Poland’s second largest city, Krakow is one of the oldest cities in the country and is known for its historical architecture, which is beautiful and well preserved. More recently, the city is known for its role during World War II under Nazi occupied Poland. Krakow became the capital of Germany’s General Government, the home of Oskar Schindler’s Factory and is perhaps now most famous as being the city closest to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.
We visited Krakow in September 2014 after we left the Romanian Summer Camp and spent 3 nights at the B Movie Hostel in their 10 bed dorm, for around 9 euros per night. Overall the hostel was great; it was clean, had good facilities, included breakfast (toast and cereal), free tea/coffee and the staff were friendly and helpful. The only downside was that there wasn’t much in the way of atmosphere, with no organised activities, no free vodka and the common area wasn’t exactly buzzing, but perhaps we just had a bad crowd.
Krakow is one of those cities where most of the fun is in just being there, getting lost in its streets and finding yourself in yet another bar. The city escaped much of the WWII destruction that it’s larger neighbour Warsaw suffered and so most of its beautiful, historical architecture is fully intact, meaning there were plenty of buildings that had us ‘ooh-ing and aah-ing’ as we wandered around.
As with most old European cities, there is a main square with the usual line up of beautiful architecture, fancy restaurants and in this case tonnes of horse drawn carriages which you can ride around the square for slice of affordable, scripted romance. The Renaissance Cloth Hall is unmissable sitting in the centre of the square with more arches than is necessary and Wawel Castle is in the heart of the city, just a few streets away.
We didn’t tour the castle, but instead spent much of our time wandering around, eating gelato and enjoying the judgement-free daytime drinking that a tourist can get away with. The main square has a chilled really atmosphere with no traffic around and we spent plenty of time in the bars here, which aren’t as expensive as you might imagine, thanks to Poland being so damn cheap. Each night we enjoyed sitting outdoors in the square drinking decent Polish beer and enjoying the pretty buildings.
We also discovered a bar just a few streets from the main square which serves vodka/beer/wine for just 1 euro (4 Zlotys)! Well fuck me if we weren’t going to make like an embarrassing Russian uncle at a kids party reminiscing about the ‘good old days’, so we sat there all night, drank the smooth local vodka neat and chased it with orange juice, until we could understand Polish. It turns out the bar is part of a chain across Poland called Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa and you can check out their facebook page if you fancy killing a few braincells. If you’re looking for a bit more of a party there are nightly pub crawls which meet in the main square and always seemed to have a good number of people, but we weren’t in the mood for tequila and small talk so we never joined in.
There are also a few places in the city which sell Shisha (or Hookah) and we spent a couple of nights smoking. If you’ve never smoked Shisha before this is a good place to try it; you can buy a pipe for around 10 euros, in a variety of sizes, flavours and even add vodka if you like- we chose apple flavour and the biggest. I would suggest that you find a proper indoor Shisha lounge, as on our second night we came across one in the back of a kebab shop and down some stairs which opened up into a secret underground Arabian style Shisha lounge. Smoking a pipe, in an Aladdin’s cave, while laying in a pile of plush cushions was pretty sweet.
Walking around the city during the daytime we saw plenty of places offering tours to the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp for around 130 PLN (around 32 euros), but after a bit of research we just took a bus from the main bus station Główny for 14 PLN each way. The buses leave frequently and doing it yourself like this means you can spend as much time there as you like and you save almost 70 PLN after factoring in the cost of the entrance ticket. You can read about our experience of Auschwitz here. Spoiler: It was pretty frustrating.
The second most popular tour advertised is to the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine, which judging from the photos on google, looks pretty impressive. However at the time we decided to give it a miss, given that I’d never heard of the Wieliczka Salt Mine and I have no interest whatsoever in a fucking Salt Mine.
Edit: After looking at photos of the mine online, it actually looks really impressive so maybe we missed out. Shit.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, made famous by the movie Schindler’s List, still stands in the industrial part of the city, in the district of Zablocie. The old administrative building is now home to a couple of museums, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków and a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. We decided to visit the latter museum and it’s here that you can learn more about the story of Oskar Schindler and the Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII.
Admission is 10 PLN (it’s free on Mondays!) and there are several different exhibitions on top of the one about Schindler, all dedicated to WWII era Krakow. The museum itself is worth a visit, there are tonnes of exhibits and its all very interactive.
The Schindler exhibition is on one of the upper floors and includes his old office, along with desk and a few short films with plenty of information to explain his story in a bit more detail than the movie. Oskar Schindler took over the Rekord Ltd. enamelware factory, when it was seized by the Nazi’s along with all other Jewish owned properties following the occupation in 1939. The factory was renamed Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik (German Enamelware Factory) and Schindler began using it as a tool to save the lives of Jews and their families through employment, protecting them from deportation to concentration camps. Schindler is now credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during WWII.
