Tag Archives: solo female travel

Wanderlust Part 7: Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague

Catch up on my Wanderlust journey! Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow

Day 20: January 13th Krakow, Poland

Never in my life have I ever experienced cold like in Poland. From the moment I step outside the hostel door, the chill is unbelievable. Even layered up with thermals, merino wool, snow boots and my down coat, I’m highly aware of my exposed face. Tiny flakes of snow are falling from the sky during the short walk to the largest medieval square in Europe. The mercury is definitely below zero, but I don’t mind. There’s a small Christmas market still open, and I’m in time to hear St Mary’s Trumpet Call.

A number of people are going to explore the Jewish Quarter, and others are braving the terrors of Lost Souls Alley. I’d like to go to the Jewish Quarter, but Schindler’s Factory is number one on my list, and there’s something else very special I want to do as well. First, I need to eat. On a recommendation, I head to a nearby cafe for a hot chocolate and a croissant. With melted chocolate.

As lovely as the cafe is, I soon have to brave the chill and walk several metres to the nearby tourist information office. I book a tour, that afternoon, for the Wieliczka Salt mine. First though, I ask for directions to Schindler’s Factory so I can visit before the mines. This is where my saga begins. To be perfectly honest, Krakow doesn’t have the best signage and the map…could be better. It takes me a while to find the tram stop, since the factory is bit outside of the town. I get my ticket from a woman who can’t speak a real lot of English, but that isn’t a problem. She points me in the direction of the tram I’m meant to get. Or so I think.

After about ten minutes on the tram it dawns on me that I’m not going the right way. None of the signs are in English, so I get off the tram and catch one in the direction I came from, until I recognise the city. After managing to connect to WiFi at a Starbucks, working out the right tram from another tourist information centre, and a rather spectacular fall over my own feet, I’m on my way to Schindler’s Factory but I’m conscious of the time and seriously doubting whether I’ll make the Salt Mine tour at this point. I get off near some historical site where Jewish people were rounded up during the Holocaust. It’s an icy walk to the factory and my face is getting so numb from the cold that I’m wrapping my cashmere scarf around it. Schindler’s Factory is…not what I expect. I’m actually stunned at how it’s not about Schindler himself. It’s 99% about the Nazi ocuppation of Poland. Needless to say, I already know most of the history on display. Schindler is only featured in the very last room, and I whip through the entire factory in about an hour. I get the correct tram back to the main square and, big shock, I’m the first to arrive for the Salt Mine tour. Also the only Australian on board. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is absolutely glorious. Over 40 years it was dug out by hand in the 13th century.  The tour begins with 350 steps down into the Danilowicz Shaft, and we are actively encouraged to lick the walls (“1kg of salt is included in the ticket price!” jokes the guide). The mine is peppered with animatronics and statues showing what the workers looked like hundreds of years ago. We see lakes, the magnificent Chapel of St. King full of hand carved salt murals and salt chandeliers that’s booked for weddings (“It’s such a long way down ladies, plenty of time to change your mind!”), the Saltdiggers Horn, the treatment centre further down, and the gift shop halfway through where I get some salt scrub. Three hours of beauty and coloured salt that defies description. I’m in awe. And the tour ends with a ride back to the surface in a tiny mine elevator.

When I arrive back in the main square, I take myself out to dinner and then return to the hostel. Some people – and I am not joking – bear minor injuries from Lost Souls Alley, others have been recovering from hangovers (!) but I’m the only one who experienced the glorious salt mines. And I’ll never forget it. But tomorrow, we head to the most harrowing historical site imaginable. Auschwitz.

Day 21: January 14th, Krakow to Prague via Auschwitz-Birkenau

Nothing can really prepare a decent human being for a visit to Auschwitz. And I mean nothing. It’s actually difficult to put the experience into words.

We go through a security check before being met by the guide at the gate, that awful sign looming above. Arbeit macht frei. Work will make you free. “The biggest lie of all,” says the guide. We’d been warned to layer up, but heavens alive, this is a new realm of freezing. It’s about -6°C. The guide tells us this is an unusually warm day. My eyes almost pop out of their sockets. But it’s true. In winter, it can get to -30°C. The wind is like a blunt knife sawing on my exposed skin (which is just my face). For the rest of the day, all anyone says is, “We’re layered up in down coats, thermals, hats, gloves, scarves. The people here just wore thin uniforms. How did ANYONE survive in this cold?” It seems even more shocking when we’re informed the prisoners were given 250-300 calories per day, doing back-breaking labour, and the minimum calories needed to survive is around 2,000. It’s just gut-wrenching. Photos are allowed at most places in Auschwitz. But I only take two. I don’t want to do any more than the barest minimum. Just the entrance is all I can bear. This place has the weight of death all over it. I can’t bring myself to take pictures. I can’t explain it. It just feels…wrong.

