The Amateur Traveler talks to Raul from Atlanta about his recent trip to Krakow Poland. Learn about this former capital of Poland which is a treasure trove of history.
Raul will take us to the cloth hall in the old town, Kazimierz and the Wawel Castle. We will also talk about his trips to the unusual Wieliczka salt mine with its rock salt carvings.
A very poignant side trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau makes us confront the unspeakable evil done in those two places.
Raul also traveled to Wadowice, the boyhood home of the man who would later be Pope John Paul II, and Black Madonna, the home of the Black Madonna.
In between, we talk about Polish food (lard for your bread sir?), museums, transportation, and history.
Poland History (Poland has disappeared from the map multiple times)
Pope John Paul II – only Polish Pope
Kazimierz – Jewish quarter
National Museum, Krakow
Bishop’s Palace and Museum, Krakow
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Auschwitz concentration camp
Black Madonna of Cz?stochowa
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Chris was interviewed in Chris Christensen On Travel Photography on the Typical Shutterbug podcast
Chris was interviewed in Oaxaca in the time of swine flu on the Indie Travel podcast
Show notes are useful
Today the Amateur Traveler goes to the home of kings, popes, and atrocities as we visit Krakow in Poland.
Chris: I’d like to welcome Raul from Atlanta to the show who’s come to talk to us about Krakow, Poland. Raul, welcome to the show.
Raul: Thanks, Chris.
Chris: Now, first of all, Krakow is a popular destination but not necessarily with people from the US quite as much. What led you to Krakow?
Raul: My friend and I were looking for some off-the-beaten-path kind of trip but because we were constrained to a week, we had to keep it somewhere accessible. In thinking about Europe, there were definitely other choices like Ireland – places like that. But Poland was a little more exotic if you will. First, actually, because that’s not a typical destination at least for the people that I talk to about travel normally. Poland, in general, but Krakow specifically, is a very historic place and that was a big draw for us as well.
Chris: We were talking briefly as we were setting this up that Krakow is one of those places on my list because I haven’t been to much of what we used to call Eastern Europe. I think Krakow is actually Central Europe again. But what should I see if I go to Krakow?
Raul: What should you see? Well, the town is obviously got history at every corner. It used to be the capital of Poland. I forget how many years. I think it may have been 600 years or so till the early 1600s, late 1500s. So there’s a lot of history and that part of Poland… well Poland in general, obviously, has been sliced up and divvied up throughout history and even disappeared from the map completely at some points.
Chris: Yeah, twice actually as I recall.
Raul: Southern Poland, in particular, has had a lot more contact with like the Austria/Habsburg Empire and things like that. So it kind of to me at the crossroads of a lot of things that happened in Europe over the centuries. There’s just a lot of history everywhere you go and even modern history. Pope John Paul II being from a nearby town and having been Cardinal in Krakow. Even in that sense of modern history, there’s a lot of things to see. So to me, first and foremost, the history itself. But the town, the architecture, the charm – it’s quite enjoyable. You don’t have to be a history buff to go and enjoy Krakow I don’t think.
Chris: Ok and then let’s get a little more specific. What did you do there and what did you see?
Raul: So in Krakow, in particular, we walked a lot. I’m a big walker and I think that’s the best way to get a good sense of the city or a town. You have to start with the most important sites Wawel. It’s actually spelled with W’s, but it’s pronounced Babel. It sits up top of a hill by the Vistula River and that’s the ancient home of the kings and queens of Poland. There’s a cathedral also that is part of the compound and that is a very historic site. You can spend probably more than one day if you really wanted to. They have different museums up in the hill: The Royal Chambers, the museum itself, the cathedral. I don’t know if you call it a museum but it’s got the tombs of all the kings and queens. So there’s a lot to do just in that one hill in particular and it’s pretty close to the center of Krakow itself. From an architecture stand point and have all sorts of churches from all sorts of periods in time. So Krakow itself, it also has just other museums outside of Wawel Hill itself throughout town and I didn’t get to cover most of those actually. It’s just too much to go see and take in because you also want to do the normal stuff like sitting in cafes or enjoy just chilling as well. And not just Krakow itself, there’s Kazimierz district, which technically is in Krakow, but it’s outside of the city center. It’s actually quite interesting too. It used to be the Jewish Quarter. I think it still may have some of that. But you’re definitely in a different place when you go to that district. It has a distinct feel to it. Then there’s obviously cafes there as well, restaurants, the cemetery and synagogues and things like that to see and it’s pretty much a walking distance from city center.
Chris: Ok. So as I start exploring the city, I start, I assume because we’re talking about a European town, in the main square?