Whilst the story is amazing and made for an emotional film, this section of the museum was probably the most disappointing for me. I guess the main problem was that the exhibition was boring, with plenty of enamelware from the factory and original furniture from office, but forgive me for not getting aroused. I don’t really blame the museum though, what they displayed was historically accurate and they really did the best they could to make it as informative as possible, with plenty of video testimonials from survivors explaining how Schindler saved their lives etc. I guess it’s just a sad fact that the story of saving peoples lives by having them make pots and pans doesn’t make for a very gripping museum exhibition in the same way that the brutality and murder at concentration camps does.
For me, the best sections in the museum were those focussing on the daily lives of people living in Krakow and the Krakow Ghetto under Nazi occupation. There were replica streets, examples of clothing and lots of exhibits describing the worsening living conditions and the public executions which occurred regularly.
It was these exhibits which stuck with me long afterwards as there were plenty of gruesome washed out photos of people hanging in the streets and endless lists in newspapers of those executed. The exhibition did a really good job of helping you to imagine the horror of living through this time, through lots of short video clips and survivors stories which help you to personally relate. I learned a lot in these exhibitions about what it was like to live through WWII from a Polish perspective (hint: it wasn’t great), a story which is often overlooked.
Lost Souls Alley
On our final day in Krakow we decided to visit the Lost Souls Alley, which was the #1 thing to do according to Trip Advisor. There’s not exactly much information online about it, and their own website simply describes it as an interactive museum ‘devoted to the basic instinct of fear’ – check out their website for yourself, its pretty cool. From what we could gather from the reviews, you walk around a haunted house with a group of other people and get scared by live actors. We were expecting the whole thing to be a bit cheesy with actors in bad costumes, a few jump scares and us laughingly playing along. Man were we wrong…
It was a bit hard to find the building, it’s not signposted and we were both horribly hungover thanks to those 1 Euro vodkas, so we spent a while walking in circles and looking like hobos before we found it tucked away in a courtyard through an archway off the main street. It’s set in a second floor abandoned apartment in an old building with all of the windows boarded up and all around its decorated lovingly with messages and paintings drawn in blood.
We didn’t book in advance so had to wait for an hour when we arrived so that we could join another group (two people wasn’t enough), so if you don’t want to wait around call up in advance. We joined with 5 others, making a group of 7 and paid 17 PLN each (~4.25 euros), but prices vary depending on the size of your group.
As we stood at the entrance nursing our hangovers, they explained that as a group we had to progress through the rooms, searching for keys to open doors and clues to solve the puzzles along the way and quickly briefed us on the rules; no running, no touching the actors, no using mobile phones for light etc. We started to get a bit nervous when we heard the screaming coming from inside and seconds later six teenagers came bursting through the door to our right screaming, shaking and holding each other. They’re just kids, we thought.
Then it was our turn. One of the guys in our group was handed a small torch which shone a dim red light and we were all pushed through the first door into the dark.
The room inside looked like something lifted straight from a horror movie, with broken mirrors, newspaper cuttings plastered over the walls and messages written in blood. The messages were written in Polish, but a girl translated for us ‘Don’t look behind you’, errrr thanks… The door at the other end of the room was locked, so we had to find a key.
We rummaged around the room for a bit, but the guy with the torch kept wandering off and we spent most of the time shouting him back because we couldn’t see shit. Then I began to hear strange rasping sounds behind me… Feel something blowing on the back of my neck… The touch of a hand though nobody was behind me… I knew that nothing would hurt me, but it made no difference. My heart started racing and I couldn’t help but start to panic.
They created the sense of atmosphere amazingly well because the combination of being locked in a room that you can’t escape and being in there with ‘something’ that you can’t see, but only get the sense that it is near you, really gets the adrenaline pumping. After a couple of minutes I could feel myself sweating, the panic was setting in and I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. The longer we were searching around in that room the more the tension built and the more desperate everybody became. There was none of the playing around acting surprised and quick jump scare before laughing it off here, it was a grinding and intense terror created in your mind that built up with each passing moment.
Eventually we found the key and breathed a slight sigh of relief, until we unlocked the door and suddenly a deafening chainsaw started up behind us. I’m not joking when I say that at that point I almost shit my pants as a rush of the most intense fear I’ve ever felt flooded my body and I darted toward the door. The doorway was tiny and none of us was willing to stand in line and wait our turn whilst the chainsaw wielding psychopath enjoyed a fresh drink of fear-squeezed piss, so like a cornered rat I was willing to claw and chew my way through anybody standing between me and the safety of the next room.
On the other side we all stopped to breathe in the dark and I stood, heart racing and nursing a new gash on my hand from fighting my way through that door. I won’t spoil it by telling you everything that happens in there, because you absolutely have to check it out if you’re ever in Krakow. I can say that it got worse and I genuinely considered quitting after Rick, two girls and I found ourselves stuck in a corner sweating, shaking and screaming for help. It was pant-shittingly terrifying.
We had an awesome time in Krakow and loved the city. It has beautiful architecture, cheap beer and tonnes of stuff to do. You should visit. Right now.
Rating: 9/10 Pairs of soiled pants
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