If you follow our blog, or know us, you probably understand that we are not your typical ‘two-week tourist’. The ‘two-week tourist’ as we call them, tries to do everything in two weeks; it makes sense, they have two weeks off a year and want to do/see as much as possible in that limited time. They also probably have a daily budget close to ten times ours. For us to try and be that type of tourist in all of the places we have been too (over 112 cities and counting), it would simply be impossible – we would have ran out of money months ago and likely been so exhausted we’d just have flown home.
That said, in Poland, we got the chance to be the ‘two-week tourist.’ You can read more about our first few days in Warsaw with Dan’s mom, Ewa, and sister, Jessika in Poland: Part I and read about the wedding we all attended in Poland: Part II. The third part of our Poland trip was a road-trip to southern Poland with Ewa, Ewa’s brother, Krzysztof and his wife Małgorzata (Jessika had already flown back to Vancouver). We had five nights on the road before Ewa had to be back in Warsaw to catch her flight and Ewa wanted to do everything.
Jasna Góra Monastery, Częstochowa
Our first stop was a church about half way to Oświęcim, the city we planned on finding accommodation for the night. Ewa had told us in the car that the church was a very holy site in Poland but how holy it was didn’t hit me until we arrived. Poland was the first country we’ve been to in Europe where the churches we visited were actually full of worshipers and not just tourists. It was an unexpected site for me; even more so when I learned that this church was the country’s greatest place of pilgrimage – and it’s not small, it’s estimated that over 100,000 pilgrims were present in 2012 with the average distance travelled about 350 kilometres walked over 11 days! Call me naive, but I honestly didn’t even know pilgrimages still took place in Europe. I couldn’t help but look into it more, and learned that Poland is considered one of the most devoutly religious countries in Europe and a 2007 survey showed 88.4% of the population belonged to the Catholic Church! I find this very interesting especially when compared to bordering country, Czech Republic, which has the third most atheistic population by percentage in the world (behind only China and Japan.) In a 2010 poll, only 16% of Czech citizens responded that “they believe there is a God.”
We visited Auschwitz firs thing in the morning and it was a good thing we did. If you arrive before 10:00 you can enter the site free of charge (surprisingly!); however, if you arrive later you are not permitted entry unless you pay for a guide. With guided tours starting it got busier and busier after 10:00. I couldn’t believe how many people there were even this late in the season. I’m starting to wonder if there even is such a thing as ‘tourist season’ anymore or if it’s just constant tourists all year round. I couldn’t imagine being there with any more people; you could already barely walk through some of the exhibition rooms as it was.
It’s hard for me to describe the somewhat eerie feeling of walking through Auschwitz. It’s the same feeling I had when walking through the Killing Fields in Cambodia. While I know the two areas are very different in many ways and geographically separated, they are both essentially mass graves. And neither atrocity occurred that long ago; there are still many people alive that clearly remember these events. For me, it is hard to think about this and understand that humanity can commit such acts. It’s not something I want to think about which is why I think it’s important to visit such places and force myself to learn more about the events that took place. I truly believe in the saying ‘those who forget history are bound to repeat it.’
We arrived in Zakopane in the afternoon and checked into the Airbnb Dan and I had booked for the five of us. It was a two-bedroom apartment in a brand new building equipped with a pool, jacuzzi and sauna. I was pleased that everyone was impressed with the apartment – it was their first Airbnb experience. Our apartment was walking distance to the center of town, so we spent the first evening wandering the town. The main shopping street (Krupówki) is pedestrian only and is littered with big-name shops, tourists stores, and plenty of restaurants and at the end of the street is a large outdoor market. I bought a much needed warmer toque, extra set of leggings and Dan purchased his first-ever scarf!
The short ride up the mountain (Gubałówka) took about 10 minutes and our time at the top was almost as short-lived. There were only two other people with us on the tram and at the top there weren’t many more. Additionally, all the stalls were closed including all the food stands. Starting to freeze, we snapped a few photos and turned around.
Morskie Oko Lake
The next day we drove out to Tatra National Park to visit Morskie Oko Lake. We arrived early and there still weren’t many people there. Ewa insisted we take a horse-drawn cart up the mountain instead of walking; how could we argue! It was a great experience to get to sit in a carriage for an hour being pulled up a mountain and enjoying the views. Our driver even provided us with blankets (I had no idea it would get this cold in October!) . About a quarter of the way up we started seeing SNOW. That’s right, snow, in early October when all the leaves were just starting to change colour.
At the top we lasted about an hour and that was only after we warmed up with hot tea spiked with rum. We walked down to the lake and the sun peaked out just in time for us to take some pictures! After a quick snack and a short walk around we headed back down. We again opted for the horse-drawn cart – the walk was incredibly slippery and most of us weren’t prepared for it.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Dan, Ewa and I went to Wieliczka Salt Mine: built in the 13th century and one of the world’s oldest and largest salt mines. The others had previously been and although Dan and I have been to the salt mines in Colombia, we thought it would be interesting to compare them to this one (and Ewa really wanted to go).
The mine was quite similar to the Colombian one we went to and the highlight of both was a massive cathedral. We participated in a two-hour tour through the mine following the ‘tourist route’ which passed an underground lake, exhibits on the history of mining, dozens of statues and four chapels that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners. The route, which was 3.5 kilometers long, was only 2% of the length of the mine’s passages! The mine is no longer in operation but attracts over one million visitors a year.
In Krakow we met the newlyweds Kamila and Pawel (Kamila being Krzysztof and Małgorzata’s daughter or Dan’s cousin, if you didn’t follow Poland: Part I and Poland: Part II). They had been given a two-night stay in a hotel in Krakow as a gift and chose to use it while we were there. Robert, Ewa’s other brother also came and met us in Krakow taking the train from Warsaw. Of course, it was great to get more of the family together again after the wedding in a much less formal and hectic setting!
We spent the weekend being tourists: walking through the city center, going to the Krakow Castle, shopping in the ‘oldest mall in the world’, checking out the amazing displays of amber and drinking beer in the pubs at night.