Krakow and Auschwitz. But mainly Auschwitz

By Murray Stewart, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Krakow.

Overall rating:4.9 out of 5 (based on 8 votes)
Enjoyable
4.75
4.8
Useful
4.75
4.8
Inspirational
4.875
4.9
Recommended for:
Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range

A weekend city break to Krakow confronts you with the 'A' question: should you visit Auschwitz, or not?

Nowadays, the bookshops are awash with titles such as "1001 places to visit before you die". The Polish city of Krakow could be one of those places.

Auschwitz certainly should be. After all, for hundreds of thousands of people, Auschwitz was the last place they visited before they perished. Remember them with a visit.

Getting there: Krakow

Krakow is the closest airport to Auschwitz, well-served by budget airlines and scheduled flights from many European cities. A free bus takes you from outside the terminal to the city centre, a taxi takes about 25 minutes. If pre-booking accommodation, ask about airport transfers (around 60PLN) which can be economical when you're travelling in a small group.

Getting there: Auschwitz/Birkenau

An organised tour from Krakow is the best way to visit the two concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It's easy to organise: there are many tour companies in and around the Rynek Glowny, Krakow's iconic main square. Most offer pretty similar trips, with tickets (adult 90PLN, students 80PLN) including 1.5 hour bus transfer, courier, in-bus movie and English-language guide around the two camps. Cracow City Tours' (ul. Mikolajska 11, tel +48 (0)12 421 13 33, www.cracowcitytours.com) trip was well-organised and efficient. French, Spanish, Italian and German guides are also available. Door-to-door, the trip takes around 7 hours.

Krakow: where to stay


Hotels in Krakow are always an option, but the city is also full of apartments. Check out the website of Old City Apartments, (various addresses, tel 00 48 (0) 606941483 www.oldcityapartments.eu) check in to their renovated, fully-fitted apartments in a variety of centrally located buildings. Depending on size and location, prices can be as low as 200PLN per night for a four-bed, making this an economical option.

For a top-end hotel, the 4-star Hotel Amadeus (ul. Mikolaska 20) is near the main square, with beautifully appointed rooms in an elegant 16th C building. Expect to shell out around 450PLN for a double, including breakfast. The restaurant is excellent, too, serving Polish and International fare.

If you're travelling solo, and on a budget, try the friendly Mosquito Hostel (Rynek Kleparski 4/6), with dorm beds from only 45 PLN. (There’s no mosquitoes, and no stag/hen parties either.)

Krakow: getting around

There are a number of transport options ranging from tram and bus for general travel, to horse and carriage or guided electric cart for city tours – specimens of these latter two lurk around the square, touting for business.

But the Old Town is compact, walking is the best way to admire the uninterrupted vista of beautiful buildings, and even Kazimierz (the old Jewish Quarter) is within range on foot. Take time out to contemplate the steep progress that Poland has made since slipping the leash of communism, only 30 or so years ago.

Krakow: eating and drinking

Pre-trip misconceptions might prepare you for heavy cuisine and pickled cabbage. Forget it. While traditional food is available, Krakow is accelerating its food offering firmly into the 21st century.

It's not actually Polish, but it is tasty: Gruzinskie Chaczapuri (ul. Grodzka 3, and various other city branches www.chaczapuri.pl) has tasty Georgian cuisine with main courses from 10 - 20 PLN. Don't be put off by the appearance of Georgian Cheese in nearly every dish: it's mild, and rather nice. You can even pay a bit extra, for the privilege of having extra Georgian cheese with your order!

In Kazimierz, Kolanko No. 6 (ul. Jozfa 17, tel 00 48 (0)12 2320320, www.kolanko.net) serves a wide selection of savoury and sweet crepes in a typically dimly-lit environment at very reasonable prices. My choice - stuffed with black pudding, onion and horseradish - was delicious, though being halfway between a starter and a main meal, it just had to be supplemented with a bowl of sausage soup. Yummy. Dinner for three, with (whisper it) six pints of beer, struggled to exceed 100 PLN. The only downer was the slightly slow service.

Back in town,a good lunchtime choice is the brand-new Glonojad (Plac Jana Matejki 2, tel 00 48 (0) 123461677, www.glonojad.com) a vegetarian cafe with fresh food such as falafel, burritos, beetroot soup etc. A main course with salads and rice will cost around 12 PLN. Staff are friendly, music is mellow, wi-fi is free, toilets are spotless.
 

