When I announced a few months ago that I was traveling to Poland, a lot of people messaged me about the trip. While many of them were very excited for me, one message in particular stood out. It was from a Polish Instagrammer who told me to make sure that while I was in Poland I saw more than just the death camps.
While Poland is mostly known in the West for the death camps, the culture and nationality of Poland actually dates back over a thousand years, with Krakow itself being established in the 7th Century. Aside from the Holocaust, Krakow has seen the Mongol invasion, the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Polish-Ottoman War, the three Partitions of Poland, the Napoleonic Wars, the two World Wars, the invasion of the Soviet Union and their final independence from Communism in the 1990s.
Knowing there was much more to Poland than just Auschwitz, I made sure to book a walking tour with SeeKrakow, a tourism company within the city. Since I was already using that company to travel to Auschwitz, I figured I would use them to explore the city as well. However, because the Auschwitz tour went so late, I had to organize a private walking tour of the city instead. It would cost me 360 Polish Zloty, which is $92 American or $120 Canadian, and would last three hours.
Or, at least, it was supposed to.
The trouble began at 8 AM that morning when I went to catch my bus for Auschwitz. Although I was there on time, the bus wasn't. After standing in the rain for 10 minutes, I decided to call the company and see what was going on. I discovered my pick-up time had been moved forward a half hour. SeeKrakow said they sent me an email telling me about the change, but I never got it. It wasn't a big deal but had I not made that call, I would have probably given up waiting by 8:30 and left, missing my bus to Auschwitz.
After our trip to Auschwitz, we arrived back in Krakow at 4:30 PM. I had an hour to clean up and then I went to the nearby meeting place, which was outside my suite. My tour was supposed to begin at 5:30 but 5:30 came and went and nobody was there to meet me. At 5:50 I Facebook messaged the company and asked about the tour. They gave me a phone number to call and I was transferred to the only person there who spoke English. He copied down my phone number and said he would call me back when he figured out what was going on.
At 6:15 I called them back and the man apologized; he had copied my number down incorrectly. My tour guide, he said, was not coming, as she had been in an "accident". He asked if I wanted a refund or to reschedule for the next day. Being as I was leaving for Kyiv the next day, rescheduling wasn't an option. He understood and was going to send me a new guide who would, apparently, be there in fifteen minutes. She arrived at 6:45, a whole hour and fifteen minutes after my tour was supposed to start. She was a great tour guide, but it was so late that the city was getting dark and everything was closed. She then told me that she could only be my guide until 8:30 as she had to go pick up her daughter from piano.
Because of this, my three hour tour, which was originally to end just after sunset, was now only just over an hour and a half long and ended in pitch blackness. To say the least, I was not very impressed. Nevertheless, I did my best to enjoy my short but sweet tour of Krakow Old Town.
The first stop on our tour was Jagiellonian University. This university was built in 1364, and is the second oldest university in Central Europe. The university had a rough start getting funding and could only be completed when Queen Jadwiga (also known as Queen Hedwig) sold all of her jewelry to pay for it it. Once completed, it quickly rose to international fame and as early as the 15th Century over 40% of the school's population came from outside of Poland.
However, these glory days were not to last as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fell under tough economic times and the school's population dwindled, along with its reputation. This decline would last for two hundred years with many of the buildings falling into disrepair. Evidence of this can be seen in a document found in the university's archives, which reads: "Nobody lives in the building, nothing happens there. If the lecture halls underwent refurbishment they could be rented out to accommodate a laundry".
The economy of Poland improved in the 20th Century and the university began a refurbishment program that saw a growth in its population. The university was once again gaining in influence until 1939 when the Germans occupied Poland. Quickly after the occupation, Germany began Sonderaktion Krakau which was the systematic removal of authority figures in Krakow that might speak critically of the Third Reich's ideology. Of the victims chosen by the Germans, 184 of these were professors at the university, who were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. After this incident, the university was closed.
The university would struggle in Post-War Poland with the Communist government refusing to even fund it, so it wouldn't be until 1991 that the university would finally start growing again. Several new buildings, campuses and research centers are currently being added in honor of its 600th Anniversary.
One of the most famous students of this university was Karol Wojtyła, who is more commonly known as the late Pope Saint John Paul II.
We arrived at the university while it was closing and my guide gave me a brief history lesson from outside the courtyard. After about 10 minutes we were asked to leave, and walked towards Planty Park, a massive park that surrounds the old city.
Planty Park, my guide told me, is built where the old stone walls of the city once stood. These walls were dismantled by the Austrians during one of the Partitions of Poland during the 19th Century. Only 3 of the original 47 towers remain today. Planty Park is absolutely beautiful but, unfortunately, it was too dark to properly enjoy while I was there.
Our next stop was the base of Wawel Castle, a fortress that sits on the edge of the river Vistula. This massive castle was first built in the 13th Century and then was rebuilt in the 14th Century. Polish royalty lived in the castle for several hundred years until the beginning of the 17th Century, when they relocated to Warsaw.
After the royal family moved to Warsaw, the building fell into ruin. It was further damaged a few years later during the 1655 and 1702 Swedish invasions. Wawel Castle then fell under control of Prussia, but switched ownership to Austria in 1794 during the Third Partition of Poland. The Austrians destroyed several buildings in the castle and rebuilt many of the walls. It wasn't until 1905 that the Polish finally regained control of the castle. Following World War I it was partially restored and became the home to the President of Poland. After Poland was ravaged by World War II, the castle became a museum.
