Friday, March 30, 2012


I chose to travel to Krakow for a few different reasons.  Most people know where their family is from.  I know that my grandma on my mom's side of the family was from Drohiczyn, Poland, but that's all I am very sure about.  My other grandparents, and maybe some of my great-grandparents, were born in the United States.  My family has been in the US for so long that we don't have ethnic traditions from other countries.  Instead, our traditions are eating deep dish pizza and going to the Nordstrom Half-Yearly Sale.  And yes, I enjoy both of those very much.

One day, when I was little, I asked my grandma where specifically she was from and what it was like there.  She told me she was from Drohiczyn, a town outside of Warsaw.  Somehow, years later, I remembered the name of the town and looked it up on Google.  I spelled it wrong, but Google found it anyways.  Back when my grandma and great-grandma came to the US, they traveled on a ship, and it was a permanent move.  I'm not sure if either of them ever imagined that I, or any of the rest of us, would visit Poland.  Walking around the Main Market Square in Krakow, I found myself wondering what they would have thought of my trip.  Each time I walked into a cafe, I wondered if they would have eaten there.  I wondered which stores they would shop at, and I had the overwhelming sense that my grandma would have wanted me to go shopping there.  What can I say?  Shopping runs in the family, and I learned from the best.

--Three Days in Krakow--

Flower Stands at Main Market Square
I am excited to enthusiastically announce that Krakow absolutely makes my top ten travel list.  Krakow doesn't usually come to mind when selecting a hip travel destination, but it really should.  Surprisingly sunny, this happening place is hopping, and it serves the visitor an incredible trip.  The city has everything you'd want from a vacation: a UNESCO site, an emotional experience, unique food, great shopping, a castle, a main market square, a cathedral with art, a dragon legend, a rocky history, and a great exchange rate.  There's no beach, but I think that can be forgiven.  Another reason I chose to visit Krakow is that I feel it is important to see a concentration camp.  Of course, I knew experience would be horrifying and disturbing, but also very important.  On a lighter note, I had heard that pierogies were delicious, and had never tried one before.  Surely, nowhere could be better for pierogi tasting than Poland!

Colorful Buildings on the Planty

Day 1 in Krakow - March 23, 2012

Zlotys (PLN)
Arriving in Krakow, I got some zlotys (PLN) from the airport's ATM and hopped onto the shuttle which would bring me to the train to take me to the center of the city.  The whole process was surprisingly cheap and simple.  To get to the center of Krakow cost me 10 zlotys - about $3, and the trip took about 20 minutes.  Leaving the train station, I somehow ended up in Krakow's Galleria Mall.  The stores looked pretty fabulous, and I fully intended to do some shopping.  However, I was on the way to my hostel by Main Market Square to drop of my enormous backpack and check in first.

"Halo Bagel" = Obwarzanki

Dropping my bag and locking up my stuff at the hostel, I headed for Wawel (VAH-vel) Hill and Wawel Castle by the Wista River.  On the walk there, I realized I was really, really hungry after being awake all night in Madrid's airport, and so I bought this thing that looked like a bagel, but was shaped more like a halo.  It's basically a ring of twisted dough with either sesame seeds or poppy seeds, and it's delicious, particularly if you've been living in a country that doesn't believe in bagels for the past seven months.  Little kiosks all over the place were selling these halo bagels, called obwarzanki, so I decided to try a sesame one, which is sezam in Polish.  The obwarzanki cost me 1,50 zlotys - about $0.50.  This exchange rate was totally making my day.

The Cathedral at Wawel Hill
Wawel Hill is difficult to get into.  You have to walk all around it to find the entrance, but when you do find it, you walk into an impressionable collection of buildings.  I toured the Royal Private Apartments, which are filled with gorgeous tapestries, woven in a very high thread count with gold and silver threads worked in.  It was also interesting to learn that the royals had special ovens, designed to work as heaters, to keep them warm since Poland gets pretty chilly in winter.  A servant would open the door to the oven through the wall and put firewood in.  In this manner, the room would remain private, and the servant could adjust the temperature of the room without actually entering the room.  Our guide told us that the castle was not destroyed during WWII because the Nazis took over the castle and used it for their meetings.  I was pretty creeped out to learn that.  According to our guide, they never intended to destroy Krakow as they destroyed Warsaw.  Another interesting feature of the castle was that some of the walls were covered with leather.  Before central heating came about, fabric-covered walls were the standard for heating, and leather-covered walls were for luxury heating.

