Escape of the Week: Krakow Sunset

Krakow is an easy city to fall in love with, and one of the most underrated. The old portion isn’t too large, so it’s easy to navigate. There’s tons of kebap shops. Clubs and bars make the nightlife one of the best in the region. And, well, it is just plain gorgeous.

I spent a few days in this city, just wandering. My first night in Krakow, after a hellish bus ride that began at 10 p.m. and ended at 2 p.m. the following day, I longed to just sit and relax over some comfort food. Down a few minutes from Tutti Frutti, the hostel where I was staying, was the town square.

I sat for more than an hour with a glass of wine, a little pizza, a book and my camera, just eating, drinking, reading … and most of all, watching as the sun sank and the moon came up.

In this moment, with the old buildings, the  square and the horses and carriages, I was transported to another period of time. Plus, if you stare at the sky and buildings for a moment, it looks like the clouds are moving … which makes me feel like I am almost back in that moment.

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Surviving Auschwitz

I didn’t want to go to Auschwitz. In fact, I had been dreading the trip to the concentration camp since I knew I was going to be in Europe. Maybe “didn’t want to go” is not accurate. I wanted to go … but knew it would be an experience that would be achingly painful.

As a child being raised Jewish, I was fortunate enough to meet many survivors of the Holocaust. And, as former actress, I was fortunate enough to have a part in a play “Who Will Carry the Word?” that dealt with 20 women attempting to survive in Auschwitz. Between being Jewish and being in a play about the Holocaust, I had learned a lot.

I knew going in to Auschwitz how bad it was there. I knew what to expect. And yet, after I watched the short film they show at the beginning of the tour of the camp, when the doors to the camp were opened and I saw the “Arbeit Macht Frei” metal sign above the entrance, my eyes and nose stung with salty tears.

Man, this tour was going to get me.

“Are you OK?” Stephan, a Scottish guy I had met the night before at Tutti Frutti, asked me, placing his hand on my arm after we exited the gas chamber in Auschwitz.

“Yeah,” I said. It was only then, when the “yeah” came out choked and strained that I realized I was far from OK.

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Being Jewish in the Krakow Jewish District

On my second full day in Krakow, I decided to do my walkabout. I knew there were places I wanted to go — mostly the locations on the map marked with a Jewish star, also known as the Jewish District.

I know Poland is seeped with a terrible history as it relates to Jews (and many other religions, cultures, etc.), and it makes my heart heavy to think that such a beautiful place has such sad stories behind it.

The Jewish District is one of those places. Lined with kosher and Jewish restaurants and shops, the area oozes charm, personality and beauty.

And, then there is the darker side. The side that hurts me and makes my chest feel tight.

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A Polish funeral and Krakow

When someone questioned me as to why Poland, my answer back was “why not?”

When I first decided to go to Krakow, it was because of the city’s close proximity to Auschwitz, as someone who identifies myself as Jewish it was a place I felt necessary to visit.

I had heard mixed reviews about Poland. Some people had said the country seems sad and a gloom permeates the air continuously. Clearly, those people have never actually visited the country, because I experienced nothing like that at all.

My time in Krakow came on the heels of the tragic plane crash in Russia. In fact, as I walked up to my hostel I careened into one of the funerals.

My hostel, Tutti Frutti, was on one of the main drags in Old Town. Across the middle of the road were lines draped with the Polish flag and black flags  of mourning, hanging solemnly.

But, despite all of this, people remained upbeat.

My first day in Krakow was mainly about catching up on sleep. In the evening, I walked around a little and grabbed dinner, and then met a crew of Serbians in town for a pharmaceutical congress. A group of about 15 of us headed out for sheesha, clearly chasing other patrons out of the cozy Middle Eastern bar with our loud voices.

For hours, we sat there, enjoying the sweet concoctions — cappuccino and milk; mint and water; apple and rum — and singing Serbian songs. Well, they sang, I watched and smiled, thinking to myself how lucky I was to be in the moment with them.

I ended up in Krakow for nearly four days … taking in the city, its charm and beauty and doing some exploration mixed with some intense “getting to know me” moments, some of which took me by surprise.

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Romanian sunsets, Hungarian mornings and Polish afternoons

I stood outside at 22h 40 (I know, very European of me), backpack strapped tight to me, messenger bag slung across my front and purse on my arm.

Whew.

It was time to depart Cluj and head to Krakow. Via bus. Back to Budapest.

When Arpad first told me I had to take a bus to Budapest in order to get to Krakow, I immediately tried for other options.

“Why don’t you want to stop in Budapest?” he had asked.

Aside from backtracking, Budapest and I were still at odds. Only a little, but still. I would have rather trekked from Ukraine like I had originally planned.

But, bus to Budapest it was.

So, there I stood, in the dark outside of a hotel, looking for the bus that would whisk me back to Hungary and then on to Krakow via an Orange Ways bus at 6 a.m.

I was actually a bit bewildered.

I didn’t see a bus. Anywhere.

“Miss, miss,” called the cab driver who had dropped me at the lot. “Here, follow me.”

I picked up step behind him as he walked me away from where I was standing and towards a tiny cluster of people smoking outside of an overgrown white minivan.

“Here,” he said, gesturing for me to stop at the van.

Right. This isn’t a bus.

“Hi,” I said to a man standing at the van door, who seemed to be the driver. “Budapest?”

“Yes, yes,” he said, motioning me to follow him to the back of the van. “Luggage?”

I took off my backpack and placed it on the ground.

Where was it going to go? The van wasn’t like a bus that has the storage underneath.

Then, I saw it. The U-Haul-esque attachment to the van, hooked at the back. My luggage was going to go in there.

“Thanks,” I said, handing him my backpack and keeping my other two bags as pillows. I got in the van and grabbed a seat, trying to fathom the next five hours of driving to get back to Hungary.

Once we departed, I noticed there were only six or so people riding, so I took over two seats, trying to balance myself on the cushions that seemed a few inches too short, and trying to keep the arm of the  seat out of my back.

I slept on and off as we drove through the still of the Romanian night, waking up when I got too hot, when we stopped and at the border.

When we arrived in Hungary at 4:30 a.m., I was glad. Only seven or so more hours of driving until I could get to a bed and catch some real sleep.

The bus to Krakow from Budapest was nothing like the van ride.

Orange Ways is a machine. They pipe in movies. They have wifi (although it wasn’t working on my trip). They even have coffee and hot chocolate. And, they have packed busses. Packed.

I sat in the second to last row of the bus on the aisle, ready to pass out. I could feel the exhaustion seeping into my body, my head growing heavy, my eyes fighting to stay open.

And, that’s when three drunk-from-the-night-before Brits walked onto the bus, past my seat and sat behind me. Smelling like a bar and lots of liquor. Ready to party.

I heard beer cans crack open and ignored it.

I listened as they talked on and on about partying and then put my headphones on to drown them out.

Then, they decided they want to have a party on the bus. So, they opeedn up their laptop and put on some techno for everyone to listen to. At 6 in the morning.

Now, I’m a pretty chill person. There are very few times I will ever ask anyone to stop doing something. Those times are:

– Having sex in a dorm room. C’mon on. I don’t need to hear/see it.

– Talking loudly in a dorm room in the middle of the night when everyone else is sleeping. It takes two moments to go outside.

– Playing loud and crappy techno at 6 a.m. on a bus with a captive audience.

When I could hear the thwackthwackthwack above my music, it was time to turn around. Luckily, they were cool about it and turned it off.

About 30 minutes later, they were all passed out.

And, six hours later, I was walking through the streets of Krakow.

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