The Midnight Train to Krakow
Krakow, but first, let me tell you a little something about Eastern European overnight trains. You probably picture a quiet sleeping bunk; soft lighting, people in slippers reading the paper, subtle train motions rocking to sleep as you peek out across the rolling countryside. Well, forget all that. We screeched, clicked, clacked, banged, and diaphoresed our way from Prague to Krakow in a train I not-affectionately named the Sweaty Ball Express. Yes, it was cost effective. Yes, it could have been way worse (The overnight train from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore was miserably worse). And yes, I would do it again, but I just want you to be mentally prepared if you ever decide to book a similar train. Somehow Martha woke up looking like she slept in a four star hotel, while I look like I worked the overnight laundry shift in a prison.
So now, Krakow.
Krakow doesn’t conjure up romantic images quite the way other Eastern European countries might, but it’s charming as hell in it’s own right. It’s long been a cultural and academic center across the ages, despite being periodically carved up by various European powers. It’s also starting point for many looking to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. The camps lie about an hour outside of Krakow, buses run every every 40 minutes or so most days during the week.
A visit here is humbling and depressing. The pace of the tour moves you through the camp rather quickly, but allows plenty of time to absorb the scope and horror of the atrocities committed. It’s sobering, and very hard not to leave filled with a fatalistic view of humanity and the world. There’s an exhaustive amount of information available so I won’t even attempt to go into any detail about the history of the camps. I’ll just say, it’s worth a visit.
The tour between the camps takes a few hours and led to the first Temper Tantrum of the Trip, belonging to yours truly. We finished up the tour in the afternoon, around three o’clock. My hunger had respectfully remained silent during the tour but now that it was over, awoke and demanded attention. Complicating things a bit was our tight itinerary. We had planned on seeing the Schindler Museum before it closed at five, which meant we had to catch the very next bus back to Krakow, no time for dawdling (or food). We could have caught the bus after next and grabbed a bit to eat while we waited, but we may have gotten back too late to the museum. We settled on skipping food for now, and taking the next bus into the city. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea, even though it was the best option. I held it together until the bus arrived, packed, with seats for only three of us, the fourth having to stand the hour back to the city. The record may show that I had a bit of a hunger meltdown, gesturing between the between the packed bus and the fast food stand up the street that seemed to be calling only to me. I refused to get on the bus, batted aside offers from others to let me take their seat, and started to make my way to the food stand when the bus driver pointed out that there was a fold out “jump” seat next to the driver. I took the seat, unhappily, and road the next hour with my knees in my chest, the bus driver and I making a show of ignoring each other.
So, despite my hunger meltdown, we made it to the museum before it closed.
We finished the first night in the Old Town, and in stark contrast to our afternoon, we had a great time. The square is filled the locals and tourists shopping in the bazaar and eating at outdoor cafes and large beer garden in the center. Girls with brightly colored umbrellas will attempt to lure young (and old) men into various night clubs that may or may not offer more than just dancing. The weather was perfect and sat in the square and had a dinner of blood sausages (not my favorite) and beer. Our second day was filled with more sightseeing, including the awesome Wieliczka (czk letter combo for the scrabble win!) salt mines, and Wawel hill castle. The salt mines were one of the highlights of the trip, more of a modern marvel and not just a tourist pit stop. It’s an easy commute from the center of Krakow, and the underground complex offers a welcome respite from the heat. Dozens of statues, even several cathedrals, all carved out of rock salt, decorate the massive interior. You’ll be tempted to lick the walls, to see if they really are carved from rock salt stone. Just remember – hundreds of thousands of other tourist have had the very same inclination, so unless you’re really, really tall, I probably wouldn’t. That being said, here is a photo of me licking the wall.
I think we all left with a pretty favorable opinion of the city. It’s clean, worn, post-communist atmosphere is serious but pleasant, and the exchange rate from dollars to the delightfully named Polish Zlotys was generous. We used them to load up on blood sausages and pirogis. Unlike Berlin, I left thinking I could have happily spent another couples days exploring the city. Tonight we serve another tour of duty on an overnight train to Budapest.
Where we stayed: Puro Hotel. Great location and very modern. Affordable swankiness. http://en.purohotel.pl/krakow
What we did:
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps
Wawel hill castle