Krakow

Our arrival in Krakow was immediately greeted with evidence of the World Youth Day in progress. Thousands of people crowded bustling sidewalks, many wearing brightly hued backpacks in one of the primary colors, with the letters SDM (the abbreviation for World Youth Day in Polish) emblazoned down the edge. Streets were cordoned off, with stern-looking police officers ensuring the barriers were not disturbed, presenting us with the interesting problem of navigating to our apartment with cumbersome packs in a city we didn’t know, using a language we couldn’t speak, where all of our directions, including those of most of the locals, had been rendered useless. Our route eventually took us through Old Town, threading our way among throngs of visitors, our giant backpacks effectively ensuring that gaps appeared in the crowded streets.

One of the principal, and final, events during World Youth Day is an open-air, papal mass – in past WYDs, it has been attended by upwards of 2 million people. Coincidentally, on Jenn’s list for the trip was to attend a papal mass; though she had planned to do it at the Vatican, this seemed like an experience we couldn’t pass up. We rented a couple bicycles to make the 19-mile (round-trip) journey, and awoke at daybreak the next morning, picturing the madness we had once endured while attending New Year’s Eve at Times Square and hoping (perhaps unrealistically) that we wouldn’t be squinting at an ant-sized figure in a mitre, standing behind all 2 million visitors.

Conveniently, with such a large number of people traveling from Krakow to the neighboring rural village of Brzegi, where the mass would be held, all of the roads along the route between the sites were closed to vehicles. This provided us with a leisurely morning bike ride, while many of the people we passed, trudging along the sidewalks, eyed our bikes with envy.

There isn’t much to say about the mass, except that we ended up in a great spot to watch the whole ceremony, and neither of us have ever seen such a relaxed, happy group of people that large. Estimates were that the mass was attended by 2.5 million people (with around 1.6 million of them camping out the night before), and we didn’t see so much as a harsh word spoken or an angry look exchanged. A couple of Polish guys sat down on the ground next to us and squeezed themselves to the very edge of the mat they brought, indicating that there was plenty of room for us to sit on the cushioned pad rather than the rocks. Upwards of 40,000 military personnel and police officers stood at every corner, yet they mostly handed out waters, encouraged pilgrims to hydrate, and walked lost visitors to their sections (those that were registered WYD participants). Even the crush of people leaving was good-natured, with virtually no shoving despite being packed in like cattle for the first half a kilometer back to Krakow. It was really a wonderfully-run event, with multi-lingual event staff constantly on hand to help and free bottles of water to ensure everyone stayed hydrated in the hot sun.

Total distance: 19 miles
Elevation gain: 262 feet

The rest of our visit was spent mostly wandering around Old Town. Krakow’s Old Town is, like many in Europe, meandering cobblestone streets studded with churches of every size and shape. We stopped to sample a number of local treats across the city, such as obwarzanek krakowski, essentially a type of ring-shaped, Polish bagel that’s a specialty of Krakow, and a sampler plate of pierogis with half a dozen different fillings. A review of the pierogi shop stated that they were served out of “a hatch in the wall.” It sounded odd, until we arrived and found ourselves at what was clearly a regular house with a giant, wooden wall erected halfway through the kitchen, and a rectangular window cut out to service customers. Throughout the city, dozens of handmade ice cream shops – indicated by eye-catching ‘lody’ signs – also drew our attention, and we sampled a few varieties, such as a whiskey gelato, and the most phenomenal spicy chocolate chili.

A little less than 2 hours away from Krakow is the town of Oswiecim, the location of WWII’s Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, and it’s estimated that nearly 1.3 million prisoners were sent there between 1940 and 1945. Of those, approximately 1.1 million were murdered – largely in gas chambers – including 90% of the 1.1 million Jews and 23,000 gypsies, nearly all of the 15,000 Soviet POWs, and at least half of the estimated 172,000 Poles and other prisoners interned at the camp. I’m not sure that I can say too much about these places that hasn’t been said with more eloquence by others. The word “horrifying” doesn’t even begin to cover the deeply-upsetting experience of visiting the camps. The Holocaust is certainly something that is covered in depth in schools, but it’s hard to fathom just how organized and meticulous the Nazis were. While the collections of personal effects were nauseating, the paperwork was, in some ways, just as gruesome. I suppose a part of me wants to believe that any tragedy of this magnitude could only have been carried out by crazed animals – insane people, so far removed from humanity as to be virtually unrecognizable. To see formal requisition forms for specific punishments, official request documents for Zyklon B, prisoner ID cards, and detailed, fastidious lists of murder victims is a disturbing but important reminder that we are not, ourselves, so far removed from the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

In order to wrap up on a less depressing note, I’ve reserved a special spot for our last night’s meal in Krakow (or, rather, my last night’s meal). While searching for the best kielbasa in Krakow, I ran across a ton of discussion about an old blue truck that parks itself in front of the Hala Targowa (a local market) each night from 8pm until 3am. The two mystery men in white coats have been coming to the market each night for more than 2 decades, cooking foot-long kielbasa over a wood fire for hungry nighttime visitors. And a word of advice – you’d better get there early if you don’t want to be standing in a line that stretches down the block; the spot is very popular with the locals. There’s nothing fancy here – you will get a giant sausage (or two, or three), plopped on a piece of cardboard with a squirt of spicy mustard and a crusty roll. Optionally, you can ask for a bottle of oranzada, a very sweet local beverage, made from mineral water, sugar and orange juice/flavor, that they bottle themselves. A nearby wooden bar is the only place to consume the meaty snack, elbow-to-elbow with a dozen other people – no talking, only enthusiastic cutting and chewing. Not having a very extensive history with kielbasa, I can’t speak with authority, but it was certainly the best one I’d ever had, and I promptly returned to the line for a second helping. A delicious way to end our visit to Krakow!

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