Polishing our Polish

On May 10th, we said good-bye to the Czech Republic and drove across the border to Poland. Our first stop on the tour was Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp that housed 1.5 million people during WWII. When we pulled up, it was nothing like I expected. It was orderly and not at all what you initially imagine. Upon entering and buying our ticket, we realize that Ellie’s camera has broken, much to our huge disappointment. We hit a bump on the bus and it fell into the aisle. The lens is apparently broken and it doesn’t take photos. If it had to happen sometime, at least it happened right before we went into Auschwitz because it’s pretty hard to remain upset about a material possession for long at a place like that. We began our tour watching real footage of the camp and it’s prisoners. Afterwards, we split into groups to meet our tour guides. They showed us around Auschwitz and the grounds. It was really creepy because everything is original and there are the same bunkers the prisoners were kept in. The guide opened our tour by pointing at a row of trees and saying that those trees we were looking at were planted by prisoners and are now fully grown today. Also, she mentioned the path we walked on was the exact same one.

Going under the archway, that says “Work will set you free” in German, we continued on to the huge exhibit of all of the artifacts left behind in the camp.

They have one showcase that is absolutely just full of human hair and another with children’s clothes. We were emotional pretty much the entire time. The worst bits were the original beds and prison cells, the original walls where prisoners were shot in the back of the head, as well as the original crematorium.

The Women’s Bunk, where they slept 5 to each bed.

After our tour, we took a shuttle bus to Auschwitz II Birkenau, the second concentration camp that was built by the Nazi’s. This camp is absolutely huge compared to little Auschwitz. This camp is about 50 football fields and is mostly destroyed as the nazi’s destroyed it as the war was coming to an end. We saw the original train tracks where the Jews got off thinking they were at their new home only to realize they were at their hell.

They still have all of the original Nazi watch towers over the whole camp and the original toilets and beds in Auschwitz II Birkenau. We recommend that everyone go see Auschwitz sometime in their life. It was the most humbling experience and we had to keep reminding ourselves that this was real and that this really happened and that we weren’t on some movie set for a horror film. It was surreal and emotional how one man can slaughter an entire race.

Moving on from Aushwitz, the tour drove to Krakow, Poland. Upon arriving in Krakow, I knew I was going to love it. It felt much more authentic than Prague. The Polish were instantly perceived by us as passionate and exciting people. We checked into our group hostel where we were rooming with two Australian girls on our tour. The hostel was clean and nice even if the receptionist was as mean as a snake. The tour group was going out for dinner but we had heard polish cuisine wasn’t top on vegetarian specialities so we were so excited to find the only vegetarian restaurant in Poland to be right next door to our hostel. So, we skipped the group dinner and headed to Bar Vega, home of authentic Polish vegetarian food and a delightful fresh salad bar. We are quickly learning as backpackers that our main diet consists of bread and cheese as it’s the cheapest option and the only vegetarian friendly thing that we can often steal from breakfast for lunch at our hostels. Vegetables are few and far in between on a budget so this place was a real gem. We order potato pancakes with mushroom sauce, a soybean rump steak with onions and mushroom and cabbage pierogis. We split everything and it only cost us 5.00 USD each. The soybean rump steak was a bit odd but I should have guessed that, but everything else was perfect.

Afterwards, we met up with the group and were keen on getting a few Polish beers.. To meet up we walked through the main square that Krakow is built around and it was absolutely stunning at night and all the locals were outside drinking and eating. This square is in competition with St. Mark’s square in Venice for being the largest square in Europe. After meeting up with group, we saw a huge huge group of polish people in the middle of the square wearing scarves and screaming and chanting things. Apparently, there was some sort of soccer championship won and everyone was out celebrating.

Kelly and Carlos, our South African tour guide

Everyone was getting drunk and smashing beer bottles and shouting and giving high fives. It was fantastic and so real. Poland is famous for flavored vodka so we tried honey vodka which was smooth before heading to a sports bar with part of our group where all of the Polish people were celebrating their win. We slipped away just as the riot police embarked with their crazy masks on the square to break up the broken glass party going on. At this place, we so excited to find out it was a brewery that served Polish wheat beer out of huge personal table taps. They give you a beer tower that is so huge it serves about 20 people and everyone just sits and enjoys.

The Polish men kept breaking out in song about the soccer event and began teaching us English people how to sing the songs in Polish to lead the chanting. It was amazing, even if they were just humoring our funny accents. We all tottered home, excited for our free day tomorrow.

