This past October I had my first real “holiday” from school. We were to have an entire week off of school, as well as a previous Friday. This left me with 10 days to play with regarding a trip to Europe- a dream for me!
My first choice was to spend those 10 days in Italy. Endless pasta, bread, wine…. What more could I need? Unfortunately, Italy was at the cusp of their 2nd wave, and with talk of the borders closing in the next few days, I decided now wouldn't be the time. Thankfully I did change my plans since the closure did happen and I would have spent those 10 days confined to a hotel room.
With Italy out of the picture, Greece sparked my interest. I found a sailing tour for the week that would take you between the different Greek islands. Ready to take a trip, I booked the cruise. Unfortunately, just 48 hours before it was to begin, they emailed me sharing that it was canceled due to new restrictions. Thankfully I got a full refund, but now I was back to square one figuring out how I would spend my break.
With my first 2 choices out of luck, I looked further into what countries had limited restrictions at that time. Poland stood out. Not only was I able to get in with my Swedish residency, but I also still held a Polish visa from when I was supposed to move there in February. (Following my year teaching in South Korea, I accepted a preschool position in Poland. Unfortunately, when it came time to move, South Korea was on the EU ban list. I instead went home to the US to quarantine for 2 weeks… which in that time the US also became part of the ban.) With little worry about getting in, I started to book things to do on my weekend trip to Poland.
Over the last few years, I have flown dozens of times. Fortunately, I have been lucky to not have a single large issue with any of my flights. Never missed a flight, only had short delays, etc… My trip to Krakow changed that, though.
My flight from Stockholm to Krakow was a straightforward, 1-way flight. Unfortunately, due to fog, the plane had to take an emergency landing in Warsaw. As we all waited in Warsaw to hear what would happen next, I noticed I was the only female amidst about 40 males. Lucky for me, all of the men were about my age, many in their business suit attire. I was in good company. I had a good laugh feeling like I was on an episode of the Bachelorette. Poland's First Bachelorette, Megan.
After waiting for about an hour, they shared what would be happening in Polish over the speakers. I learned at that moment I was not just the only female, but also the only non-Polish speaker. A real damsel in distress! Looking like a lost sheep, I made my way to the counter to ask them what was going on. Before I made it to the front of the line, I became friends with some of the eligible bachelors that noticed I didn't fit in. They informed me that we would be traveling by bus to Krakow instead. My 9pm arrival would now be a 2am.
Hoping on the bus I felt like I was on the limo to the new Bachelorette mansion. All 40 of my Bachelors climbed on board and we were ready for the 4-hour drive to Krakow. Unfortunately, or fortunately, none of them made a move and I made it to Krakow in the early hours of the morning. I set my alarm for 9am and fell asleep instantly.
The next morning came too quickly as I got ready to go on my walking tour of the city. While I was getting ready, I realized my Airbnb did not have the wifi promised to me. Since I had no phone service, this left me a little worried about how I would contact home and navigate the city.
In addition to the lack of wifi, on my way to the tour, I also noticed several restaurants and grocery stores closed. Everyone was wearing masks- on the streets, riding the bus, in the stores, etc... Following the crowd, I put mine on. At the tour, I was told a new mask mandate was introduced at midnight. Any person outside of their home would need to have a mask on. Along with this new mandate, all restaurants and stores are only allowed take out.
In the past, my walking tours have consisted of 5 to 20+ people. Although fewer people meant it was a more personable tour, more people meant more potential friends to get dinner with after or explore the next day with. My Krakow tour was just me and the guide. It was a formal tour, but quite dry and awkward at times with it just being the two of us. The most awkward part was paying at the end. “Free Walking Tours'' run off of tips. For most tours, I usually leave $5-10. With it being a 1-1 tour I felt compelled to leave more, but unfortunately, the tour guide only accepted Polish cash, something I didn't have. She awkwardly walked me to an ATM where I found out the lowest denomination of money I could get was $20. Definitely cost more than what the tour was worth…
Following my city tour, I signed up to take a tour of the ghettos in the afternoon. With an hour break between the two, I went to one of the restaurants my guide recommended for lunch. With few places open, she recommended I go to a “factory worker” kitchen. This restaurant served just the basic Polish foods such as perogies, soup, and potato cakes. It was a local place where many tradesmen grabbed food each day. “Factory Kitchens'' are partially government-funded to keep the prices as the lowest they can be. Sounds like the perfect place for me! I decided I would try perogies, a Polish special. Perogies are potato-filled dumplings. They can be sweet served with fruits and syrups or savory topped with meats, vegetables, and gravy. I decided to go with the traditional way, topped with caramelized onions.
