At the time we are writing these lines, Krakow is welcoming the World Youth Day (WYD) which is a gathering of young Catholics from across the world. They gather to celebrate the Palm Sunday (I just read that on the Internet). This year, the Krakow event is happening from July 26th to the 31st. Thanks to our friend Julie who suggested we avoid the city at that period, we made sure our stay in Krakow was just before the 3,000,000 youth invading the city to come to the gathering hosted by the Pope.
Naturally, when we were visiting this beautiful city, Krakow was already preparing for the event, not only Krakow, but also important museums around the city such as Auschwitz. We didn’t think to look too far ahead to see if the attractions around the city would be impacted by this event, but when we looked at the web site of Auschwitz-Birkenau in order to book a tour, we were made aware that the site was reserved for WYD. Getting over our disappointment was extremely difficult, because honestly, who goes to Krakow without visiting Auschwitz? We decided to take a chance and go directly to the site anyway. We had several plans in order to enter the site, one of them was using the card of crying children;), but this was not necessary. This presented a real opportunity to teach our boys about one of the darkest chapter of modern history and we wanted to approach with the WW2 subject thoroughly. Therefore, after visiting the Uprising in Warsaw museum, which dealt with life in the ghetto, we could see what was happening when people were deported from the ghettos to the concentration camp. We were able to enter the site, but unfortunately the buildings were all closed. The site was open to the public and to compensate for the closure of the buildings, there were big signs installed all over that showed a picture of what we could have seen inside the buildings. Sincerely, it was enough for us. As soon as we got in front of the sadly famous camp entrance gate indicating “work will set you free”, a deep feeling of horror invaded us, we had the shivers and felt a strange mix of sadness and lost of innocence. We started by visiting Auschwitz I, where many of the original buildings are still present. Imagining that each of the buildings had been built by hand, with poor tools was inconceivable. Understanding the poor conditions and violence that the deportees have endured made it even worse. We have toured the site and learned a ton of information on the atrocities committed in this place. While we were trying to read all the information listed on the panels, we had Kolya asking us questions non-stop since he has a real passion for the second World War. Not knowing what was waiting for us, we had prepared our children mentally at what they would see, to be there directly and observe helped to really get a better feeling of the insanity that happened at this location. Our boys could see with their own eyes that this was a terrible place and that it was impossible to escape for the prisoners.
At the end of the Auschwitz I section, we took a shuttle bus which took us to Birkenau or Auschwitz II which was the true death factory. It was built because Auschwitz I was not effective enough for the Nazis in order to accomplish their “final solution to the jewish question”. Birkenau was huge and had buildings as far as the end of the horizon. Of the estimated 1 300 000 prisoners who have passed through these camps, 900 000 were killed upon arrival at the camp while others were placed in forced labour until exhaustion and death. In total more than 1 100 000 people died in Auschwitz. Kolya will speak in length about World War II in his personal post.
After having gone through so many horrors (War and Communist occupation), the Poles remained very united. What helped was the common language and religion. Even today, the Poles are very observant and the Church remains a symbol very important in their eyes. Rest assured, Krakow is not only horror and desolation, the old town is super charming, more busy than Warsaw, it is full of medieval buildings that miraculously survived WW2 to the delight of tourists who can observe and visit the majestic buildings. Until the 16th century, Krakow was the Royal capital before it moved to Warsaw. We were able to visit the Wawel Castle and the site which is breathtaking. On Monday, two activities of the site were free and we took the opportunity to cut some activity costs which was great. We visited the “Lost Wawel” exhibition which deals with the remains of the Castle who were discovered as a result of the restoration of the site. We also visited the “Crown Treasury & Armoury” exhibition which dealt with the armors and weapons of the Kings and knights, both our boys devoured with their eyes the pieces while imagining themselves in such armour using the deadliest weapons to go to war. Unfortunately, it was forbidden to take photographs inside the exhibitions. We finished our visit of Wawel by visiting the “Dragon’s Den”, an exhibition that is at the bottom of one of the towers and that go through an underground passage that leads outside. It is in this same cave that it’s believed the Dragon would have lived. Once you exit the cavern, there is a large fire-breathing dragon that awaits curious parents and children. The legend of the dragon of Wawel is reused though the city by different merchants where it is possible to find stuffed animals and books about this beautiful legend.
Rain and our spirit
I don’t know if we already mentioned this to you, but since our departure from Canada up to Krakow, it rained almost every day. We did not have to use a lot of sunscreen and we always brought our rain jackets in our bags. So when we were all tired of getting soaked, we decided to take refuge in a shopping mall and go see a movie at the movie theatre where it’s dry and you can get a good popcorn to improve the spirit. We enjoyed a movie in English, but with Polish subtitles; Ghostbuster! We had a good time and Jillian was definitely the favorite character for both boys.
The salt mine
If you take the bus for about an hour out of Krakow, there is an excursion not to be missed, the salt mine “Williczka”. It’s another beautiful site listed by UNESCO and is the oldest Polish Company. We took benefit of a French tour that allowed us to be in a smaller group than the English one. Hugo will speak in greater length about this site in his personal blog. We can tell you that it was beautiful and that the pictures do not do justice to this visit.
Finally, our favorite part, the food. We have discovered, thanks to the Lonely Planet guide, two amazing restaurants. The restaurant Il Calzone, a great Italian restaurant that offers a very elaborate menu and Calzones, all at very reasonable price. Everything just looked so good that we ate ‘family style’ and shared our four dishes between us. The other restaurant that we discovered is a vegetarian restaurant called Glonojad. We went there initially to fill our deficiency in fruits and vegetables, but the dishes were spectacularly good, so much that we went back the next day. We understood that from now on, we should definitely try the restaurants recommended by our travel guide.
When we left Poland, we felt very good having included this great country in our trip around the World. We left after 10 days with the feeling that we could spend 10 more days without seeing everything. Although we are convinced that this will be the case in several countries during our trip, we loved Poland and have been charmed by the locals, and we bring back with us many beautiful memories.