We go through many buildings. Some go over the locations of the death camps. Others contain Zyklon B canisters. Rooms full of statistics and photographs of the people who were killed. A building containing the items taken from the Jews before they were murdered in the gas chambers. Tonnes of shaved hair. Prayer shawls. Piles of glasses. Thousands of shoes. Suitcases labelled with names and addresses, promised to be returned. A mass of cooking equipment, face creams, brushes, combs, razors (the guide told us they had recently discovered gold jewellery hidden in a teapot’s secret compartment for 70 years). And most hauntingly (for me): crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs from the disabled victims. “These aren’t the things people bring when they think they’re going to die, are they?” says the guide. But very few of us can speak at this point. There’s photos lining the walls of haunted, tortured faces glaring down from beyond the grave. The execution wall where people were shot. Every step is like a punch of reality. Worst of all is visiting the torture block. There you’ll find sleep-deprivation cells, suffocation cells, starvation cells. Yes, those mean exactly what you think they do. We don’t get inside the building dedicated to the horrendous medical experiments, and I’m somewhat grateful for that.

Birkenau is the second half of the camp, and we have to get back on the coach to get there. Birkenau contains the only gas chamber still standing here. Originally there were five. But as the Allies closed in, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. So there’s just one that we walk through. And disgracefully, the walls are covered in tourist’s carvings. It’s sickening. The barracks where people slept have the same vandalism.

Three hours at Auschwitz that will stay with me forever. In the next 20 years, there will be no Holocaust survivors left. Everybody needs to come visit this place. Everyone.

For the rest of the day, no joke, I’m trying to warm up again and the vibe on the coach is very subdued. We arrive in Prague that night, where the temperature of  2°C feels absolutely pleasant. I’m way too tired to head on the walking tour, and ok, I have to do some laundry as well.

Day 22: January 15th, Prague

My day starts with an attempt to make myself look presentable for a Skype call with my Dad. He advises me to head to the Astronomy clock, and I add it to my list. With my down coat zipped, and my trusty cashmere scarf, I step out into the wind. The temperature is close to zero, but after the virtual blizzard in Auschwitz yesterday, I will never have the right to complain about cold weather ever again.

Prague is the only major city in Europe untouched by war, and that was on Hitler’s orders. There’s a large Jewish Quarter in the city, and Hitler had a sick plan to preserve it as a museum to the Jewish people. When I arrive in the main square, I’m disappointed that the Astronomy Clock, dating back to 1410, is covered in plywood and undergoing restoration! I shake off the momentary annoyance, and resolve to head to the Castle District. It takes me an embarrassingly long time to find the Charles Bridge, but in my defence the streets aren’t exactly in a grid. The bridge gives me some spectacular photo opportunities and I’m absolutely thrilled to see that the Castle District is practically deserted. I get to see the changing of the guard, and I have the run of the place to take all the photos my little heart desires. This place is straight out of a fairytale. It’s just stunning.

On my way back, I stop at a cafe for lunch, where the workers are kind of impressed of how happy I look, and also that I’m traipsing around by myself. Walking back across the Charles Bridge, I get myself another trdelnik. Without cinnamon. I learned my lesson in Budapest. In an upscale shop, I get myself a hand-painted Swedish-made crystal ornament for my room back home. I’m initially concerned about it breaking, but the women in the store have a special padded box to keep it safe. Many of the souvenirs I’ve seen on the trip have been easy to dismiss, but here I decide to indulge a little, like with my puzzle ring in Florence. I honestly haven’t bought much so I have quite a bit more money than I thought, and because I’m flying solo (so to speak), I’ve been able to avoid doing activities I don’t want to do. However, being on your own can have its disadvantages. Such as when I’m about to get a ticket to a museum I really want to visit and the Romeo next to the counter wants to know if I’m married. I say no, (you’d think the lack of a wedding ring would clue him in, but what do I know?) and he responds slyly “Guess I’m lucky then!” I roll my eyes and snap back “In your dreams!” and hightail out of there. No, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in Venice, but still.

Although any lingering irritation with that last encounter is swept away while I walk back to the hostel and witness the most magical sunset of my life with Prague’s castles in the distance. Another experience that’s all mine, and nobody can ever take away from me.

Next time: Part 8/10: Berlin and Amsterdam!

Wanderlust Part 6: Budapest to Krakow

Catch up on the journey so far!
Wanderlust Part 1: Hong Kong and London
Wanderlust Part 2: Paris, Swiss Alps
Wanderlust Part 3: Florence and Rome
Wanderlust Part 4: Rome to Venice
Wanderlust Part 5: Salzburg and Vienna

Day 17: January 10th, Vienna to Budapest, via Bratislava

Another travel day, another early start. In the hostel room, my roommates state how envious they are of my packing cubes. Tori, one of the girls, swears by her space-saver bags. But I respectfully disagree.
Topdeck has pretty strict luggage restrictions in theory. But as far as I can see, my bag is among the smallest and lightest of anybody’s (although there was a boy who managed to bring only 7kgs for around 8 weeks of travel. And he also wore shorts. In the snow. There’s always one). While planning my trip, I did extensive research on packing light and managed to get everything I needed into a medium-sized suitcase weighing 9kg. As much as I love the idea of travelling carry-on only, this trip was from Australia to Europe for five weeks in the dead of winter. It just wasn’t going to happen. I’ve packed conservatively, in terms of how much I’ve brought with me, and I’m immensely grateful for the laundry facilities in the hostels, the game changer for me is my packing cubes. They keep my reasonably sized suitcase organised, helped me pack only what I absolutely needed, and made repacking my bag a breeze every time we’ve gone somewhere new, which has been every couple of days. I am never travelling without them again.
After breakfast at the hostel we have to walk to the coach, and at this point in the trip I’m not only glad for packing light, I’m also glad for exercising restraint when it comes to buying pointless souvenirs because some people are getting seriously weighed down.