With it being a Factory Kitchen my expectations were low. They definitely should not have been! For someone who loves potatoes and pasta, it was amazing! I happily shoved my huge box of pierogies in my mouth, while sitting on a bench in the street. Nearby street musicals were playing and it was a warm fall day. Between the aesthetic and the food, I couldn't have been happier.
Krakow is a very old city consisting of many churches, some over a thousand years old! During WWII it was occupied by the German with a rich history regarding Nazis and Jews. Many of the buildings are still standing from the time the Nazis and Jews occupied them, or show signs of wear from the war. In addition to it being an old city, it is also a very poor city. You could get a meal for $5-10! The history and poverty of the city became more and more evident throughout my tour of the ghettos.
Unlike my city tour that morning, the ghetto tour was quite informal and fun. The guide told us he just recovered from Covid a few days prior which was a little alarming… Besides the tour guide and myself, there was another American tourist on the tour. For 2 hours we walked around the city with our guide pointing out famous buildings and landmarks. He showed us the train station where the Jews were loaded into cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz as well as the apartments where Jews were hidden throughout the war. Quite an eye-opening experience knowing the tragedy that occurred there just 80 years ago.
Following the tour, I made my way home. Fortunately, I am good at remembering my surroundings and locations. At this point, I had not had any wifi or phone service and was simply looking at a city map to find my way around. Without wifi for 24 hours, though, I was ready to reconnect with the outside world and tell my momma that I was fine.
In my prior adventures, I have lived off of the wifi supplied at my Airbnb or Hostel during my stay, as well as connection to free wifi at restaurants and McDonalds. With my Airbnb wifi not working and restaurants closed, I wandered the streets hoping to find some sort of connection. After about an hour, I found a café that had public access. Due to the restrictions, the café was closed so I stood like a stalker out front freezing. Surprisingly enough, I didn't have too many missed messages. My mom has finally come to terms with my nomadic self and is starting to worry less, I think. :) In my inbox was 1 important message I was happy to receive sharing that my Auschwitz tour the next day had been moved to a new time. I would have been really sad to have missed that…
Grabbing some cheap snacks from the convenience store and a dollar slice of cake from a nearby bakery, I made my way home for the night.
The next morning I woke with excitement for my Auschwitz and Holocaust tour. Ever since I was a young kid I enjoyed reading and learning about the Holocaust. I read every book related to Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, and Viktor Frankl. It would be a tough day mentally, but also so eye-opening to see the many places I read about in real life.
Visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was eye-opening indeed. Due to Covid, only 2 tours were running each hour, with each tour having 7 people. Before Covid restrictions, there were thousands of people passing through each day. Having fewer people really made you experience and see more of the camp, as well as the eeriness of being there.
At the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, we walked through several barracks showing where the Jews stayed, as well as through barracks that held their shoes, suitcases, and hair. This camp is where the “stronger” Jews stayed and lived. It was a work camp, although a gas chamber was just across the road. Right next to the gas chamber was the general's house where he lived with his wife and 4 children. We were able to walk to the house as well as walk through the gas chamber.
Just a short drive away was the Auschwitz camp, the largest and most well-known death camp during the Holocaust. Even though I have seen several photos and read countless stories regarding how large this camp is, the magnitude of it does not hit you until you are physically there. We walked for 30 minutes and just covered the width of the camp. The length was several times wider. All you saw were remnants of barracks and a gas chamber for miles. The experience was one I will never forget.
Our drive back to Krakow was a somber one. I befriended another girl on my tour and the two of us chatted about our day and our time in Poland so far. Following our tour, we also got dinner together. Unfortunately, my Factory Worker´s kitchen was closed, but we came across another traditional Polish restaurant to eat at instead. This time I got the traditional potato cake pancakes with meat and vegetable gravy. D.E.L.I.C.I.O.U.S. Between the price and the taste, Polish food has easily become my favorite food. I consider taking a weekend trip back just for more!
The next day I wandered around the city and ate more food before I flew back to Sweden. Poland has so much history, such great food, and the prices of things are so cheap. I highly recommend making a trip to Poland. A weekend in Poland was just not long enough!