Last Thursday I stepped on Eastern European land for the first time. The dense fog and freezing cold humidity which could penetrate through even the most winter resistant jackets greeted me as soon as I landed in Krakow’s airport.
The air somehow smelled different from The Netherlands (as weird as it may sound) and all my surroundings were significantly darker and less lively, as if I suddenly had sunglass lens covering my eyes.
It took me ages to find and walk to the bus that would take me to the city centre and once I got there I was introduced to Polish prices for the first time. The exact price of the ticket was 3,80 zl (the equivalent of 90 Euro cents), quite a difference from the £10 (€13) I used to pay for my National Express coach from Stansted Airport to central London.
As I got to the central station (the bus terminal), I met a Dutch guy from Groningen and a Korean girl (who lives in Eindhoven) who showed me the way to Krakow’s central square, where I was supposed to meet my Norwegian friend Magnus.
The Dutch guy had studied in Poland for an erasmus last year and was now visiting a friend of his. He was extremely friendly and talkative and told me and the Korean girl a few things about the city while we were making our way to the Market Square.
He told me how he loved his experience in Krakow and how Poland is a great country, one of the biggest successes in Eastern Europe and way more developed than how many people expect it to be.
As we got to the centre, the mist covered the top of the church’s tower and made the atmosphere very cozy. The Christmas lights were on, the seasonal market had closed and the first snowfall of the winter started to whiten streets and rooftops. The city, from what I had seen so far, strongly reminded me of East berlin. That very typical Soviet architectural style characterised all buildings we passed by and the presence of many churches (Poland is a very religious country), reminded me of Italy.
So while I was expecting something completely new, I found myself connecting this city to different places I have visited already, especially eastern Germany.
On Saturday morning I walked around the Jewish Quarter Kazimierz which is exactly where Magnus lives. It is very lively and trendy. The streets are packed with small boutiques, Polish design stores and extremely cozy bars, cafes and restaurants. In some of these places, there were smoking rooms, which shows how this country has to yet develop some of the aspects of western society we give for granted. But, historically speaking, smoking was banned from Italian restaurants and cafes just in 2002. I still remember avoiding the “smoking carriages” on Italian trains when I was younger, something that sounds very backwards today. It is incredible how society evolves and develops in time.
After a few nights out during the weekend in various bars and clubs close to Magnus’ place, I headed to the most interesting and emotional day trip of the past years: Auschwitz and Birkenau.
I would highly recommend visiting the concentration and extermination Nazi camps, they make you understand history like never before; and things you discover there are hard to believe.
The guide told us how Jews were told that “hot coffee” was waiting for them, in order for their extermination to proceed in a more quick and systematic way. As they first arrived, they were selected: the strong and healthy-looking ones were exploited for tremendous human labour, all the other ones were killed immediately in crematoria. And, the most unbelievable fact was how these poor human beings were convinced that their life was about to get better. Apparently, they thought the crematorium was the bakery where they were going to have their daily breakfast. The chimney and the large amount of people which were waiting outside of it tricked them.
It was exactly the information I had never known before, and actually being on the ground in the place where one of the worst genocides in history happened (and just 70 years ago!), which touched my feelings the most.
If any of you happen to be in Krakow or somewhere else in southern Poland, do consider Auschwitz as a daily trip. The whole complex is free to visit, as the surviving Jews asked the Polish government not to make the extermination camps a lucrative tourist attraction.
The trip is now over, and I am heading back to The Netherlands tonight. Poland exceeded my expectations and this country is definitely on the right track and on its way to be removed from the “second world” list. Its success in the recent economic crisis which was devastating for all world economies proves that the Poles are set to become Eastern Europe’s next big success (and they already are!).