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Krakow, Poland


Wawel Cathedral and Castle built in early 1500's
Arriving in Krakow, we were helped immediately by a local we had met briefly on the train.  Calling a taxi for us turned out to be a big help, since there were no taxis at the station and even with a call it took 20-30 minutes for a cab to arrive.  Through our Polish acquaintance we were told there was a big funeral in town that was clogging up traffic and causing an issue with the taxis.  We were grateful for the kindness of a stranger.  Once the cab did arrive our new friend gave him our address and we were on our way.  Renting another Airbnb property, we landed in a newly renovated apartment in an older building near the Jewish quarter.  With 15-foot ceilings and large windows overlooking a courtyard (for $38/night), we settled in quickly and then went out for dinner at nearby Polakowski's Restaurant.  Dinner for both of us with a beverage was only $12.  Of course, this was not fine dining, more cafeteria-style, but the menu was traditional Polish and tasty.  Rain and lightening the remainder of the evening prevented any exploring.  

The following morning, we headed out early to walk around the historic district prior to
At Auschwitz

meeting the driver and guide for a full-day tour.  Traveling about 1 1/2 hours outside the city in a van with 10 other visitors, we headed first to Auschwitz for a 3-hour tour, followed by a 2-hour tour at Birkenau.  Our guide did a phenomenal job of covering the history and the horrors which had occurred at the death camps.  It was overwhelming and difficult to understand how this could have happened on so many different levels.  The combined political, social and financial interests that supported and enabled the Holocaust cannot be comprehended.  The Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration and extermination camps murdered more than one million Jews, Gypsies, prisoners of war and homosexuals.  The exact number will never be known since many were killed on arrival and their names were never registered.  Visiting the camps was a sobering experience.


Rock-salt altar and statues in Chapel of St. Kinga
The next day, we took another tour.  This trip took us to the Wieliczka Salt Mines.  First mined in the 13th century, commercial mining was stopped in 1996 due to the low price of salt.  But, the mines are now a major tourist attraction, hosting over a million guests each year.   Through the centuries the miners have created statues and and chapels in the rock salt.  The Chapel of St. Kinga being the largest and most elaborate, consists of salt crystal chandeliers, sculptures and bas-relief on the altar and walls.  With over 2000 chambers, the "tourist route" provides access to roughly 1% of what is there.  Descending hundreds of wooden steps, we climbed down to over 400 feet below the surface.  Luckily, an elevator whisked us back up on completion of the tour.

Since the salt mine tour was a half-day excursion, it gave us the remainder of the day to explore the Old Town and visit the Wewal Castle and Cathedral.  Unlike Prague, the Krakow  historical district in rather small.  One serious day of sightseeing could probably cover everything to be visited within the city. 

Departing Krakow the next day, we needed to decide on our next stop.  With accommodations already set in Amsterdam, we decided to head in that direction and stop in Berlin for a couple of days.  Train tickets for that journey could not be purchased online and required a stop by the train station.  After a lengthy wait, we were able to secure tickets to Berlin via Warsaw.  On our arrival at the station the following morning, we waited over 30 minutes for the attendant on duty to issue tickets for our journey from Berlin to Amsterdam.  There was only one other person on duty and the line behind us continued to grow.  Without explanation the man trying to get our tickets kept leaving his area, consulting with coworkers and manuals.  We had read about the lack of customer service and efficiency in the country as being a hold over from the communist era, and this seemed to be a prime example.  Finally, as time for our train departure neared, we left without the tickets.  On our arrival in Berlin, we were able to get the required tickets within a few minutes.      
Rynek Glowny (Main Square) in Krakow dating from the 13th
century was deserted in the early morning hours.

At Birkenau, the rail line that brought thousands of
Jews to the camp.  
Krakow Barbica is part of the historic fortification
that once protected the city.

Rock-salt bas-relief in the St. Kinga chapel
Salt crystal chandelier in the St. Kinga Chapel
Traditional Polish music near the old entrance gates of the city.
St. Florian's Gate built in the 14th century was part of the
city's early defense syste
Floor of the St. Kinga chapel, with designs carved into the rock salt, looks like marble.
Many plain concrete structures from the Communist
era (1945-1989) were seen in a our travels near and in
Krakow.  

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