We arrived in Krakow in the early evening with the sun still hovering on the horizon. Krakow airport is relatively small and a little way out of the city centre, but has very decent and cheap public transport which will take you to the main bus terminal for less than £2 ($4NZD). We caught the bus from the stop right outside the terminal and enjoyed the ride into Krakow through the outer suburbs of a country that very much braces itself for the harsh winter. The main bus station is a stone’s throw away from the main square and the surrounds of the city centre, quite clearly bordered by a circular park with winding paths and deciduous trees. The place we stayed was called Mikolajska 5 Hostel and Apartments, we opted for an apartment as we preferred to have a bit of privacy, and the price was not much different between the two. Located within a 10 minute walk of the bus station, and 5 minutes to the main square, it turned out to be an ideal place and would recommend it to people traveling on a budget, especially if you want to cook your own meals as food in Poland (much like just about everything) was extremely cheap.
As far as things to do in Krakow, there is a lot of history in this country as it was one of the hardest hit by The Nazi regime. Historic war related sites were scattered throughout the city and I got the impression that it still hasn’t recovered from the hardships experienced during the war. Schindler’s Factory is among the things on the Krakow to do list and full tours of the factory are available. We unfortunately didn’t have time to tour the inside of the factory but were big enough fans of the man and the movie to go and check out the outside. One place we did go and visit was the Wieliczka Salt mines. Located 30 minutes by bus to the South West of the city, the salt mine was built in the 13th century and is located 327 metres underground, with over 200 kilometres of passageways (only 3.5 kilometres, roughly 1.5% is open to tourists). I had heard about this place through word of mouth and was not really sure what to expect as we walked through the main entrance. For one it is relatively expensive as far as Poland goes costing around £15 for your basic tour, because it was absolutely pouring down with rain, we decided to skip site seeing and make the trip out to the mine instead. It was worth the money, the place itself was mind boggling and when you really started to go through the various chambers and you get your head around the sheer size of the place it makes you marvel at the level of engineering it took to build with such primitive tools and no technology. The route that we took included an underground lake and historic figures carved out of the salt itself. The most impressive part of the tour was the massive cathedral that has been carved by hand and in the modern day holds weddings and other functions, it was truly awe inspiring.
The other main point of interest in Krakow is Auschwitz, the most notorious death camp used in World War 2, responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Jews during Hitler’s tenure as leader of Nazi Germany. It is located 1 hour to the east of Krakow in a small town called Oswiecim (or Auschwitz in German). You can take guided tours of both sites which includes your transport out there, but my recommendation is to go at it alone and get there as early as possible as you can beat the majority of the tour groups and really take in the eeriness of the camp. Buses leave from the main Krakow terminal, but don’t expect the staff to help you out at all; you buy tickets off the driver and can then catch the train back. It is free to visit and can be done at your own pace, which I recommend as there is a lot to get round and once it gets busy can be very slow going. There are two sites; with the main death camp is located about a 20 minute walk away from the Auschwitz site and museum. This is where the main gas chambers are located and it is the vast size of the camp is when it all really hit home for me; I just couldn’t begin to describe the feeling you have when you walk between the hundreds of semi destroyed dormitories that housed the victims of all this horror. The amount of loud, photo taking tourists really let the second part of our visit down as it killed the atmosphere of a place you would expect to be silent and respectful. Tour bus loads of children smiling and taking selfies outside the iconic red brick gate of Birkenau death camp was something I was not expecting upon my visit to this place. We took very few photos and were only of the buildings and landscape for memories. This is a place of such terror, torture and death that I would advise careful consideration before visiting as you truly leave feeling empty inside. Don’t forget to show your respect for the millions of people who were robbed of their lives during the war, be quiet and avoid taking too many photos as you wonder round the sites.