Many people that travel to Europe glance over Poland. A country with a tumultuous past, I found Poland to be one of the most rewarding countries that I visited – and I’m not just saying that to honor my family tree!
The first thing we did was check into our hostel. We stayed in Hostel Daisy, which was a great deal for the price. On the first day, we took a free walking tour, which is something I recommend you try to find in any city that offers it. Not only do you get a lay of the land, but many times the tours are given by local residents or university students with a plethora of historical knowledge and an interesting local perspective. Do not be shy to ask questions, directions, and recommendations for local spots – it lead me to my favorite pierogi place in Krokov, Domowe Przysmaki.
After the tour, we rented bikes from our hostel and pedaled as far as we could. There are trails around the city, and the city itself is mostly bike friendly. We spent a fair amount of time in the main square of Old Town, The Reynek, which dates back to the 13th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a covered market (Sukiennice, aka The Cloth Hall), Kościół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Bascilica), and a large clock tower (Wieża ratuszowa). You should spend some time browsing the vendors, as there are many homemade crafts and delicious treats waiting for you. Practice your negotiation skills when you step into the indoor market. I purchased a beautiful amber ring, but only after scouting all of the stands and getting the competition’s price.
After exploring Wawel Castle, we boarded a train to Oshweichem. Most do not know the name of this town, but all know the horrific camps where so many innocent people lost their lives: Auschwitz-Birkenau. We exited the station to find nothing more than a few sparsely occupied buildings and walked 1.5 miles to the camp for our tour. It is a chilling, surreal experience to step into a place like Auschwitz. After touring the barracks, a short ride down the road lead us to Birkenau: the second campus built when the original property become too small to house all of the prisoners. Overlooking the camp before me, I wondered how it ever got this far, how humans could ever get to this point. I left the scene feeling hollow, though I was filled with some of the most important knowledge of my trip, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” – George Santayana. When you travel to Poland, you should absolutely visit this site, but you must mentally and emotionally prepare yourself. I purposefully kept my description short and vague, as this is something that needs to be experienced in person.
I decided to stay a few extra days to check out the salt mines and travel south. An afternoon train ride to Wieliczka to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Salt Mines proved to be an interesting anthropology lesson. Tickets are around 84 Zloty (roughly $21.50), which gets you a tour inside of the mines and the underground museum, but note that a photography pass is extra. While the mine is certainly geared towards tourists (think a strange Disneyland feel), it was still incredible to explore the size of the mine, the beautiful salt carvings, and rich history of Polish salt mining.
I spent my final two days taking a local train to Zakopane – a small mountain town on the southern border of Poland. I met two Polish girls at the hostel who invited me to join their hike through the Red Mountains, and we left at sunrise the following morning. We hiked on a trail called Czerwone Wierchy, which leads you along a ridge between Poland and Slovakia. It was a breathtaking 10-hour hike filled with incredible views. On the way down we saw three bears, a mother and two cubs, and decided that it was best to keep our distance and keep moving along the path. Returning home, we drank spiced piwa, which we made by simmering beer on the stove with spices. It was a phenomenal way to end a beautiful and tiring day.
Poland has much to offer, but I will conclude by mentioning the warmth of the people. Poles were some of the kindest I encountered on my trip. When you travel to Poland, I highly recommend getting to know some of the people you encounter – you may just make some lasting friendships!