My trip to Krakow and Wroclaw, Poland, in April was both my first time in Eastern Europe and my first time REALLY traveling alone. (I did 10 days by myself in Spain before, but since I was living there, I only half-count it; I spoke the language, knew the bus lines, was familiar with the food, etc.) And it was a smashing success—one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had—though I’m not entirely sure what to attribute it to: Is the eastern half of the continent new and exciting to me? Is Poland just a gem in itself? Or is traveling alone the greatest thing to ever happen? Perhaps it was the perfect trifecta.
While Poland, and in particular Krakow, is hardly an obscure destination, it is certainly not yet on tourists’ bucket lists the way that Paris or Barcelona are. Prague and Budapest are still the main draws for Eastern Europe, leaving Krakow slightly more untouched (though this is all changing, and Poland’s tourist industry is skyrocketing).
The fact that Eastern Europe is less treaded territory, and also that many countries don’t use the Euro (and have weaker economies) means great deals and exchange rates. Traveling through Europe doesn’t have to mean shelling out 20 bucks for a meal and glass of wine. The sheer fact that Poland was so affordable added to my love for it—it’s simply easier to enjoy a place when you’re not stressing over pursestrings.
For example, rooms in hostels ranging from perfectly acceptable to top of the line cost me between 5–9 euros, breakfast included. (Poland uses the zloty, but I converted everything to euros in my mind because that’s what I’m earning. The exchange rate is about 4 zloty to 1 euro, or 3 zloty to 1 USD). A full lunch meal in Krakow would set you back about 4 euros. Pierogies (Polish dumplings, or simply Heaven) were 30 cents a pop. A 4-hour bus ride between Krakow and Wroclaw was less than 4 euros, and came complete with a waiter serving a mid-ride coffee and snack (!). (I used the company Polskibus, which also gives you better deals the further in advance you book.) Of course more touristy things like a tour of Aushwitz concentration camp* were priced closer in line with Western Europe (I paid about 23 euros), but when everything else is so cheap, you can more freely budget for the important points on your itinerary.
Next year I plan on almost exclusively exploring Eastern Europe during my vacation breaks.
Polish Culture and History
I’ve read countless blogs and accounts of travelers through Eastern Europe who exclaim, “Call me crazy, but I’m obsessed with all things Holocaust!” I’m fascinated as well, but it annoys me so much that people think they are the exception because they have some “weird” interest in the horrors of WWII history. You are not cool, different, or somehow indie for being interested in tragedy. You are not some sort of hip “crazy.”
You are normal. You are human. Humans are drawn to atrocities.
But I digress.
I am entirely fascinated by Holocaust history, just like millions of other girls and boys who read The Diary of Anne Frank growing up; I’ve watched Schindler’s List and The Pianist; I’ve read the disturbing memoir of the commander at Auschwitz. On my first trip to Europe I visited Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, and just recently in Amsterdam I took a tour of Anne Frank’s secret annex.
When I thought of traveling to Poland, I was intrigued for two reasons: I heard Krakow was a beating European city, and the site of some of the worst crimes against humanity. I couldn’t get it out of my head. And while it doesn’t seem like the happiest of destinations, I had to go.
One line really stuck with me from a walking tour in Wroclaw. The guide was talking about Poland’s rich and varied history, spanning well over 1,000 years, but what a shame it is that the only association most people have with the country is the Holocaust. “People remember us as Europe’s graveyard,” he said. And he was right—I had specifically traveled to Poland to learn more about its tragic past.
But while it’s unfortunate that Poland is remembered for its great sadness, its recent history is also a reality that many visitors want to face and learn more about. Traveling to the “graveyard” itself is a truly eye-opening and poignant experience. For years you read about this stuff in school, you watch Hollywood attempt to recreate it, you hear references in the news. But walking the streets of the Krakow ghetto (where 18,000 Jews were crammed into housing fit for 3,000), entering the barracks at Auschwitz and Berkenau concentration camps, stepping foot into Oskar Schindler’s metalware factory, and gathering in the plaza where thousands of innocent lives were shipped off to their death—while not necessarily a pleasant way to spend a vacation, it was certainly once of the most meaningful trips I’ve ever taken.
