Krakow, Poland wasn’t part of our travel itinerary. After detouring from Prague to Berlin for the Pearl Jam tour, traveling through Poland was essential to get back on track with our visit to the High Tatras in Slovakia. And, boy were we happy that we didn’t miss this wonderful little city, along with its friendly Polish residents.
Krakow is the second largest city in Poland, but still quite small compared to other cities we’ve visited in Europe. Our primary reason for staying a few nights in Krakow was to visit the Auschwitz concentration camps, which are just 80km outside the city. Brett had visited Poland several years ago and was sorry that he missed the opportunity to visit the camp. Krakow in itself is worth spending a few days, exploring its neighborhoods, sites and enjoying its riverside activities.
We arrived in Krakow on a Saturday evening, decided to check-in to our AirBNB flat, and get ready to go out for a night on the town. While looking for our street, we met a very nice Polish guy who told us about a Jewish festival. We quickly headed out on our hysterical free bikes and headed to the Jewish quarter “Kazimierz”. Needless to say, we never did discover the location of the festival, but were we ever so surprised with what we found instead. Krakow is quite the party town! There were bars, restaurants and people everywhere covering the streets, enjoying their Saturday night out. The main Jewish square has a circular old brick building situated at its center. Stall windows within the square were serving up greasy delights to soak up the Saturday night alcohol. We never imagined to find such a vibrant community in a place known to have so much dark history. It’s amazing how the Polish have revived the Jewish quarter. Every block surprises you with a one-of-a-kind cafe or acentric bar. We’d like to go back just to tour these places which held such interesting decor and design.
The following day, our entire morning was spent touring Auschwitz. Once back in Krakow, we journeyed down the river path on our bikes. It felt like everyone was out enjoying their Sunday afternoon. The river areas were filled with people biking, running, sunbathing, or enjoying a cocktail on one of the boat restaurants floating on the river. We rode up to Wawel Castle which is the famed centerpiece of the city.
The old city is full of small parks and bike lanes making it quite easy to navigate peacefully through town. Biking through the old city was lovely as we made our way through historic renaissance and medieval buildings lining the streets. Tucked away in old town is Krakow’s huge central square. It’s the largest medieval town square (200m x 200m) in all of Europe. We stopped for awhile to soak in the atmosphere and imagine what life in the square must have been like centuries ago.
We were so impressed with the Jewish quarter (Kazimierz District) the previous night, that we were compelled to see it come to life during the day. Although less crowded, the quarter was still vibrant with people lazily wandering its streets or enjoying one of the artsy cafes. We took the Synagogue route and discovered five Synagogues just within a few blocks of the central square and even saw a few Hasidic Jews wondering around. Jews began living in Kazimierz around the early 15th century after being expelled from Krakow. By the 17th century Jewish life flourished in Kazimierz with a handful of synagogues and Jewish businesses. The Jewish population reached close to 32,000 by the early 1900’s. However, the thriving community was destroyed during Holocaust.
Today, Kazimierz is thriving with Jewish culture once again. With not only its historic buildings and synagogues but also its lively cafes, bars and arts scene. Its rejuvenation is partly due to the early 90’s support from the Judaica Foundation, as well as a little Spielberg film called Schindler’s List. Yes, this is the place Oscar Schindler helped nearly 5,000 Jews escape their doom. And, it’s this film that puts Kazimierz on the tourist’s World Map.
While meandering through the Jewish quarter, we looked up several times at the buildings around us to find old shirtless men or bathrobed women peering out their windows. Standing around the lively central square, we could easily imagine Jewish life during the 17th century. After a tiring day of sightseeing, we enjoyed a yummy vegetarian meal at Momo’s Restaurant in the Jewish quarter, followed by the “Best Ice Cream” in Krakow.
Krakow was a pleasant surprise on our travel adventures and definitely not a place to be missed. We’d love to go back someday again and spend more time in this friendly little city by the river.
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