Poland, or the city of Krakow to be exact, is one of the many reasons why people should be travelling in their droves to Eastern Europe. As experienced in Bucharest, these places are cheap, charming and crackers to party in.
One of the small things from my university studies that has stuck with me is the services marketing theory of pre-purchase expectations and post-purchase satisfaction (totes worth that four years of HECS debt).
Krakow was a city that far exceeded my expectations. It’s not that I had low expectations, it’s just that I didn’t have any. I’m not a Lonely Planet diehard. I barely even Wikipedia a place before visiting. I simply rely on the goodness of my knowledgable, well-travelled, and terribly good looking friends to provide my new city pre-game.
Krakow was the travelling curveball I needed. I booked into Greg & Tom’s Party Hostel, having heard good things along the hostel grapevine (these grapes have no doubt ended their days as a goon bag). The Party Hostel is the most ‘debaucherous’ of their three. My first night here is a write off to do anything as a functioning human being. I’ve gotten into an extremely intelligent habit of pulling an all-nighter prior to early morning trains/buses/flights. Maybe it’s that irresistible buzz you get that only comes from being an irresponsible twat.
By now, I’m used to the usual party dorms wake ups of door key struggles, midnight snuggles, and bunk bed to floor fumbles. But when I stay in my first night to get some well needed sleep, what I don’t expect is a Brazilian girls slumber party for five hours under my bed. Lights on, and music and chatter well up. I wish I knew Portuguese for STFU.
Nonetheless, I drag my grumpy ass out of bed the next day and explore the city. It’s small and easy enough to navigate. The main square is beautiful. Someone had the good sense to town plan Krakow with parks everywhere. Most roads are flanked by at least a strip of greenery, trees and the local wildlife of couples macking on.
I pass many nuns and priests in the park. Not so much ‘local wildlife’ here. I walk past the Wawel Castle, head to the Jewish quarter, and walk back to the hostel. All in record time. I think that’s what I liked about Krakow. It has the perfect balance between not too much to see that you get the guilts for going out the night before, yet enough to feel you really saw a city.
I chow down on a Zapiekanki in the Jewish quarter, some kind of pizza sub goodness. Well I manage about half of it after my earlier breakfast of an entire platter of pierogi. The Polish diet is a nutritionist’s nightmare. Heavy on fatty meat, cheese, salt and carbs, it is my dream. Not so much my booty’s though.
I take part in my first ever pub crawl. After 10 months of travelling taking in some of the craziest hostels and cities, I kind of can’t believe my pub crawl virginity is still intact. They weren’t gentle. Vodka shot after vodka shot. Club after pub after pub after club. Krakow has some freaky deeky statistic like the centre has more bars and clubs than any other city per square metre. We kick off at Greg & Tom’s Beer House where the decor is schmick, the prices deliriously good and the live music a perfect starter. I simply follow the crowd to the rest of the establishments so I don’t know the names. But I like it so much I do it again two nights later. A breather in between is needed for my old body. I enjoy much better slumbers in my dorm, post Brazilian bed party.
The second night we decide it’s a good idea (after stopping for late night salmon and spinach pierogi) to stay up for sunrise. We grab a bottle of delicious smelling, okay tasting hazelnut vodka to keep us warm. Like my previous sunrise attempts, it’s a fizzer. Just like at The Pink Palace we head towards the opposite way than the sun actually rises and thereby miss the spectacle. I’d better get better at this before I reach the sunrises that legends are made of in Central America.
So after nil to two hours of sleep, I make the influenced decision to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I nap on the bus with a disgusting French child behind me smacking her chewing gum so loudly I can hear every slosh of saliva. But I manage to make the 45 minute drive without any GBH charges to minors. And it is worth it.
We walk down 378 steps to begin the tour. Our guide Sebastian is a funny dude and manages to keep my deflating spirits up. I learn a lot. The chapel within shines with salt crystal chandeliers. The salt lakes inside present perfect reflection. There are gnomes, neanderthals, kings, horses, myths, ghosts and of course miners housed within. But what I am most impressed with is the obvious dedication put into making this a must-do tourist destination. It appears no expense or thought has been spared in presenting what could just be a dried up dead sea as an interesting, educational, interactive, modern and aesthetically pleasing attraction. I’ll admit I’d nearly wiped doing this and I’m glad I didn’t.
My other day trip in Krakow was a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. I learnt statistics that are difficult to comprehend, witnessed unfathomable piles of the perished belongings, stared at the faces of those gone, and walked the grounds and rooms where atrocities took place and where 1.5 million people were never to be seen again. The green grass and wildflowers may mask the devastation of this camp but if you close your eyes and stand next to the railway that brought these individuals to their unbeknownst future, the words that echoed at Dachau concentration camp ring true. “Never Again”.
Other wanders in Krakow sees me strolling the banks of the Vistula (the long way). I get to the Castle again and see the dragon breath fire. All up I visit the Castle three times. Not once do I actually step inside. Travel fail. But I’m not really a castle/cathedral kind of person. I’m more about let’s see what this city presents to me. And Krakow was terrific without trying.
There’s a reason (or several) Greg & Tom’s Party Hostel is the recipient of many accolades and a hostel goon bag reputation. The staff are some of the best and genuinely want you to have a good time. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the entire constituent of guests interact with a ridiculous level of friendliness that you don’t see everywhere. Maybe it’s the free breakfast and dinner daily. The key to a poor traveller’s heart is through their stomach? We bond over the dinner table nightly and even more so on the evening they treated us to a three-course traditional Polish dinner at the Beer House.
Krakow, the sneaky little devil, snuck up on me. After this long travelling, I appreciated the surprise. Now I can only apologise in advance to those in future hostel common rooms listening to me ranting “oh, you’ve got to go to Krakow.”