Kraków – SEPT 21.
Oh my goodness did I do a lot today…it was utter madness, so please bear with me, I promise there is some fun stuff in there. In one 24 hour period our group somehow manage to pack in what could have easily been a weeks worth of activities. The day started off early as we made our way towards the famous Kraków Salt Mines. Due to the driving restrictions in Eastern Europe our bus driver, Robert, was not able to drive us to the mines. Instead we needed to use public transportation which meant that it took around an hour to get from our hotel to the salt mine. The only real downside to this was that I couldn’t sleep on the public transport, and that extra hour would have been amazing.
Initially the salt mines seemed really intimidating; I knew that it was going to be a 2-3 hour long walking tour that would include a lot of stairs–over 300 to be exact–and I was also a little worried that I would feel claustrophobic in the tight spaces. While the steps were insane they were actually not so difficult to manage because there were only a couple before you would reach the landing.
But the best part was that I had no cause to feel claustrophobic, the rooms were all massive. Pictures cannot possibly convey just how cool and massive these spaces were. In every room we stopped in there would be some sort of exhibition. Many of these were similar to what you might see in a museum showing how the salt mines worked and how it was discovered. But what made these tableaux so cool was that most of them were made entirely of salt.
Yes, you read that right, almost all of the decorations in the mines were made of salt. With the floors, walls, and ceilings also being made out of salt, it was a lot of salt. And yet not once on the tour did I feel like, whelp yup it’s another salt sculpture. Because of how ornate everything was it never got old.
The other crazy fact about our tour is that even though it was a 2-3 hour tour, we only saw one percent of the entire mines. We were warned not to stray from the group to avoid getting lost seeing as our guide estimated it would take around two weeks to find you. And because it was so big and so many people practically lived in the mines there were many different little churches spread throughout the mine area.
The majority of these churches were small and incredibly well preserved due to all of the salt in the air, however there was one church that clearly stood out amongst the rest. My photos do not do this area any justice because they cannot possibly show just how massive and intricate this church was. In all honesty this church might be my favorite that I have seen so far just due to how unique it is; I have literally never seen anything like it.
Just like the rest of the rooms we saw, this church was entirely comprised of salt. This means that not only were the walls, ceilings, stairs, and floors made out of salt, but also all of the artwork and even the chandeliers. I cannot recommend highly enough that if you are ever in Kraków that this needs to be a must see.
After a quick lunch down in the mines (a meh pierogi that I swear tasted like it had Funyuns in them) we headed over to the Kraków Castle to walk around. Although we did do a walking tour of this area the night before, it was really neat getting to see it in the daytime. We only had about an hour to walk around since this was just a filler stop before our walking tour of the Jewish Quarter/Ghetto, but that was plenty of time to go inside the main church and crypt and then view the gardens.
The start of our Jewish Quarter tour was a little delayed due to a stop at a cute little food truck stop where a lot of us got some crepes, but once it started it was really interesting getting to see the area. A few important things to know about the Jewish area in Kraków: first, the current Jewish population is incredibly small. The Jewish Community Center, or JCC, has no idea exactly how many Jews are in Kraków, but they estimate that it is only in the couple hundreds. It was very hard for me not to think about just how much was lost; not just the people but also the culture, so much so that what once was a thriving community now is simply a shell of its former self.
This brings me to my second point: most of the buildings in the quarter have been restored. When I say restored I don’t mean like what you see when looking at old paintings where the restoration is simply maintenance work to keep the painting looking the same. No, the restoration taking place here has more in common with a renovation. This is not to say that some buildings did not maintain their previous history, but it did feel like much of what took place in this quarter was glossed over so as to make it look new. I don’t know that this necessarily ruins the area for tourists; but I certainly felt a sense of loss at seeing it look so shiny and clean as it did not really look like a historic part of town.
However much of this “restoration” work has taken place recently. Important information number three: Kraków is very proud of the film Schindler’s List. More specifically they are thrilled that it was actually filmed in Kraków rather than a movie set in Hollywood. While filming, Poland had only recently become free of the Communist control that had taken over Eastern Europe after WWII, so having a big Hollywood film being made in Poland was a huge boon to their economy and tourism.
At the time that Schindler’s List was being made, the Jewish Quarter had not been restored. Because there were no longer remains of the Jewish Ghetto in Kraków, this quarter was used for many sets in the film. Almost everywhere we went in the Quarter there would be some kind of picture or postcard commemorating the scene that was filmed there. In this way, our Jewish Quarter/Ghetto tour at times felt more like a film history tour than a Jewish history tour. This was definitely not because of a choice made by our tour guide, but because the area has been completely commercialized so as to appeal to fans of the films. Unfortunately this steals away the history and character of the area and severely limits the stories of the area to those that are about Schindler.
