Krakow, Poland & Auschwitz — [Sat 6/27 – Mon 6/29]

Once we bought our tickets to Prague, I knew the next city we were going to go to would be Krakow, Poland. When at NYU I had always had this idea of going to Warsaw to see the beautiful castles and old streets. A friend of mine had said, skip Warsaw, go to Krakow instead. It’s smaller, less crowded, and more beautiful. I was hooked and for many years then had wanted to go to Krakow instead. What we didn’t know until we had read about it in our Lonely Planet guide book to Europe was that a 1 1/2 hour bus ride away was Auschwitz. WE HAD TO GO. For days we talked to the kids about it; the history, what happened, what’s there now, what it all means. For days we went back and forth on whether to take the kids with us or not. The website recommends to children under 14 should attend due to the disturbing nature of much of the museum. However we had read many posts online indicating a small number of children do attend and it’s possible to walk around the grounds without the children seeing anything you don’t feel comfortable with. In the end we decided to take them. We wanted to go as a family. We’re glad we did. More on Auschwitz later.

DAY 1

After (finally) checking into our Youth Hostel in mid-morning, we walked back to the Main Square in Krakow to look around and find some lunch. I love Krakow’s Main Square. It is large, not too crowded, and filled with gorgous buildings. Tuyet was still a bit “homesick” for Prague. 🙂  Perhaps it isn’t fair going to Krakow right after Prague. Prague is big bold and beautiful. Krakow is small quiet and beautiful, perhaps Prague’s little sister. Before arriving in Krakow I had found a site listing things to do with kids. The weather wasn’t great and I needed to go back to the train/bus station to research tickets to Auschwitz. Tuyet decided on checking out an English bookstore/cafe near the square listed on the site while I headed to the station. Massolit Books & Cafe (address: Felicjanek 4) was a great little find. All English books and a cafe in 3 rooms, then off to the side of the cashier was a door leading across the entry to apartments to another 5 rooms of books including a kids room with toys. We hung out there for a bit after I got back, then headed to the Wawel castle and cathedral. Wawel castle sits atop a small mound overlooking the river. We had read there are numerous buildings to explore but you need a ticket for each one; something we’re not fond of dealing with. Having arrived at 4pm (all buildings close at 5pm), the ticket offices were closed making our decision on what to see somewhat easier. 🙂 We hiked up to the grounds a discovered that entrance to the main cathedral was free anyway. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures inside the cathedral, so the best I can do is describe it. The cathedral isn’t particularly large, but it is packed with 15’ x 20’ tapestries, sarcophagi, prayer nooks and rooms, and tons of ornate statues and furniture. I found it to be rather beautiful, and again, just jammed packed with ornateness.

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We walked around the grounds a bit more hoping to find the “Dragons Lair” and really hoped we could get in. The entrance to the dragons lair overlooks the river. Fortunately there was a ticket machine right there. We followed a tight spiral concrete staircase down through the grounds of the castle. It seemed like the equivalent of 5 floors down to under the grounds then through some caves (the lair??) and out onto the promenade by the river where we were greeted by a fire breathing dragon! A great hit for the kids.

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DAY 2

During our trip we have seen some jaw dropping sights that mere words and pictures don’t do justice to; the Wats of Angkor in Cambodia, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Auschwitz is one of those sites, unfortunately at the other end of the emotional spectrum.

There are two ways you can tour Auschwitz; DIY or a tour that picks you up in Krakow and returns you. In this case we opted for the DIY route. The previous day I had gone to the bus station to get our options. We knew we needed to get there before 10am. If you arrive between 10am and 3pm, you must sign up for a 3 1/2 hour tour that would cost quite a bit for all 5 of us. If you arrive outside of those hours, you are free to walk around at your own pace for free. The first bus was at 6:05am. Too early. The next bus was at 8:05am. Being we were going on a weekend, I was advised to purchase tickets right away to insure we had seats on the 8:05 bus getting us there by around 9:30am. Tuyet also discovered online that we should sign up for an entry ticket. We got 5 spots for 9:45am. They limit the amount of people they let into the museum grounds which makes sense. Our plan was to get out of the Hostel by 7am, catch a 7 minute bus to the main bus station giving us enough time to shop at the grocery store there for breakfast and additional snacks. Of course things don’t always go as planned. We got out around 7:20 and waited ‘till 7:49 for the bus! We ran through the mall and train station to the main bus station getting on our bus with 5 minutes to spare. Fortunately we still had some snacks with us (turns out we had just enough for the day).

The grounds of Auschwitz is a concentration of barracks arranged in two rows. Each barrack has been turned into its own mini museum depicting life leading up to, during, and after the holocaust with each barrack focusing on one particular aspect. There are of course other buildings around the grounds, and I’ll get to one in particular a bit later. Right inside the entrance gate was a book store. We decided to purchase a map and a postcard booklet. The map was useful as it offered a suggested route (turns out to be the same route everyone takes including the tours) indicating what is being shown inside each barrack. This was very useful for us so we could decide which ones we wanted to go into. Typically Tuyet would go in first to screen it, then either I would go in alone, or take Kim and Tia with me if deemed appropriate.

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I read one of the plaques to Kim and Tia inside one of the barracks quoting a survivor of her experience entering the camps as a girl and what she remembered having to do; strip, shower, get a number, receive old cold prison clothes, shave head. That same barrack had a display of the engraving needles in the form of numbers 0 thru 9. I tried to explain to Kim and Tia what that was, what it was used for, and why. I read more plaques that helped explain. One of the other barracks we took all the kids into was showing all the items found after the liberation of the camps. This particular display was the most intriguing for me and I took several pictures of all the shoes, hair brushes, suitcases, etc.

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Rather appropriately, the weather was overcast. A little under half way through our walking tour, it began to sprinkle, then rain a bit harder. We elected not to go into any of the barracks in the second row. They were mostly foreign commissioned art installations. Not that we wouldn’t have liked to go into some of them, but with the kids and the rain we needed to get moving. And there was one more building Tuyet and I really wanted to… needed to… see. We walked down the row of barracks to the end, crossed the tracks and over to the building that served as the initial gas chamber and crematorium. Tuyet went in first, then I. I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures inside, but I did get a shot outside. It was very emotional to go through that building and I was shocked at how small it actually was.

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We believe Kim and Tia did get something out of the visit. We talked about it over lunch across the street and again at dinner in Krakow. In the end we’re happy we all went together. We could definitely go back; we missed several barracks and didn’t get the chance to go to Auschwitz II otherwise known as Birkenau.

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DAY 3

After packing up and checking out of the Hostel, we headed to the train station to store our luggage for the day then walked back to the central square to take a Krakow Free Walking Tour (we love free walking tours!!). The tour started in front of St. Mary’s Church and Basilica, went around the square, and around the old town to one of the original city gates. Back to the main square there were many more buildings and statues to explore with the guide.

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Next stop was the oldest university in Poland then along to the Wawel castle and cathedral stopping at other sites along the way including where Pope John Paul II stayed when in Krakow. The tour was very informative and the guide was actually Polish (we believe).

After the tour we headed into the Kazimierz district of Krakow, the old Jewish Quarter and found a great Hummus bar for lunch. After lunch we found a great little market square and bought delicious raspberries for dessert.

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We spent the rest of the day walking back to and around the main square again stopping for a good Polish dinner in the square then off to the train station.

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Next up we are off to the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia and the town of Poprad. See you there!

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