I believe it’s this purpose that made me enjoy my time in Poland all the more. I went there to learn, and not just through museums. My point in visiting wasn’t that of many of my recent travels—I wasn’t there to try the food (though I fell in love with it—even passed up Mexican and Thai restaurants to just keep eating pierogies), see the cathedrals, lounge on a beach (pick a different country!) or brave the tourist throngs to see some famous monument. I didn’t run out of things to do after a day in a town full of charm but lacking history. Instead I took advantage of real human-to-human tours from people eager to explain and put into perspective the history of their homeland.
World War II aside, I traveled to the now 98% Catholic country during the week leading up to Easter. Krakow went all out. Much like the typical Christmas markets you see throughout Europe in December, Krakow filled one side of its main square (the largest central plaza in all of Europe!) will booths selling local cheeses and meats, artisan pottery, painted eggs, woodwork, and stands selling all sorts of delicious food, most notably (of course) pierogies. And as I mentioned, everything is so cheap that you have no reason to not try it all—hence my three dinners every night.
On the Saturday before Easter, when I was in the city of Wroclaw, I saw masses of people on their way to church carrying Easter baskets. Apparently the tradition is to bring a small amount of food to the service the day before, so you can bless the food you’ll put on the table for Easter breakfast the next morning. EVERYONE I passed on Saturday was holding one—a father guiding his daughter to church while she clasped their checked-cloth-covered basket had to be one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.
Krakow was my favorite of the two cities. I personally got a lot of out the walking tours I did there, particularly the Jewish one (and also admittedly loved seeing many of the filming sites of one of my favorite movies, Schindler’s List). But also, the city was just plain charming. A circular park rings around the old part of town; cobblestone streets wind their way into the massive market square; and restaurants with the perfect ambiance and tiny tables for two, adorned with vases and candles, were scattered everywhere across the city. In San Francisco or New York you would never be able to afford these places; in Krakow you could dine at them for under 5 USD.
So Krakow and Wroclaw were great. Polish pierogies were great. But perhaps what I loved most about this trip was my independence.
Despite a few initial blunders, like getting off my bus from Berlin to Krakow in the wrong city and having to catch a 2 hour train to arrive in my actual destination, solo traveling went seamlessly.
I’ll be the first to admit that I did feel lonely the first night in Krakow. The locals didn’t seem entirely eager to help with directions, and the Polish language is a slew of consonants that simultaneously fascinates and terrifies me. Dining alone at the aforementioned table-for-two cafés felt like the ultimate kicker. But all it takes is this small discomfort to remind you of your extrovert capabilities, and by the next day I latched onto a few people on my walking tour, and we became fast friends. Also, hostels are perfectly designed for the solo traveler.
I often get mentally and physically exhausted after more than 10 days backpacking. But on this trip, I could have kept going, simply because I had a week in the middle to myself. (The Poland part was bookended by visits to Berlin and Barcelona with friends). I woke up when I wanted. I ate when I wanted. I saw exactly what parts of the city I wanted. I went out when I wanted, I stayed in Grandma-style when I wanted. Are you getting me here? Autonomy is king.
And unless you are in a completely unknown destination or during the harshest winter months, you are never truly solo. Meeting backpackers from all over the world, as cliché as it sounds, is really half the reason we do all this crazy jet-setting in the first place.
I don’t always like to repeat destinations, but I’ll be back to Poland for sure.
*Note: You can enter the concentration camps free of charge in the early morning hours, but later on in the day you must enter with a tour group. If you want to go alone, you can take a city bus close to the site and then walk or take a cab, making the excursion much cheaper. While the camp itself if free, and you can read the plaques provided, I found that dishing out for the guided tour was definitely worth it. It’s a tough place to visit, and you’d most likely appreciate having a professional docent to help you wrap your head around the difficult things you’re seeing. You can book your tour the day before through any number of companies around Krakow.
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