Krakow, Poland was our 1st stop on our current Central & Eastern European tour and it was challenging to say the least, but through no fault of this magical city. No, it was purely a “jet lag / lack of sleep” kind of thing where the entire crew was operating on less than ideal conditions with little to no time for sleep or time change adjustment before we began shooting for Season 2. We had only 5 days to attempt to tell Krakow’s story and we didn’t want to waste one single day.
Other than myself looking exhausted on camera (the bags under my eyes had bags of their own), and our cameraman extraordinaire, Scott taking a wicked tumble down the winding stair case in our apartment (no broken bones and better even yet, no broken cameras) , we came through Krakow not only in tact but feeling we’d documented a pretty sweet episode.
Special thanks to Sara, a U.S. ex-pat, Polish language student & travel writer from Minnesota who now calls Krakow home. Sara helped us out immensely with pre-trip tips and then showed us around the fairytale like Wawel Hill & Castle overlooking the Olde Town. A fire breathing dragon is the mascot here in Krakow and there is one that actually breathes fire every 3-4 minutes or so guarding the castle from below.
Walking around the castle grounds, perhaps it was the jet lag but I felt almost transported back to my childhood when my imagination could wander free with fantastical thoughts. I remembered fondly my mother reading fairy tales to me about dragons, knights and wicked witches. Yes, Krakow has a very mid-evil feel and for good reason as it gives new meaning to the word old. It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569.
For a more recent historical journey, Sara also took us to the now trendy, old Jewish District where prior to World War II tens of thousands of Jews lived and worked. Today travelers the world over visit this area to see the last part of the remaining wall from the old Jewish Ghetto the Nazi’s built to corral the Jewish population before shipping many of them out to their deaths in nearby concentration camps. Sadly, today there are only a handful of Jews left in Krakow.
Reminders of this history and the tragedy that befell so many Jews in WW II was evident throughout Krakow. The friendly folks at Schindler’s Museum took us on a fascinating tour of their new museum set on the grounds of the old and now famous Schindler’s Factory where Oskar Schindler risked his own neck to save over 1,000 Jews from certain death.
A somber bus trip to nearby Auschwitz was personally fulfilling and helped bring some perspective to an event that has been covered via film & TV so much as to seem almost intangible to me at times. However, seeing 1st hand a Nazi wallet allegedly fashioned from human skin on display at Schindler’s along with the mugshot photos of the many prisoners on the walls of the Auschwitz barracks really brought the surreal horror of what happened home for me. The eyes of the prisoner’s told their story, a sad realization perhaps that they were going to die in horrible fashion.
Man’s inhumanity to man throughout human history never ceases to amaze and dismay me. Auschwitz and Schindler’s were not happy places but they were not overly depressing either. I feel both the museum and Auschwitz hit the proper sober and respectful tone without being remotely exploitative and I recommend all visitors to Krakow please check them out.
On a happier note a trek out to the recently created Cafe Finska help restore my faith in humanity just a bit. The ladies from the all girl punk & rock band “Brains All Gone” accompanied us there after playing an amazing acoustic set for us in the park by the river to a gathering crowd of onlookers. I’ve included a music video of Brains All Gone so you can check them out for yourself. Trust me when I say that they sound even better live and really, who could ask for a better band name?
Cafe Finska has a neat concept in that everything is 100% free and is run purely through donations and volunteers working to keep the cafe open. They hosts events such as musical concerts, poetry readings and on the day we were there, there was a loosely organized Spanish language lesson taught by a cool chap from Chile now living in Krakow. How ironic that just 25 years after the fall of communism in Poland, that a cafe challenging the very premise of capitalism would spring up. The pendulum of human history continues to swing from one side to the next and perhaps will forever be thus but I nevertheless find it fascinating.
Other highlights of the trip was a tour that immersed us via a “miner’s tour” in the famous Wieliczka Salt Mines nearby. Special thanks to our new pals at See Krakow for lining this up for us. I highly recommend them when visiting Krakow and a tour to the salt mines is a must.
On everyone’s list of favorites was the “Communism Tour” from Crazy Guides in a typical Trabant car to Nowa Huta, a throwback suburb of Krakow from back in the communist era. This tour was about as a-typical as you can get and we all raved about our lunch in an actual Milk Bar (communist style, government subsidized cafeteria).
We had some authentic, home made Polish & Eastern European specialties such as perogies, cabbage, borsch soup, etc. at simply dirt cheap prices. We all agreed it was by far the best meal we had on the trip, bar none, and the “no frills” no smiling (and almost no talking) service literally felt like we were in 1970s Poland in Iron Curtain times.
Krakow was full of visitors but very few from the U.S. It’s Europe’s darling and I think it will soon be a favorite of the U.S. soon. I know I can’t wait to get back, just hopefully sans all the work obligations and with a bit more sleep under my belt.
To see more photos from our travels to Krakow and Poland visit our set on Flikr HERE.