Wow, what a city Krakow is. It’s such a stark difference from Warsaw…which I found to be a bit bland. Krakow is full of life, and why not? Poland suffered through the Nazi occupation, and then 40 years of communist rule. Stalin never liked Poland, so he treated it the worst. There seemed to be a ‘you only live once’ atmosphere here, so the city was vibrant, the shopping was plentiful, and the nightlife was booming.
I checked into the Mosquito hostel upon arriving in Krakow. This was a place with lots of character, I would definitely recommend it. They were great about scheduling day trips and recommending restaurants and night life, they even had a nightly pub crawl that I opted out of…too old for pub crawls these days. I felt bad I showed up with a cold…hope I didn’t infect too many people in my dorm room!
The main square of Krakow was the first place I went, and it was incredible. The most prominent buildings were St. Mary’s Church and the cloth hall. St. Mary’s had a stellar inside, a gorgeous blue and gold ceiling unlike anything I’ve seen in European churches before. I caught a video of the trumpeter who plays every hour from the window of the church…very cool!
The cloth hall was attractive from the outside, but inside it was mostly junk souvenir shops…I get the feeling this building has a great history behind it, but it’s been taken over by the tourist industry.
Krakow was the home of Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II. He joined the priesthood during the Nazi occupation in the 40’s. Krakow recognizes him to this day with monuments throughout the city, and they celebrated his canonisation only weeks prior to my visit. Franciscan Church is where he used to pray, and they have a plaque next to the pew he knelt at. Also in this church is a mural of Maximillian Kolbe, a priest who was sent to Auschwitz in 1941. He volunteered to take the place of a prisoner sentenced to death by starvation, and when he was still alive after two weeks, the Nazis killed him. Pope John Paul II canonized and declared Kolbe a martyr in 1982.
The WWII history is enough to sink your ship, and I had a heavy dose of it my first few days here. I took the tour of the Jewish quarter, where Schindler made a name for himself by saving over a thousand Jews from the death camps. The Schindler museum was interesting, it wasn’t so much about Schindler as it was about the history of the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow. I love the quote outside the museum – ‘whoever saves one life, saves the world entire’. Yet another gut-wrenching reminder of what happened here in our recent history.
Taking a break from the depressing history, I took a day trip to the Wieliczka salt mine. One of the top tourist attractions in Poland, it definitely had a ‘tourist-trap’ vibe to it, especially with the mobs of grade school children touring at the same time, running around and screaming. The coolest thing here is the miners made sculptures from the salt, even carving out a cathedral at the bottom of the mine, which was stunning. There wasn’t much to do on this tour other than take in the impressive salt-sculptures. Our tour guide kept talking about how the mine operated, and specifics on how the salt was mined…I came to the conclusion that salt mining isn’t the most exciting profession. The guide also encouraged people to lick the walls to ‘taste’ the salt, I thought that was weird.
While I was walking by the Vistula river, one of the many statues I ran into was ‘Dzok’ the dog. I later read the story behind it…turns out Dzok’s owner died of a heart attack in the main square of Krakow in 1990. While the ambulance took the man away, Dzok stayed behind…and remained there for a year, waiting for his owner’s return. The city unofficially adopted him, and fed him until he was finally taken into a new home. The statue stands as a memorial to homeless animals everywhere…very touching. Having been to countries that treat animals with disdain, it’s great to see a city embrace a dog like this.
Now to the food and drinks of Krakow…very nice indeed. This is definitely a pub town, the local beers are good and the prices are great compared with the rest of Europe. Just like in Warsaw, pierogies dominated many of my meals…it’s amazing how filling potato dumplings can be! I was astounded by the amounts of vodka being consumed…that’s definitely a Polish thing, but I couldn’t believe all the people doing straight vodka shots. I don’t think I’ve done that since my college days, and I wasn’t about to revisit those days now in my late 30’s. Whereas Warsaw had more of a dance club atmosphere, Krakow seemed to be more about hanging out and talking at the bar, which is definitely more my scene.
Krakow definitely ‘kraks’ my list of best European cities I’ve visited so far. I definitely like it the most of the ‘big-three’ European cities to visit outside of Western Europe, Prague and Budapest being the other two. When making judgements about a city, I always factor in whether I could live there, and I definitely could here. Wonderful people, great & cheap food, very walkable, bustling town squares, interesting history…this city has it all.