I knew I would love Poland. I've wanted to go for several years, but it's a bit out of the way of my usual destinations. I left Prague and took a 8.5 hour (scary) train ride to Krakow. I transferred trains in a small town named Katowice, and my twenty minutes in the train station there scared the hell out of me wondering what Krakow would be like. I was a little disoriented in Katowice, as the trains weren't running on schedule - something I've never experienced in Europe - and I went to several people to ask for help, but no one spoke English and they were all rude as hell. I was hoping I'd just hit three or four rude people and that I wasn't in for a rough time all week. (That definitely turned out to be the case, as everyone else I encountered was incredibly kind and warm.)
I didn't know what to expect with Eastern Europe. Prague isn't really Eastern anymore, it's more like the center of Europe, so I hadn't really been to Eastern Europe. I was in Russia (Soviet Union then!) in 1990, and it was rough. I loved it, but it wasn't exactly a luxury vacation, so I wasn't sure what to expect with other former Iron Curtain destinations.
When I left the train station, I pulled my bag towards the center of town and almost immediately walked right by a huge modern mall with a L'Occitane store in the front. I couldn't have been more suprised. I admit it was a relief, even though I wasn't planning on doing any shopping. I like the rustic feel of less touristy places, but when I have a blister and need an apothecary or lose my mittens and need to find new ones quickly, it's nice to have resources.
I stayed in a crappy little B&B right on the town square, and I loved it. I spent 12 - 14 hours a day doing guided walks from a Rick Steves book, and found Pope John Paul II's old apartment, church, and pew, some great Polish restaurants, a theater where I saw a great local movie, and Oskar Schindler's factory. That was a huge thrill! I've only seen the movie once many years ago, but I loved finding the factory. I followed directions from my guidebook, taking public transportation across the river and then walking a 1/2 mile or so down empty streets. The factory was almost deserted, and I stumbled around the rustic entrance area for a while wondering if I could even go inside. Pretty soon a guy popped through a door and yelled, "Office! Office!" and pointed up a familiar staircase, and I found Schindler's office and surroundings exactly like it is in the movie. They're working to make the factory into a museum, but I felt like I'd stumbled on a great secret. Later, while walking to find a portion of the Jewish Ghetto wall that still stands, I met an older couple from the UK. They were looking for the factory and were lost, so I walked back with them and we had a great time talking. When I told them I was from New York (this gets a much better reception than when I used to say I was from Oregon, by the way), in a thick accent the husband told me, "We sit down for tea and biscuits every Saturday and my wife tells me, "I wish I were at Macy's!"" They were darling and friendly.
After the Mika concert in Berlin, and the Chick Corea concert in Prague, Krakow had a lot to live up to. Happily, the second day I was in Krakow turned out to be their Independence Day. The entire Old Town area was decorated with red and white flags, and I attended an outdoor concert of choirs singing traditional Polish songs in celebration of the holiday. Huge crowds were gathered listening to the choirs and singing along. It was a wonderful "Pinch me, I'm in Poland!" experience.
The next day I took local transportation to Auschwitz, 1.5 hours away, and spent the day at both concentration camps - I & II. I've visited Dachau in Germany and Mathausen in Austria (I highly recommend Mathausen - it's deserted and far out of the way and a different experience), but Auschwitz is the most documented and is extremely powerful. It started to snow there just as I entered the famous main gate. I spent several hours walking the grounds, reading the descriptions and see the haunting exhibits - shoes, suitcases, glasses, hair - and then took a taxi to Auschwitz II two miles away. It's difficult to describe what it was like. Maybe the closest I can come is to say I felt an incredible burden like one might feel if they know a very important and tragic secret, and I felt like the whole thing was surreal, like I was walking around a story in a book, but also like maybe it was sixty years ago and maybe I would walk into the next set of barracks and prisoners would still be there. At the same time, the world felt very small, tiny, like I could walk across the street and be home in NY. It was overwhelming, very personal, and very emotional. I'm glad I went. Again, pictures here.
One other experience, although very different, that stands out from my time in Poland. I visited a local museum quickly to see two specific works - a da Vinci and a stunning Rembrandt, the Good Samaritan - that my guidebook highlighted. While admiring the de Vinci, I noticed the opposite wall had an empty frame and I checked my guidebook for details. Rick Steves told me the frame was empty to represent a specific work by Rembrandt that was stolen by the Nazi's and never returned after the War. The empty frame took on much greater significance knowing the story. So a few minutes later I heard a loud New Yorker (you can't miss that accent) talking about the frame, and telling her companion that the picture must have been out for restoration. I interrupted and let them know the story that I had just read, and ended up spending thirty minutes or so talking with the nicest and most interesting older woman. She, too, had been a solo world traveler many years earlier and wanted to know all about my travels. I listed some of the places I've been and she had been to most of the same places, too. She asked if I was married - a question that always comes up - and when I answered, I barely had "no" out of my mouth when she said, "Of course not. You're too smart." What a refreshing take on the single life. And a great reminder about the power of words and labels. I've been feeling like a genius ever since.
After five days I intended to leave Krakow for Budapest, but was unable to find a connection through eastern Slovakia, and ended up going to Vienna instead. I'd overnighted in Vienna once with my sister on a trip from Italy to Czech, but I'd never spent time in the city. My time there turned out to be full of pleasant surprises.