Travel: Out of the darkness, Kraków soars into the light
A four-day city break to Kraków was unlike any holiday Robert McMillen had ever been on...
IT seemed a little incongruous to be packing suncream, shorts and sunnies for a trip that was going to include a trip to the site of one of the darkest atrocities in human history.
A four-night trip to Kraków, Poland's second city, however, gives you insights into the best and the worst of human experience – with an emphasis on the best.
Our first attempt at visiting Kraków was cancelled due to Covid back in 2020 so it was with a great deal of anticipation that we boarded the Easyjet flight to a country we had never visited before.
John Paul II International Airport is only 15km away from Krakow's city centre and it's worth getting a taxi which will cost you around 130 zloty (which is around £20-£25).
We arrived at Meyo apartments, our home for the four nights, mid-afternoon and were immediately struck by the beauty all around us.
The apartments are situated right on the city's picturesque Rynek Glowny Central Square, so after an informative greeting from our young host, there was nothing to do but to head out into the sunshine for some late lunch and an afternoon's exploration.
We didn't have far to go as on our doorstep was the 16th century Renaissance Cloth Hall and the splendid 14th century Gothic Basilica of the Virgin Mary.
During its golden age in the 15th century, the hall was the source of a variety of exotic imports from the east – spices, silk, leather and wax – but now you can buy souvenirs, including some gorgeous religious icons.
As you'll be aware, walking is very conducive to building up a thirst so around 5pm we went to a restaurant in Ulica Szewska (Shoemaker's Street) to try some local food – sitting outdoors, we had pierogi, which are dumplings chocabloc with the filling of your choice, and stuffed cabbage leaves with a white cabbage salad - the Poles love their cabbage!
Cheap, filling, very tasty and washed down with a couple of Polish beers, we quickly became acclimatised to our unfamiliar surroundings, people watching as they walked past modern shop fronts grafted onto buildings which were built between the 14th and 17th century.
So far, so brilliant under a cloudy Polish sky, although hot sunshine occasionally broke through.
After some more walking along the Planty Park which lies like a scarf round the Old Town, thoroughly jet-lagged, we decided to have an early night – there was some serious tourism to be done the following day.
Our four-day stay at the Meyo apartments included breakfast with the restaurant situated round the corner but you could choose to have your breakfast delivered to your room if you were feeling decadent.
Instead, we went to Restauracja Sempre Bracka and decided to go native with the 'Polish old-fashioned breakfast' - sausages, Polish meat pate, smoked bacon, pickled gherkin, little sausages, cheese, cucumber, mustard, bread and butter, tea or coffee.
Very filling and tasty – but it will never beat an Ulster fry but it is always good to try something different. However, now it was the time do to something a lot more profound than having breakfast.
We wanted to see the Jewish Quarter and took off on the 20-minute walk, passing through some great art for sale in the open air and unique bijou shops along Ulica Josefa but having seen Schindler's List, the Steven Spielberg film starring Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, we had always planned to visit the factory from which the Nazi spy and unscrupulous industrialist nevertheless saved the lives of up to 1,200 of his Jewish employees.
The permanent exhibition at the now-defunct factory is a pictorial evocation of Kraków in pre-Nazi times when 25 per cent of the population was Jewish and how life murderously changed during the occupation.
The centrepiece of the visit is the office where Schindler worked, with its glass case brimful of enamelware made by his Jewish workers and behind it, a circular room with the names of the people he helped escape: Schindler's list.
The museum is well worth a visit, although it tells a disturbing tale. The main square on which our apartment was situated was called Adolf Hitler Platz during the occupation.
From there, we took one of the great golf carts that ferry tourists around Kraków, and Marius was a great guide.
He took us to one church where it was said that the waters of the fountain had curative powers.
Of course, we had to partake - but it tasted like hard-boiled eggs... We were happy to believe it would fortify us as we were driven around this beautiful city.
Film-maker Stanley Kubrick has said that Schindler's List is a story of triumph while the story of the Holocaust is one of failure and we were reminded of that the following day when we visited Auschwitz concentration camp, a 50-minute bus ride from Kraków and Birkenau extermination camp, originally known as Auschwitz II, not far away.
It was almost filmic when we arrived as thunder roared from the skies; a complete coincidence, of course.
For such a visceral experience, however, the tour is very understated and our guide lets the buildings and the artefacts speak for themselves - and how powerfully they roar.
One exhibit was of human hair and a jacket – the Nazis used the hair of the Jews they had murdered to make clothes for German soldiers.
The whole panoply of death was here; people were gassed, shot, beaten or died of starvation or overwork. Those who refused to work were taken out, naked, into the freezing cold and doused with water so they would freeze to death.
A staggering 1,100,000 people were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau; the belongings of some of them - glasses, prosthetics, pots and pans, suitcases, shoes - right here in front of our eyes.
It was impossible not to put yourself in the place of the real, live human beings who passed through here before they were herded naked into the gas chambers which were then filled with Zyklon B, a pesticide that released hydrogen cyanide when exposed to water and heat. Over a million human beings killed by a pesticide.
Our Polish guide showed us the various buildings, each designed for a different purpose.
Particularly poignant for me, was a small room with a plaque which read: "The washroom where women stripped before execution. Then they were led in twos to (the) yard and shot at the death wall."
The tour then makes the short trip to Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. Ten times bigger than Auschwitz, it was the the Nazi's main extermination camp in Poland.
Such a deeply emotional experience is one that few people would ever forget and makes you think about what the people of Ukraine are going through at this very moment in time. Kraków is just 150 miles from the Ukrainian border.
But life goes on. Auschwitz-Birkenau will remain a shocking reminder of what has been and what might be again if we are not careful.
Today's Kraków remembers its history and it is subtly all around you – we passed a large cross erected to remember the massacre at Katyn when nearly 22,000 Polish military officers and prisoners of war were killed by the then Soviet secret police – but modern Krakovians don't dwell on their bloody history. Life here is for the living.
When we were in the Kazmierz on the second day we stopped for lunch at a Jewish restaurant and had dumplings while my wife had Passover curd cheese with raisins and lemon zest. It was delicious and to accompany it... well, let me explain.
The Poles are extremely fond of vodka, so just to be polite we ordered two vodkas and honey.
The Bible (Exodus) talks of the Promised Land as one of "milk and honey" – but that was before they discovered vodka...
That night, as fate would have it, we found a bar called Bania Luca on Ulica Szewska, where they serve mostly shots, not drunk the way they are here, but more slowly.
Shots were 6 Zloty (£1.05) while 4/5th of a pint was 8 zloty (£1.40).
Needless to say, we spent a few enjoyable nights there. The Poles are a very friendly people and always ready to have a chat.
Food too is really, really cheap. The median monthly salary in Poland is around £830 so everything is inexpensive for tourists.
We visited quite a few churches while we were in Kraków but we got a huge surprise at one of them, the Church of St Francis of Assisi.
It has a full-sized replica of the Shroud of Turin, consecrated by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 2003.
We spent four days in Kraków but it wasn't nearly enough.
We will be back again to spend more time at Wawel Castle, visiting the salt mines – and maybe have some more vodka and honey.
We managed to get an Easyjet flight to Kraków that wasn't cancelled and there were no airport problems at either end.
We found Meyo apartments on booking.com and it was in a perfect location in the main square, with many of the city's sights within walking distance.