On the way to the Royal Private Apartments
Wawel Castle
Pod Wawelem
Since I was really exhausted and hungry again, I didn't take the other tours at Wawel Hill, and instead opted for a walk around the Planty, a nice outdoor tour which circles the city.  I figured that along the Planty, I would find somewhere to eat lunch.  About fifteen minutes into my stroll, I came upon an adorable restaurant called Pod Wawelem, where I ordered a platter of pierogies stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage.  A pierogi is a folded envelope of fried dough with some sort of filling.  These were literally the first pierogies I had ever eaten, and I had high expectations for them.  To my delight, they were delicious!  My life just felt a smidgen more complete after eating a pierogi.

Cabbage Mushroom Pierogies at Pod Wawelem
Miniature Goblet / Shot Glass
At the end of the meal, the restaurant brings you a complementary tiny, goblet-shaped glass of a bright red, cherry scented drink.  Curious about the cute little goblet, I took a sip, and realized at once that it was meant to be taken like a shot.  The size of the glass, not to mention being in Poland, probably should have clued me into that a bit sooner, but that's ok.  In my defense, it looked more like a miniature goblet than a shot glass.  It was some sort of cherry vodka I think.

Main Market Square
Later that evening, I began to explore Main Market Square, the center of the city where all the shops and kiosks sell souvenirs.  The square is really exciting - You can find a flower market, a cathedral with a trumpeter on top, many clothing stores, many cafés, and Cloth Hall.  Cloth Hall, right in the middle of the square, is a double hallway lined with souvenir shops.  Since it was getting late, I quickly scoped out the shops and decided which ones to come back to on the following day or Sunday.

Coffee Heaven
While exploring, I came upon a café called Coffee Heaven, and decided to try it.  Sure, it's not the most traditional Polish cuisine, but it seemed like a big part of the modern scene with students in Krakow in the same way that American students flock to Starbucks.  Fortunately for me, nearly everyone I met in Krakow spoke English very well, so I knew ordering food wouldn't be difficult.  The menu was written in Starbucks jargon, so I figured that would make things even easier.  To my surprise though, I found myself sipping my first ever chai latte that had coffee in it.  Sitting in Coffee Heaven, my thoughts returned to my grandma and great-grandma, and I wondered if they would have come here for coffee.  Or if they would have shopped in this square.  Or if they had ever come to Krakow from Drohiczyn.  I wondered how different it looked here back when they lived in Poland.  Lost in my bittersweet thoughts, I strode back to my hostel, plopped down into bed, and fell asleep right away.

Day 2 in Krakow - March 24, 2012

Salt Sculpture of Kazimierz the Great
Early on Saturday morning, I met my tour group in front of the Sheraton Hotel for my tour of the Wielieczka Salt Mine, which is located about thirty minutes from Krakow's city center by bus.  The Salt Mine, like almost everything else I see in Europe, is of course, a UNESCO world heritage site.  To get to the mine's first level, you have to descend 380 steps.  There, the air is very clean - it's not at all like a coal mine.  The walls of the mine are reinforced with wooden planks, which become firmer each year as the salt infiltrates and fortifies them.  Long ago, this tour was reserved for royalty only, but today, it's open to the public.  The really cool part about this mine, aside from the fact that it's over 600 years old, is that it doubles as an art museum.  Over time, the miners sculpted several life-sized figures out of rock salt, and these figures are still on display throughout the mine today.  There's a sculpture of Copernicus, another of Kazimierz the Great, a former king of Poland; a few gnomes; and a series of seven dwarfs.  Additionally, there are 40 chapels in the mine, and some of them still host masses today.