Raul: Yeah, the main square. It’s actually quite unique in Europe I think from all the countries I’ve been to. It is, I think one of the largest, if not the largest, town Square/City Squares in Europe and it’s incredible. It is huge. In the middle of it there’s what used to be the Cloth Hall. I think it might still be called that. Where people used to go and sell their wares. Now there’s a lot of shops in there. A lot of the typical tourist souvenir stuff but there might be other things like jewelry and things like that. The square itself is where you probably want to start from because that is the anchor of the city and from there you branch off to all the different things you may want to see. And again a lot of it is walking distance so if you’re going to hit the main churches, I mean all the different architecture styles, you can quickly find your way around from that square. If you go south, then you hit Wawel Hill, which again is a pretty important site. And there are other secondary sites like the city being surrounded by a wall like many cities. You see the remnants of that north of the square so still within … I don’t know how many meters or yards, I’m not good at those. But of the city square itself you see the remnants of St. Florion’s Gate, is the name of the gate, and the Barbican is a rounded structure that used to be a fortification protecting the wall actually, outside of the wall of the city. So you can still get a sense of how the city may have been when you go to that part of town. Even Krakow itself again the list of museums is probably endless from Catholic Church museums to John Paul II museums to art museums to historical museums. There’s just a slew of them.
Chris: And you mentioned you didn’t get to all of them. Which ones did you get to?
Raul: I got to see, and some of them were just random, there’s a National Museum that was undergoing some renovations so basically a lot of the things were not available. But it just had items from different times and specifically related to John Paul II was a specific exhibit they had at the time, which was open. But then you could also go to Erasmus Museum down towards Wawel Castle. Again on the hill there’s a slew of them on the hill that were pretty interesting as well. I did not get to see the Czartoryski Museum, which is a family that used to be part of nobility for centuries in Poland. And their museum includes a collection of artifacts not just from Poland but from Egypt and other places around the world too. I guess they amassed through the centuries and that one was one I wish I had gone to see because I read about it in a couple of different places. Outside of the city there’s a few more things you need to hit but as far as Krakow center proper, that I would say is the general sites all anchored around that square.
Chris: Ok. As you were reading your guidebooks preparing for the trip, anything that they recommended that you didn’t think was worth the time?
Raul: Not really. I only had so many days in town. Actually, once you take out the travel days; we’re talking about five hard-core days to hit whatever I wanted to see. There was plenty that was pretty worthwhile. I prioritized first. So no I don’t think I had any misses when I tell you later about my day trips, I guess you’ll see why. I guess I didn’t get a good sense of how good the food was going to be. But that’s probably not as big a deal as far as planning the trip. Maybe the other thing that I had to do more of on my own was research on transportation. The guidebooks generally gave information on buses and routes but you never know if that’s still accurate or not. You still need to do you own checking before the trip to make sure you have the latest information on things like that.
Chris: And you say the food was a surprise. I can’t actually picture what Polish food would be like except for maybe Kielbasa or something like that.
Raul: I come from a Cuban family so we eat a lot of pork and they eat a lot of pork apparently or at least I saw it in many, many menus and many dishes. That to me was a very pleasant surprise because that’s one of my favorite foods. I was also surprised how little I saw of vegetables on the menu. Potatoes aside, when I ate vegetables it was at Italian restaurants cause I had spinach so it kind of surprised me. It was winter too so I don’t know if it had any effect on it not being as readily available. The food was delicious and I had the pork knuckles, which are one of their specialties. Also the pierogi’s, dumplings, whatever are one of their specialties and they have all sorts of them. I didn’t get to sample as many different ones as I probably would have wanted. I only had so many meals that I could fit in a week. But the food was delicious. There was a surprise at the restaurants. Usually when they brought you the bread, they brought you the butter and another container they brought you lard so you could use lard on your bread instead of the butter if you wanted. I had to try it. I did try it. I didn’t do it often.
Chris: And then you mentioned side trips.
Raul: Yeah. Side trips. We had to prioritize. We didn’t get to fit in all the things we thought we could do. I’ll start maybe from the closest ones to town. The salt mines at Wieliczka, which is about maybe 20 minutes outside of the city. We took a bus to get there and then just walked a little bit to the actual salt mines. These mines were not the longest in operation, but just about, I think, the longest in operation are like 30 kms away, somewhere else in Poland. But there you go down wooden staircases and you get to see all these underground chambers and sculptures, statues, chandeliers. Things made by miners originally and maybe in the last few decades.
Chris: Sculptures from salt or sculptures from rock or?
Raul: Yeah from rock salt.
