“Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere” – Elie Wiesel
Not all experiences are happy ones. Sometimes, it’s important we travel in order to appreciate the lives we live and learn about who we are. I have always been keen to visit Auschwitz, a part of history that we are all taught as children, but seldom think about as adults. A city break to Kraków is my chosen destination this month. This beautifully preserved medieval city is well-worth a visit, especially with a vital piece of human history just a couple of hours away.
I chose a long weekend in Spring for Kraków and we were blessed with warm temperatures, ideal for exploring by foot and dining outside. A 2 hour flight from London, Kraków airport is then only a half hour taxi ride to the city centre. It’s easy to make the most of a couple of nights here and best to hit the ground running when you arrive. Kraków is an inexpensive place to enjoy so it’s perfect for price conscious travellers. Be sure to book Auschwitz tickets in advance as the museum sees huge numbers of visitors daily.
Hotel Polonia is an authentic choice in a central location, with an abundance of shops nearby and good transport links right outside the door. A lot of beautiful buildings are within walking distance from this hotel, including the Main Square, Rynek Główny. The hotel staff at the Polonia speak good English and a varied breakfast was included in our stay. The rooms and décor is traditional, with modern bathrooms which are kept spotless. For a little extra, choose a superior room, giving you a balcony over-looking the tram-lined streets and green park gardens. On at least one evening of your stay, catch a sunset on the balcony and appreciate the beauty of this popular area.
On our first afternoon, we booked a guided tour of Wieliczka Salt Mine. Hotel Polonia works with the tour company See Kraków to provide inclusive packages with pick-ups 5 metres from the hotel. It couldn’t be easier to see the unique areas that sit on the outskirts of this Polish city. A remarkable experience, in some parts of the salt mine, you are 135 metres below ground. Thankfully, the tour group climbs down the stairs but takes a very small miner’s lift back up. I wouldn’t recommend this tour for anyone who is claustrophobic! Marvel at the impressive carvings made in the salt walls and learn all about life for the people who once worked this mine.
If you are planning a visit to Kraków soon, we highly recommend you book your Wieliczka Salt Mine Tour in advance of your trip.
When it comes to food, make the short walk to Rynek Główny. If you are looking for fine Polish cuisine in traditional surroundings, seek out Hotel Wentzl right on the main square. If instead you fancy watching the many street performers and enjoying the atmosphere, and if the weather is mild enough, opt for one of the many outdoor seating areas. At night, the medieval buildings circling the square are beautifully lit and provide a stunning backdrop for your meal and photographs. We actually ate on the main square all weekend because we just couldn’t get enough of its lively vibe and breathtaking architecture.
Rynek Główny is just as enjoyable by day. Cloth Hall houses a market full of treasures and gifts. From the square, you also get the best view of St. Mary’s Basilica and you can hear the hourly trumpeting that commemorates the trumpeter who was killed mid-note in the 13th century. We got lucky with the Spring weather and picked one of the warmest weekends of 2017 so benefited from blue skies and bright sunshine. The abundance of outside eateries that we loved by night are perfect for those sunny, warmer days in between exploring too. Grab a coffee, sit back and watch traditionally decorated, horse-drawn, white carts circle the equally pristine streets.
My main motivation for choosing this city break, was to visit the Auschwitz museum. You can choose to navigate the concentration camps alone, which is advisable if you like to move at your own pace, but for me the tour guides are invaluable and extremely passionate about what they do. Tours are conducted in a variety of languages so the time slot you get is largely dependent upon this. You can book directly via the Auschwitz website, or if the slot you want is gone from online sale, ask your hotel to book with a tour company like we did. I would advise you take the 2 hour journey to mentally prepare yourself for the most heart-rendering museum you will ever experience.
Most of us learnt something of the Holocaust at school, but there is nothing like stepping foot inside the camps where these horrendous acts took place to really make you understand the severity and scale of the Nazi’s crimes. It is an emotional tour that leaves everyone speechless. The exhibitions are thought-provoking and very well laid out. They tell the story of the victims who suffered here and why they calmly and orderly brought their children to such a place. From the disturbing deaths that innocent people met on arrival, to the outrageous conditions that those who were kept as prisoners faced, the journey through Auschwitz is mind-altering. You feel with every step the sorrow and loss that was suffered here, and I was desperately grateful for being able to freely walk back out the gates at the end of the day.
The tour includes Auschwitz 1 and Birkenhau, the larger camp. The exhibitions and photographs are honest and real. You will see human clothing, belongings and remains, including mass graves of prisoners. For me the most harrowing moment was walking into the gas chamber in Auschwitz 1. My whole body was covered in icy chills and I felt suffocated by the thought of the small children that lost their futures at the hands of such madness. The museum also depicts the calculated and controlled behaviour of those in charge that made this scale of deaths possible, and the prejudice views that officers used to justify the crimes they carried out here. I feel very strongly that rather than reading about it in books, everyone should instead visit this place and encourage their children to do the same. No, it’s not nice. But it is vital in order to avoid such atrocity to be repeated. When word got out in Britain of what was happening in Oświęcim Poland in WW2, no-one believed it could be true. The last remaining Auschwitz survivors want their story re-told for generations because the willingness to stay silent is the most dangerous thing of all.
I couldn’t help but wonder how different events could of been if every single individual responsible for killing had just said ‘no’. We are all capable of saying ‘no’ when something doesn’t sit right with us. Money, religion and even war does not justify inhumane behaviour. Individuals choose their own actions and if we all understood fully how vital it really was to always follow our moral compass, surely so many people who have suffered, and indeed continue to suffer around the world today, could be spared. Auschwitz captures what happens when a combination of power and fear can manipulate what one human being is willing to do to another. The numbers speak for themselves.
If you haven’t experienced Auschwitz yet, book your Auschwitz-Birkenhau Full-Day Guided Tour and experience it for yourself.
Respect for one another is the only way to avoid such pain and suffering. If travel has taught me anything, it’s that unity is important. Peace is important. And kindness to every single person we share this planet with is important. Every life is precious and the belief that one life is more important than another created the largest grave in history, and heart-breakingly, continues to create graves today. Visiting this museum will open your mind and heart to the actions we are all capable of under certain conditions and the choices we must make everyday to avoid such tragedy. Take a moment now to really think about it; large-scale systematic murder, unthinkable torture, and the wasted lives of innocent children. Think about the german families who lived on the camps with small children of their own, the medical experiments that were carried out on twins, and the false promise of a new life for the Jewish people who were brought here. More than 1.1 million lives were lost in this unimaginable place.
My eyes were truly opened on this city break. Kraków itself was the only European city not be bombed in WW2 so wandering its streets and squares is a photographers dream. Auschwitz, for all its horror and pain, is now somewhere that birds and wildlife have begun to return to. There is an air of peace surrounding the mass graves at Birkenhau. I have long believed in the power of travel to open the mind and heart. You will definitely learn more about history, geography and people by travelling than you ever will in a classroom. So a huge dziękuję (pronounced jen-KOO-ya), which means thank you in Polish, to our wonderful tour guide and beautiful Kraków. I hope we can all learn from the mistakes of our past and work everyday on standing up for that which we believe in.
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If now you need more, check out my other European Travel Diaries.
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As a child, I read this thought-provoking book.
I recommend it highly for young people: