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Trip Report: 3 Days in Krakow

Hey, it’s the (20M) study abroad student with another trip report, this time to Krakow. Sorry for such a late update, but I told myself that I’d finish my essay for one of my classes (for anyone curious, it was about my plan to tackle water pollution in the San Joaquin River) before writing any trip reports. Originally (when I had first conceptualized traveling around Europe), I’ll admit that I wasn’t really considering Poland. But quite a few people had recommended Krakow, and after learning more about the city, especially its significance to WWII history, I knew that I had to go. This trip report will probably be a bit shorter than usual, just because I covered less ground than I usually do for reasons I’ll explain below. And as always, mile counts added below for reference for the amount of ground covered!

Day 1: Krakow

Because of a slight planning mishap, I accidentally just missed my train to Wieliczka by a handful of minutes, which was a bit of an annoyance since trains ran every hour, but I was able to walk around town for a bit before heading there. I’ll admit that the salt mines are a bit different than what I had expected since I suppose I had too high of expectations since I had expected a fantasy-esque subterranean city and only got brief glimpses of that. Most of the salt mines consist of cute little displays of the mining process, with mannequins acting out the mining process set amongst wooden wheels, ropes, and other tools, as you wander through dimly lit but spacious tunnels supported by wooden logs and blocks of rock salt (if you shine a flashlight close up at the stone, you’ll see that it’s partially transparent). Funnily enough, because of the poor lighting conditions, I accidentally jumped tour groups and somehow ended up in the English tour in front of me, which was quite nice actually since I was getting a bit annoyed with my tour group, which had these very belligerent British guys and too many young children. I did eventually end up re-joining my original group after spending some extra time in the highlight of the mines: a large chamber hall, filled with religious iconography carved into the rock salt with a plain but pretty altar and large chandeliers with clear salt crystals dangling off it. There were other stunners, from a room with gorgeous turquoise brine water that complemented the warm orange glows of the mine lights to a series of descending staircases that zig-zagged down to an impressive mining display.

By the time that I had headed back, it was getting quite dark, much earlier than I had anticipated, especially since I had designed my itinerary for late summer, which is when I had originally planned visiting before changing it up. Luckily, Krakow is very beautiful at night. The central cathedral, St. Mary’s Basilica, with interesting asymmetrical towers (one these swooping gothic spires and the other more domed), glowed a warm red-orange. Lots of smaller churches and monuments scattered about in the Old Town were also well lit up along with the Wawel Castle, though it remained dark enough for me to underestimate its sheer size until I visited it on Day 3. While some parts of the Old Town got a bit quiet, especially the pretty pathways running through the green space that used to be the old moat of Krakow, I never felt unsafe. After walking all around the Old Town, from the lively central plaza with its eclectic collection of statues and a pretty central market building with a hanging dagger at the entrance to the last remaining city walls of Krakow, with some cute towers and charming buildings connected to it, I ended my exploration a bit early since I had to wake up quite early tomorrow.

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Unfortunately for me, I somehow managed to get a really bad paper cut on my finger from the postcard and hadn’t noticed that my hand was half-covered in blood (because I was carrying a chimney cake and my fingers were so numb) until I was about halfway to my hostel. I tried my best to just act natural even if it looked like a murdered someone, but even more unfortunately, when I was dropping my stuff off before rushing to the bathroom to clean up my hand, my new bunkmates decided to introduce themselves, and I had to awkwardly decline their handshake and point to my bloodied hand. They probably thought I was crazy. That was extremely awkward and definitely not the best end to the day.

