It’s kind of funny growing up in a country with little immigration outside of Asian and Commonwealth countries. To have a last name outside of the norm instantly perplexes people. I had a lifetime of people mispronouncing my name and instantly assuming for themselves my nationality. My last name is of Polish descent, but that Polish immigration had happened over one hundred years earlier in the gold rush. I always find it funny when Americans say they are ‘part Irish’ when it’s further back than their great grandparents or grandparents. Given that the Polish ancestry is further back than that, I don’t call myself ‘part Polish’ even though my maiden name is such, but I am 100% New Zealander. Despite this, I did always want to go to the country where my maiden name came from!
Flights to Krakow, where I wanted to visit, never really worked out for us. Wizz air flies to Katowice, but the flight times aren’t very convenient and don’t give you the best bang for your buck. Lufthansa was prohibitively expensive to fly into Krakow for the dates we wanted to go, so by car it was. That gave us the opportunity to stop into the polish pottery capital of the world, Boleslawiec.
The driving time was over ten hours, and the traffic was extremely heavy almost the entire time. I think there was only about a two-hour period in all of it where there was lighter traffic. I would recommend breaking up the journey. The Polish drivers are no joke – very aggressive and impatient. If you can fly – do that. A good half way point from where we live would have been Dresden or Prague.
We did have a funny experience. We stopped into an autobahn restaurant about two hours out of Krakow. We stopped to buy some water and some snacks and we ended up with a translation problem. It was all very back and forth with confusion on both sides. In the end, a gruff looking truck driver yelled ‘petrol!’ and everyone in the petrol station started laughing. Who would have known our saviour would be a scary looking Polish man! It turns out that she was asking us if we were buying petrol also, which we weren’t. We did find that across the board with the Polish. They might not have seemed approachable, even a little scary, but they were all very helpful and patient. I did not once feel unsafe in Poland!
There were tolls in Poland, which I didn’t realise. The total cost all of the way to Krakow was about USD $9. They took zloty, euros and USD – no credit cards. That was fortunate for us as we hadn’t yet pulled out any zloty, so we ended up using up all of the cash we had on hand in different currencies. We used the conversion of 1 USD=4 zloty while we were there. That was accurate enough to fairly guestimate.
We stopped in to the polish pottery capital on our way through. As the drive had taken longer than expected by that point, we didn’t have as much time as expected. We were only able to stop into two shops, but I did find what I was looking for.
I am not a big Polish pottery fan, but I have found that there’s a little something for everyone. One shop had an awesome print of different pastel colours with white polka dots – something which almost everyone likes! We ended up buying two pumpkins. I decided on the one I wanted, and Nick had got attached to the other one. So, we now have two Polish pottery pumpkins!
I couldn’t tell you where we stopped in at, but there are over 15 pottery shops in the one town. I know many women spend a whole lot of money there as prices are much cheaper than buying in the USA, and it’s very versatile. It’s like glass – it can go from the oven, to the microwave, to the fridge and lasts a lifetime.
This city was beautiful. It was like Prague, but with a less dark undertone. If it was there, then we were in the right areas and didn’t see it. We parked in a parking garage that ended up being about $20 for 24 hours, but it was worth it as there is a 24-hour guard there at all times, and it was next to our hotel. We splurged and stayed at the Sheraton Grand Hotel by the Wawel Castle. I’ve never slept in a more comfortable bed in my life!
The town survived World War II bombing, with most of that centred on Warsaw. That meant that the old town square was virtually original and absolutely beautiful. There were horse drawn carriages taking tourists around and many restaurants that focused out onto the square. We found a new delight there too – donuts stuffed with rose flavoured jam. Absolutely delicious!
Krakow was very cheap. We didn’t spend much at all on our eating out and drinks. I thought that things would be more expensive as a tourist centre for Poland, but thankfully it wasn’t. Meals were usually around $5 for authentic dishes. Together we never spent more than $25 and we ate whatever we wanted to.
As we were there over the weekend, we were lucky to stumble over some markets as we walked around. In the old town square, there is a building with stalls set up in it with local wares. They were very reasonably priced and it was beautiful to walk through. We also came across an outdoors market that had some amazing local food. There was a smoked cheese that was served with some kind of berry jam – it was so delicious!
We loved every single thing we ate in Poland. I had never had pierogis before, and absolutely loved them. I could eat them every day! I was particularly fond of the ‘Russkie’ ones which had potatoes and cheese inside. Yum. We never got to eat the dessert flavoured ones – next time, I guess. I had also never had buckwheat before, which is apparently a favoured grain in Russia and ex-Soviet states. I loved that, too!
