It was a very early start (especially for the airplane party attendees who had partied until the wee hours of the morning) and quite a cold one. The day before, we had all grumbled about the chilly weather and the morning of our departure from Olomouc dawned not only freezing but rainy as well. The weather suited the tone of our next stop, as we were heading into Poland and spending most of the day at the Nazi concentration and death camps at Auschwitz before heading into Krakow in the late afternoon.
Auschwitz was one of the stops I had been most interested to visit on the trip. Most of the Second World War is so far removed from American daily life and understanding and the academic, textbook version of the war do little to bring it to life. In England, there seems to be much more cultural understanding of the damage that war caused and I imagined that understanding and the lingering scars would be even greater in the places where the war truly tore countries apart. The War itself aside, the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Jewish and political enemies could never be truly realized in textbook coverage and I think it’s important for people to see and remember what occurred at places like Auschwitz. Clearly the local Polish people felt the same way – I was surprised to hear that Auschwitz opened as a monument and museum, complete with guided tours and reminders of what daily life had been like for those interned there, less than two years after Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets. It was important to them that the scars stay fresh as a constant reminder of the terrors that occurred there.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of the place, even the small restaurant across the street where we grabbed some lunch before heading into the grounds of the camp had a subdued and eerie feel, which intensified greatly as we walked under the infamous iron gateway bearing the words, in German, “Work makes you free.” Our local tour guide gave an understated and non-dramatic commentary to accompany our walk through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau that outlined the grim and in most cases fatal routine that awaited those brought to the camps.
I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to see Auschwitz, although I don’t blame those on our tour who, having been before, opted not to visit again. The place is heavy, ghostly and a stark reminder of the absolute worst of human history. The War would be a reoccurring theme during our stay in Poland as the country had been one of the worst affected but nowhere was that affect more true than at Auschwitz.
The mood was somber as we climbed back on the bus and reminders of our tour of Auschwitz would stay with us for the rest of the trip but it didn’t take too long, and too many descriptions of the dinner options that awaited us in the Polish town of Krakow, to cheer everyone up and by late afternoon we had arrived in a cold and raining Krakow hostel to unpack our bags and head into town.
If I had thought that Olomouc was an attractive little town, Krakow put it to shame. Despite the rain and the cold, I walked into the town square that first evening and found myself, to my great surprise, thinking “I could live here!” (Don’t worry, I’m not about to pack up and move to Poland any time soon!) The town square was gorgeous, surrounding a covered market and museum and lined by little shops and cafes. The church on the square commanded the most attention, soaring high above the rest of the town with its unique towers, both of which were incredibly different from each other – one being a belltower and one a medieval watchtower.
There wasn’t much time to admire the view as we were cold, wet and in need of food. Stories of perogi (flour dumplings filled with meat, cheese, stewed cabbage or fruit), roasted pork knuckle tender enough to fall off the bone and rich local soups had tided us over through the long bus ride and now we were ready to dive in.
At a local restaurant, I tried the perogi which did wonders for filling, and warming, me up. After dinner, we braved the rain once more to head out to a local nightclub where the music was terrible, the people were friendly and the vodka came in a range of delicious flavours (the apple vodka and honey vodka were declared the winners, the cherry vodka a bit to medicinal and the buckwheat vodka more like rubbing alcohol than a beverage).
The next morning, despite the rain, about half the group headed into town for a bike tour of Krakow which would take us around the old city, where we were staying and had eaten the night before; over to the Jewish quarter; and finally to the old Jewish ghetto, a tiny area of land where Jews had been forced to live during Nazi occupation of Krakow. The mix of architecture, history, religion and learning from the middle ages, renaissance, industrial age and modern age all mixed together on our tour and through the town, and the rain even let up a bit to allow us to enjoy the bike ride which took us along the river. One of the highlights of the tour was the visit to Schindler’s Factory, a bright point in the terrible stories of atrocities committed against the Jewish people during the Second World War.
After our bike tour, a group of us stopped for lunch where I tried the baked cheese, a local sheeps cheese baked until soft, warm and gooey, and served with cranberries and cowberries; and the Zur Starpolski, a very rich rye flour soup with a creamy base and loaded with smoked bacon, sausage and boiled egg. It was warm-up food for the afternoon which I would spend wandering the streets of Krakow, enjoying the sights and window shopping through both the souvenirs, clothing, jewelry and occasional full sheepskin. I also made my way up to the stunning Krakow palace.
Everyone was tired and ready for a quiet night after our late night before and long day of touring the city so a small group of us went out for dinner where I managed to find the food highlight of my trip. Feeling adventurous, I ordered the roast pork knuckle. Unsure of what to expect, I waited eagerly while our waiter brought us the bread which was served with, instead of butter, a pot of spreadable lard. Moments later, a medieval feast was placed before me – a half kilo of meat, served in a wooden platter with a giant, sword-like knife, and massive wooden fork sticking out of the top. Not only did the meal look like something off a table from the 1300s but it was absolutely delicious, the pork roasted to perfection, covered in a sweet prune glaze, served with cranberries and horseradish sauce. I tried my best but couldn’t come close to finishing – or eating dessert despite our enthusiastic waiter plying us with samples of the apple cake and local bitter cheesecake. It was a meal to remember in a town to remember.
Full and very happy, our group managed to make it back to the hostel before an early night. The next morning we’d be driving to the Polish ski resort town of Zacopane where, we were promised, lay stunning alpine vistas, fresh air and, ominously, The Meat Palace.