The one thing which excited us about visiting Krakow was the history behind Wewal Castle, Cathedral and the main Old Town. As we flew into the airport, we flew across Krakow, and watched out the window to have a glimpse of Krakow before we arrived. The castle and the outline of the trees around the Old Town from above are predominant, with the bright green emanating from below. By this point we just couldn’t wait to finally make it into Krakow and explore.
Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland and for many years was the capital of Poland, before it was moved to Warsaw. The old town has the UNESCO World Heritage site statues, along with the neighbouring Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration camp. During Nazi occupation of Poland, Krakow became the capital of the German General Government, from which the Nazis banished the Jews to the Jewish quarter (also known as Jewish ghetto). When the Jews were confined to the ghetto’s, there was some leniency, in which they were allowed to enter and exit freely, but later this changed when the German regime became more powerful, and restrictions were tightened. Many at this point died of illnesses or starvation, but the Jews that where alive between June to September 1942, were transported from the ghetto’s to their death at Belzec, Plaszow and Auschwitz concentration camp. To all Jews, one German is their hero, Oskar Schindlerl. Oska Schindler saved many Jewish people’s lives in Krakow by employing them to work in his factory. The Jews working in his factory was spared their lives from going to the concentration camps and death camps.
We would advise watching the movie Schindlers List, which is based on the true story of how Schindler saved these people’s lives. Since visiting Krakow and Auschwitz, we wanted to learn more about the horrors that went on, and this film is a really good perspective directed by Steven Spielberg.
Things to do
There is so much to do in Krakow, we were there for four days, and this was definitely not enough time. Here are some of the things we did whilst in Krakow:
The Old Town
The Old Town is a medieval town within Krakow, and was once surrounded by defensive walls and towers. Sadly over time, the old town’s fortification have been demolished. There was once a moat surrounding the old town, however this has since been filled in and a green belt of trees and parks surround it. This can been seen from the air, as you fly in over Krakow. On Coronation days, the King would proceed down the Royal route from St Florian’s Church, down past the Barbican of Krakow, the Florian Gates, into Flosianska Street before proceeding through the Main Square of the Old Town and up to Wawel Castle and Cathedral. If you want to walk in royal shoes, then taking the Royal route through the Old Town of Krakow is a must.
Walking in Krakow and the Old Town is the best way to see all the hidden gems it has to offer. We walked much of the Royal walk, starting from Krakow Barbican, before walking to St Florian’s Gate and then down Flosianska Street. Much of Flosianska Street would have been different in the Royal Coronation, many 100s of years ago. At present there are buildings with shops, cafés and restaurants which is disappointing until, in the distance the Bazylika Mariacka Catholic Church can be seen. As we approached the main square the trumpet call could be heard, (this happens on the hour every hour) but abruptly stops. The legend has it that during the Mongol invasion, a trumpeter would warn of any threats, so the defensive gates can be closed. However the trumpeter started his call, and half way through, was shot in the throat which stopped the warning signal. It was quite strange hearing the trumpet play and then abruptly stop. The Cloth Hall is now home to small shops and markets selling souvenirs and much more. Finally the weather seemed to ease a little, allowing us to follow the route down to Wawel Castle.
Wewal Castle and Cathedral
For centuries the castle has been resident to the Kings of Poland, however since the capital was moved to Warsaw, the castle declined. The castle has since been transformed into an art museum. Long before a castle was built on Wawel Hill, it was an affluent residential area, which inspired a castle to be built for the Kings of Poland.
Many Coronations have taken place over the years at Wawel Cathedral. The day after Pope John Paul II was ordained into the Priesthood, he held mass in the crypt at the Cathedral. This has been the location for many Polish Monarchs and important people to be buried here.
The architecture of the building is very medieval, and reminds me of a fairy-tale palace. We only had one day in Krakow, and with the terrible rain we experienced from when we arrived in Krakow, we didn’t have the time to explore inside. We would have loved to explore but were frustrated that we didn’t get to explore the castle, as we had heard so much about it. We do plan to return to Krakow in the future, and will take more time inside the Castle and Cathedral.
Kazimierz and the Jewish quarters.
Kazimierz was a separate state to Krakow, but this changed when the Austrians acquired Krakow and Kazimierz lost its statues and became part of Krakow. The Jewish population was moved to the Jewish ghettos during the 1940s.
One of the important cultural parts of Krakow is the Jewish quarter found in Kazimierz. We walked much of the Kazimierz, past Synagogues, Bath Houses, and Monuments, but the weather hindered us on exploring more. Whilst exploring, we noticed golf carts taking tours. We were not intentionally looking to take a tour, but wanted to do something different. We negotiated with the tour to take us around the Jewish quarter, before dropping us back to our accommodation. The tour took just the two of us in a golf cart, which seats four people, and took us to all the places we had already seen, but the guide gave us more information. The tour was ok took weight off our feet and kept us dry when it raining. Was it worth the money? Probably not! We did learn more in the tour than we did on our own. It wasn’t expensive when converting it back to £s. It was about 150 Zloty which works out to be about £31.00 for about a 30 – 45 minute tour before taken back to our accommodation.
There are a number of horse and carriage’s which take tours around the Old Town, Royal Krakow, and many more, we enquired about how much a ride would be. The price was approximately 500 Zloty which is about £103 which is very expensive for what it really is, but it would depend on each individual’s budget. This was way over our budget which is why we decided against this form of tour.
Auschwitz – Birkenau
Cost: 50 Zloty per person
Auschwitz first became a concentration camp for political prisoners, but due to Nazi Germans finding new methods to kill innocent people, they built a larger Auschwitz Birkenau camp which became the death camp. The first extermination was in September 1941. Between 1942 and 1944, trains bringing prisoners from western German occupied countries where sent straight to their deaths in the gas chambers. It is estimated that 1.3 million prisoners were sent to the camp with 1.1 million died. Since 1947 Auschwitz – Birkenau became a UNESCO world heritage site.
Before travelling to Krakow, we have always wanted to visit Auschwitz, for the education and it certainly was an education. We were taken around the camp, and walked through many of the areas that the prisoners would have been. The most scary and eye opening experience was standing on the very platform that the SS officers, pointed to their left or right. If you were told to go to the left, you were sent straight to the gas chambers to be killed, if pointed to the right, you would be sent into the camp to live and work. Standing in the very spot where prisoners didn’t know if they would be chosen to live or die puts a chill through us. It really puts life into perspective, that no matter how hard life might be, nothing compares to what the prisoners had to endure.
Are you planning to visit Poland during Christmas? Here are 7 reason to visit Poland during Christmas.