Chris: Rock salt. Interesting.
Raul: Yeah, from the mine itself. Yeah, its fantastic and the chandeliers, for example, they do something to the salt to obviously make it clear. That’s not the natural state of the salt. That is used on the carvings on the walls of the chambers. There’s even a chamber. It’s huge. I can’t tell you exactly. Again, I’m bad with size and distance, but it’s about maybe a basketball court and a half in length. It is huge. It’s a cavernous chapel actually a basilica, I think, is what they are calling it. Underground, fascinating and that is a short trip away from the city. You can actually fit it in in half a day counting the back and forth. And you walk about 3 km underground and they say that is only 1% of the total set of passageways.
Chris: Oh my.
Raul: Yeah, it is a fantastic experience. Now that’s a key one.
Chris: Now you took public transportation out there or you took a tour there?
Raul: We totally did it on our own and to go to the salt mines it was a bus but it depended on the place and the recommendation. Like Auschwitz, which is another side trip I’ll tell you about, you have the option of train or bus. But through research, you find out that if you take the train it’ll take you 2.5 hours but if you take a bus, it will be a lot quicker than that. There’s a certain requirement for the timing because there’s a movie at eleven, at least at the time I went, that gives you an overview and if you take the train you might miss the start of the movie because the train only leaves at a certain time. To go to Wadowice where John Paul was born, for example, the train was not working or at least at that time of the year it wasn’t working so we ended up taking a mini van, one of those private vehicles.
Raul: Which was it’s own experience because I didn’t know how to tell the driver to stop or where to stop because I had no idea where I was going. That’s why learning some Polish ahead of time helped me to say the pleasantries and have people want to help me out.
Chris: After you were done with the pleasantries, how easy was it to make yourself understood if you had to resort to English?
Raul: I don’t know if I am making this up in my mind or not but there seem to be a generational divide as to whether people would speak English or not.
Chris: Sure. Very typical.
Raul: It makes some sense. Right if you see people 40 or older who maybe were learning German or Russian as their second language but I found that true in surprisingly at train stations. The ladies who were working behind the windows at any train station in Warsaw or in Krakow at least they never spoke English to me. Whether they were shy or didn’t speak it, I don’t know. But I had to use Polish to ask for my tickets and questions of fares and things like that because they were not upfront in talking English to me. And then when the people were younger, I never had any issue with people speaking any English.
Chris: No, that makes sense.
Raul: And I don’t know again if that’s just my luck that particular set of days but I’m glad I worked on some phrases and some basic stuff related to pleasantries, transportation and your numbers basically.
Chris: And in getting around in general you’re taking buses and public transportation and trains. And that got you around it sounds like generally fine except when the train isn’t working.
Raul: Right, right. No issues what so ever. I mean everything runs pretty well. Nothing at all to complain about or warn people about in my experience.
Chris: Ok. And then you also mentioned Auschwitz.
Raul: Yeah. Auschwitz, Birkenau are the two main camps in that area. Auschwitz being the original and Birkenau being the follower because they couldn’t mass do what they were doing; killing, and burning, and cremating, whatever. So Birkenau gets built afterwards. And it’s a day trip. Depends on how much time you want to spend and you should go to Auschwitz first because that’s where you get the movie, that’s where you may get the guided tour if you want to set it all in context and get all the information you need and then go to Birkenau which is some distance away. I guess you could walk it but it seemed a little too long to walk. Didn’t seem like a clear pathway. So what we did – we got to Auschwitz we took the guided tour (we skipped the movie because the guided tour would probably give us a lot of that information). It was eerie at first. If you had to pick something to give you the tone for what you were going to see. From the weather it was perfect. The weather was gray, foggy which gave you that sense of sadness and it set the mood I guess right for what I was to see. Auschwitz by all means go and get the guided tour. Go into the buildings where they take you. They will show you things that will shock you, move you, things that were property of the people who passed away, who were killed there. Other things, I won’t give it all away I suppose. But you really need to see it. They actually get to walk you through one of the original crematoriums which is very small and that about takes cares of any doubt you had or how you would feel because pretty much you see that and it becomes very, very real. Walking into Auschwitz for me felt a little odd because you see it in movies so I felt like I was seeing stuff I know from the movies. And it felt like a little bit hollywoodish for me walking through the gate. But again once you go through the buildings and see all the stuff they have to show you, obviously you are somewhere else. Birkenau, it got destroyed by the Germans when they were leaving so they reconstructed one little piece and then they reconstructed chimneys from the buildings that used to be there so you get a sense of how big the camp was and it is outstanding how huge that facility was. As far as the eye can see, you see those chimneys. For me the most shocking moment of all in both camps was standing at the platform where the people got off the train in Birkenau and that was the platform where they made a choice: do you live or do you die. I still get goose bumps talking about it right now. That to me was the most difficult moment I think. Definitely a day trip – it’s obviously worth the visit and more. It’s surreal in a way. You can’t just believe that you’re standing there. And you see the big crematoriums were demolished and they were never touched and you stand in front of them and your looking at them and you stand there in awe really of how could there be so much evil.
