I took the train from Warsaw to Krakow and found it interesting that while I didn’t find any ‘No Smoking’ signs on the train, there were plenty of ‘No Guns Out Windows’ signs. I wasn’t sure whether I should be worried about this…
I arrived in Krakow at about 9pm, and realised that I had no idea where my hostel was, as I hadn’t written down the address or marked it on my map, and I’d also managed to somehow delete the reservation email. So the first stop I made was McDonalds, where free wifi saved the day. The hostel was only a five minute walk from the bus station, and when I arrived there I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of people who I’d met in Gdansk – Anja, from Germany, and Nicola, from Italy.
I’d heard good things about the free walking tours and so decided that these would be a good way to spend my first day in Krakow. Anja and Nicola joined me. There are two walking tours – in the morning there’s one around the Old Town and in the afternoon one around the old Jewish quarter. My previous experiences with free walking tours had been great and you really can’t argue with the price – you tip what you want/think they deserve/can afford.
The tour of the Old Town was great and the guide we had was fantastic. They have to be officially licensed as tour guides, so for a change they actually knew a lot of facts about the city – thankfully this was punctuated with stories and the occasional outburst of frustration directed at a particularly ugly ‘artwork’ or the mobs of pigeons that inhabit the town. Apparently there’s only one place that the pigeons don’t congregate: Pigeon Lane. I guess no one is there to feed them like in the centre. We ended up at the old castle outside the dragon’s lair, where a statue of a dragon breathes rather pitiful fire every five minutes or so.
After having far too much for lunch, we joined the Jewish Quarter tour and headed off for a bit more of a walk. We started in Kazimerz, where we went past the house of a woman who started a cosmetics company I’ve never heard of but is apparently pretty big, and wandered through the ‘original’ Broadway [a direct translation of the name] before having a rest on some stairs in the shade to have a bit of a history lesson. It was stinking hot, so any chance for shade and sitting down was taken advantage of.
Following the history speech we walked by some important synagogues and one of the old Jewish cemeteries. We visited a square with lines of empty chairs representing the people missing as a result of Nazi Germany. The square used to be inside the Jewish ghetto, and the Pharmacy under the Eagle is on the corner. We also visited what is left of the old ghetto wall, which itself looks like a row of tombstones. On the other side of the road, all the windows facing the street were bricked up by the Nazis. While most have been returned to glass, a few have been left as a reminder.
From here we went to the place of Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, now a museum, and ended here with some information about Oskar Schindler that never made it into the famous movie Schindler’s Ark – like that he was a German spy or that he played a part in the official beginning of WWII by stealing Polish uniforms for the German soldiers to wear when attacking a German town. I think he was a much more complex character than Hollywood made him out to be, and far more of a pragmatist than a humanist. Still, his actions speak for themselves and he saved a lot of lives, regardless of his reasons.
Anja, Nicola, myself and a Finnish guy whose name has completely slipped my mind decided to locate some form of sustenance later in the evening and found that absolutely nothing satisfied. After walking around for about an hour, bemoaning the exorbitant prices of Krakow, we ended up settling for plain old KFC, which we took to the park. Sometimes you just need something familiar and cheap, even if that means crappy fast food.