We began the first of many journeys by train from one country to another – and this is where it was extremely helpful that the group was only the five of us. It was a lot easier to stay together while navigating crowded train stations and subway cars with our luggage than it would have been with a larger group.
Despite having a suitcase that weighed 50 pounds and a wonky wheel – I think I did a pretty good job managing it the entire trip (although I’ll be happy to never carry it up a flight of stairs again if I can help it). The only time I really needed help with it was loading it on and off some steep train stairs.
To get from Berlin to Krakow we first took a train to a small town on the border of Germany and Poland. Usually, a tour group would have about 15 minutes to catch the overnight train to Krakow but the way that our trip was scheduled, we had a few hours to enjoy the town of Szczecin.
After getting off the train we had a chance to exchange money (going from the Euro to the Polish zloty) and store our luggage in lockers at the train station before heading out to explore. We did a nice walk around the center of town and were all excited to find that we had the place to ourselves AND that it smelled overwhelmingly of chocolate. We couldn't figure out why it smelled so richly of chocolate but when I got home I looked it up and there's a chocolate factory in Szczecin and the streets' smell of chocolate is a well-known fact.
Once we felt we had seen the sights that Szczecin had to offer, we stopped into a local brewery for drinks and dinner since we would be spending the next 10 hours or so on an overnight train ride.
The interior of Wyszak Family Brewery was beautiful and while I didn’t order any food – I did eat plenty of bread and butter and ordered a flight of their three beers (which were giant). I really liked them all – even though none of them were my typical beer preference. I even liked the dark one!
It was a really nice night and I feel like we could have sat there all night drinking and talking but soon it was time to get back to the train station and continue our journey to Krakow.
I’ve always wanted to take an overnight sleeper car train and now it’s officially crossed off the bucket list. The cabins were not luxurious in any way – no mahogany paneling and red velvet headboards. This was not the Hogwarts Express. Instead, each sleeping cabin had a small closet, a little sink in the corner, and three beds stacked one on top of the other. If I were claustrophobic, I would not have done well on this train.
We had kind of assumed there would be a place to sit before we were ready to get into bed – but nope. As soon as you board, you’re in that tiny room in a bed that you can’t sit up in. Yikes.
Thankfully, it was Allison, Heidi and I and we all knew each other. But I can’t imagine how awkward the experience would be had I been in a cabin with strangers. There’s no privacy and I would have felt even more trapped in my bed.
We sat on our suitcases, perched on the sink, in the window frame – anywhere we could to feel like we were still up. David and Josh stood in our doorway and we drank wine and the conversations got more and more interesting as the night wore on. I think it was one of my favorite nights with the group – lots of laughs and interesting perspectives but unfortunately, at a certain point the conductor told us that it was time to be quiet and close our doors.
Of course, that didn’t mean that three girls who just drank a bottle of wine were able to immediately settle down and fall asleep. We were definitely the conductors’ least favorite cabin. At one point, he tried OPENING the door on us – yelling in Polish while we all screamed back in fear.
Once I was laying down, the movement of the train started to rock me to sleep but damn it was LOUD. Luckily, I can sleep through anything, especially on moving vehicles, so I got a decent amount of sleep that night. But I continually woke up because of the banging and train whistles and train station announcements every time we stopped.
We could have closed the window to help with the noise, but then it would have been stiflingly hot in our cabin.
Around 8 AM or so I finally got up for real even though we still had 2-3 hours left. We managed to figure out how to flip the top two beds up into the wall so we were left with a bottom couch we could sit on. I will admit that this part of the trip dragged a little, especially when David came to tell us that we were running 45 minutes behind schedule. But eventually we pulled into the station and walking off that train felt a little bit like walking out of prison (I’m exaggerating – I actually kind of liked the experience).
We had made it to Krakow! And I was so excited to be in the land of my ancestors and more importantly the land of PIEROGIES.
We were able to walk from the train station to our hostel – which couldn’t have been any closer to the Main Square (Rynek Glowny). Our hostel (Heynow Hostel) was very dated, but the fact that we were able to check in and get a shower upon arrival made them winners in my book.
Within 20 minutes Allison and I had both showered and changed (this was a trip of approximately zero down time) and met the group downstairs to walk over to Stary Kleparz. Stary Kleparz is an 800 year old food market.
Read it again. 800 years.
It was by far the most authentic food market we visited during the trip with the most variety. I wandered around for a little while before buying a loaf of grainy, seedy bread that reminded me of Swedish bread (I couldn’t communicate that I just wanted a few slices so – loaf of bread it was!) and the most incredible tapenade I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Dad!) from a vendor selling all different hummus and dips. He was incredibly nice despite the clear language barrier.
