Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
There’s a friendly rivalry between Krakow and Warsaw in Poland that reminds me of the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Krakow holds a grudge against Warsaw for taking the title of ‘capital city’ away from them, and proudly claims that they have a longer history and local culture. For their part, Warsaw generally pretends that Krakow doesn’t exist and claims to be the epicentre of everything truly Polish.
Both cities have their attractions but just as I’ll always be a Melbourne girl rather than a Sydney girl, I have to say that Krakow rather than Warsaw holds more appeal for me. Built on a slightly smaller scale, Krakow feels more real and authentic, rather than artificial and manufactured. To be fair, Warsaw can’t help being a bit artificial – their ‘old town’ might look old, but it was actually only built in the past 50 years as the city was almost completely devastated by World War Two. As a result, what looks old is actually quite new, and what’s new are entirely cold and alienating monolithic Communist-era buildings.
By far the highlight of our time in the two cities were the free walking tours we did with the Free Walking Tour Foundation. While there are many cities that offer free walking tours, Poland does it particularly well. In each city, they not only offer the standard sights and history tour, but also a handful of themed specialist tours.
We did the Food Walking Tour in Krakow, as well as the Street Art Tour. In Warsaw, we did the Warsaw at War tour and the Alternative Warsaw tour. These specialist tours give you a fantastic insight into not just the ‘old town’ touristy parts of a city, but also into local culture, food, lifestyles. It’s an experience that I can highly recommend – guides are well-informed, knowledgeable and very engaging in the way that they talk about their city as well. You can tell when someone is passionate about their work, and these guides definitely were!
I also recommend doing a daytrip to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz when in Krakow. It’s not a fun or exciting trip. It’s incredibly bleak and sad. But it’s important. There was a quote by George Santyana that was painted on a wall in one of the buildings in Auschwitz, and I think it applies in this case: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
While most of us will spend some time in school learning about World War Two, it’s hard to truly understand the true human impact of the atrocities committed in camps like Auschwitz. It’s not until you start to see the photos and hear some of the personal stories of people who were sent to the camps that you really begin to see what it meant to a whole generation of people. Lives were changed irreparably. Families lost loved ones. Whole families were lost. A whole community of people were lost.
Couple a visit to Auschwitz with some of the free walking tours focused on the Jewish history of Poland for a greater understanding of the devastation wrecked by the Holocaust. Be prepared to cry.
The food in Poland can a bit hit-and-miss, more so in Warsaw than Krakow I think. Our meal at Na Bednarskiej Pierogi in Warsaw was highly disappointing and it was really just the pastries we bought from Croque Madame that were particularly enjoyable. Our meals in Krakow were much better, with a good meal at Polakowski and a fantastic food walking tour around the city as well.
To finish this entry, I’d like to reiterate what I said about our meal at Familijny: If you feel lucky in being able to travel, then spread your good fortune where you can. Visit a canteen that welcomes homeless people if you go to Poland and order more than you need. Your leftovers won’t go to waste.