Krakow: History Among the Snow

Krakow: History Among the Snow

If I thought Berlin was cold, Krakow was a shock to the system. Before heading off on this trip I knew I wasn’t going to be basking in glorious sunshine, but the change in temperature from balmy southern France was a struggle to cope with.

I’d packed layers upon layers, sturdy walking boots that would be able to cope with ice and snow, and treated myself to a properly insulated jacket. But the cold has a way of creeping in and my first day in Krakow pushed my willpower to keep going on this trip.

But, first, the journey there. One of the annoying parts of having an Interrail pass is that to use fewer “travel days”, if you travel overnight, you have to leave after 7pm and arrive after 4am for it to count only as one day. For any trips outside of those hours you use two of your allocated days of travel, so to make the trip to Krakow from Berlin, rather than take a fairly quick train, the only option was to go on a rather annoying trip up to the very north of Poland (Szczecin) and then all the way down to Krakow. If you look at this on a map it’s rather ludicrous. But anyway, it meant a night on an overnight train, which is always an experience.

Overnight train cabin, Szczecin to Krakow

Some of our connections were only a couple of minutes apart but given they more mostly in Germany, this was not a problem. Do German trains ever run late? I’m remarkably impressed by their punctuality. I did however have my first issue with a train conductor as we boarded the train at Szczecin, he got rather irate with me because he claimed I was using two days of travel rather than one, and after a bit of back and forth, he took my pass from me and said I could have it back in the morning. I think to some extent that part is normal, but his attitude (and consequently mine) had put me on edge.

We had a cabin with two bunks, which Damian had booked. My allocated spot was a seat in a six-person carriage, with no beds. I didn’t particularly fancy sitting up for the next 9 hours, so made myself comfy in the cabin (the conductor also had a problem with that because Damian is only one person, and the cabin is for two people).

It was a rather unremarkable journey. I slept for most of it, obviously. The only horror came in the morning when I decided to take a shower and could only get ice cold water out of the faucet. Given the sub-zero temperatures outside, I was hoping to warm myself up slightly, but alas.

On arrival in Krakow just before 10am, we found our hostel (pretty much opposite the station) and dumped our bags before heading off to explore. We managed to tag onto a free walking tour that had just started and got a very good overview of the Old Town from our guide Jacek. Not only was he informative, he was funny. It’s hard enough to be funny in your own language, but to do so in another tongue is a skill.

Wawel Castle, Krakow

It was about -14 Celsius that day, and after two hours of walking around the Old Town, I was chilled to my bones. One of the hostel staff recommended we eat at a dumpling restaurant on Slawkowska called Pryzpiecek. It was 14 zloty (about £2.80) for nine dumplings, and they were fresh, hot, and pretty damn tasty. Afterwards, I couldn’t face it any more. My feet were hurting, I had blisters on blisters (by this point I had walked 20 miles in just under three days), and I was so cold I ached. So, we went back to the hostel and I didn’t move from my bed for the rest of the afternoon.

We had also booked to go to Auschwitz the next day, so I knew that I wanted to be as rested as possible before I went.

The hostel (Greg and Tom’s) is by far the best value I have experienced. We paid £10 a night for a mixed dorm, and with that we got free breakfast and dinner. The meals were very good, and there was more than enough for seconds (or thirds) and then after dinner, you get free booze for the night! It meant that over the three days I was in Poland, I spent just £10 on food and zilch on alcohol, and what I did buy was in places (like Auschwitz) where it was slightly more expensive than normal).

The Tuesday, our second day, was spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau. That experience is something I have written about in more detail, which you can read here.

Kazimierz street art, Krakow

The last day in Krakow, the Wednesday, we decided to take another free walking tour, but this time of the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz). It was with the same company and our guide for this one, Gosia, was excellent. Going in to the tour, I knew it would be quite heavy going, especially after hearing everything at Auschwitz the previous day, but Gosia balanced it out with interesting facts about broader Jewish-Polish history and tales of legends. She was so knowledgeable and engaging that the 2.5 hours in the cold went by very fast.

The tour ended at Schindler’s Factory, and while we could have continued a guided tour around that museum, it would have cost extra on top of the museum entry fee (21 zlotys/£4.20), so we decided to get some coffee and cake and take the museum in at our own pace.

Herbrew phrase in a Synagogue, Krakow

Gosia left us with the real story of Oskar Schindler, not the Spielberg/Hollywood version, and I am glad his motives were not glossed over. I think my overall feeling about the man was that yes, he did save 1,000s of Jews who would have perished, but it was not him who created the eponymous list and it is entirely unclear if he was saving these people because of his realisation of the horror that would befall them if he did not, or just that employing them saved him some money as he did not have to pay them a wage like other Poles. There are many people who would not be here today because of his efforts, but I don’t think his role as a Nazi can be overlooked and it is much more complicated than the cinematic version.

Schindler’s Factory is less about Schindler himself, but rather about the occupation of Krakow by the Nazis. Again, it was fascinating to read more accounts of that period. The museum is interactive and immersive, and is a must-visit.

Krakow itself is a beautiful city, but like Berlin, one cannot ignore its recent history. But the people are welcoming, warm and proud of the city it now is (but still annoyed that it lost its capital status to Warsaw – prepare to hear a lot about that if you take in any tours!).

How I got there
Train – Berlin > Szczecin > Krakow (13 hours)

Where I stayed
Greg and Tom’s hostel

How much I spent
£74 (including £20 on Interrail fees) or £25 a day

Top Tip
Go on free walking tours, and I would recommend this company specifically. If you enjoyed the tour, a tip is appreciated by the guide.

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