We took our food on the go with us and headed back towards our hostel and the Main Square to meet David’s friend who was a tour guide and had agreed to give us our own private tour (with the understanding that we would tip him at the end).
It was a great tour and we stopped at a lot of places that had been on my to-do list.
Rynek Glowny is the main square of Krakow and has two “centerpieces” – the Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica. Both are beautiful – especially lit up at night!
Our tour guide started off by having us guess how many churches are in Krakow and the answer is nuts – 120! Poland is still one of the more religious countries in Europe.
He then told us about the story behind St. Mary’s Basilica – two brothers were each tasked with building a tower on top of the church and when the younger brother realized his brother’s tower was taller, he murdered him. Later, he was so filled with guilt, that he stabbed himself with the same knife and fell from the tower into the square below.
According to our tour guide, the silver knife hanging in the doorway of the Cloth Market is the very knife that the younger brother used. Throughout our tour, he told us stories that are legends but in a way that made us question whether they were fact – he was extremely sarcastic which I personally loved but I think some people were like, “Wait – can you actually tell us the truth? You had to take most things he said with a grain of salt.
Another fun part of St. Mary’s Basilica is the trumpeter that plays a song from the highest tower to signal every hour. The song is called “Hejnal” (pronounced “Hey Now” – the name of our hostel!) He plays it once from each corner of the tower. There are many legends surrounding the Hejnal – including a tale of invaders shooting the trumpeter with an arrow – lending to the abrupt-sounding ending of the tune.
Another building of note in Rynek Glowny was St. Adalbert’s Church. While it appears to be sunken – it was once on ground level which shows how much the surface of the square has risen over the centuries. (Layers and layers of garbage…)
Cloth Hall was basically just filled with touristy stalls - the best part of walking through was trying to pronounce all of the Polish town names that line the halls. The Polish language has additional letters and difficult pronunciations – for example “ł” sounds like “w” and they don’t use q, v or x!
Our next stop was to the Collegium Maius – just the college building where Copernicus studied, no big deal! We happened to arrive right in time for the courtyard clock to go off (every two hours) and a crowd gathered to listen to the song and watch the wooden figures circle around. Thrilling stuff.
David pointed out his favorite little souvenir shop filled with a local artists’ clever comics where I later picked up a deck of playing cards and a postcard. As we walked, I loved this little corner behind the city walls that was filled with beautiful hand painted canvases and made a mental note that there was a 24-hour pierogi place.
A stop on our tour included Piwnica Pod Baranami – a bar that’s been around since the 1950s when it was used as a literary cabaret! (Shows still happen every Saturday night at 9 PM). It was a really cool place to look around at all the old relics, strange art, and random knickknacks covering every inch of the space. It didn’t hurt that the unfiltered beer we had was ice cold and delicious!
Our tour continued up to Wawel Castle which was gorgeous and includes a gold dome on one of the chapels.
As we looked out at the Vistula River below the castle, our tour guide told us about the dragon statue which has lots of folklore and legend surrounding it – he also mentioned that there’s no way of knowing when, but every so often the statue will breathe fire. To our delight, we go there at “the perfect time” as fire burst out of the dragon’s mouth…
Yeah it breathes fire every couple of minutes. We were that gullible.
The next day when I was out for a run I passed the dragon statue for a closer view – 7 heads and all. In the summer, a small cave behind the statue is opened as the “dragon’s cave.”
After our tour wrapped up, Allison and Heidi and I walked through the church before heading our separate ways. Allison and I walked back towards the main square and sat down at the tour-guide recommended Café Camelot for a coffee (some Amaretto might have found its way in into my cappuccino) and to rest our feet.
We shopped our way back towards the hostel (I needed one of those canvases, obviously) and made a stop at Jama Michalika – an extremely historic café filled with old art that you can just pop in to take a look at. By the time we got back to the hostel, we had just a few minutes before meeting the group for dinner and drinks.
We walked to the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) to get a traditional Polish street food – Zapiekanka! If I had to describe it in three words it would be loaded Texas Toast. It’s like a cross between in open faced baguette sandwich and pizza and you can load it with tons of different toppings – but all of it has melted cheese! The bread was airy and crispy and while I would never crave this again – I’m glad I got to try it!
The stand was in the middle of “New Square” with a bunch of other street food vendors and I believe it was called “Mr. and Mrs. Zapiekanka.”
After we finished eating in the street, we went to a bar right across the square called Alchemia. They had an extensive list of cocktails, but I stuck with wine. We found a table in the smoking section – which required us walking through a wardrobe modeled after the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. We settled into Narnia and enjoyed our drinks on the quirky furniture. I really liked the vibe!
Our final stop of the night was to a bar filled with old Singer sewing machines – aptly named Singer Bar. Our tour guide from earlier in the day had joined us for the night out and said we all needed to try a shot of vodka flavored with Orzech Laskowy (Hazlenut) to close out the night. Dad (tour leader David) said, “Well, I was supposed to buy you guys an obwarzanek – but would you rather a shot instead?” to which we all said SOUNDS LIKE A DEAL.
I was really not excited to take a vodka shot but with the hazelnut flavoring it was actually pretty tasty! Never did get to try obwarzanek though…
The next morning, I woke up early to go to the 24-hour pierogi restaurant – we were scheduled to take a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau and we’d need food for the 6-hour excursion.
I walked in the crisp spring air to the nearby restaurant and wasn’t surprised that I was more or less alone in the streets and most definitely alone in Przypiecek. I got two different variety orders – the traditional fillings (meat, cabbage & mushroom and “Russian” which is what I grew up eating – potato & cheese!) and a mix of “fancy” pierogies (broccoli, more Russian, and spinach). I really loved the meat pierogies but still, nothing beat the classic potato and cheese!
I had to laugh – when my pierogies they came out on a real plate - as if I were going to sit down and house two dozen pierogies at 7 AM. I was luckily able to communicate that I wanted them in a to-go box!
Of course, I had to have some with my free hostel breakfast…breakfast of champions right there.
Allison and I set off to walk to where we were getting picked up for our tour – but we were running behind schedule thanks to a stop at Starbucks and were panicking that we were going to miss it. We had set the pick-up location before we knew where we were staying, and luckily once we arrived our driver came up to us and asked if we were part of the tour. It was a small van with about 8 of us – much smaller than I had been expecting which was nice (I booked through Viator!)
It was about an hour and a half drive to Auschwitz, and though I had a full nights’ sleep the night before, I found myself dozing off in the front seat. I slept the entire journey. Something about moving vehicles just knocks me out!
When we arrived we had some time before our tour was scheduled to depart so we used the bathroom (you have to pay – like most places in Europe) and waited around. The weather was a little chilly and gray which seemed fitting for the occasion.
There were tons of people, but Auschwitz is very organized in terms of when they allow tour groups to depart/how many groups at a time/etc.
When it was our turn we met our tour guide and another van of people and went through security where we got a headset. I really liked that as we walked, our tour guide just spoke quietly into his microphone and everyone in our group could hear it in our headsets. There were so many other groups as we made our way through the different sections that it never would have worked if they were all competing to be heard over one another.
The tour was very well done – our tour guide was soft spoken, solemn, and factual without a lot of superfluous language. Honestly, being at Auschwitz and walking through a former concentration camp really speaks for itself.
For me, all of the museum-like displays weren’t as powerful or impactful as just being there. Of course, seeing artifacts that were taken from prisoners as they entered was disturbing – but I had seen a lot of those things at the museum in Washington D.C. already. Plus, it’s hard to even comprehend when you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes that they only represent a small portion of the lives that were lost.
What stood out the most to me was walking down a long hallway filled with pictures of prisoners with the date that they were taken away from their homes and the date that they died. So many of them were a shockingly short period of time – sometimes, just one day.
I think a lot of the time we hear the amazing stories of survival. Survivors can tell us how horrible life in a concentration camp was, but their stories have somewhat happy endings because they made it out. But walking down that hallway was a really striking reminder that those stories we hear from survivors are the vast vast minority. It was hard to find even a handful of people on that wall who lived more than a year from their imprisonment, let alone until the end of the war.
Another part that was shocking was seeing one of the prison blocks where they punished misbehaving prisoners – as if it was possible to be punished more than they already were. They would be forced to stand in miniscule cells for days on end – it was impossible to sit down or really even move at all. Sometimes there would even be more than one prisoner placed in these standing cells. Seeing it in person sent shivers down my spine.
Outside of that block was the “shooting wall” where prisoners were killed. That was another part of the tour that made me stand still and just stare in disbelief and shock.
Moving through the blocks was a little frustrating at times because it was sooo slow moving and packed with people. But the tour ends going into Crematorium 1 and at that point I felt like our group was pretty much on its own.
As we approached, I saw people standing outside looking shocked and sad and I took a deep breath before walking in.
But nothing could have prepared me for the feeling that overcame me while I was standing there. I had remained stoic throughout the tour, all things considered, but the second I was inside Crematorium 1 tears just started pouring down my face.