Mile Count: 13.7

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Day 2: Krakow

Because I had booked my tickets to Auschwitz late, the only time slots left were in the early morning, and because the bus, which is supposedly the better way to get to Oswiecim, did not run during the time slot that I had needed, I was forced to take the train to Oswiecim and take a long trek to get to Auschwitz. I suppose because of my lack of WWII knowledge, combined with me not paying attention to the address sent to me in the ticket email, meant that I hadn’t realized that there were multiple Auschwitz concentration camps and that I had accidentally went all the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau instead of Auschwitz I, which is where the tour had begun. To make matters worse, those two concentration camps are about 30-40 min apart from each other and the shuttle bus running between those two locations begins at around noon. It was a bit of a logistical failure on my part. Luckily for me, I met this Bulgarian guy about my age who had also gone to the wrong location, and we just ended up doing the guided tour together after being able to pretty easily swap tickets.

I suppose it’s nice to have company because it was an eerie and harrowing place, emphasized even more by the gloomy weather and occasional rain-showers and flurries of snow. Auschwitz I, where the guided tour began, was smaller and denser than Birkenau, with rows and rows of brick buildings and talls trees shedding the last vestiges of autumn foliage, this sense of serenity contrasting the place’s violent history. It’s something that the displays in the various buildings don’t let you forget, from blurry photos taken in secret as evidence of the atrocities there to the piles and piles of hair that were horrifyingly used to make textiles to the torture chambers in the jailhouse (Block 11, I believe) with the standing cells or suffocation chamber. After passing by rows of barbed wire and ominous skull signs, we had the opportunity to briefly enter a crematorium used to burn the bodies, hidden under a mat of grass and marked only by a chimney. From there, we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its decaying and overgrown railroad track running under the brick building through the center of the concentration camp. While the bright green grass made the place seem less windswept and desolate, unlike the muddier Auschwitz I, it was still a haunting place. Rows and rows of chimneys, the last remnants of the wooden barracks, lined the inner road leading to a memorial of stone pillars to commemorate the losses of lives. Next to the memorial were the ruins of the massive crematoriums, charred and barely recognizable since they were purposefully blown up, and from there, we were able to briefly enter one of the ramshackle brick barracks and get a glimpse the poor living conditions that hundreds of thousands had to endure, ending a sobering visit to one of the grimmest places that I had been to.

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Because the tour coincidentally ended right at the time when the train out of Oswiecim left, with the next available train in two hours, the guy I was with and I just walked around the pretty bleak town, crisscrossed with rusted rail tracks with saplings and grasses growing in between the slats that potentially had once led to Auschwitz, before settling in a fast-food joint to warm up and chat. After heading back to Krakow, we split ways since he had a flight to catch later that evening, so I walked around town, heading out to the lively Jewish Quarter. None of the major attractions there were particularly lit up, unlike the bulk of Krakow, but it was still a pleasant stroll through the cobbled streets of the historic center. Because I heard that Krakow had a lively nightlife, not only from others in my hostel but also literally (the prior night, I could hear the thumping of club music), and felt quite safe, so I decided to head out a bit before midnight to just wander around and explore the city. The city was just as beautiful as yesterday but even more lively than ever, with flashes of neon and thumping of club music and crowds of people gathered around, queuing up, but also a couple moments of quiet, where I was able to get some people-less pictures and listen to the trumpeter atop the tower play their all to short tune.

Mile Count: 17.3

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Day 3: Krakow

Originally, the plan was to explore the Wawel Castle and Jewish Quarter in the daytime since I had only seen those two places at night, but I ended up changing my plans after this Romanian guy that I had met during the hostel dinner the prior night invited me to join a walking tour. Normally, I don’t really do walking tours since I prefer to explore at my own, often faster pace, but I just decided to go for it. I forgot the guide’s name (he’s fairly young and Ukrainian), but he was great, enthused, and quite funny. There were lots of hilarious stories, from the purported origins of the sudden pause in the bell tower trumpeter’s tune (not going to spoiler the story, but let’s just say it’s this outlandish tale of a Mongol archer) to the reason why that the northern wall of the city was not demolished, unlike all the other sides. He also shared some other more informative facts, like the purpose of the circular walled building, the Barbakan, at the front of the gate of the city wall, and the stark Nazi building located amongst the intricately designed plaza in the Wawel Castle, replacing the servant’s kitchen and blocking the view of the mountains from the upper balcony. After the tour ended, me and the guy I was with walked around the castle a bit, which was larger than I had expected, with a lovely, manicured central garden surrounded by a variety of buildings, from traditional and dark brick buildings, covered in vines, to a hodgepodge of architectural designs that is the cathedral, composed of gold domes, turquoise spires, and gray and white along with brick buildings that somehow cohere to a pretty whole.