Our walking tour actually ended at Schindler’s Factory which has recently become a museum dedicated to Poland’s history during WWII. This left the rest of our afternoon as free time, but most of our group decided to go and see the museum. What is strange is that where the rest of the Jewish Quarter was centered around the filming of Schindler’s List, the museum at the actual factory gave a much more inclusive history of the area.
Rather than just be focusing on Oscar Schindler and what he did for the Jewish community as well as other people singled out by the Nazis, the museum chose to use the factory as a spot to highlight what life was like in the Jewish Ghetto during war time: starting at the first invasion to the final liberation. But the most disturbing part of the museum was its decision to be an immersive museum; meaning that it wanted you (the visitor) to not just see, but also feel what life was like during WWII.
Now, I recognize that I described this experience as disturbing, but I just want to be clear that I don’t mean this as a criticism of the museum. I am glad–though that doesn’t quite seem like the right word for it–that it was disturbing. In my opinion nothing about the Holocaust and WWII should feel comfortable; it should upset you. It is beyond words how strange it felt to walk on tiles with swastikas on them and to see the iconic red banners up close.
By this time it was around 5:00, and with around six hours of mostly continuous walking I was exhausted and completely sore. Even now I am not completely sure how I managed to push myself to keep going, but I do know that the allure of getting to see more of Kraków was just too tough to resist.
We first made our way to the main square of Kraków. Tara, Taryn, Sean, Joel, Alicia, Jacqui, and I wanted to stop at the underground museum to make sure we got tickets to go in at 8:30. See James and some other people in our group had decided to skip Schindler’s Factory and went straight to this museum showing the ancient ruins found in an underground archaeological site. When they were there they were told that you could only enter the museum at certain times, so they wanted to give the rest of us the heads up that 8:30 was the only time available and that there were only 10 tickets left. At this point I am panicking thinking I won’t get to see it, so our group books it to the museum to try and get the last tickets. So I have no idea who James et. al. spoke with, but it turns out that you can go into the museum any time you like, the only restriction was that the final entry time was 8:45.
Laughing this off we made our way back to the castle since most of the gang wanted to take a picture of the dragon blowing smoke that we saw the night before. It was really cool to see in the dark, but since none of us were expecting it we didn’t get a really good photo. I am ashamed to admit that I was initially against this idea; my body was just completely exhausted so I voted for dinner. Really glad I was outnumbered. See I thought that during the day seeing a statue of a dragon breathing fire wouldn’t quite translate into a good picture, but as it so happens we got there right around sunset. I’ll let you be the judges on whether this got a good shot or not.
Next up was dinner, and not a moment too soon. I’m pretty sure the group of us completely deflated the second we reached the restaurant. That night we decided to take a break from traditional Eastern European cuisine (I was starting to get tired of soup and schnitzel) and ate at a place called Spaghetti located in the middle of the main square in the old town. I got a spaghetti carbonara, and no lie it was actually pretty good.
After dinner we made our way to the underground museum. Of everything that we did today, this was the only thing that didn’t quite live up to the hype. Maybe it was just because it was 8-9:00 at night and I was pooped, or maybe I’ve just been to so many cool archaeological sites, but this one just didn’t do it for me. Too much of the museum was comprised of videos that didn’t provide any real information. Tara, Alicia, and I got through the museum much quicker than the rest of the group, so we ended up just chilling in the lobby waiting for everyone to catch up.
At this point a group of us were craving something sweet. After a full day of walking, I seriously deserved it! By 10:00 we made our way towards getting a dessert, but sadly this turned out to be too late for most of the places so we had to settle for the only one that was open. This meant that my Oreo mousse cake was sadly only meh. When we finished dessert we finally made our way to the tram stop to catch the 30 minute long tram ride to our hotel. At the stop there was a tram there, but Tara was pretty sure that it was going in the wrong direction…nope it was the right one. And of course because it was now 10:30 pm the next tram wasn’t going to be there until 11!
So basically from 7:15 am – 11:30 pm I was up out and about with long periods of nonstop walking, hence why this post is like ten times longer than my other ones. Pretty sure my ankles are three times larger than they used to be! All in all I ended up walking an estimated 27,000 steps 😱
*I received a text from my mom today pointing out a spelling error I made in an earlier post. While that was funny, it also made me want to explain that I am typing all of this on my iPad with my fat thumbs and dealing with all kinds of strange autocorrections. All of this while half dead from exhaustion either right before falling asleep or in the middle of naps during bus rides. So while I am sorry if there are any silly typing errors or I ramble on too much, I am too lazy to do too much proofreading here, so #sorrynotsorry? Lol.
**Yes I used #’s, emoticons, and text speak in this post…not totally sure how I feel about that yet.