The Poles are rather keen on beer and vodka, the former being refreshingly cheap and the latter available in many flavours.  At Pod Wawelem (Sw. Gertrudy 26, under the Hotel Royal), value reached the dizzy heights of 7PLN for a whole litre of fine beer. We marvelled at our traditionally-clad waitress, Paulina, and her ability  to carry three of these heavyweight beers to our table, while we struggled to lift, never mind drink, even one. A parting shot of lemon vodka was easier to handle and drink, but felt like a bad idea the following day.

Krakow: what to see

The main square is a true focal point, with its cloth hall, museum and bagel sellers. Wander south towards the castle, stopping at the St Peter and Paul's Church, which is 'guarded' by a host of imposing statues who will nevertheless admit you to the evening classical concerts. The castle itself can be visited, parts of it for free, and it offers views over the city rooftops and the twisting Wisla river.

A half-day tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine is strongly recommended, and can be organised by Cracow City Tours (above), or other operators. 300 kilometres of tunnels await for you underground, along with forty chapels carved out of salt, informed and entertaining guides and a white-knuckle lift-ride back to the surface at the end. Truly fascinating.

But these sights are covered in all the guidebooks. I'm restless to talk about Auschwitz and Birkenau..
 

Auschwitz and Birkenau

"Arbeit macht frei" ("Work liberates") states the infamous sign above the entry to Auschwitz. Its horrors are well-documented, well-filmed and well-known, but it is the ironies of the place that strike hard and fast. "Work liberates." What a lie. Not many were liberated from here.

And there's more irony, albeit unwitting. Arriving on our tour-bus, passengers are immediately separated  (English-speaking, French-speaking etc), echoing the segregation of the deportees (fit-for-work/ fit for extermination) seventy years before. We are given coloured stickers to identify which tour group we belong to: years before, prisoners were tattooed to identify them, distinguishing them as Jews or gypsies, political prisoners or homosexuals. Rules are read to us, as they must have been to the prisoners. No food is permitted....another irony in a place where thousands starved to death. No photos inside the buildings, please..... yet the walls of the huts are lined with hundreds of photos of ghostly detainees, eyes staring, heads shaven.

The camp guide speaks softly into a microphone, the sound then amplified in the headphones of the visitors. This ensures that the stillness of the camp remains largely unpunctuated by guides competing to make themselves heard. Take off your headphones, and the place is almost silent despite the hundreds of visitors. It's well thought-out.

At the end, some French tourists are arguing with the guide, imploring her to let them stay longer! To stay longer? In Auschwitz? How ironic.

And then there's Birkenau, stretching as far as the eye can see, more desolate, horrific in a different way, but nevertheless horrific. One bleak, deserted railway carriage dominates the vast panorama of barbed wire and chimneys. It's February, and the snow-covered ground frames the darkness of the camp. Only a couple of kilometres from Auschwitz, hundreds of thousands perished here too.
 

The 'A' Question answered?

Krakow is definitely a city that's worth a visit. Auschwitz/Birkenau ought to be seen, though whether seeing is believing is open to doubt. But it will at least provide a closer understanding.

For those seeking an enjoyable weekend, away from the stresses of work or whatever, combining Krakow with the concentration camps is probably not a good idea. A visit is surely going to detract from the enjoyment of your weekend.

Visiting them separately, maybe years apart, is perhaps the answer.

Writing separate travel guides might also be a better idea.

"The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again" (George Santayana)

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More information on Krakow and Auschwitz. But mainly Auschwitz:

Author:
Murray Stewart
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
4.875
Average: 4.9 (8 votes)
Total views:
939
First uploaded:
24 August 2010
Last updated:
3 years 48 weeks 6 days 13 hours 28 min 50 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Cultural, Short Break
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range
Free tags / Keywords:
city break

Murray recommends

Hotels

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1. Amadeus Hotel
£63
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2. Mosquito Hostel
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Community comments (13)

Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I liked reading this. Auschwitz is one of those must-sees - what I found interesting were the parts you don't see on the tourist trail, which I got to see by knowing someone on the inside. The swimming pool, some of the recreation areas, and also the fact that the Russians re-built the gas chamber there after occupying it. Sometimes mundanity can be very stark. They should include stuff like this on the standard tour.

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Excellent, Murray. I once read one of your reviews when I was thinking of visiting Spain, now I seek your guides out just to enjoy them, even if I'm not going there. So I read this one. I've always had a niggle that I SHOULD go and see the concentration camps but it's not the place to go for fun, as you say. I went to the Killing Fields and the interrogation centre in Cambodia and had the same feelings.
I felt I was there with you in the hushed place of death. Thanks too, for describing the city which sounds a necessary antidote.