Another side trip we took was to go to Czestochowa, which is about a 2 or 3-hour train ride away – all the durations start blurring. It’s the site – I don’t know if they would call it the spiritual center of Poland but it kind of felt like it from the readings and what I witnessed. It’s got this I think it’s a monastery, Jasna Gora Monastery. But its again, up on a hill, walled area in the city and it has the monasteries and it’s a historical site when the Swedes and others have tried to invade Poland that’s been one of the most difficult sites for them to take over I guess. The Swedes, I think, in the 1600’s may have been actually were not able to and that saved Poland at a time. And it’s known more than anything for the image of the Black Madonna which is probably the patron virgin of Catholic Poland. And there’s actually a ceremony that takes place at the chapel where that image is stored. This image is… most of the time it’s covered with some kind of screen, metal screen. But there’s a ceremony that happens, I want to say, twice a day. It’s the uncovering and then the covering of the image. So we got there by coincidence. We took the earliest train we could and we got there, I don’t know, 11:00ish and it was about 20 minutes before the image was to be uncovered for viewing and then of course 1.5-2 hours later was going to be covered. So it worked beautifully because we got the time in between to check out everything else in the compound and then go see the recovering. But what was impressive to me was watching everyone else around. I’m not Polish so the Black Madonna Catholic doesn’t have an extended meaning like it may to them. But watching people there gather at the chapel for that time and doing all this veneration I suppose or whatever prayers they’re doing during those ceremonies was pretty moving actually to get a sense of the Polish spirituality I guess. So that was very interesting to me. I tried to get spiritually connected. It didn’t quite happen for me but it was great to see it and learn something about how they view it. Czestochowa, itself as a town – it’s got a beautiful big boulevard that goes all the way from the monastery or the Jasna Gora compound all the way down towards the train station area. That’s a beautiful boulevard to walk around and have a coffee or something. Now again it was winter so it wasn’t probably as beautiful as it is in the spring. It was a nice side trip to take. I don’t know if it is for everyone but the compound itself does have a lot of historical things. You can see all the weaponry and armory and stuff like that used over the centuries. It’s a walled city so you can go inside the walls and see the ramparts and things like that. It’s a little bit of everything there so not just the Black Madonna, but it’s very historic and very central from my understanding of it to the Polish people I guess.
Chris: Interesting. With the trip to Krakow, what do you wish you’d known before you’d gone?
Raul: I guess I wish I’d known that I would want to stay longer.
Chris: Well, that’s a pretty good thing.
Raul: I may have been able to pull that off if I really had set my heart on that, but not once I was there. Once I was there, my plans were fairly firm. There was just more to see and to explore. So I went to these places. I went to Wadowice where John Paul was born. These are known places, highly known. One of the next level places, one of those small towns wherever you can just go and get a different sense of Polish life perhaps more towards the rural areas. I didn’t have a good insight as to what would be those places and I didn’t have the time to discover them on my own this time. If I go back and I hope I do go back, that’ll be something I’ll be looking for. The other part of the area that I didn’t see was the mountains, the Tatra Mountains, which I hear are very beautiful. Zakopane is a ski resort area, obviously more touristy that way, but the mountains in general they sound like they’re beautiful and I wish I had the time to go and explore. I went in the winter too, which may not have been the best time to get lost in the mountains. But those are things I wish I could have done and maybe I’ll look to do someday.
Chris: And the best day you had there?
Raul: I’m Catholic and going to Wadowice and seeing the birthplace of this not only a religious figure but pretty historical figure in the past century.
Raul: It was very moving actually to think that a child from that town, from that condition. Once you see the family, what they were about and where they lived to grow to become this figure was very moving. That any child, any child, had the potential to be something that big no matter where they come from. That to me was very moving actually. Well, obviously Auschwitz.
Raul: That was also was very compelling I guess.
Chris: And who was the most memorable person you met?
Raul: Oh goodness one memorable person. My initial reaction to your question was the guy who was letting us in the apartment that we rented for the week. We rented an apartment. We found a great deal on-line right by the square actually.
