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)