Krakow - the Kyoto of Europe?

We just finished three nights in Krakow (pronounced "crack-of", not "crack-ow" as I thought). It was a really fun stop on the trip with a ton to see. In fact, with 2+ days to tour the city I don't think we saw everything we could have. We were limited by high temperatures, as Walter nearly got heat stroke on Saturday as we walked almost 6 miles in 90+ degree heat before stopping for lunch at ~1:30. Speaking of heat, we booked an airbnb with no air conditioning! That meant that it was 85 degrees when we finished a hot day of sightseeing. So I made an executive decision and booked a room at the Radisson Blu around the corner. Thankfully Krakow is a cheap enough destination that even paying for TWO accommodations we only exceeded our budget modestly. There are lots of highlights so I'm going to list them out.

Main square - Krakow has one of the most impressive main squares that we've ever seen. And given the time we spent in Amsterdam, we've seen a lot! The area is huge and features an amazing church (St Mary's); the "Cloth Hall," which has been in operation continously for over 700 hundred years; an underground museum (Nynek Museum) that shows the history of the city and in-situ excavations of 4-700 year old cellars, water pipes, sewer lines, and all sorts of found objects; and finally a plethora of great dining options. While we were there there was also an international festival going on with many shopping and food stalls and a stage with live music.

Wawel Castle - There has been a fortress or castle on this spot apparently for a thousand years, and the current facility is impressive. The mix of history between the castle itself and the Wawel Cathedral, where Pope John Paul II was Archbishop prior to becoming the Pope. The Cathedral in particular was awesome because it had been expanded over the years in all different architectural styles, turning it into this fantastic hodgepodge of chapels in all different styles. It was also the resting place of St. Stanislaus and St. Casimir (Kazimierz to the Poles), both of whom featured prominently in monuments in Vilnius. Very interesting to see it all connected.

A plaque on the wall the Nazi's constructed around the ghetto

Jewish Quarter - After spending the first morning exhausting ourselves we opted for one of the ubiquitous golf cart tours in the afternoon. The plan was for the golf cart driver to show us around the Jewish Quarter and then take us to Schindler's Factory where we would tour the museum there and then be driven back to the main square. Poland was a haven for European Jews, as it was one of the only countries that welcomed and treated them relatively well (they still were not permitted to own property). The Jewish Quarter was home to most of Krakow's Jews, and featured a number of synagogues. It was a neat neighborhood, though we definitely got a much more superficial impression of the neighborhood in a golf cart than I think we would have on foot or even on bikes.

Schindler's Factory - The first afternoon when we tried to go to Schindler's Factory it was closed for a Polish holiday. So the next morning we took a taxi back down and toured the museum. Walter was pretty disappointed, as he was really looking forward to touring an actual factory, as opposed to a museum. The museum covered Krakow from shortly before the war until shortly after, with a very slight focus on Schindler and the factory. It was a fascinating and moving experience, although also very reading-heavy, which Walter wasn't up for. Thankfully, a Polish-American (or Canadian) couple was there at the same time and had booked a guide for the museum, so Jie and I walked along and read the displays while Walter listened to their guide. ;)

The Last Supper, carved in salt

Wierlicka Salt Mine - About 10 miles outside Krakow there is a Salt Mine which was in operation for about 800 years, up until 2007. It is now a tourist trap extraordinare. It comes highly recommended in guidebooks and on Trip Advisor, but I really couldn't tell you why. I think we would view it more favorably if it wasn't a 5-hour round trip event packed with a jillion tourists at every step of the way. It is pretty incredible to see these massive underground chambers that were carved as they extracted rock salt, and fascinating to learn that for much of its history this one mine accounted for as much as 30% of the income of the Polish government. And of course, Walter never tired of the fact that you could lick the walls. But the overall experience was one of being herded like cattle from one place to another, and overcharged for the privilege. If nothing else, it was an excellent reminder of why we travel independent and not through a tour or group.

One remaining item to cover, then, which is why I compared Krakow to Kyoto in the title of this post. Krakow apparently has more churches per square kilometer than any city in Europe besides Rome, and I'd definitely believe it. And unlike Rome, with it's abundant Roman ruins, in Krakow it feels like there is another church around every corner. Even more, when you are inside each church it's not like the Baltics or Nordics where it is 99% tourists and 1% church staff. In Poland in virtually every church the parishoners easily outnumbered the tourists. These were active, working churches. (Of course, we did visit on a holiday Saturday and a Sunday, so we may have a biased sample.) So like with Kyoto and all its temples and geisha-spotting, in Krakow you had an abundance of churches and much priest, nun, and even the occasional monk spotting.

If you're ever in the neighborhood I would very highly recommend Krakow. In fact, I would go to Krakow over Prague in a heartbeat. I think it has more history and more to see and do. And we didn't even see the most important site of all, Aushwitz-Birkenau, given we couldn't take Walter with us.

Now we head to Budapest. Originally we planned to take the night train from Krakow but after dealing with the heat and reading that only some of the sleeper cars are air conditioned, not to mention that we would arrive in Budapest hours before we could check in at our Airbnb, we opted for transport by private car. It's only marginally more expensive, and instead of a 9+ hour train ride it's a 6 hour car ride right through the heart of Slovenia.