Krakow is a fantastic place to go on holiday if you want an unusual ‘adventure’ style holiday that will give you a taste of an unusual culture in a cold, historical and gothic city untouched by Western country. It barely costs anything and there’s a wealth of things to see and do. Many articles would now look at and list all the sites in Krakow along with some information about the area and the food. However, this article will take a different approach, describing my first-hand account of a visit to Krakow which will hopefully give you a far better feel for the kind of holiday to expect and whether or not you would want to go. Hopefully you’ll also pick up some tips that will help you on your own trip. I went in Spring 2008 with my friend ‘Goof’ I order to explore my heritage (I am half Polish) and to have an adventure that would be something a bit different from the usual holiday by the beach.
So the trip was awesome, and the mountains in Zakopane were the definite highlight for me and we actually did a pretty tough route that had steep ledges, thick snow and fantastic views. We at one point set off on our own up a visible mountain, designing our own route up the side. We got worried about frost bite and had to run back – literally leaping down the side of the mountain landing in deep sow each time. Goof at one point got submerged in snow up to his waist and I had to yank him out. We also had a beer and some soup in a little lodge for skiers. All in all a complete success. Apart from the moment when I wasn't looking and Goof managed to knock over everybody's skis like dominoes. Those are expensive things. Everyone looked at him except me who was trying to pretend I didn't know him. Pretty awkward. Oh yes and then there’s the fact that we went completely unprepared with only t-shirts, jeans and trainers. Everyone else had hiking boots on, which got us ridiculed by a few local kids who saw us sliding repeatedly down a gentle gradient. We eventually had to use a stick as a pick-axe to get up.
Also note that if you want to go to Zakopane you will have to take the train system which will take you about three hours from Krakow and is actually a rather frightening experience. When we travelled there it was full of five tramps huddling for warmth. This is really just one example of why you should only go to Krakow if you’re looking for a bit of adventure and excitement – it’s really not a place for a ‘luxury’ holiday.
What else did we do? Auschwitz of course, which was Goof’s favorite part of the trip. It’s unusual though in that it’s not quite the same as I imagined in that there’s not the unsettling atmosphere you read about. If anything it felt a bit like an abandoned school (although there were some very disturbing moments, the furnace and the room full of hair being two notable examples). That was okay anyway, and we got some good pictures standing on the famous train tracks and heard some very interesting things. We also got lost in Krakow that day as Goof lead us 3 miles in the complete opposite direction to where we wanted to go. We also visited the salt mines in Wielizke which were very interesting and sparkling (they look more like crystal than salt and one room has a massive chandelier and ball-room type décor) and Wawel castle, which we actually stumbled upon by accident. That turned out to be one of the ‘7 energy centers’ of the Earth that allegedly corresponds with our chakras. Either way it was a very impressive castle and typical of Krakow that you could ‘accidentally’ stroll into something of that much historical significance. We were pretty baffled by it at the time, but I would highly recommend it as it’s right in the center of the city and completely free to enter.
Of course we also did the usual, clubbing and pubbing and... Restauranting. Pretty good nightlife there, though randomly it's all underground... I threw up the first night – the alcohol over there is mega strong and they’re very likely to serve you tall glasses of vodka for almost no money. That night we also met quite a few foreigners from other European countries which was nice as they spoke English (no one speaks English who lives there). The nights out were definitely different from anywhere else and the fact that they were underground made for a very unique atmosphere as did some unusually themed placed with ‘new world’ music and unusual lighting. The cheap alcohol and selection of people from different countries all out there to have fun also meant the nights were better than at home. The last night Goof put all my stuff on my bed and I threw nuts at him for a few hours. The restaurants were good too and similarly atmospheric, and so cheap that on one occasion we gave a tip that was worth more than the meal – because we didn’t have anything smaller! The lady looked as us like we were completely insane and unable to explain ourselves in a language she’d understand we opted to just run away leaving her holding over twice the cost of the meal. (As a side not, currently the currency is still Polish Zlotti).
Poland is where my roots are and that's a big part of why I wanted to go. The place is historical, scenic and impressive and the people are mainly quite nice even if some came off a bit rude due to the language barrier. Krakow itself is almost as impressive from an architectural point of view as Rome with large gothic buildings and churches around every turn. The culture also makes itself known in other ways too, through the shows, festivals and markets that are on in the square almost every night and in the unique food (as for golumpki, avoid the soup…).
On the other hand, some areas though are complete slums and absolutely no-one spoke any English. Getting around was scary and difficult but Goof and I were proud to say we did it successfully for this very reason and in retrospect, it’s the challenge, the culture shock and the language barrier that made Krakow so fun and such an achievement. It’s not been completely Westernised (not at all in fact) and you need to keep your wits about you. On the first night we couldn't find anything to eat, we found a petrol station where they were rude and offish then we went on to que at a drive thru by standing between cars. As mentioned, the train to Zakopane was the hardest and most scary. It was over 3 hours and the station had about 20 tramps in it and stank. At one point some Polish farmer guy got on and sat with us to talk. Pretty nerve wracking/awkward, but he was actually a funny nice guy, even if he was covered in dirt. The trains themselves also looked like they belonged in the 50s and the bin fell off the wall where we were sitting. Another tramp-ish guy we met took Goof's gluwine when we were at a fair in the town square. He then babbled at us for half an hour. After that we heard an opera performed live outside. All that just shows what a random fun time we had.
Our hotel was okay too, it had the internet, (so I could Facebook), and a nice view of a petrol station. For a two star though it wasn't bad at all and we barely paid anything for it so we can’t really complain. Although it was a little way from the town centre too, taxis were so cheap that this wasn’t even an issue. This is something to note if you go – that you won’t need a car and that the taxis are the best way to travel as long as you ring in advance (getting into a random taxi can be dangerous in Krakow which is also sometimes known as the ‘City of Knives’). Even the plane journey, though via Milan, (??), was fine. We had ample leg room and free alcohol and I chatted to a Greek guy on the first flight while Goof befriended the steward on the second. The only negative thing I would say about the trip was that it was exhausting! We learned to grab rest whenever possible, sleeping for minutes at a time on coaches, trains, planes and even benches in the airport. Randomly my Step Dad Pete took us to Woking seven hours before we had to be at Heathrow... And it just got more tiring from there really. In a way though this was good as the moments we did find to rest we really appreciated.
So I'm glad I went. I even got an amber pendant for the chain around my neck to replace my old one from there. We didn't get to see Warsaw unfortunately as we only went for a week and it’s a fairly long journey (similar to Zakopane) so bear this in mind if you’re planning on going and want to see them both. What's also good is that Goof had a really good time. I was worried he wouldn't and I'd feel bad for dragging him along but he loved the adventure aspect and now we're talking about a future trip to Italy.
So should you go to Krakow? Well by now you probably already know and have a far better idea than you would had you read a list of sites to see in the country. Hopefully this will give you a good feeling for the experience and you’ll know if it sounds right for you or not. In summary though, if you want a fun ‘back-packer’ style holiday in Europe on shoe-string budget, then Krakow is under-rated and a great experience.