I just got back from a city trip to Kraków, Poland. Might seem like an odd choice to you , but a lot of cities passed the audition but didn’t make it to the final cut: Sevilla (too expensive), Bordeaux (nice vineyards, but what else to see?), … a whole night of preparation went into deciding the destination… But after Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia… well why the heck not Poland! There’s a whole world out there and it’s ready to be discovered!
I found it also funny, seeing here in Brussels, I often get approached on the tram or street by people asking me: “Excuse me? Are you Polish/Russian? What language do you speak?”. I still find it odd when people do that, cause I would never go up to someone and ask “Hi, are you Bulgarian? You look like one.” I wouldn’t have the nerve. And so, no, I’m not Polish, no-one in my family is. Generations of Belgians I think, from Flanders. That’s all I know. And if you wondered, I wasn’t approached in Kraków. It was pretty clear by the camera around my neck and the mispronunciation of “Thank you” in Polish that I was a foreigner!
Back on track: Kraków is a discovery. Of course, when you go with a bunch of girls on a city trip – who in their professional lives do a very organized job – it would be expected to be a well prepared/researched trip as well. But I like to leave some room for discovery. I printed my little booklets (www.takeatrip.com , http://www.hostelworld.com , http://www.wikitravel.com), checked out the Kraków airport site (the most practical I’ve been on so far; it even has daisies in the banner!) and whether I could use my MasterCard in the city. That’s all I needed and the rest was on the go!
The city of Kraków is actually very small. You can easily get to places and sites quickly by foot and the streets are full of little shops. The charm of the streets takes you almost to a magical place. (Sorry, I have been to Disneyland Paris just 2 weeks before and am still a bit in a magical mode). It seemed to me the streets were well-kept. No garbage or anything I could spot. And the houses looked maintained. To me, Kraków seemed to have citizens who were proud of their city and showed it by taking care of it. Very unlike Brussels. (I love Brussels, but it can be icky at times, in certain places as well.)
The center is the old square, on which the trade hall in the center is undeniably beautiful. My brochures said it was considered one of the first shopping places since the 14th century. Now it is filled with quaint little gift shops, but not of the tacky kind. I even bought a tiny dragon in metal, which is kind of the city’s symbol. Legend is that underneath the Wawel hill, under the castle, a dragon lived. You can visit the Wawel hill and descend to the caves… though I was a bit disappointed that the dragon in fact is outside the cave, and the fire it was supposedly roaring every 5 minutes was but a mere little flame. But still, it kept me watching! 🙂
With my friends we took the time to go a little outside of Krakow to visit the salt mines of Wieliczka, where you go below 3 of the 9 layers beneath the ground and go through several tunnels containing statues carved out of the salt stone. Again, if you go with too high expectations, you might be disappointed. My recommendation, just go with it and enjoy. They are just caves. Try and imagine the men going in every day to work and carve salt. The huge chapel that they carved is worth the look and makes you think they were pretty good artists, those miners!
We took the time as well to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. Now this, for me, was not an easy decision to make. Before we left I was still unsure on how I felt about it and if I could take it, emotionally. But as hard as it was, and how emotional it was, I was glad I took the experience and went for it. You need to feel it and know. The sad thing is, even with Auschwitz as a reminder of humanity’s most horrific hour, we still seem not to learn our lesson in this world and keep repeating the mistakes of the past. A sad realisation.
But even though this serious part of the city trip, I still think Kraków is worth a moment of your time. Do check the weather when going. We hadn’t counted on it being so so cold in April and you might need a scarf. 🙂
And take the time to visit the many bars that are so inviting and fun. You might find yourself wishing to spend more nights and discovering Polish bands!