After Russia, we continued our trek westward back across Europe, and our next stop was Poland. But it turns out that getting from Russia to Poland was going to be harder than it looked. Because of strict visa requirements to pass through Belarus, we couldn’t get directly to Poland. So, after a short flight to Kaliningrad (east of Lithuania), a bus and 2 trains, we finally made it to Krakow! We checked into our Airbnb and got an amazing Polish dinner at a restaurant called Chata. The interior of the restaurant looked like the tavern from Tangled – wall to wall rustic wood structures, animal skins and a beautiful stone hearth in the middle. We got some dumplings, fish with sauerkraut, and of course, Polish goulash!
The next morning, we set out to explore the city of Krakow. We loved the architecture in the Old Town and walking around the city walls. We strolled through Wawel Castle enjoying the tulips in bloom. Then we discovered the Jewish Quarter, where many Jewish people lived during WWII, and found Schindler’s Factory. Although neither of us have actually seen Schindler’s list, we found the factory tour to be really amazing. We enjoyed learning about the history of the factory and the role Schindler played in saving Jewish lives during the war. Of course, it’s hard to see and hear the stories about how the Jews were treated during the war, but it’s another thing entirely to stand on the soil, tour the buildings and see the places where it all happened. But even when the story is hard to hear, it’s better that we remember the mistakes made in the past to avoid making them in the future.
With Schindler on our minds, the next day we set off to see Auschwitz-Birkenau. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about visiting Auschwitz – should I avoid it because of what happened? Should I view the visit as respecting those who fought and perished there? As we’d visited many cities in Europe, we’d been getting fairly interactive lessons on WWII. We figured that Auschwitz was another piece to the puzzle of understanding WWII, and of course respecting the people who were persecuted in the face of prejudice. When we approached the camp, I was kind of shocked at how nice it looked, a fact I’m sure due to the increase of tourism and renovations made. But it didn’t have the obviously foreboding or threatening look that I expected, with wildflowers growing over the train tracks leading into the camp. But as we wondering further in the camp, a sinking feeling set into my stomach. The more we learned about the atrocities that happened here, the more the tourist facades faded, and reality kicked in. We walked through the barracks where prisoners were held, seeing the small, rickety beds that would have held far too many people. We saw the hospital wings, a gas chamber, and the train tracks were prisoners were separated. The only part that gave me a bit of joy was seeing the overgrowth of wildflowers throughout the site. It almost felt like new life was given to those who had suffered; a final statement that they were here and wouldn’t be forgotten. After an emotional and mentally draining day, we decided to head back home, thankful for all the blessings we have.
The next day we took another day trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. The tour start with a 300+ step descend into the mines, which really felt like you were walking down to Hell. We learned about the mining process and curative properties of salt (can I get a spa treatment!?). But what we loved most was walking through the tunnels and chambers as it felt a bit like luxurious spelunking. One chamber had a full cathedral built into the ground with salt chandeliers, alters and pews! We walked slowly, taking in all the healthy properties of the salt, hit the gift shop and then rode the elevator (thank god) back to the top! Afterwards, we walked around Wieliczka town a bit and then headed about to Krakow. For dinner, we planned a little date night at a nice French restaurant, but once we arrived, we weren’t feeling it. Thankfully we found a cute outdoor garden where we had the most delicious ciders, dumplings and kielbasa for dinner! It was the perfect way to end our great time in Poland.