From there, we went to the dragon of Krakow (which was apparently a popular tourist destination that I was totally unaware of and explains the abundance of dragon plushies everywhere). It was… interesting. By interesting, I mean as ugly as the tour guide had insinuated. From the six or so arms to the overly large chicken feet on its legs to the skinny body and distinct lack of wings, it was certainly something. But it breathed out fire, which is something my inner eight year old appreciated. From there, we went to a Polish restaurant in the Jewish Quarter and had the traditional dumplings. It was nice, a bit similar but also notably different from the Chinese dumplings (like wontons) that I am used to with the inclusion of the sour cream / yogurt sauce. I did prefer the cheese dumplings though—thought they tasted quite good and were a bit less jarring compared to the pork ones. After that, we wandered into the central Cathedral of Krakow to catch a glimpse of the famed altar since the church was busy with religious activities, but I don’t think we were successful. I saw a glimpse of a mosaic of gold framed paintings at the very end but I’m not sure if that’s the famed altarpiece. Still, the cathedral interiors were quite beautiful, with gorgeous patterned arches and ceiling along with some stunning and intricate stained glass work (though it was a bit hard to see from the back), and a lovely warm glow accentuated by the gold furnishings scattered about. We left and grabbed our stuff from the hostel, and after shopping for souvenirs, I thought we were going to split ways since our flights were scheduled about an hour apart, so I was preparing my goodbyes. But it turns out that he’s also a bit paranoid about missing his flight, so we ended up taking the train together to the airport and then saying our goodbyes there. That’s when the funniest thing happened. My flight was delayed by over an hour, and his flight happened to be flying out of the gate right next to mine, so we ended up meeting again, chatting for 30-40 min before saying the actual, final goodbyes with the usual vague promises to one day meet again.

Mile Count: 8.3

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Final Ratings:

Krakow: 9.25/10

Overall Thoughts:

I’ll admit that Krakow was very different from my expectations but in a good way. I suppose I don’t think of Poland when I think of lively nightlife but Krakow was bustling at night, which is something that I hadn’t anticipated but was grateful for since I really love well-lit cities with busy nights. Although I don’t particularly partake in nightlife activities per say, I do love to stroll around town late at night (around midnight) and an abundance of nightlife brings a great atmosphere and makes me feel much safer at night. Also, Krakow is gorgeous at night and super picturesque, closer to Paris and Amsterdam when it comes to nighttime beauty in the Old Town. Even the logistics were quite a bit easier than I had anticipated (minus the Auschwitz debacle) since I had heard online that the train station is a nightmare to navigate without knowing Polish. Maybe it’s just me but I found the train station to be very easy and manageable to use. And as stated by many resources online, Krakow is very serious about checking whether you have purchased a train ticket or not. Every single train that I rode on had ticket checkers validating your ticket so be sure to buy your ticket! The only major issue I had was that it was cold in Krakow, colder than anything that I’ve experienced for pretty much all my life, and given that I’ve booked trips to increasingly colder destinations after next week, let’s just say that it’s going to be a challenge to force myself to head outside since I’m not the biggest fan of cold weather.

