Monday, 23 January 2017

Kraków | Auschwitz & Wieliczka Salt Mine

- warning: some may find the photos/issues discussed in this post distressing -


2016/17 was a year of big birthdays for my family: I turned 21 in September, my Mum turned 50 in December and my Sister was 18 at the start of this month. To celebrate, we went to Kraków from the 14th to the 17th of October together. We try to go on holiday together once a year, previously we enjoyed a week in London during the summer months, but the last time we went abroad (besides visits to Belgium) was a trip to Paris well over 6/7 years ago. 

View from our hotel room in the Globus Aparthotel

On the morning of the 14th of October, we jumped on a 6am flight from Edinburgh to Kraków. The journey took us a little over 2.5 hours. There's rarely a flight I'm awake for the whole journey, so I slept like a baby the whole way through after 4 hours sleep the night before. 

The journey from the airport to Kraków Główny (city centre) was really straight forward. We took a 20 minute train and arrived in Kraków just before 11am. We stayed in the Globus Aparthotel, just a 20 minute walk from the station and 15 minute walk from the city centre. The room was really nice and the staff were very accommodating and made us feel very welcome as we arrived in Kraków.

Kraków Cloth Hall

After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we ventured out into the city centre for a look around. Kraków is home to one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. Situated in the centre is the Cloth Hall, which now occupies the city's main market.

More information on Kraków's cloth hall can be found HERE.


The majority of the main square is covered in bars, restaurants and tourist shops. Like most cities, this area consists of the most expensive places to eat and shop, so we opted to explore outwith this area when looking for food. We went to a cafe not far from the main square for brunch. I had pancakes, syrup and raspberries (which were to die for!) and was basically all I was craving for my whole stay in Kraków. 


I didn't really know what to expect when visiting Poland. After only visiting Hungary in Eastern Europe, I thought I would find some comparisons with Poland. Of course, I can't characterise a whole country on two cities I visited in two Eastern European countries, but I'd definitely categorise Poland as being more Western European, architecture-wise and way of living, than Hungary.

Poland was extremely cheap. 1 zloty was around 20p. For example, the train ticket from the airport to the main station in Kraków was 8 zloty.. so around £1.60! In the restaurants we ate in, our bill never came to anything above 200 zloty (£40), alcohol included.

St Mary's Basilica

On the other side of the main square is St Mary's Basilica. Both the Basilica and cloth hall are really iconic in photographs of Kraków and they are both stunning buildings. 

St Mary's Basilica

There are many Gothic altarpieces inside the basilica and is a very pleasant church to visit. Every hour, trumpets play at the top of the tallest tower to commemorate an ancient trumpeter of the city. More information on St Mary's Basilica can be found HERE.

Kraków Town Hall

Behind the cloth hall is the Kraków town hall. It is unknown why the building leans slightly to one side, but tourists can still climb to the top of the tower to receive a pretty spectacular view of the city. Its cellars were previously used as torture chambers and a dungeon.

More information on Kraków's town hall can be found HERE.

That afternoon, we went back to the hotel to check in and had another wander through the streets of Kraków, stopping at cafes and restaurants on the way. The size of Kraków is really comparable to Leuven, the town I spent my Erasmus year in 2015/16. Everywhere was within a 15-30 minute walking distance, which was really convenient as we didn't have to always rely on public transport, like with other city destinations.

'Arbeit Macht Frei' gates to Auschwitz I

Prior to going to Kraków, we booked a tour of both Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines through a company called Kraków Discovery. It was €62 each for the transfer to Auschwitz, to Auschwitz Birkenau, to the Salt mines and back to our hotel. The price also included admission fees and a tour guide in both Auschwitz and the Salt mines. We shared a taxi with a Scottish couple and another couple from London. Our driver, Slawek, was really friendly and was always at hand to answer any questions we had during our trip. 

Grounds of Auschwitz I

I researched the trip before booking and some people had advised to do Auschwitz and the Salt mines on two separate occasions instead of both in one day. Defying advice, we were picked up at 8:30am and returned to our hotel at 7:30pm that evening. Although it was a really tiresome day, both physically and emotionally, if you are capable of a day trip with few breaks, I don't see any reason to not visit both places in one day.

Grounds of Auschwitz I

We arrived at Auschwitz I at 10am and waited 10-15 minutes for our time slot with the tour guide. We were given ear pieces in order to hear the tour guide more clearly, as the museum was occupied with several other touring groups at the same time. Initially, we walked through the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (work sets you free) gates into the main concentration camp.

