outside and our mixed hostel group comprising of three Aussies, a Canadian, an American and a Kiwi piled it.

I took the front and before the tyres hit the highway, the only two people that weren’t from our hostel complained that they left their mobile in their hotel, and directed the driver to return immediately.

After some choice words escaped from my mouth, even more came out when we pulled into their hotel ten minutes later only to find out at the gentlemen had actually been sitting on his belongings the whole time.

The trip took about an hour and a half.

We were allocated our token dry and monotone guide, this edition was a little older, but pleasingly had a faster pace.

I feel extremely guilty to admit that the true impact of the concentration camp did not touch my heart on this tour.

Throughout my life, I have read countless reflections and watched many movies on World War 2 and concentration camps. I had connected, I had hurt for them and I had cried when I thought about the sad lives they somehow endured. But when I actually stood on the ground where many of these stories actually came from, I couldn’t feel it.

Between the lifeless tone of our guides voice, the beautiful sunny day and green grass I couldn’t connect with the sadness.

Our guide told no compelling stories of those in the camp and we didn’t stand long enough in one place to take in the enormity of where we were.

The rooms full of peoples belongings – especially the shoe and hair room shocked me, along with the building that’s walls were lined with endless portrait style head shots and biographies of just some of those killed within the compound.

What confused me was the Nazis meticulous record keeping. Why did they take millions of pictures, detail prisoner’s occupations and ages, only to effortlessly kill them within the year?

We left the well-preserved buildings at Auschwitz or Oswiecim and moved on to Birkenau, the purpose built extermination camp only three kilometres away.

Much of Birkenau was destroyed before the end of the war to hide the horrors of wat the Nazis did, however the remains of fake chimneys, broken bricks and the gas chambers gives a powerful indication of the size and scale of the operation.

As I sat in the bus and drove back to Krakow, a wave of sadness washed over me. The tour didn’t give justice to the history of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It didn’t make me feel horrified by the events that took place there some 80 years previous. One of my work colleagues had told me she had visited in the middle of winter on a dark and rainy day. She said the cold and dreary day set the scene for her and helped her find that sense of connection. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the tour itself, but I will be thankful for the experience, but think of Auschwitz in the way all those books made me feel, and not what I had physically experienced on my visit.

The details: I booked a private tour through Mosquito Hostel. It was a fully lead, English speaking guide visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau including transfers and private mini van. The entire trip from Krakow took about 6 hours and cost 130 PLN.

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