POLSKI BEER TASTING ON A BUDGET
Our comfortable Polski Bus took just over 8 hours to get us to Krakow (pronounced Crackov) from our previous visit in Prague.
We were booked in at the excellent value for money, Premium Hostel and scored a room right by the kitchen, which made it feel like it was our own private facility. With only a few weeks left on our epic 5 month jaunt through Europe, we were really starting to feel the pinch of having no income. We therefore settled for a belly filling, wallet pleasing jacket potato with baked beans for dinner, cooked in our private communal kitchen. We padded it out with what I can only describe as “Deli Meat Roulette” – a see through plastic variety box of what was clearly the discarded miss cuts from the cured meat counter in the supermarket. It was actually pretty good, and most importantly, cheap!
Premium Hostel in Krakow
We do of course like to ensure we try the local beers in each country, so the compulsory “Cheap Local Beer Tasting” was dutifully undertaken to wash down our student dinner. There is always room in the budget for beer tasting 🙂
Budget Beer Tasting in Krakow
Knowing what lay ahead in our itinerary over the next few days, and, in keeping with our tradition to get Hollywood’s view of the history of the places we visit, we watched the emotional, “Schindler’s List” before going to bed.
The next morning we headed out for the real Schindler’s Factory after a nostalgic bowl of inappropriately named “Cheerios” – Inappropriate considering the museum we were about to go and visit.
The walk took a little under an hour but we cut into Krakow’s Old Town and admired how the classic Eastern European architecture of the Old Town was nicely surrounded by a string of leafy parks at the outer edges.
Schindler’s factory is now a museum dedicated to the history of occupied Poland and the unthinkable horrors they endured at the hands of the Nazis throughout the 1940s. We were able to walk through Oskar Schindler’s old office/ apartment where they’d set up a display of the various pots, pans and ceramics made by the thousands of Jews he both employed and saved from being deported to nearby concentration camps.
Kate and I silenced by it all, walked around barely whispering a word as we took in fact after fact about the atrocities that the Polish and Jewish communities went through during that period. Our sombre approach to the museum wasn’t however adopted by everyone. Due to the pace you naturally walk around Schindler’s Factory, we got sandwiched between two groups of irritating and quite frankly, pig ignorant arseholes. I think I probably observed them in silent disgust as much as I observed the exhibits on display. Watching them stomp around, crassly take photos of absolutely everything without a moment’s thought, pause, or reflection of what they were actually photographing. They may as well have been taking pictures of their friends the way they were carrying on. And what would they do with all those photos? Sit down at home and re-read all the information again? Look through pictures of a persecuted nation being systematically starved to death? Print them all out and create their own version of the bloody museum in their living room?! I really do despair sometimes at the state of the general public in this day and age.
Over the 2 hours that we were there, I took just one photo – a quote by the German Chief of Administration, Hans Frank, that really registered the extent of the crimes being committed by the Nazis.
THAT’S YOUR PIEROGI-ATIVE!
Feeling suitably hollow after Schindler’s Factory, both emotionally and because the poorly named Cheerios had worn off, we decided to find some traditional Polish cuisine to celebrate the Polish way of life.
And what could be more Polish than good ol’ Pierogi?!
For those not in the know (and I wasn’t until this trip), Pierogi is a Polish dumpling that can be filled with either sweet or savoury fillings and is served up with a selection of sauces. We found the most quintessential Polish café (Pierogarnia Krakowiacy) that we could and got stuck in to ordering, trying to decide which of the numerous filling options to choose from. Kate ingeniously said, “Pick what you want, that’s your pierogi-ative!” (as in prerogative, get it!?! 🙂
We settled on a selection of meat and cheese with a side of garlic sauce. Delicious! And bloody filling!
Kate and her Pierogi
WIELICZKA SALT MINE
What is Poland famous for other than pierogi and a horrible history? Salt apparently! I had no idea, but within a 20 minute train ride from the centre of Krakow we were outside the entrance to over 300 Kms worth a mineable salt.
We started our descent by a never ending column of stairs that took us 64 metres underground where we were met by a network of tunnels, reinforced by tree trunk pillars, and a selection of salt sculptures that stand the test of time due to the stable temperature conditions in the mines.
We were lead down further into the mines, as far as 130 metres deep, learning all sorts of facts about methane explosions, how they excavated the salt using ropes, pulleys, horses and tracks and how precious it was as a commodity. The fun fact we’d learnt in Florence was told again about how people were paid their wages in salt, hence the origin on the word “Sal-ary”, and we were led past more curious salt sculptures, including a set of dwarfs – often associated with mining.
The Wieliczka Salt mine even has a functioning church carved deep within it where everything, including artwork such as “The Last Supper”, is chiseled out of the salty walls! You can get married down there too!
Please pass the salt at “The Last Supper”!