It was like nothing I’ve ever experience before – there were barely even any thoughts in my head I just knew I felt so sad and shocked and there were tears coming out of my eyes and my chest was tight and my throat burned and it didn’t even feel real. I tried to take in the gravity of where I was standing. All the books and diaries I’ve read about World War II. The class I took in college with a Holocaust survivor. The documentaries and movies. And I was standing where it happened.
I couldn’t stay in there for very long – but it was even more moving than I could have imagined it would be.
That was where the Auschwitz portion of the tour ended, and we walked back in relative silence to the van to drive over to Birkenau for the second part.
Walking into Birkenau was another surreal experience because it’s such an iconic picture – we walked down the train tracks where cars full of prisoners were “sorted” – the vast majority being sent straight to the gas chambers while those that were capable of work were sent to the camps.
A lot of Birkenau is just remains, as the Nazi’s destroyed much of it before liberation. We walked around, saw the remains of one of the Crematorium which is now a big monument/memorial, and then finished the tour by going into one of the barracks where it hit me for the first time just how cramped the quarters were for prisoners. Sometimes there were 3-4 people in a “bed” and the ones on the bottom were so tight that you had to slide into them on your side. People couldn’t sit up in them in the slightest. It was horrifying to see.
I'm so grateful that I had the chance to tour Auschwitz and Birkenau. It sounds like a weird bucket-list item, but it's always something I've felt I needed to do and it was absolutely worth the time, emotional discomfort, money, etc. It was actually one of the reasons I found this tour group - I knew I wanted to go to Berlin and Budapest but it seemed like a waste to be so close to so many historically relevant Eastern European cities and not get to them. I started researching a trip to Auschwitz from Berlin or Budapest, and eventually found this trip that was all planned out for me.
The van ride back to Krakow was a somber one, and I smelled up the whole van with pierogies. And slept, per usual.
We got dropped off closer to our hostel than we had been picked up which was nice. And I almost immediately changed into sneakers and headed out for a run. I needed to work through all the thoughts and emotions of the day and what better way to do that than a run? Moving meditation.
I loved running in Krakow - there is a park that surrounds the entire old city (Planty Park). It's just crazy to me how rarely you see people exercising outside in some of these European cities. I only passed two other runner's the entire time.
I set out at half past the hour for my run, and just planned on running around the old city until the Hejnal played signaling that I'd been running for 30 minutes. I finished at the door of the hostel just as the trumpeter started! It was the perfect little run.
It's crazy how a few solitary minutes running around, discovering a new city always end up being some of my favorite memories from different destinations. You can ask me "How do you like Nashville" and I'll vividly remember my early morning run down Broadway and the smell of BBQ at 6 AM. You can ask me, "How was Barcelona?" and I can tell you about the farmer's market I passed on the run or that there were tons of other runner's out along the water.
After my run, Allison and I went to a bar/cafe I had read about called Bunkier Cafe in the middle of the Planty Gardens. They have a huge outdoor area and it was nice to sit outside in the beautiful park with a cold beer! We also ordered flavored syrups which you pour in your beer - I got passionfruit! It was delicious - and it reminded me of college when I would use Mio to flavor my cheap beer. I was really just doing the European thing.
Afterwards, we stopped at a cute salad shop I had passed on my run and got ourselves something that we could eat on the following days' train ride (we got the most amazing salads from Fitagain Cafe and they were everything that I ever wanted!). On the walk back to the hostel, we couldn't refuse a photo shoot in the square since it was the perfect pre-sunset lighting.
For dinner, we met back up with David ("Dad") and Heidi to the somewhat hidden Kuchnia U Babci Maliny which had been on my "to eat" list. You need to go through a courtyard and library to get into it, and once inside its a quirky little place. You order at the counter and then they'll call your number and ring a bell when it's ready.
At Dad's recommendation, I ordered the beet soup and OMG IT WAS SO GOOD. Actually, every time I ordered soup this entire trip I was obsessed with it. But this one might have been the winner.
For my main dish I ordered the pork with oatmeal porridge - the meat was amazing but I had been looking forward to "oatmeal porridge" and it was dry and bland and pretty disappointing.
After dinner, we couldn't get the energy to go out, so we bought a bottle of wine and went back to the hostel where we realized a) we apparently weren't supposed to drink and b) we didn't have a bottle opener.
This resulted in us struggling to open the bottle of wine with a knife which turned into push the cork through into the bottle and the red wine resembling a volcano science project all over the kitchen.
Once we cleaned up...we played a few rounds of cards as we drank the wine and eventually headed to bed.
The next morning was another early one but our trip was done in style - a van was waiting for us outside with a driver dressed in a suit! He drove u to the train station where we would catch a train to our next destination: Prague!
PS: My favorite fun fact is that in Polish, one common insult translates to calling someone "potato face."
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