One of the things that lessened the stress while we were preparing for the big move was knowing that Erin’s family would be spending the holidays with us. Still, being away from so many family and friends was not a great feeling. So, to ensure we maintained appropriate levels of holiday cheer, we all decided to spend a few days in a festive destination before spending Christmas in Paris. Krakow, Poland, was the big winner.
While I read some information online about Krakow’s bustling Christmas market and warm, inviting atmosphere, I expected the opposite. This was my first time in Eastern Europe, and I was anticipating drab Soviet architecture, surly dispositions and bitter cold. Within an hour I knew my fears were misplaced.
Krakow is Poland’s hub of artistic and academic life. We found a young, welcoming population eager to share their city’s history, spirit and (delicious) food with us.
After checking in at our lovely apartment, we headed to the nearby Rynek Główny, the city’s old square, which was hosting the Christmas Market. The sensory overload was immediate. Mulled wine, smoking and grilling meats, sour cabbage, (loud as hell) carolers singing old-school Polish songs, and colorful arts and crafts were everywhere. It put the Minneapolis Holidazzle Market (or whatever it’s called) to shame.
This being my first time traveling across Europe, I commented to Erin recently about how the churches and castles are getting less exciting. St. Mary’s Basilica, while fairly unassuming (as far as large churches go) on the outside, was by far the most beautiful church interior I have seen. Unfortunately, we could not take pictures inside. Just as well, since my cell phone wouldn’t have done the place justice.
As a young, well-educated city, many people speak English very well, which was a pleasant surprise and made it much easier to get around. We took a tour of the city with a knowledgeable tour guide, who pointed out all of the highlights, while we stayed kind-of warm from the back of our covered golf cart.
Poland also has a history of being repeatedly shit on by neighboring countries for nearly all of its history (which spans more than 1,000 years). While it is a beautiful city, it is hard to escape what went on here under Nazi and then Soviet occupation. One trip to the Christmas Market coincided with a large anti-government protest happening on the other side of the square. The country is again at a crossroads, and it was nice to talk to young people about what type of future they want for their country. Their optimism was inspiring.
Our trip also included a visit to Auschwitz, which is about a 90-minute drive from Krakow. We were shown through the original concentration camp and the Birkenau death camp by a passionate, knowledgeable guide eager to ensure we do not forget what happened and that these were real individuals who suffered.
I guess there’s not much else to really say about it that hasn’t already been said, except that I was moved more than I thought I would be. Just don’t pose for pictures while there. It makes you look like a COLOSSAL asshole. The pictures are mostly kept to exteriors. The rooms housing the countless amounts of personal effects, shoes, suitcases, etc… were too heartbreaking to photograph. I will not forget them.
On a lighter note, we ate and drank very well. Krakow (and I’m assuming Poland as a whole) is a very cheap country for holders of euros and dollars. Like Spain, we never ate for more than $20 a person, and most meals and drinks were under $10.
The big staples are stewed cabbage and sauerkraut, various cuts of pork, pierogi and pączki (donuts). All washed down with plenty of average Polish beer (the same as any other European lager) and delicious vodka. It was all perfect for the winter weather.
It’s likely that we will not return to Poland during this year, and that’s ok. If you have a few days to spend in a city, I highly recommend, though. You can stretch your money really far, and they are some of the warmest people we’ve met yet.