LUCKILY LOST IN KRAKOW
On our return trip from the Wieliczka Salt Mine, we decided we’d jump off at the stop prior to the main station as logically it should have left us further south of the centre and closer to the Wawel Castle we had intended on seeing.
We were so confident of the plan that we got off the train without first checking our trusty map and suddenly found ourselves bloody miles away from where we thought we’d be. Ironic really, when we had got off early in hopes of a short cut!
But luckily we did get momentarily lost as the walk unearthed the corners of Krakow that we would otherwise not have seen!
As the sun set, we crossed the river using the Bernatek bridge, and smiled at the acrobatic figures that had been built into the cables.
The bridge flowed down to “Heroes Square” – a plaza sized commemoration of the Polish youth resistance movement during the war.
Thirsty from being buried in dehydrating salt all day we stopped in at craft beer micro brewery called Ursa Maior that we walked past by chance.
At first we tried their selection of 6 beers, complete with a print out of tasting notes. Then we went back for a second round, but had them mix up the glasses to see if we could pick them out ourselves against their distinguishing flavours.
Beer tasting board at Ursa Maior in Krakow
With the taste of booze on our lips, we felt compelled to sample Poland’s favourite spirit – Vodka – and after weaving through the market square we entered Pijalnia Wodki, apparently a favourite amongst students and budget conscious drinkers.
Pijalnia Wodki had an extensive menu of different flavoured vodka based concoctions, all served in a shot glass. Raspberry, blueberry, chocolate, you name it, they had it. They also had some interesting bar snacks that we felt compelled to try, such as pickled herring with sauerkraut, which was surprisingly tasty, and pork in jelly, which both looked and tasted like cat food.
Cat food with a side of vodka anyone?
I naively overlooked the fact that the shot glasses all contained full strength vodka, despite them being dressed up in a selection of fruit based colours, which to me, indicated they were somewhat diluted. Certainly not the case…
A pyramid of shot glasses each later plus a few beers and I was loving life – talking loudly, slurring my words and questioning why they would serve cat food in vodka bar. Time for bed!
No trip to Krakow would be complete without taking the time to pay your respects at Auschwitz.
We took a local bus 2 hours, through the town of Oswiecim, to right outside the museum and queued up for our pre booked allotted time slot.
We entered the camp via the infamous black gate that has “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work is Liberating) twisted into the metal. The “museum” is in fact the old camp buildings converted into a selection of exhibitions and displays, with each building being dedicated to a different chapter in the nightmare that was Auschwitz.
“Work is Liberating”
Original barbed wire electrical fence
A chilling memorial
We respectfully made our way through each exhibition, avoiding where possible, the inevitable hordes of tour groups who blocked doorways left, right and centre. I read as much of the information as I could, much of which I’d already read about or learnt about at school, and shook my head in disbelief that this actually happened. It sounds awful, but due to me having prior knowledge of the events of the holocaust and having had already emotionally processed a lot of the harrowing facts and figures numerous times before, the experience didn’t register with me like I thought it might have. That was until we walked into the camp for woman, and I was chilled to my bone.
There was a wall of human hair, a metre deep, over a metre high that spanned the entire length of the long building encased by a glass wall. I had no idea that the prisoners were shaved so that their hair could be used in the textile industry to make clothes and carpet for Nazi Germany. I mean you’ve got to be one sick f**k to not only try and eradicate an entire nation, but to also try and profit from the “waste products”? What mind thinks like that?
The next exhibition in the following building continued to play on the heart strings. Cabinet upon cabinet of personal effects stolen by the Nazis from the doomed prisoners were piled up behind the glass. A wall of labelled suitcases that would never see their owners again and an avalanche of pots and pans that would never be cooked in.
Some people took pictures but I kept my camera firmly in my pocket. These aren’t images you show your mate on your phone. For me each suitcase, pot, pan or crumbled glasses frame was a gravestone, a memory for that person. You wouldn’t walk into a cemetery and start taking pictures of the marble headstones, so why would you do it here?
Although shell shocked by what we’d seen, we took the shuttle bus over to nearby Birkenau which was historically the site of the gas chambers, most of which were pulled down by the panicking Nazis as the war drew to a close to try and cover up their crimes.
An eerie fog smudged the sunset just as we got there and shrouded the baron camp with a real feeling of uneasiness. The train tracks were still intact and I got increasingly angry with people who stopped to pose for photos on them. This isn’t a bloody theme park people! Have some decorum. It is fine to take a respectful photo, but not one with your big smiles and thumbs up. Morons.
Seeing the fences and the watch towers that are still intact and just the sheer size of the landmass it takes up really hit home with just how truly terrible it all was.
I often think about the reasons why I travel and I’ve concluded it is to allow me to get some “Life Perspective” – a reference point from which you can gauge your own life, your own perceived problems and take stock. You feel pretty shallow moaning about your day to day quibbles when you know that other people have had to face such horror.
With need for a new location to lift our spirits, we headed for Zakopane.