Salt Ballroom

The most famous room in the salt mine is the grand ballroom where masses, weddings, and other events are held.  The floor of the ballroom is 101 meters below the surface, and is carved entirely of one single block of rock salt.  The color is dark because of impurities in the rock.  Several chandeliers, made from halite crystals, light the spacious room.  The extremely talented miners carved a relief of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" on the left wall of the room.  It amazed me to learn from my guide that the carving of this famous painting, while it appears to have tremendous depth, is only 17 cm deep.

Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" as a  Salt Relief Carving
Chandelier with Halite Crystals
Later in the tour, we passed an artificial pond in the mine.  In general, the air in the mine is kept very dry so that the sculptures don't melt away.  Some of the sculptures that were not well protected for a long time have melted and no longer have facial features.  However, far away from the sculptures, there is a pond.  The guide told us the pond was 32% salt, and that this was the maximum salinity possible in water.  Walking through, I wondered how this compared with the salinity of the Dead Sea in Israel.  I was so tempted to jump in to confirm that it was salty enough to float, but I was pretty sure that was prohibited.  Before leaving, I was interested to learn that they had even installed a café, a bar, and a few gift shops in the mine.

The video below is from the ballroom at the Wielieczka Salt Mine.

Remu Synagogue in Kazimierz
The next event on the itinerary for the day was a free walking tour of the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, called Kazimierz.  Maybe I should call it the former Jewish Quarter since there are only 97 Jews still living there.  We walked to the old temple, the only one in Krakow that was still working, and later we walked by a small cemetery.  To be honest, I'm really tired of seeing sections of towns all over Europe where Jews used to live.  I'm tired of the story of Jews being normal, productive members of society, getting kicked out their homes, and then the town realizing that most Jews are actually sort of cool, and then deciding to make their abandoned homes into a museum.  Would it really be that difficult to just let people live and contribute peacefully?  

Empty Chairs in the Former Ghetto

After exploring the former Jewish Quarter, we went to see what used to be the ghetto during WWII.  The ghetto has been modernized almost completely - there's even a telepizza.  What remains is the wall around the tiny space of land into which Jews were crammed.  There's a memorial at that wall, and our guide told us that there's a special celebration of Jewish culture each year there.  One particularly poignant visual in the ghetto is the placement of several empty chairs.  According to our guide, the vacant chairs symbolize the absence of people from such a crowded place after they were removed by the Nazis and brought to concentration camps.

Buildings in Kazimierz
Outside Schindler's Factory
Up until this point, I was quite happy with my free walking tour.  From here though, it was downhill.  The free tour ate up about four hours of my afternoon.  Two of those hours were spent learning useful information about the Jewish Quarter and ghetto.  The other two were spent hearing random trivial facts from our guide and seeing the outside of Oskar Schindler's factory, but not going in.  By the time the tour finally ended, Schindler's factory was closed, so we couldn't go in.  Also, the tour ended by the factory, and we had to figure out how to get all the way back to the center of the city.

Mr. Chaffee!  :-)
Finally escaping at the end of the tour, I rushed back to the main square where I was beyond excited to attend my high school's orchestra concert!  Aside from ballet and APs, orchestra was my life in high school. Some of my best memories from high school, and nearly all my friends, are from orchestra.  Back in 2004, I toured Italy with the orchestra, and so I was super excited to crash their concert in Krakow on their 2012 trip!  Attending the concert, visiting with Mr. Chaffee, and hearing the songs I absolutely loved playing on the 2004 tour brought back such happy memories.  Aside from being in Krakow and seeing amazing Cracovian things there, this concert, and joining them for dinner afterwards, totally made my day!
Stevenson High School's Orchestra Performing in Krakow
Day 3 in Krakow - March 25, 2012

On my third day in Krakow, I went on a tour of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, two of the Nazis' concentration camps.  This was my last day in Krakow, and I had been getting gradually more anxious for this tour as the trip progressed.  I didn't know if I should start the trip with this tour, and have it on my mind for the rest of the trip, or if I should end the trip with this tour and anxiously lead up to it.  For no real reason, I chose the latter.  So there I found myself, once again at the Sheraton Hotel, waiting for my tour to depart, this time to one of the worst places in the world.  The bus ride to Auschwitz I takes about one hour from Krakow.  From there, we would visit each camp, and then return.