I’ll say that my trip to Krakow was very, very different from prior trips because I’ve never spent one day, let alone two whole days, with complete strangers that I had met during my travels. Frankly, how I even met with the first guy felt like it came out of a fictional novel. What’s funny is that similarly to my first day in Lisbon, I was feeling bitter and embarrassed by the awkward social situation I was put in (though the bloody hand situation was legitimately more awkward), and then all of a sudden, the next days, I have some of the most socially productive days by pure chance, that I happened to stumble into or sit at the table of people that I could hang out with for an entire day. It still feels a bit unreal—I’ve always been on the more extreme ends of social anxiety when it comes to speaking with people I don’t know well, which is why I haven’t had many friends throughout my life, so these prolonged conversations were a big step forwards for me, really meeting my goals of just going out of my comfort zone and talking with more people. Although I don’t particularly get lonely, having company was nice, even if it meant slowing down the more breakneck pace that I typically travel at. Next week’s hostel is not a particularly social hostel, so it’ll be business as usual and a nice reprieve from the highs and lows that come with social hostels.

Once again, I am extremely behind when it comes to these trip reports so I’m already back from Belgium and Prague and am heading to the Baltics today (though a series of extremely unfortunate events have caused a major disruption to my plans and left me very frustrated). I’ll say that it was my most ambitious weekend trip since I decided to cover 3 cities in 3 days, allocating one day for Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels. Luckily, I had actually made a pretty detailed itinerary, unlike these recent weeks, which I’ve mostly just winged since I lost a lot of steam when it comes to planning, because of the logistics involved. Expect this next trip report to take a while, not because of the content but because of the pictures. With Christmas markets beginning in Belgium, let’s just say that I got a bit carried away with taking pictures.

Pics: https://www.canva.com/design/DAF2NGlZEqY/r96nv-ZUV6vWrRBc0eZu1g/edit?utm_content=DAF2NGlZEqY&utm_campaign=designshare&utm_medium=link2&utm_source=share

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Once again I enjoyed reading your report, which comes from such a different perspective than my 60’s solo female traveler one.

And you are right - careful planning takes a lot of time. I have come to terms with that for myself - sometimes I do it and sometimes I don’t. Results vary all over the place, but the experience and wonder remain constant. It’s so cool you are using all your opportunities.

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Wonderful trip report and pictures. Your descriptions are so vivid and descriptive. I’m one person who pushes Poland as a place to visit. We also were very pleasantly surprised by how much we liked Krakow. Gdańsk is also worth a visit. With regards to Warsaw, it was hard to get a handle on the city and it took us a few days to warm up to it. We only stayed four nights and wished we had more time to explore other parts of the city.

Can’t wait for your other reports as those are cities we have also visited.

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I too really enjoyed your trip report, although I have never been to Poland. I must admit it is not somewhere I had considered visiting but all the interesting trip reports may persuade me otherwise!

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You write so beautifully about your travel experiences. I'm a travel blogger, and I try to write about my experiences, but sometime I think they come off as dull and impersonal. You really bring things to life. Thank you for sharing.

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Beautiful review. I don't think I've yet seen anyone visit Krakow and say they didn't like it. Poland is on my shortlist for the next couple of years.

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Thanks for the time you spent doing all these trip reports. I so enjoy them. And your pictures are great. I want to see Krakow even more now. I’ve been to 2 concentration camps but I will admit I’m afraid Auschwitz may be too overwhelming. The scale of such evil is staggering. Thanks again for sharing.

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I feel a bit the way you do, Lyndash. I've been to Dachau and it was so hard.

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Thank you! I am so enjoying your mini-trips! I also agree with Lane, you are a wonderful writer and I hope that your eventual career will have a component of writing to it. Well, writing interesting stuff, not technical stuff, hahaha!

I honestly laughed out loud at your paper cut incident. I am sure it was horrifying and embarrassing at the time but your recounting of it was pretty funny. Also, glad you took the opportunity to do some touring with others - they probably enjoyed practicing their English with you.

Looking forward to your next installment!

