Krakow, Poland is primarily famous for the tragic historical role it played in the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews. Although this background has become obviously much engrained in the international psyche when thinking about Poland, the city itself has far more to offer than the sad remembrance of its past. I travelled to Krakow a few months ago with some friends with the aim (as history students) to deepen our understanding of the Holocaust, and visit the place we had always read so much about. The result of this trip was not in the slightest bit what I had expected; it was far, far superior.
On a map, the city centre of Krakow appears relatively small, along the same lines as Tallinn, Estonia or maybe even Nottingham. However, what the maps do not show is that behind the classical architecture of this ancient city, lay some of the most unlikely places. When asked the question, ‘which city has the largest number of clubs per square mile in the world?’, few would think to answer Krakow. However this statement is entirely accurate; the nightlife in Krakow is really something else. With double vodkas costing only 8.39 Polish zloty, (1.50 GBP) and a bar on every corner, we could only imagine how our Polish days were to turn out if we were to make it home at all. Like any travelling students we had obviously checked in to the cheapest and most central hostel the city had to offer and for us, ‘Greg and Tom’s Beer Hostel’ was our starting point.
At the reception desk, after all the generic questions had been asked, the topic of our to-do list was broached. When saying we were here for Auschwitz and not much else, we were given a dismaying look and handed a schedule of each night’s up and coming events – history did not appear once. What we did find however, was that nightlife and culture seemed intertwining in Krakow; down every side-street were a number of jazz bars filled with what felt like the city’s entire population, and many a gap-yearing student. These jazz bars were far from the morbid tones of the close-by concentration camps and brought a sense of life to the city that we had not been anticipating. The bars had professional artists playing in them every night with various themes to each evening. This meant that people kept returning night after night and dance floors were constantly filled.
After leaving the cultured and relaxed vibes of the jazz bars, the Krakow clubs were next on our hit list. A night somewhere between Stealth and Gold Teeth, lasting regularly until 5 in the morning was what we found the people of Krakow enjoyed, and so did we.
After spending a couple of uncomfortable nights in a cramped hostel room with some intoxicated Irish guys and backpacking Australians, it was easy to forget why we had even come to Krakow apart from to experience the city as it exists today. As we looked around at surroundings during the day however, Krakow’s history was painted everywhere – in its architecture, shops and even the advertising, (everyone street corner was home to a different tourism company offering deals for Auschwitz, Birkenau, The Ghetto and Schindler’s factory). This made it easy to overlook the more ancient history that the city also carried in abundance. The Krakow salt mine is one of the most visited sites in the whole of Poland with over one million tourists per year, while the Wawel Royal Castle is a true marvel set against the banks of the river Vistula. The history of an independent Polish nation, long before Nazi Germany, is one the locals are proud of and happy to tell you about if given half a chance. They will also happily discuss with you their traditional Polish cuisine. Whilst I encourage trying new things, the Polish ‘milk bar’ is something I firmly believe to be avoided. Offering up a two-course dinner for only 18 PLN, just over £3, the meal will be unlikely to stay with you for long and vomiting in the street outside an establishment is bad form anywhere. The Hard Rock Café, housing some contentious memorabilia is probably your safest bet, but definitely not the most authentic – your call!
The history of an independent Polish nation, long before Nazi Germany, is one the locals are proud of and happy to tell you about if given half a chance.
Whilst all of the music, clubbing, food and people were amazing, they were perhaps highlighted even more so, standing in contrast to the reason we had originally approached this wonderful city. On our third day in Krakow we went to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Nazi concentration and extermination camps for Jews, ethnic minorities and political opponents to the Third Reich. It was here that the tone of the area changed the most dramatically. Although Oscar Schindler’s famous factory had highlighted some of the horrors faced in Poland at that time, nothing was quite like what we experienced at these two camps. The first-hand visualisation of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Party on the sheer scale at which they did so is impossible to put into words. Again, similarly to the city centre, it was not as I was expecting; I didn’t see a single person cry. The place has an almost unbelievable quality about it, and I left feeling as if I hadn’t really been. All that we could take away as a definite from the camps was that they were places that, history students or not, were more than worthwhile to visit, appreciate and remember.
So Krakow, as the title leads, is a predominantly a tale of two cities. Today it is a thriving hub of excitement and intrigue in its own right, standing in my opinion, alongside the top European capitals we’d all love to visit. And although it carries with it a devastating and emotional past, it is a history that everyone should familiarise themselves with and understand. However, I think the idea that people who visit Krakow must be there to visit Auschwitz is a view that ought to be altered. This city really is a great place on its own and seriously worth a few days of your life!
Images courtesy of Nico Trinkhaus via Flickr and Megan Bruce