Memorial in 23 Languages.  One Plaque per Language.
Before going on this tour, I wrote a bit, and brought a notebook with me to capture my immediate reactions after the tour.  About a week before this trip, one of the professors asked me if I was prepared to go on this tour.  I looked at her as if to say, "Of course I'm not."  How can you be mentally prepared to visit a death camp?  You really shouldn't be prepared for that sort of thing.  It should shock and disgust you.  What I can say, is that I have thought about this tour a lot.  I wouldn't say I was prepared for what I saw, but I certainly had given it quite a bit of thought.  The important thing is just to go, see, experience, react, and remember.  
"Work makes you free." - This is the gate at Auschwitz I that mocks the prisoners as they arrive.
Here's an excerpt from what I wrote on the bus ride back: (Writing in italics was added later to caption and explain the photos.)

"Visiting a concentration camp is very different from visiting a Holocaust museum.  In the museums, you read poems by prisoners, see photographs, and read letters to family.  You learn about individual stories, and it tears you apart.  

Shoes from 40,000 Prisoners at Auschwitz I
The first thing I noticed at Auschwitz I was order.  Everything was rigidly organized.  All the buildings are the same, they're all lined up, and jagged, barbed wire fences geometrically surround the camp.  Even the prisoners were made to look standardized when they were given uniforms and robbed of their glasses, hair, gold teeth, shoes, and socks.  There was no allowance for the individual; Auschwitz I was a factory.  A death factory.

The exhibits at Auschwitz I present numbers, statistics, and lists. Everything is efficient, cold, and done on a massive scale.  Now, each of the buildings, which all look the same, houses an exhibit with a different theme about the war.

To view the shoes, visitors walk through a narrow hallway with shoes piled to the ceiling on both sides of the hallway.  There are other, similar rooms which display glasses, hair, and suitcases taken from the prisoners.

At first, I was upset that my tour was "insensitive" because we weren't hearing heart-wrenching stories about specific people.  I was upset that all the lists weren't making me feel worse than imaginable.  After all, it's hard to really understand what over a million people means.  It's very impersonal and abstract.  On the bus ride between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau, I realized that my tour was matter-of-fact and presented in statistics because that's how things operated in these camps, and that cold, unfeeling, cruel manner of work was exactly the problem.  There are no individual stories presented in these camps because the Nazis deprived the prisoners of their individual, human qualities.

 What upsets me perhaps most, aside from the millions of deaths, is the ruthless dehumanization system the Nazis imposed on their prisoners.  Having no regard for the human lives they took, and not even acknowledging that these were human lives, they lined people up to be shot, lied to them, tricked them, beat them, starved them to death, and gassed them to death.    In the D.C. museum and in Yad Vashem in Israel, the exhibits focus on individual stories to combat this cold line of dehumanization.  Tragically, the statistics presented at Auschwitz I are now all that remain of so many of the people murdered in these camps.

Barbed wire fences surround the camps.

Covered Windows on Block 10
The photo on the left was taken between Block 10 and Block 11.  The windows on Block 10, as shown, were covered so prisoners wouldn't see the shootings that went on against the wall between the two blocks. The guide told us that prisoners were lined up and shot one at a time here by the Nazis.  For this reason, Block 11 was known as "the killing block".  Today, there is a memorial between Block 10 and Block 11.

Chimneys Rise from the Crematoria

For some reason, Auschwitz-Birkenau felt much creepier to tour than Auschwitz I.  I think it's because I stopped listening to the guide and just started thinking and looking around at all the chimneys rising from the crematoria in the ground.  We saw the underground room where new arrivals were sent to change and leave their belongings.  The guide explained to us that the new arrivals were told to hurry because there was coffee waiting, and that their cases would be brought to them later.  Instead, they were usually gassed to death right away, or as soon as the gas chambers were available.  The guide told us that afterwards, gold teeth were removed from the corpses, and their hair was cut off.  I really can't imagine what kind of monstrous person could tell these lies to people arriving day after day, knowing that the group would be dead before the sun set."

The Train Tracks End at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
One visitor set a bouquet of memorial flowers on the train tracks where the line ends in the middle of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The guide told us that prisoners were either killed immediately, made to work and then killed, or left trapped in the cattle cars until there was room for them in the gas ovens.

