After spending most of the day at the physically and emotionally exhausting Auschwitz, it was a relief to return to Krakow, settle in to our hostel room, and take it easy. We did venture out to the nearby Market Square, beautifully lit up at night, and grabbed a quick snack of polish sausage and latkes (potato pancakes) covered in a thick slather of spicy pickled paprika garnish, then nabbed some disappointing street noodles and the ever-present Zapiekanka, a Polish pizza bread topped with cheese, meat, and mushroom sauce, on the way back after walking the Square.
The next morning we got an early start, grabbed a quick breakfast of delicious obwarzack bagels- savory sesame, cheese, and many other flavored bagels available on every corner all day, and walked straight to the Oskar Schindler Factory, which now houses a large, very modern and interactive museum dedicated to the experiences of Krakow citizens, Polish and Jewish, leading up to and during World War II. It’s a very informative, impressive museum, although it features surprisingly little information on Oskar Schindler and the historical events dramatized in Schindler’s List. They did preserve his office, alongside an affecting monument to the List composed of pewter tins manufactured there.
Also in the factory complex is a modern art gallery, Mocak, featuring everything from an old Polish woman’s labeled drawings of all the everyday items in her house to a large exhibition of sobering Ukrainian revolutionary art.
After that, we re-crossed the Vistula River and walked through the Jewish Quarter, now a revitalized artistic district with few reminders of its tragic past- primarily some surviving synagogues and a walled cemetery.
We gathered some lunch at a small local hole in the wall for hostel receptionist recommended, eating as well as we had since Germany – zurek (savory rye and kielbasa, egg, and basil soup), barszcz (beetroot soup), chicken cutlet and potatoes, delicious cheese-filled pierogies, and boiled beef in horseradish sauce.
We kept the party going after that, walking up the short, steep hill to Wawel Castle, the centerpiece of the Old Town and home of the Polish kings. On top is a beautiful park ringed with historical buildings including the Royal Palace with its colonnaded courtyard and the intricately decorated Wawel Cathedral, final resting place for a host of kings and queens.
After that was a whirlwind of churches and monuments we’d spied walking around the Market Square the night before, the small, old baroque-interiored St. Andrews, the very dark, gothic, painted Franciscan Church, and its square companion, the Dominican Church with a copy of the Shroud of Turin as well as a brightly lit up Christmas church model, the extremely old Holy Cross, with a distinctive single Gothic palm column supporting its roof and paintings dating from the 1400s, and the jewel of the bunch, the double mismatched-towered St. Mary’s.
Besides its unique architecture, St. Mary’s boasts one of the most beautiful interiors we saw on the trip, with every wall and crevice painted in gorgeous fashion, like a Russian Orthodox Church, and a silver-framed altarpiece iconography by the renowned Veit Stoss at its center. Before our train to Budapest, we took one last walk around the square, with its Medieval Cloth Hall turned tourist trinket market, then up through Old Town to the Florian Gate with its preserved medieval wall, and finally past the Barbican, its intimidating circular defensive fortress and lastly nabbed a bite of fried ocypek (mountain goat cheese) and headed for the train.
Ah, the beer… it was uniformly good, too, in the Czech style, and better than any other we would have on the rest of the trip.