The next day we awoke and went into the square to catch our free bike tour. Phillip from Latvia was our tour guide on the 3.5 hour tour.

He toured around the trendy Jewish area called Kasimerz. Krakow is a huge student town approximately a whole quarter of the population is student age.

Ellie is standing in front of the Jewish Ghetto Monument. It is a square filled with nothing but empty iron chairs to signify how it looked when the last of the jews were being taken away to concentration camps, the once full ghetto was filled with nothing but furniture and other items the Jews couldn’t bring with them.

We saw the Jewish Ghetto including where Schindler lived while involved with helping the Jews as well as Schindlers original factory.

Apparently, Krakow was completely off the radar of tourists until Spielberg did his movie, Schindler’s List. He showed us the River Wista as well as the castle on the hill. He also told us a funny story about this dragon which a piece of folklore from Krakow. This dragon was eating virgins and tried to eat the King’s daughter but apparently they fed him a sheep full of sulfur instead and when he went for a drink of water in the river, he exploded from the sulfur and water combo. His bones are hung above the church next to the castle still.

It’s a very odd story. Even more odd, is they have a statue dedicated to this dragon which blows fire from it’s copper mouth every few minutes, but a few years ago, the only way to get the fire to come out of the statues mouth was to send a text message to this number and then it would send you one back to tell you the fire would blow fire just for you. We thought that was hilarious that even Krakow is so modern and trying to capitalize on the boom of cell phones with a national monument of sorts.

After, the bike tour, I had felt like I was catching a cold so we got some soup from the veg place and came across this crazy man who felt personally offended that ellie has her nose pierced and he wanted some of my soup. He didn’t speak, but just made signs at us and was very odd. After dealing with his signs, I took a nap for a while. After I woke up, we walked to the castle hill and the church, saw the bones and took some photos and then sat on the hill next to the river enjoying the views and the sun before heading home, eating our final helping of vegetarian dumplings and drinking lots of hot tea for my cold opting to stay in and relax instead of hit the town again.

the main square of the city

At the castle:

We also learned that Poland invented the bagel, they were sold on every street corner. so of course we had to try one.


The next day we headed to mountainous Zakopane and arrived at 10 am. We checked into our hotel and went for a walk with our group to explore our options as what to do in this little mountain town.

view from the hotel room

Zakopane is normally brilliant for skiing in the winter with snow-covered mountains and chair lifts and cable cars, but in the summer there wasn’t a whole lot of skiing or chair lifting going on. We walked around for a bit exploring the scenery and the Tatra mountains.

Everywhere we went there some vendor selling what we thought was bread in all different shades of browns and whites.

One of them offered us a sample and then we finally realized that it was cheese. It was so werid, it looked so much like bread. We tried going to three tourist offices until one girl spoke decent English to tell us that our only choice for getting to the top of the mountains were a train that took you to the top. So we took the train, enjoying the views and then walked around a bit, taking tons of photos of the Tatras.

us on the mountain, with the small town below us

We sunbathed with a ton of Polish people at the top who were all just in their bras and underwears.

We got hot and got a beer and were asked to sit with this Polish girl and this awful American man who was balding from Georgia. He wanted to exploit all of his “travel knowledge” but got off on a bad start with us as the first thing he asked us is if the English were really as stupid as he thought they were. We were so annoyed as he completed his list of every place he’s ever gone and gave us his thoughtless political opinions. The girl, Blanca, he was with was really cool though so we invited her to Florida. After our beer, we headed back down and met up with some of our group and had a tall skinny ice cream and went back to the hotel, all agreeing that Zakopane would be absolutely perfect in the winter around Christmas time with it’s little log cabins and quaint architecture. We all had happy hour with wine at one girls hotel room before heading out to dinner with the group at a traditional Polish restaurant. I had a potato pancake and Elie tried some fish that was whole with bones and head! It was pretty nasty, but mine was delightful.

The main dishes in Poland are always lots of meat… (this is for you mama z)

They had traditional music from a band and Carlos, our tour guide enlightened us with his dancing before we paid the bill and all went to bed, getting ready for Budapest the next day!

Live traditional Polish music

Traditional Dancing??

Poland was absolutely fantastic and is totally somewhere we want to explore more what with it’s varied scenery, including the mountains, the ocean and all the big cities in between.


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May 2008
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