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Hey there Solo! As always a very detailed description of your journey, and fascinating to read about your interactions with people and your explorations. What was the postcard of? Did you send it on its way with droplets of blood or buy a new one? Kidding aside, I am like you in that a difficult social situation or awkward interaction can put me off track for days as I replay what I what should have done or said, but it sounds as though you ended up making very good connections with other travelers on this trip. And I have to say you gave the most detailed description of the ruins and buildings at Auschwitz I have ever read--I never really knew what exactly one sees physically when one goes there. And of course the feeling of tragedy and horror that hangs over it. Looking forward to your next trips--you are just in Europe until January, right? Took just an "ancestry day trip" to Belgium from Paris in 2004 to visit the town where the Belgian branch of my family is from--Tournai--but that's all I've seen.

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Ohhh I've been looking forward to this one! (And it of course doesn't disappoint!)

Poland had never really been on my radar until about a year or so ago, and I love living vicariously until it's my time to go. Your photos and stories (a bleeding hand! an excited inner child!) are fantastic, as always.

I always so thoroughly enjoy reading about your trips; I admit, I'm genuinely sad it will come to an end after your study abroad wraps up.

I eagerly await your Belgium: Three Cities in Three Days report! In the meantime, The Baltics! Another one on my personal travel bucket list :)

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Thanks for another great trip report and pictures. I’m just starting to think about Poland for a future trip.

I can’t wait to hear what you thought of Belgium.

Like others, I’m going to miss these trip report when you’ve finished your program. What a great experience you’ve had!

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@TexasTravelmom - Thank you, and yes, there have been both benefits and downsides to having looser travel plans. Greater flexibility and opportunity to stray from the path and discover pleasant surprises is always nice, but sometimes, not planning ahead means that I'd miss out on fully-booked attractions, like Schindler's Factory in the case of Krakow.

@Barbara - Thanks, and I'm glad you're really advocating for Poland because I had a wonderful time there. While Krakow was all that I had time for. both the cities you listed (and Wroclaw, which someone had also recommended) sound wonderful, and it's just unfortunate that my time in Europe is so brief.

@BethFL - Thank you, and yes, if you can make it, I really would recommend Poland.

@Lane - You really flatter me! I'm sure you have a great writing style too. And even if you feel like your writing style is dull or whatnot, just the act of travel blogging, or really any type of writing, will help you gain more confidence in your own voice.

@Mary - Thanks, and yes, Krakow really exceeded expectations (minus the goofy fire-breathing dragon). If you do choose to go, hope your trip goes well!

@Lyndash - Thank you, too, for commenting on these posts (which really helps keep me motivated to write these reports). While I've only briefly heard about Dachau (from the tour guide at Auschwitz), I can definitely understand your hesitation in visiting since the scale of Auschwitz is just much larger than Dachau, in terms of lives lost.

@Pam - Thanks! Happy you're enjoying them. Probably won't have too much "fun" writing in my eventual career, but I've always got the fictional novel I'm working on to let out some more creative writing. Yeah, I wrote this report quite a bit in hindsight, so it's easier to find the humor in the situation, even if it was less than funny in the moment!

@Pete - Thank you, and I'm glad you found my recounting of Auschwitz compelling. I wrote that section first, while my memory was freshest, because I felt like it was the most important section to tackle. As for the postcard, which was made of pretty normal material, though the edge was weirdly sharp (perhaps newly printed), surprisingly no blood on it. I think I must've cut my finger just before grabbing the chimney cake, at least that's the working theory for now, so it remained unstained by blood. And yep, I'm going to be there until early Jan, though I end my solo journey just before Christmas when I meet up with my family.

@Hannah - Glad this lived up to your expectations! It seems like for many, including myself once, Poland was a bit overlooked, but I'm glad that there's renewed interest in heading there. And yes, it's just crazy how fast this semester abroad has passed by and how soon my adventure in Europe will end.

@Carrie - Thanks, and, maybe minor spoilers, but I really did have a wonderful whirlwind trip through Belgium. Reminded me a lot of my travels in Andalucia, the first European region I had explored solo and still my favorite.