Although the description of the tour I went on said we would be entering the castle, by the time we got there it had already closed. Visiting Wawel Castle was one of the things I looked forward to the most about this tour, so once again I was pretty disappointed.
However, there was one interesting thing we got to see at Wawel castle; an actual fire breathing dragon! When the city was first being established in the 7th Century, it was plagued by the dragon that would steal and kill livestock. The first ruler of Krakow summoned knights from around Europe to slay the beast, but they all failed. It wasn't until a young cobbler named Krak appeared, not with a sword but with an idea. He killed a local sheep and filled it with sulfur. He then threw the dead sheep into the dragon's den, and waited. The dragon ate the sheep and got sick. In anger the dragon attempted to blow fire out of its mouth, but the sulfur absorbed the fire and caused the dragon to explode.
Krak the cobbler than became Krakus the prince, the founder of Krakow, and built his castle above the dragon's den.
Today the dragon's den is open to the public to tour, and outside the den is a natural gas fueled dragon statue which spews fire into the sky every five minutes. In an attempt to modernize the statue, the fire breathing can also be activated via text message.
Unfortunately, the den was locked this night and the dragon statue was turned off due to the rain.
We walked around the castle and arrived at Kanonicza Street, one of the most beautiful streets in Krakow. This street is lined with scores of Renaissance and Baroque town houses, many with decorated facades. This street was also home to the clergy of both the Wawel Cathedral (which is inside Wawel Castle) and the nearby churches. It is said the royal family would walk this street on their way to Krakow's Main Square. Kanonicza Street was originally built back before street addresses existed so the houses all had their own unique animal. One of the houses on this street still has its decorative emblem above the doorway, and is known locally as "The House Under the Lion".
Kanonicza Street leads up to a small plaza that showcases two beautiful churches: St. Andrew's Church, which was built in 1079, and Saints Peter and Paul Church, which was built in 1597. Both of these churches were closed by the time we arrived at them, but a quick search online told me that St. Andrew's Church is one of the best maintained early Romanesque pieces of architecture in Poland, and is both a church and a fortress. It was also used to protect the citizens of Krakow during the Mongolian invasion. Saints Peter and Paul Church is notable in both it's very Italian architecture and the fact that every Thursday the staff of the church hangs Poland's longest Foucault pendulum, which swings freely side to side and measures visually the rotation of the earth. It is also one of the largest churches in Krakow.
Just north of the churches is the Main Square. As the rain continued to fall I used my phone to take pictures of the square, and while they aren't the best, they definitely capture the sheer size of it. Krakow's Main Square is one of the largest in Europe and, I learned later, is entrance to Rynek Underground, a massive underground museum which showcases the past 700 years of Krakow's history via holograms.
The Main Square has always been important to Krakow, and has a long history dating back to just after the Mongolian invasion ended. The square was used for commerce, public executions, parades and battles between opposing forces. When the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, the square was temporarily renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz.
To the north of the square is the beautiful St. Mary's Basilica, a 14th Century gothic church. My guide told me that when the Mongolian army was advancing on the city, a guard alerted the city by playing a trumpet signal called the "Hejnał mariacki". When the Mongolians heard the song, they fired arrows at the church and one of them struck the guard in the neck, killing him instantly. Every hour the trumpet signal is played in the tower and every time it is played it cuts off suddenly, right on the final note the guard played before he died.
The church has much more history than that, but much like everywhere else we visited that night, it was closed so I only know a small fraction of its incredible legacy.
My guide then led me back to a nearby restaurant that she recommended, and left me to try some typical Polish food. The meal was fantastic and consisted of mashed potatoes, a cabbage and sausage dish and drink called "kompot" or "susz", which is a beverage made from the juices of boiled fruit and is then chilled. It may sound a little strange, but it was actually very good!
I missed a lot while in Krakow, with the bad weather and late night tour attributing to it. Outside of what I missed during my tour, there was much more that I didn't get to see throughout the city. I also didn't get to fully explore the Main Square, nor go to the underground museum. I didn't get to the city's Jewish quarter and former Jewish ghettos, nor did I visit Oskar Schindler's Factory. I also didn't visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which I hear is incredible.
While leaving the city, I felt there was more that I missed than what I actually saw. Krakow is thriving with history, museums, art, architecture and a millennium old culture. These are things I had no idea of when I went there, and I really wish I had spent more time there. Out of all the things I did on this trip, my biggest regret was not having enough time in Krakow.
If I ever go again, however, I don't think I would use the services of SeeKrakow. Of the two tours I booked with them, one was delayed and one almost never happened. $120 for a tour that only lasted 90 minutes where every place we went was closed wasn't worth my time. Had it been earlier in the day when the shops were open, had the weather been nicer and had I had my full three hours of my tour, I'm sure I would have had a wonderful time. However, the company didn't impress me, so if I ever return to Krakow I will be touring it by myself.
Have you ever been to Krakow? Have you ever used the services of SeeKrakow? Let me know in the comments below. I'd love to hear about other places in the city that I missed!
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And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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