And there you have my personal reflections (and photo explanation additions) from the bus ride back to Krakow.  I was pleased to see that a wide variety of people came to visit the concentration camps and learn about the Holocaust.  Some people think that this tour would mainly or only interest Jews, but I'm pretty sure I was the only Jewish person in my entire tour group.  It's important to remember that although over half the people who were murdered in these camps were Jewish, many other groups of people were also murdered there.

I really struggled with what to put on my itinerary after this tour.  What do you do after visiting a death camp?  Do you sit and brood over the tragedy?  Do you try to cheer yourself up?  Do you reflect as much as you can and then resolve to think about it again another day?  I wasn't sure.  What I did know was that I only had three short days in Krakow, and that every minute was precious since I might not get to return there in the future.  So, I had a snack, ate lunch, and hung around the Main Market Square on my last night in Krakow.

I'm sorry to abruptly switch from writing about a death camp to writing about a nice afternoon, but that's somehow how I managed to create my afternoon.  Though I had seen terrible things all morning, and learned about mass death, I was still alive, and that meant that I needed to feed myself.  I ordered a long sandwich called a zapiekanka near the square, which my guide from the day before had said was a popular snack.  It actually wasn't that good, but I'm glad I tried it.  A zapiekanka is an open faced sandwich with mushrooms, cheese, ketchup, and crunchy stuff I couldn't identify.
Later that evening, I still held onto that overwhelming sense that this was Gamma's country, and that she would want me to go shopping.  I just knew she would.  So I did.  She always like seeing what clothes we bought when we were little, so I stopped into a store called Tatum, and bought what is probably the coolest sweatshirt-non-sweatshirt with draped fabric that I have ever seen.  I know she would have liked it.

One of those coffee-chai lattes
It went great with the floral, fabric-covered, beaded necklace I had purchased the day before.  I also bought one of those infinity scarves I had been wanting.  Though it would be too warm to wear in Madrid, I knew it would be perfect for UChicago. I bet my grandma would have been excited that I'm going to graduate school there.  After a bit more shopping, I stopped once again for a quick dinner/snack at Coffee Heaven, went to sleep at my hostel, and departed once again for Madrid early the next morning.

Again, Krakow makes my top ten travel list.  Not everything on the trip was cheery and easy, but all of it was important, intriguing, and meaningful.  In addition to all the heavy themes of this trip, the city had plenty to keep me busy, plenty of excellent shopping, and plenty to cheer me up after a difficult tour or a pensive moment.  This is probably one of my favorite trips to date, and I would highly recommend visiting Krakow if you can!


  1. Hey Dana,

    I really enjoyed your post, and I'm glad you came away with so many different experiences of Krakow!

    Just wanted to add that the polish bagels are called obwarzanki and they really are absolutely everywhere. The perfect cheap street food. I usually get the poppyseed ones and was snacking on them all throughout my trip.

    The other traditional polish food you'll encounter are palm-sized smoked cheeses called oscypki. They're tasty and locally made, though they're really salty!

    I also find it funny that you mentioned the air quality in the Wieliczka salt mine. I was taken aback to learn that they have entire underground health spas there because the quality of the salty air is supposed to be good for people dealing with asthma and other respiratory problems. The trend is so popular theres even a salt-spa on the northside of Chicago catering to a polish clientele.

    1. Hi Agnes,

      I'm glad you enjoyed reading my post, and thank you for your note about the obwarzanki! I'll add that into the post.

      I was also quite surprised to learn about the underground spas and treatment centers for respiratory problems. Since Chicago has such a large Polish population, I guess it makes sense that it would have a salt-spa. I'll have to check it out someday!

  2. Hi Dana, wow, what an experience! You also have a great great set of grandparents on our side that came from Seidler, and Pultusk, Poland. These towns were about 70 cm from Warsaw. I left all my comments re: the photos, on the photos in your Face Book. Love, Aunt Karyn

    1. Hi Aunt Karyn,

      Good to know - I didn't realize I had great-great grandparents from towns just a few kilometers from Warsaw too. Thanks for the note!