Quick, weekend trips to popular European destinations are known as “city breaks” from London, and they are a great way to feel each unique vibe by taking advantage of the cheap flights from the UK. Krakow, Poland was virtually untouched by WWII bombs and retains its glorious Austro-Hungarian architecture with the largest market square in Europe. But, juxtaposing this beautiful town and vibrant culture only an hour away are Auschwitz and Birkenau, former concentration camps and gas chambers where more than one million Jews and others were murdered less than 85 years ago. It was a roller coaster of emotions to visit such beauty and horror in 48 hours, but I thought it was so important to experience firsthand this chapter of world history.
Krakow Old Town
With three teenage boys, a walking tour of Krakow’s Old Town just wasn’t going to cut it. Thankfully, my friend and expat travel buddy, Anna, found a scooter/Segway tour with a cheerful guide who zipped us all around the compact city to see its highlights and history. Beyond the beauty of the pristine market square, we saw Wawel Castle, 1,000-year-old churches, the Opera House and Jagiellonian University that adds 200,000 students to the vibrancy of the population. The pedestrian-friendly Old Town is surrounded on all sides by Planty Park, a former moat that was smartly filled in and transformed into a shaded, leafy path, perfect for our scooter tour.
We tried traditional food at every turn, indulging in pierogi (meat dumplings) and cheesecake at Pod Aniolami one night and the Polish version of pizza (like a Stouffers french bread style) from the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz. A gorgeous fall weekend gave us the chance to wander, buy street art and indulge in the laid back cafe culture.
Auschwitz and Birkenau
As an avid reader of WWII historical fiction, I’ve found it so meaningful to visit the real places where these stories were based—Normandy, Guernsey, London, Paris, Berlin and now Poland. After reading Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Tattooist of Auschwitz (highly recommend both), I needed to walk the pathways inside the barbed wire camp and hear the true stories of millions of mothers, fathers and children who died at the hands of the heartless Nazis. It was heavy. And heartbreaking. But I considered it a privilege to honor and pay respect to those who were brutally killed. And I’m glad my son has these firsthand experiences and memories of a time and place we never want history to repeat.
Krakow may not be in the top 5 or 10 of travelers’ European wish list, but it should be. We only scratched the surface and I would happily go back to experience and learn more of this beautiful, centuries-old city.