I am in Krakow again. Last time I visited it, it was in winter, two weeks before Christmas. The temperature was cold (three Celsius), covered by snow, it was beautiful. Its Christmas market was fun.
Because my last visit was short, the day even shorter, (dark at 3:45 p.m, in December), I did not travel beyond the city – the Wieliczka Salt Mine, the famous Auschwitz Concentration Camp. This time, summer was in full swing. My hopes to see more of the city were high.
During my previous stay, the hotel cost me $47.00, this time $80.00 (summer rate). So I stayed in a youth hostel. Checking online, I found dozens of them in this touristy city, the number seemed to increase every week. I chose the new Good Bye Lenin, partly because it uses the name of one of my favorite movies and it is near the Kazimierz, old Jewish neighborhood recently turned trendy. Actually, this neighborhood has gone through a huge cultural revival after it was featured in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List".
The Good Bye Lenin is in a nice single house (unlike many Eastern European hostels that are in an apartment building). It has a courtyard for sitting, drinking, even for barbecueing. Lucky for me, they did host a barbecue the first night I arrived. Strangely, there was a large number of Dutch travelers. Later I found out that one of the co-owners is Dutch. Great place to go if you like to hang out with the Dutch!
Walking past the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny) several times, I still remember this as the location where two Veronicas briefly met in Kielowski's 1991 cinema masterpiece "The Double Life of Veronica." Krakow looked quaint and not touristy in that movie. It was from a time when Krakow hadn't yet been discovered by mass tourism. Now Rynek Glowny is swarmed with visitors, most storefronts in the Square have converted to expensive restaurants, coffee and souvenir shops.
Three days for Krakow
I planned three days for Krakow. In two afternoons, I traveled out of town to see more sites. I went to Wieliczka Salt Mine. I was able to get there by suburban train. However, it took me awhile to find the entrance to the mine. It took me even more time to locate the bus back to town, 65 zloty for foreigners (16 euro), a bit pricey. After getting in, I noticed it was much cooler than the outside, a good way to get out of the heat wave. The salt mine is a little Disneyland, at least its cathedral is impressive. There is a wall cameo of "The Last Supper" and a sculpture of the late Pope John Paul II. Everything is made of salt rocks.
The next afternoon, for 99 zloty (high), I joined a tour to see Auschwitz, the most (in)famous Nazi concentration camp in history. The experience definitely was depressing. Ironially, it started to rain midway through our tour. Then it poured. Most did not have umbrellas, all ended up soaking wet. By the time we finished seeing Auschwitz II – Birkenau, we were cold, shivering in the rain, really miserable. It was such an eerie experience. Thinking about the suffering people had experienced in this hell, our misery seemed minor.
I also went to a suburban district of Krakow, Nowa Huta. It's one of only two full-scale Soviet planned communities ever realized, with blocks of monotonous buildings and large boulevards. It was actually nicer than I expected. The buildings are boring, but not ugly (compared to those I saw in St. Petersburg, Russia). There is a lot of green space around and a nice park. Ironically, the Central Square was renamed "Ronald Reagan Square". Communism is dead, even in the heart of a Soviet-style community.
After the three days in Krakow, I thought it time to continue my trip. I know the next few countries I plan to see are more difficult to travel around in, not as developed as Poland. (They don't use the Roman Alphabet). Their political situation has turned a little volatile since spring elections. Although I felt a bit daunted, I decided to go ahead.
So off I hopped on an overnight bus to Ukraine.
You can read more of Saricie Kuo's complete travelogues for his 2006 Eastern European trip in chronological order at this link.