Kraków, Poland and Vienna, Austria
Krakow was one of those cities we’d heard a lot of good things about without knowing much about it…so we decided to see it for ourselves, embarking on another fairly long bus ride. Krakow was the royal capital of Poland until 1956 and it survived the war unscathed so it’s still original, very beautiful and stately. It’s a really interesting mix of both east and west, in the best way. We spent some time on our first day wandering the old town, looking at the old buildings and watching the hourly trumpeter play his melody from the windows of the church tower. That evening, we were lucky to catch the first night of the city’s Christmas markets which filled the main square with sausages, gingerbread, chocolate and gluvein. We stopped by for some street food dinner and delicious hot chocolate to stave off the very cold evening.
We got up early on our second day and navigated the Polish public transport system to Auschwitz-Birkenau for a haunting glimpse at a low point in world history. We started at Auschwitz I where we explored the living barracks, some frightening prison cells, a gas chamber, crematorium and several rooms filled with victims’ belongings left behind by the SS. One of the most impactful rooms housed an enormous pile of hair cut from victims that stretched around a metre high and 20 metres across. About 40,000 people’s worth, just a tiny fraction of what was gathered from the more than one million victims at Auschwitz. It really gave us a sense of the scale of what happened there. The second part of the tour saw us shuttled across to Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. We entered through the brick and metal gates, following the infamous train tracks along to the huge brick and wooden workers’ (prisoners not immediately sent to death) living barracks. At the end of the train line there are a few crematoriums that lay destroyed, a final act by the Nazis toward the end of the war. To each side there were some small patches of forest that were covered by the fog that settled all day. It was hard to imagine so many atrocities had happened there.
With just a one day left, the weather wasn’t really cooperating, it was cold and rainy-snowy. We decided to have a late start of planning and phone calls, and then walked a few blocks to the former gestapo headquarters in Krakow for a look at a museum that explores the lives of Jews living in Poland during the Nazi rule, and the Soviet occupation that followed.
Another day, another bus, this time back to Austria to spend some time in the capital, Vienna—our route around Europe might not make geographic sense but it does make budgetary sense! With the sun finally making an appearance (don’t be mistaken, it was still freezing), we took the opportunity to explore the city centre on foot, admiring the lovely churches, shopping streets and plazas covered in Christmas decorations.
The next day it was time to celebrate Elle’s birthday by way of a vegetarian lunch, trip to a escape room game and dinner and night ice skating at the very festive Christmas market in front if Vienna’s town hall. We’re not normally into Christmas but we do love the European Christmas markets… and managed to get to at least one of the many markets in Vienna each evening for some shopping and a gluvein, soup, nuts, raclette or other delicious treats. The Christmas theme continued in Vienna for our last day, when we visited Schönbrunn Palace for Christmas food with a view of the palace and grounds. The weather was also feeling Christmassy and covered the city and us in a light dusting of snow.