We leave Vienna and begin the trip to Budapest, Hungary. But first, we have a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia.
I’d like to say this day stop is eventful, but that would be a lie. Because it is pouring with rain. My down coat, for all the warmth it’s given me, is sadly lacking in the waterproof department. I’m getting soaked. My companions and I can’t figure out where to go for lunch with the limited time we have. Eventually, after going back and forth, we simply walk into a McDonalds and thankfully my coat dries with the heat.
As we’re descending into eastern Europe, I can see a distinct difference in architecture. And sadly, reminders of WWII. On the outskirts of Budapest, we drive to the top of the citadel and get an incredible view of the city we’re about to visit. The bridges we drive across were all destroyed in bombings, but rebuilt.
As we arrive in Budapest to the tune of the George Ezra song, we go on a driving tour but it’s obvious this is a very walkable city. Our accomodation is another Plus Hostel, a chain we’re all very fond of. The walls are painted with famous Hungarians. Even walking around is a lesson.
Nearly everyone goes out for a pub crawl. I stay in the hostel and respond to the mountain of acting-related emails I’ve gotten with the glorious access to WiFi.

Day 18: January 11th, Budapest

It’s a free day and I am keen for some exploring, despite the cold. Most people are heading to the Gellert Baths, Budapest’s famous thermal spa. I’m not planning to go because A) New Zealand’s thermal spas have set the standard I will live and die by B) I’d rather explore the city as much as I can and C) I didn’t bring my bikini and there’s a snowflake’s chance in hell I’d want to wear it in this weather anyway. I have an idea of what I want to do, but sadly, my plans have to change slightly. I was dying to visit the House of Terror Museum. Before anyone has a heart attack, the exhibitions deal with WWII, Communism, Fascism, the Iron Curtain etc.
Unfortunately for me the Museum is closed for renovations and the history geek in me is throwing the tantrum of the century. But before I can get too upset, I have to race back to the hostel and film a couple of self test audition videos. Actor life never ends.
Once that’s done, I head back out again. The best way I can describe the city is if New York was clean and not overcompensating for something. I wander around for a while, enjoying the old world charm of Budapest, and then I find myself at the Budapest Eye. There’s no line, and the ticket is 9 euro. I race straight to the front and get on immediately to a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the place.
For the next few hours, I take dozens of photos, indulge in a bit of retail therapy for pretty much the first time this trip and I learn the hard way that getting cinnamon filling in Trdelnik is a horrible idea.

That night, we do one of my favourite activities on the trip. A dinner cruise on the Danube River. If anyone is going to Budapest, this is a must.

Day 19: January 12th, Budapest to Krakow, Poland 

Disaster strikes the next morning. As soon as I’ve packed everything into my suitcase, I go to put one more thing in, only to realise the padlock is jammed. And because I’ve had it for a few years, I can’t exactly reset the code. Drat.
There’s no time to remedy the situation though. It’s another long long drive day ahead, this time to Krakow.
During a phone call to my Dad, I professed that Salzburg was my favourite country, and he responded “Wait til you see Krakow and Prague,” Let’s go for it then.

The trip on the coach is eventful to say the least. I decide to go for the front row seat this time, and a number of people, along with the usual daily hangovers, are getting sick, not unlike I did in Paris. I’m not going through that again, so I’m drenching my hands in santizer every five minutes. And during our first rest station stop, an adorable stray puppy starts chasing the coach. And yes, I get out and cuddle it.
Morgan gives her usual this-is-our-next-country introduction but the one for Poland is incredibly sad, to put it mildly. Poland was the country most affected by WWII. I know most of it already being a history nut, but some of the statistics of just how many Polish people died is horrifying.
Morgan then puts on Schindler’s List, and I watch it even though I’ve seen it several times before. But judging by the gasps and tears from behind, it’s clear a lot of my fellow travellers haven’t.

We’re in for a shock with Krakow during the walking tour. And by that I mean nobody is prepared for how cold it is. Even with the other countries we’ve been to, this is something else.

My night ends with a very funny experience. When I get up to the hostel room, the lock on my suitcase is still jammed. I’ve brought a spare one with me, so I head down to reception to see if they had WD-40 or something to just get the lock off.
“Do you mind if we break the lock?” the woman at reception asks.
“Nope, you can do what ever you need,” I say.
She disappears into the back and returns with a hacksaw. And the look on my roommates’ faces is priceless as she saws the lock off.

NEXT TIME: Part 7/11 – Krakow, Auschwitz and Prague!