On Thursday, Richie and I departed for Krakow, Poland, on this guy:
Yep, that’s right, the girl who sneers at Greyhound boarded a bus to Poland. When planning the trip, we evaluated the traditional transport options – plane, train, rental car. Planes were affordable, but the super-cheap airlines that emerged after Malev’s collapse only fly the Budapest-Krakow route on certain days, and it didn’t align well with our travel plans. The only trains that travel that route are overnight trains, and while those can be a good option, I had a few concerns about it (mostly stemming from an awesome experience on my study abroad when a homeless man sealed himself in our reserved compartment. the smell. oh, my, the smell. I spent that night sitting on a tiny fold-out chair in the train’s hallway so that I could stop gagging….) Renting a car seemed like an okay plan, but we weren’t completely sold on it. That’s when one of Richie’s coworkers mentioned Orangeways to us. He’s taken the bus several times and said that you really can’t beat the price – and that it’s not a bad way to travel. We checked it out and found out that the departure and arrival times worked out really well with our plans. Even better, the price was only 4,280 HUF for our Thursday trip and 6,100 for our Sunday return. At current conversion rates, that’s about $17 and $25, respectively. Trains would have cost about $100, and flights about $350, so we couldn’t pass up those savings!
We loaded up bright and early Thursday morning and headed to Krakow. I was pleasantly surprised that the bus was comfortable and clean, and they even offered coffees and snacks to the travelers. There were a few things that made the trip a little odd – like the fact that the toilet on the bus wasn’t really a proper toilet, so the trip coordinator announced at the beginning of the ride that the toilet was “only for emergency number 1.” For those passengers who somehow missed that day in kindergarten, a helpful video was then shown, explaining that number 1 is “only liquid”. For a 6.5 hour bus ride – that then turned into about 7.5 with a delay at the Polish border crossing – I think that is awfully optimistic of the company to think that people will only use it for emergencies!
We arrived in Krakow at about 2:15 pm and walked the 2 or so kilometers to our hotel, which was located pretty close to Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow. We grabbed lunch in Kazimierz at Trezo, a cute little restaurant and bar with really delicious (and affordable) food. This is when we first learned how cheap Krakow, and Poland in general, really is. I had a huge plate of pasta with spinach and chanterelles for 16 Polish zlotys, which is less than $4.50. Crazy, right?
We spent the rest of the day investigating the Jewish quarter. My favorite spot was the new Jewish cemetery, with what appeared to be thousands of tombs, all jumbled together. There was a memorial to the Polish Jews who died during the Holocaust as well. As we walked around, I wondered why so many of the stones were scattered haphazardly and many were broken. I did a little research online and found that the graveyard was essentially ransacked by the Nazis during the war, with the stone markers removed and used for paving or other building materials of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp. After the war, an effort was made by survivors to gather the remnants and return them to the cemetery.
The weather on Friday was rainy and cold, so we arranged a tour to the salt mines in Wieliczka Friday afternoon. The mines date back to the 13th century, and actually continued to produce salt until the mid-1990s, when mining work was stopped. There is a special group of miners that still do some mining work to maintain the mine today by removing water and such, but they no longer excavate salt from them.
The mines were immense and really cool to look at. In many of the chambers, artwork was created from the salt, and the mines include several underground chapels that still hold services and host weddings.
This is definitely not a sight for the claustrophobic, though – at the end of the tour, when you are 150+ meters underground, there is a lift that returns you to the main level, and if you were loading people in it yourself, you’d probably only stick 4 people in at a time. They squeeze 9 people in each level of the elevator (there are 4). The ride only lasts about 45 seconds, but we could hear some panicked person squealing below us the entire time.
Friday night was a night full of friends and fun. We randomly learned via Facebook that friends of ours were also in Krakow (this involved me looking at a photo that Kristi had posted and saying “That market hall looks really familiar… wait, were we just there?” to Richie), and we also knew one of our friends from Budapest was working in Krakow on a project. So we were able to meet up with Kristi and Blake for drinks, and with Ági for dinner. It was so wonderful to be able to catch up with friends from both of our homes (the US and Hungary). Kristi and Blake will be passing through Budapest soon, and hopefully I’ll get to play a little bit of a tour guide!
On Saturday morning, we visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) in the Polish city of Oswiecim. We had heard that you were required to have a tour guide for Auschwitz I during the main tourist season, and that you can simply join a group on arrival, but a friend in Budapest had just returned from Krakow the weekend before and recommended the tour company she used. That was the best advice we’ve taken on a trip thus far, because the scene when we entered was chaos. Our van driver efficiently navigated us through the zoo and plopped headsets on us, then handed us over to our local guide.
I really can’t say enough good things about our guide. She was passionate about the camps, eloquent, and graphic enough to give us a good understanding of the horrors that happened there, but not so graphic that we couldn’t handle the information she was giving us. One of the things that I never truly understood before was the horror of their living conditions. I knew that it was bad – you can’t escape the knowledge that it was awful – but seeing photos somewhat distances you from it. It was really striking to be standing in one of the rooms where the victims had stood, with a group of only about 18 or so, and to be told that several hundred people were forced in this little area. To know that a bed that would only fit one person my size was expected to fit three or four. To know that this was possible because they weighed about 1/3 less than I do due to malnutrition. To look at the far-away smokestacks of the chemical company they were forced to work for and know that they had to walk there everyday, in barely adequate clothing, in temperatures that were chilly even in June, when I was cold and uncomfortable even wearing a jacket and good walking shoes. And the second camp, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was massive. It blew my mind how big it was. Over 150 barracks, wooden and brick, with four crematoriums and train tracks that went right through the camp for “efficiency” in bringing the victims to camp. It makes me sick even just typing that. If I keep writing about it, I’ll write pages and pages. So, if you want to know about it, ask me and I can tell you more personally.
We wrapped up our trip with another dinner out with our friend Ági, some shopping in the market and the main square in Krakow, and a trip to Wawel Castle. We didn’t go inside the castle or cathedral due to time constraints, but just the exterior was really beautiful and interesting to look at.
Our trip home on Sunday was mainly uneventful, although our bus driver did manage to get lost 3 times despite traveling the route on a daily basis. I’m pretty sure the entire bus was ready to revolt on turnaround number 3. They then dropped us off at a bus station so that we could use the restroom, but the restrooms were all locked – so we had to run, in a downpour, down the street to a gas station that was overwhelmed by 20 or so angry, dripping wet people needing to use their one toilet. All things considered, we certainly got our money’s worth, but next time, I think I’ll be taking the night train.
I’ve uploaded all of the photos I took this weekend here – there are some from Krakow itself, the salt mines, Auschwitz, etc. The pictures from Auschwitz aren’t graphic, so don’t be afraid to click.
For anyone planning a visit to Krakow, here are some of the things we did:
– Hotel – Queen Boutique Hotel, arranged via Expedia with a 20% discount. A really modern hotel with a pretty good location, although it was a little further from the main market square than maybe some people would have liked. It was about a 10 minute walk, which was fine with us.
– Tour to the salt mines – arranged via Point Travel by our hotel.
– Tour to Auschwitz – arranged directly with Escape 2 Poland.
– Bus from Budapest to Krakow – Orangeways – in addition to the Budapest to Krakow route, they have routes from Budapest to Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, and Belgrade.