Having returned from my program’s week long traveling seminar, I finally understand why my program organized the trip the way they did. To be honest, before the trip I was a little off-put by being “given” my spring break in Poland. I kept thinking- ‘I have to go to the most fatal and gruesome death camp of WWII for break while my friends get to relax on beautiful white sand beaches?!’ Talk about an emotionally exhausting break! Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely thankful to have the honor to be able to see Auschwitz in my lifetime, but it didn’t quite seem like the European Spring Break I had in mind.
But like I said, now I get it. I had a great week (and not to mention an exhausting one considering we spent over 15 hours on a bus traveling through three different countries) and now my list of places to return to when I’m a real person with money has greatly expanded. Since our trip was so jam-packed and full of activities, I think it is best to document the adventure in installments so you readers are not wasting a good chuck of your life reading this (that is of course, assuming that I have readers other than my mom…).
Krakow, Poland: “Europe’s hidden gem”
In the end, it took us somewhere in between seven and ten hours (about eight hours and 20 minutes but it’s not like I was keeping track…) to get to Krakow from Prague. If you were to look at a map of Central Europe and estimate the distance from Prague to Krakow, you would be flabbergasted that the journey would take so long, and why is this? Well, it’s because there is no straight shot to get there. The road systems of Poland resemble those of northern Wisconsin. There are no large highways or freeways, instead you drive through small town after small town, constantly accelerating on the small stretches between the sleepy towns and then slowing as you pass through the villages. While this trip did a good number on my motion sickness, I nonetheless enjoyed the little trip to my home region.
Arriving in Krakow, I was completely thrown off by its beauty. I had imagined Krakow in a much different way, underestimating its beauty and character, and picturing it as a dark, sterile post-war-built city. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Krakow wasn’t destroyed in WWII (like Warsaw) and is full of historical and charming architecture.
One of my classmates put it nicely when he called Krakow “Europe’s hidden gem” and I couldn’t agree with him more. At one point in time, Prague held this title of the next up-and-coming European city, but Prague can hardly be considered “hidden” anymore. Krakow on the other hand, has yet to become a popular travel destination. Wandering around the old town of Krakow, you are not bombarded by souvenir shops as in many European cities, in fact, I can’t even recall ever seeing one.
Another great thing about Krakow, and Poland in general, is that it is also relatively cheap compared to other European cities. Like the Czech Republic, Poland has kept its national currency despite its European Union membership.
While prices of food and gifts was an easy transition, Polish was a little trickier. At first intimidated, (just as I was getting the hang of Czech, they had to throw another Slavic language at me!) I quickly found that the similarities between Czech and Polish (for many words, just a few letters are different) essentially allowed me to sort of mumble the Czech word or phrase with a little smile and be basically understood. This strategy didn’t work quite as nicely in Austria…
We stayed in Krakow for three nights, keeping busy with tours, lectures, museums, general wandering, and eating our full of the traditional Polish dish, pierogi. Other than a few drizzles, the weather was sunny and beautiful, allowing me to take advantage of the multitude of parks and running paths by the castle and along the river (how many times can you say you went for a jog around a castle?!). Our program included a trip to Schindler’s Factory museum, a city tour, a lecture on communism and trip to the communist built Nova Huta, as well as a discussion with a Polish woman who was given the Righteous Among the Nations award for hiding a young Jewish girl in her home during WWII. The trip was a healthy balance of learning and exploring.
I was so pleasantly surprised by Krakow and its pristine and unspoiled culture. I never would have imagined wanting to return to Krakow later in life, but I would be interested to go back in ten years or so and see how the city has changed. But until then it will stay my little hidden gem of Europe…
Up next: my trip to Auschwitz