Krakow was the most pleasant surprise of our travels! We went because Anthony’s grandparents are from just outside the city, and even though I have celebrated a few Polish Christmases with his family, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the country or my first visit to Eastern Europe. We joined a free walking tour when we first arrived, and it was a convenient way to see the city. There are a lot of companies to choose from, but we had a great experience with Dale from City Walks. He was a wealth of knowledge on our tour of Old Town and the Jewish Quarter. I’ve never been much into history, but I definitely nerd-ed out on our onward travels sharing our newfound education with everyone. In no particular order, here are 10 interesting things we learned in Krakow.
Salt was used as currency
When we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine, it looked like an underground cave except you could lick the walls! We descended over 800 stairs and 135 meters which took about 10 minutes to walk. They stopped mining here in 2007 because salt is so cheap today, but it used to be as valuable as gold. Hundreds of years ago when there was no refrigeration, salt was how they kept their meat. The word salary even derives from dealing salt.
Food menus don’t always translate
Truthfully, I was a little nervous about the food in Poland, but it was some of the best we had along our travels. (I also loved that we stayed walking distance to a 24-hour pierogi, Polish dumpling, restaurant!) If you’re not familiar with the cuisine, reading the English descriptions can sometimes be confusing. On the menu, golumpki translates into “little pigeons.” Contrary to what any English speaker might think, there’s nothing bird-like about this meal. Golumpki are cabbage rolls stuffed with ground pork with a tomato sauce on top. Apparently Polish people think they look like little pigeons on the plate, hence the translation. I never understood the resemblance, but I’m glad I tried it!
There’s an underground city in the Main Square
Old history is hard for me to fathom, so it was amazing to visit the Rynek Underground museum to witness it firsthand. Krakow got invaded a lot, but impressively enough it never burned down. Every time the city needed re-building, they would build on top of previous pavement. After doing this for so many centuries, today’s Main Square now stands meters above actual ground. In 2009, excavators dug up the town center and found underground ruins dating back to the 13th century. It’s in the museum where we saw replicas of buried corpses and learned about how Poland believes in vampires. They used to bury the suspected in the fetal position or beheaded them for fear that they would come back and haunt the living.
A trumpeter died trying to save his city
On our Old Town walking tour, we learned that centuries ago a lookout was in the St. Mary’s Basilica church tower when he saw the city was about to be invaded. The only thing he had with him to get the public’s attention was his trumpet, so he played. He was shot in the neck with an arrow half-way through his tune. Today, a trumpeter plays every hour on the hour to honor his bravery and the refrain stops abruptly like when it did when the lad died. It’s good luck to wave at the trumpeter and if he waves back, your wish will come true.
Their city walls keep the public healthy
This could be another myth, but who’s to say it isn’t true? When the community wanted to tear down the defense wall that surrounds the town square, someone convinced them to keep the northern wall erect to protect the city from cold winter winds that could help in the prevention of spreading illness. For a place that reaches temperatures of -30C/-22F, I’d be happy to take that chance.
There use to be more Jews here than anywhere else in the world
Jewish people moved to Poland because they were saved from religious persecution by King Kazimierz Wielki, Casimir the Great, in the early 14th century. Before the War, there were 68,000 Jews and only 3,000 survived.
The idea of death loomed over the ghettos
17,000 people were forced into an area where 3,000 originally lived with 4-5 families per house. This was phase one to resolve “the problem” and the concentration camps were created as an afterthought. To create back breaking labor, Nazis made the Jews crush tombstones from their own cemeteries and build a wall around the ghetto in the design of graves. When we visited the remains of the ghetto wall, I couldn’t believe how tall and rock solid it was. I couldn’t imagine how people live across the street from it today especially with the throngs of tourists passing by. I also couldn’t ignore the irony that today the Jewish Quarter is now a hipster neighborhood full of bars and restaurants, similar to the ruin pubs in Budapest that flood their Jewish Quarter. Unspeakable things happened here not all that long ago and yet this is where people now come to enjoy everyday life. Could this be considered a form of tribute to their tragic past and celebration of life for the future?
The meaning behind the Chair Memorial is heartbreaking
There is no plaque or description, yet the memorial in Ghetto Heroes Square is large enough to catch your attention and want to look it up. When people were being relocated during the Holocaust, they packed suitcases of clothes and dragged whatever furniture they could carry, most practically a chair. Since chairs were not allowed on the train, they were left piled up in the square.
This is also the same square where 600 people were publicly executed. When the Nazis ordered the Jewish police to round up the 4,000 individuals without documents, they deliberately came up 600 people short. In an effort to try and save the innocent, their plan backfired terribly. What we learned here and throughout the Jewish Quarter was enough to convince me that I wouldn’t be able to handle visiting Auschwitz.
Regular people helped save the ghetto’s children
In such a demoralizing place, I enjoyed the few stories we heard of commoners trying to save innocent children. Irena Sendler brought medical supplies into the ghetto, then snuck children out safely in her suitcase. She later formed an organization that saved over 2,000 lives. The ghetto pharmacist also helped as he freely handed out tranquilizers to keep children asleep when the Nazis invaded homes. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the books Irena’s Children and The Crakow Ghetto Pharmacy.
Communism inspired Polish street food
During the communist era in the 1970s, people couldn’t afford fruit, vege or meat and they were left with only dairy. This is where the term “milk bar” comes from. People started trading whatever foods they or their neighbors had, and since cheese, bread and mushrooms were most common, they invented the zapiekanka . It’s very similar to a basic pizza and is now commonly enjoyed late night after hitting the bars.
Krakow surprised me in more ways than one. I highly recommend visiting to anyone traveling Eastern Europe. We appreciated that the city is under-rated and not overly touristy, and we could not complain about the exchange rate either. I converted $100 USD for the three full days we were there and struggled to spend it all before we left. (Pints of beer average $2.50 USD and on our last night, we treated ourselves to a 5-course dinner with a bottle of wine for $67 USD!) It’s a great European destination to immerse yourself in the culture and its thought-provoking history.
Did you learn anything interesting when you visited Krakow? Comment below to share with other fellow travelers!