Barracks in Auschwitz I

Auschwitz I was initially used as army barracks, then as a detention centre for political prisoners, but soon emerged into a site where Jews and Nazi defiers were executed. I'm finding it extremely difficult to put into words how the atmosphere was in Auschwitz I. Everything was just completely still. My Mum commented on how there were no birds flying over the buildings. The area was really eerie and lifeless.

'Halt!' and 'Stoj!' sign, translates to 'Stop' in English

When listening to the nature of the dreadful activities that took place in the camp, it was hard to comprehend they even took place. It's hard to imagine executions of such a large scale to individuals from varying backgrounds which are common and peaceful in today's society; a large majority of Jewish people were present in Auschwitz, however, there were also a substantial amount of non-Jewish people present, who are often forgotten. The inside of some of the barracks were converted into museums, one barrack contained photos of prisoners with their shaven heads and uniform, alongside the date to which they lived until. Other barracks displayed the living conditions of the prisoners, rows of straw stuffed mattresses covered the floors with a small toilet pan in the corner of the room.

Spectacles of prisoners

What really struck me most was the exhibition of prisoners' belongings, which they had to give to the guards when arriving at Auschwitz. Prisoners would essentially be robbed of their belongings as soon as they arrived. Further into this barrack was a display of prisoners' glasses and clothing that had been stripped off before they were placed into uniform. Finally, we arrived at a room which displayed the prisoners' hair, which had been shaved off at their arrival. Everyone was silent when they entered this room. Further and further into the tour, the events of the past started to feel more real and the atmosphere became more and more melancholy. 

'Death Wall' outside Block 11 in Auschwitz I

The main camp prison was situated in block 11 of Auschwitz I. The underground cellars consisted of dark cells and torture chambers, where prisoners were rarely seen to leave alive. If the prisoners were to ever leave the block, they would be lined up in front of the 'death wall' in the courtyard of block 11, where they would be subject to a firing squad. 

This wall was reconstructed and placed in the same place as before, where members of the public lay flowers to commemorate those who died.

Reconstructed Gas Chamber in Auschwitz I

As the Nazis began to lose the second world war, they started to eradicate gas chambers in both concentration camps. The gas chamber in Auschwitz I was destroyed, but a replica was made to act as a memorial. Entering the gas chamber made everything seem so real and unfortunately this is the room that is most vivid in my mind today. The room inside was pitch black; walls, ceiling, everything. The museum reconstructed the 'shower heads' where the soldiers would stand on top of the building and disperse Zyklon B crystals into the chambers. This was the last building we visited before driving to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a 10 minute drive from Auschwitz I.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

During the beginning of the second world war, orders for the expansion of Auschwitz were conducted, leading to the creation of Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Arriving at Auscwitz-Birkenau is a heart-dropping moment, seeing the infamous watchtower from a distance. From various reconstructions from movies and documentaries, it's almost impossible to fathom a train of prisoners transport through the gate and into the camp.

Block 16a, Auschwitz-Birkenau

The land which occupied the camp is significantly bigger and over 10 times the size of Auschwitz I. Although Auschwitz-Birkenau is bigger, the majority of its grounds have not been converted into a Museum, like Auschwitz I. Our tour consisted of a walk down the train track and into a couple of the barracks. Although the living conditions in Auschwitz I were already horrific, conditions in Auschwitz-Birkenau seemed significantly worse. The barracks consisted of 'bunks' where prisoners were made to sleep, often in freezing temperatures and packed tightly amongst sick acquaintances.

Remains of a Gas Chamber, Auschwitz-Birkenau

As mentioned previously, evidence of the gas chambers were destroyed towards the end of the war. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, the remains of one gas chamber can be seen.

After walking around the grounds for under an hour, the tour came to end. The main bulk of the tour took place in Auschwitz I, but after witnessing and hearing of the terrible circumstances and activities that took place in the concentration camps, I guess the remainder of the tour did not need any further explanation.

Despite prisoners being subject to degrading treatment in the concentration camps, there was a recurring theme of hope present in the camps. Hope to escape, to survive and hope that one day the Nazis would lose their overwhelming power. Stories of the ways in which prisoners helped each other to make sure they didn't die from starvation, or extreme weather conditions, were really heart warming, making any minor difficulty of the 21st century seem completely minuscule.