Raul: Getting off the tracks at the train station, this guy met us at the door. The guy spoke perfect Spanish. I’m a Spanish speaker, a native Spanish speaker. This guy spoke it like me, but he was Polish. Just very surprising how just getting there I immediately meet someone who lived in Mexico I don’t know how many years, 2 years, three years and spoke beautiful Spanish. As well as obviously English, which was the language we started communicating through. He kind of set a little bit of tone for the town. It may not be the center of power anymore in Poland but it still is an important city in Poland and it’s not a provincial town. It has a feel. It’s a real international city, but yet of a very manageable size. It’s not like going to London or Rome or places like that. I mean, it’s much more manageable, but yet it has all that flavor. It’s as alive as a large city is. And I think that guy gave me that sense from the first moment I got to Krakow.
Chris: Ok, as we go to wind this down, finish this sentence for me. You really know you’re in Krakow when ________what?
Raul: Well, I was going to say when it’s bitterly cold, but that’s because I went in winter. It was amazing because I thought well this is the stupidest thing I’m doing going to Southern Poland in the middle of winter, but I think we were there in a warmer week for them. Everyone was out and about and you just felt alive. I don’t know if it was just the weather or what but it felt alive to me. Even with the cold weather, even with no outdoor seating in cafes because it was too cold.
Raul: People were out and about. We drew energy from that. We used to walk in the crowds at rush hour just because you felt good.
Chris: And if you had to summarize Krakow in three words, what three words would you use?
Raul: Historic, Beautiful (a beautiful town just looking around), Livable, actually.
Chris: Interesting. Raul, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your adventures in Krakow.
Raul: Thank you for the opportunity Chris and I hope you do get to go to Krakow soon.
Chris: Yeah me too. But there’s so many places I haven’t seen. Thanks a lot.
And in Internet resources today, I want to suggest another travel podcast, which is different from the Amateur Traveler called “Betty In The Sky with A Suitcase” at Bettyinthesky.com. Betty is a flight attendant who tells humorous stories of things that happen during airline travel. And one of the bits that she included in her show this week I found fairly humorous. You may not, depending on your stand on gun control, but it’s basically a take on how they have allowed pilots and co-pilots to carry weapons and this is an announcement you may not hear the next time you fly.
“ Good afternoon. This is your Captain speaking with just a little flight information. Coming up on the left we’re going to be catching a glimpse of the Grand Canyon. On the right you can be able to see the Hoover Dam in just a few minutes. We’re flying at an altitude of 37,000 feet and our airspeed is 400 miles an hour. A couple of little facts here: I’m packing a Colt King Cobra. That’s a 357-caliber firearm with a black rubber grip and a six-inch barrel. Also, the co-pilot is carrying a Kimber custom defense pistol with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a custom gun of that kind with an alloy frame and beveled treatment on the entire gun. And our chief flight attendant, Roger, has a Ruger Bearcat 22 with a hand-fluted cylinder. All three are capable of piercing body armor at a distance of up to 27 feet and can put a hole in human bone and flesh the size of the Grand Canyon, which by the way is coming up on the left hand side of the plane so just sit back and relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.”
And for those you I haven’t offended yet, I have two different places where I have been interviewed recently that I want to point you at. I’ll put a link to both of these in the Show Notes at Amateurtraveler.com. The first one is I was interviewed by my good friend Victor for the Typical Shutterbug Podcast talking about travel photography. So you might want to check that out. And the second one: I was interviewed by my good friend Linda Martin who is one of the hosts of the Indie Travel Podcast on their show talking about traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico. In case you’re interested in going there now that the panic about swine flu seems to be dying down.
And then lastly, I had a ping on facebook from Stephanie who asked me a question about the Moscow podcast. She was looking for information from John because we had mentioned a particular visa service that he had used. Just so you know, that’s the kind of information that you can find in the Show Notes when I say, “Check out the Show Notes at Amaterurtraveler.com.” So this particular episode is a great one, for instance, if you’re looking up the name of the salt mines or that particular monastery we talked about. Especially since we were using Polish words it might be easier to just go to AmateurTraveler.com and look where I’ve already looked up how to spell those words rather than guessing at how to spell them yourself. So I bring that up to help you out with that. And with that, we’ll bring this episode of the Amateur Traveler to a close. I would like to encourage you to follow me on twitter if you’re using twitter. The last three guests on the show we found through twitter so that’s also a way that I’m finding guests these days. Feel free to leave a comment on this episode at AmateurTraveler.com or drop me an email and as always –
Thanks So Much For Listening.
Thanks to Cindy the Amateur Traveler intern for the transcription of this episodes