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

A truly excellent read. Not really somewhere that had been at the top of my list for a weekend visit, but that has now changed. Perhaps the tip is to visit Auschwitz first and then spend longer in Krakow to get over the trauma. I think you can combine both into one visit, but just don't rush it, sounds like both need time to digest. Only thing that springs to mind that would have been helpful would be an exchange rate to put the pricing into perspective, but thats easily fixed. As always an inspiring read, well thought through with big impact.

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Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

Thanks Murray for the excellent guide. They say a picture is worth a thousand words although I think in this case the reverese is true, particularly in your description of Birkenau.

Nevertheless, readers of this guide might want to take a look at this Deep Zoom panorama of Birkenau that I put together from 14 separate images I took when I visited it with Murray in February:

http://www.mangomangomango.net/ab/

You can zoom in and out either using the scroll wheel on your mouse if you have one, or by clicking the + and - icons. You can pan across the image by clicking and dragging.

I think it helps convey the appalling vastness of the camp.

Doug Stewart

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This chilling picture conveys the horror and utter hopelessness of the place.

Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

This guide stunned me, both from the writing and the content. A sobering experience no doubt visiting the camps, but one I am sure worth taking the time to do.
I really liked the details and information about Krakow itself, it is a city I would like to visit at some point and the information given especially in regard to accommodation is thorough. As mentioned in previous comments, when reading the title, my perception was more of an article about Auschwitz, so I was surprised to read initially more about the city (although as noted - this is extremely useful).
Overall an amazing piece of writing, and as a new contributor, one I can only aspire to ever emulate.

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Sam, thanks for your comments. I would recommend a visit -to both Krakow and the camps.

Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

This is amazing. Beautiful writing. One of the best I have read.

It is so true that a visit to Auschwitz is a dilema and this has provided a brilliant theme for your guide. The comparison of modern day visits to Auschwitz with what happened there is inspired and beautifully written.

I felt that the material about visiting Auschwitz should have been at the beginning because you draw the reader to this subject with the title of the article, the summary and the opening paragraph, but then you move into “getting there” and we have to wait until the end to read about Auschwitz. Just my personal opinion, that's all and I can also see that it has impact being left to the end of the guide. It leaves that final thought with the reader.

There are some really lovely turns of phrase and style in this guide. I really admire writers who can do this. My favourites are “Dinner for three, with (whisper it) six pints of beer” and “'guarded' by a host of imposing statues who will nevertheless admit you to the evening classical concerts”. I also love the story about the beer and lemon vodka at Pod Wawelem. This kind of stuff really puts travel writing into the excellent classification.

How on earth did you manage to get over 1,500 people to read your guide when it has only just gone up? Do you have a promotional tool that you are keeping a secret from us Murray?

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Very kind comments, Colin. As for my 'promotional tool', I would happily sell it to you at an extortionate price, if only it existed! As I said in my comment to Johanna, I will get it fixed so that my ranking isn't inflated1

Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

I am intrigued by the number of views Murray- presumably this is a rework? Highly professional and beautifully written, I like the fact that your opinions are woven into the text. Having just returned from a Polish wedding via Krakow I can fully endorse your view of the city. The apartments are a good idea- family members stayed in some on the edge of Kazimierz recently and they had those big beautiful ceramic heaters the like of which I had only seen in Wawel Castle (well worth a look, as is the Salt Mine- I was amazed)
Despite a number of visits to the city I have to admit that I haven't found the courage yet for the camps- it's a little close to home.

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Thanks for reading and commenting. As regards the number of viewings, I am not sure why this has happened; I amend and save as I go along - but not 1500 times! I seem to remember a guide writer going temporarily to the 'top of the writers' charts' a few months ago, before disappearing again. I think there's a glitch, but will e-mail the editors and get them to re-set the clock to zero.

Thanks again.

Rating:
5
1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

Hi Murray,

Your well written guide has brought back memories of my visit to Krakow last month. Time constraint forced me to skip Auschwitch and Birkenau, as you suggested later in your guide I should think of visiting these places some time later.
Your writing style is truly inspirational and the description of the concentration camps and the striking similarity between the arrival of tourists and prisoners is simply outstanding.

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Many thanks for your kind comments. In retrospect, I think that separating Krakow and Auschwitz into two visits is the better option.