Some would ask why I would visit Auschwitz. I really believe in order to connect to the history, you have to visit such places, although gruesome as they are, in order to connect to them on a personal level. They stand as a reminder of what our world once was and how we must refrain from delving into such atrocious tragedies again.

For more information on the Auschwitz concentration camps, click HERE
Information on visiting Auschwitz can be found HERE.
If you are interested in reading about a personal experience living in Auschwitz, books I recommend include:
'I Survived Auschwitz' by Krystyna Zywulska
'I was Dr Mengele's Assistant' by Miklós Nyiszli

Main Cathedral Hall, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Slawek drove us to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, towards the South-East of Kraków, which took about 1 hour. The salt mines are registered on the UNESCO world heritage list after being in operation for over 900 years and were considered the largest industrial establishment when salt trade was equivalent to today's oil trade.

After entering the salt mines, we began to walk down 380 stairs to the first level of the tour. The tour guide gave us an insight into its original purpose and guided us through the reconstructed spaces where some are now used as a chapel, for example.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Some of the salt sculptures in the mines were spectacular. The carvings in the photo above were in the main cathedral hall of the mines, where even the chandeliers were made out of salt pieces. At the beginning of the tour, the tour guide recommended giving the walls a lick.. although we refused to at first, by the end of the tour we were licking pretty much every sculpture in the corridors!

Wieliczka Salt Mine

There is a constant 15C temperature in the salt mines, so it was definitely a relief to walk around without a jacket on compared to outside - Kraków was absolutely freezing at the time we visited. The temperature there in October was comparable to Edinburgh's winter now in January. I can't imagine what the temperature is like in Kraków right now!

After a three hour walking tour of the mines, we were given some free time to visit the museum shop, where we bought some bath salts (salt from the Wieliczka mines, of course)! Thankfully, we didn't have to walk up the stairs to the ground floor and got the lift from the bottom of the mines to the top. Slawek drove us back to the city centre, where we had dinner and went back to our hotel room after a long and tiresome day.

We really enjoyed visiting the Wiliczka salt mines because of its pure and natural beauty. It was really interesting to see how such a space has been renovated to adapt to today's way of life. Finally, I'd thoroughly recommend booking any excursion in Kraków through Kraków Discovery, their organisation and friendliness made our trip a lot more stress-free and enjoyable.

For more information on the Wieliczka Salt Mines click HERE.

Museum in Schindler's Factory

On our last full day in Kraków, we had the option of going to visit the Wawel Castle or to the Jewish Quarter where we would visit Schindler's Factory. It was raining that morning, so we decided to head to the Jewish quarter instead of outside and around the castle grounds. 

We thought the museum in the Jewish Quarter would be about Oskar Schindler's story, but it was a museum of Kraków under Nazi occupation IN the remains of Schindler's factory. Although there was a short video showing Schindler's employees expressing their gratitude for his assistance, the remainder of the museum was about Kraków during the second world war. The trip was educational nonetheless and it was interesting to watch Schindler's List afterwards and become familiar with the scenery in the movie. 

More information on Schindler's Factory can be found HERE.

Cloth hall, Kraków Main Square

That afternoon, we browsed the market in the Cloth Hall in Kraków's main square. It consisted of local sellers selling everything from tourist magnets, to ornaments, jewellery and clothes. After browsing the stalls and buying a few souvenirs, we decided to visit the Rynek Underground Museum, situated directly underneath the Cloth Hall. We weren't really sure what to expect, but we didn't enjoy the museum so much. It focused on the evolution of Kraków's main square, and although I found some of its history really interesting, the museum would appeal to people with more of an archaeological background.

More information on the Rynek Underground Museum can be found HERE.

For the remainder of the afternoon, we walked to Galeria Krakowska shopping centre next to Kraków Główny station, where I was excitedly reunited with Bershka and Pull & Bear.


We enjoyed our final meal in Kraków washed down with Somersby Apple Beer... (unfortunately, Somersby 'beer' is only a Polish thing!) before heading back to Edinburgh early morning on Monday.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Kraków. The city is very beautiful and condense, perfect if you're looking for a quick weekend trip away. The addition of the Auschwitz and Wieliczka Salt Mine tour made the trip more meaningful and it's definitely an escape I will never forget. Apparently Kraków is an amazing city for students, with around 200 bars, so I can imagine a student's holiday there would be quite an experience...

Do you have any European city recommendations? Where would you like to travel next?
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