On our last day in Krakow, we stopped at an awesome little place called ‘NAPNAPCAFE’. We had the most delicious meal there, literally the best panini I have had in my life. It was a pesto chicken panini with sun dried tomatoes. We have tried to recreate it at home, but it just isn’t the same! I think it was the delicious bread that made it. I would recommend visiting the café – I think our lunch came to $10 for the both of us, including freshly squeezed orange juice!
Another food delight that we found were the pickles. They were completely different to German pickles – the perfect combination of sweet and salty. Polish pickles were just completely salty. We ended up getting a jar of them to bring home!
Alcohol was also very cheap in Poland. We found little bottles of flavoured vodkas that were less than $1 each. We got to try all of the flavours that way. Poland is known for its cherry vodka that I really enjoyed, so naturally we had to bring a full size of that home!
Wieliczka Salt Mine
My work mate recommend that I visit the salt mines, so we went on an organized tour there. It was a really interesting place to visit. Once upon a time, salt was a currency used in Europe due to the high value of it. Now salt is worth mere pennies. The mine is not used actively anymore, except for the product of the pumping system. Water has to be pumped out daily to ensure that the mine doesn’t crumble – not a great prospect for the 10,000 people living on top of the mine!
We walked deeper and deeper under the earth. It was a little claustrophobic going down the flights after flights of wooden stairs with a lot of other tour groups, but once down in the bottom it was easy to forget about how far under the earth you are. The tour was very interesting and informative. The salt mine now has a therapy centre as part of it for children who have lung issues. The salt air is apparently very good for your health, and while it could be coincidence, I was sick with a persistent cough when we visited Poland and the day after we went to the mine, I no longer had the cough.
The piece de resistance of the entire mine is the underground church. There are stunning pieces of artwork, such as the Last Supper, carved into the sides of the walls. It’s hard to imagine that every place we walked through was the result of people carving their way through salt over many years. Horses spent their entire lives underground working the mines. An interesting wee fact was that most people who worked in the mines had very long lives if they didn’t die from fire accidents, due to the conditions underground with the salt air.
Auschwitz & Birkenau
We took part in another organised tour, this time to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I was a bit of a history buff as a teenager (yep – this girl was a full and total nerd, most would not be surprised) and read hundreds of World War II history books. I was especially fascinated by the autobiographies of people who had survived the Holocaust camps. I just had to visit Auschwitz to see the true horror of it.
I would not recommend an organised tour. If we were to go again, I would book a private tour so that we could have avoided being part of a tour group of about 40 people herded through room after room. Our tour guide was sick and totally bored out of her mind walking us through the buildings. I know it’s a sombre place, but it’s truly horrifying to think what was going on there. More emotion would be appropriate.
The tour of Auschwitz I was a couple of hours long and was where the camp started out. The exhibits were meant to bring about emotion. One room was full of human hair that the Germans sold to companies to use as padding in things. Others had everyday life objects that had been removed from luggage, such as hair brushes and cooking pieces. It was obvious that the people who came to the camps had no idea what was coming.
One thing that really disappointed me was some of the lack respect by some people visiting. Yes, it’s not quite as jarring as I had imagined it would be in my head, but the fact is that so many people suffered and lost their lives. The portraits on the walls of people who lived no more than a month or two due to the hard labour bestowed on them was terrible. The experiments on humans happened at this camp. Twins were killed by lethal injections into the heart so that Mengele could experiment on their bodies. People were tortured beyond belief. There were standing cells where several men were made to stand up for days on end, as people died they were forced to share the cells with the dead. It is unbelievable the level of cruelty these devilish ‘humans’ could go to. The reason I mention this is that a group of American tourists were laughing and taking selfies outside of one of the gas chambers. I seriously wanted to go and punch them all in the face.
Birkenau was a little more striking. It wasn’t as touristy as it is not a museum. The train tracks still remain, promptly stopping at the end by the remains of the gas chambers. They no longer stand – the Germans tried to destroy them on their way out. This camp is where most people met their end and is where the famous photos of the ‘selection’ took place. By the end of the war, when the Germans knew they were losing, there was no longer any selection. All arrivals were sent to the gas chambers.
If you’re ever near Krakow, it is a must-visit, but as I said earlier – try to find a private tour guide.
Overall, I loved Poland. It’s cheap, it’s interesting and despite bordering Germany, it has a different kind of culture. The food is great and people are friendly and seemed to even enjoy speaking English. Go – you won’t regret it!
My next blog will be on our whirlwind trip to Iceland!