A Trip to Warsaw, Kraków and Auschwitz
I was lucky enough to spend the August bank holiday weekend in Poland, courtesy of my sister. The trip was my 30th birthday present and no expense had been spared. My sister knows how I like to travel and this trip didn’t disappoint – from the flights with British Airways to the very plush Sofitel hotel in Warsaw.
The bank holiday weekend got off to an early start. The alarm went off shortly after 4.00am, we were on the road at 4.45am and in the air at 7.35am. This was to be one of British Airways’ few flights from terminal three. The terminal is a bit of a shabby one and not in the slightest comparable to the airline’s real home at terminal five.
The flight itself was reasonably enjoyable and the service was adequate for a little over two hours. As a morning flight, breakfast was served, consisting of the tiniest carton of orange juice and a bacon and cream cheese croissant. A single drinks round was offered on the flight but staff were happy to provide more on request.
It was shortly before 11.00am that we landed at Warsaw’s Chopin airport. The airport is a little over 6 miles from the city itself, taking around 15-20 minutes by taxi. On a taxi meter, the cost was around £6.00 to our hotel – the Hotel Sofitel Victoria Warszawa. This hotel was very centrally located; directly opposite Pilsudski Square and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Many of the city’s biggest attractions, the old town and shopping areas could easily be reached on foot in a matter of minutes.
The hotel was very nice. Arriving a little early for check-in, we were asked to wait whilst our room was prepared. It didn’t take too long.
Our twin room offered little in the way of a view but it was still impressive nonetheless. From the lampshades to the desk, everything in the room was very modern and very elegant. Sat next to one of the beds was a Bose sound system, which we didn’t use, but still, it was a nice touch. Quality toiletries, bathrobes and slippers were also provided. The bathroom even offered a choice of two showers. Sofitel know how to do beds. My Sofitel bed in Budapest was previously the comfiest I had slept in – and the Sofitel in Warsaw was every bit as good!
In the hotel’s basement was the swimming pool and gym, which was free for guests to use. The pool and steam room was available until 10.00pm whilst the gym was open 24 hours a day. The swimming pool looked great with a large mirror covering the entire ceiling. I didn’t really like the idea of seeing my not very flattering body as I was doing my backstroke though!
With the bank holiday Monday to be spent on a day trip to Krakow, we didn’t have much time to enjoy the city so we dropped our bags in the room and set off on a city tour bus straight away. At around £12.00 per person, we could hop on and off of the bus as much as we pleased over a 24 hour period. For such a brief stay in the Polish capital, it was ideal for us. We wouldn’t get to see everything in just a few days so it was nice to get a quick glimpse of some of
the more famous attractions – even if only from a moving bus! The end of August was still [only just] considered high season so the buses were hourly but with lots of departures to choose from during the day. As summer becomes autumn and later winter, the frequency of buses reduces, with just a couple of daily trips during the low season. With more time to spend in the city, I’d have preferred to cover the same route on foot. Whilst the bus tour did cover a lot of miles, the sights were all very close to one another so it would have been easily do-able.
The best part of this trip for me was the food and I could happily return to Poland again just to eat, eat and eat a bit more! Polish dishes are quite stodgy, generally quite meaty and the portions are much bigger than you might be used to. And to make things even better, eating out is very cheap here! Even in some of the better restaurants around Marszałkowska, a generous portion of food won’t hit your wallet hard at all – at around £6.00 per portion. Drinks too are inexpensive with many restaurants charging not more than £1.00 for a soft drink and only a tiny bit more for beers and ciders.
Whilst the restaurant and coffee shop desserts and cakes always had enormous appeal, the inexpensive but very tasty and very moreish doughnuts offered at Cukiernia Pawłowicz were a much better alternative – but a lot less healthy! Two of these enormous doughnuts for breakfast really set me up for the day. They ranged in price from 60-70p.
In this same area is Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science, which must be the Warsaw equivalent of Big Ben. It’s a giant clock tower with lots going on around it – outdoor space being enjoyed by many along with coffee shops and bars. Right behind is a huge shopping centre and the city’s Hard Rock Cafe. Shopping in the city is second-to-none; it’s cheap and there are a lot of more familiar retailers doing business here including Marks & Spencer, TK Maxx, H&M and even C&A. I found when shopping in TK Maxx that purchases were around 10% cheaper compared to home. Many of the coffee shops that you would find at home are also available in the city e.g. Starbucks.
One of the things that both of us were very keen to do whilst in Poland was to visit Auschwitz but with there being 200 miles between us in Warsaw and the World War II concentration and death camps, a day trip was going to be very expensive and require a number of hours on a coach.
Shortly before leaving for Poland, we booked ourselves a day return flight with LOT Polish Airlines from Warsaw to Krakow – costing a mere £28.00 each. It meant a flight out of Warsaw at 7.30am and not landing back again until 10.00pm but the trip was more comfortable, it allowed us to see some of Krakow and it put us only 40 miles from Auschwitz, from where we would join an organised tour.
It was only the day before our trip to Krakow that we booked ourselves onto a half day tour – and there weren’t many to choose from! Many of the trips, even from Krakow, required a whole day. With our flight not landing until around 8.30am, we had no chance of getting into the city to join any of these all-day tours. We paid around £25.00 each for the half day trip, leaving the city shortly after 1.00pm and returning by 7.30pm. The journey time was around 90 minutes with a video occupying us for about half this time.
Admission to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau is free but visitor numbers are controlled. Pre-booking is essential in order to guarantee entry. You can join guided tours of the camps in a variety of languages and these attract a small fee.
We arrived at Auschwitz I and toured the camp for around 90 minutes with a tour guide, before having a short break, and then continuing to Birkenau. It was a really hard-hitting experience and it was almost impossible to comprehend the scale of what went on there – more so at Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were put to death. In the majority of cases, those considered not fit for work were exterminated within just two hours of arriving there. The ‘unfit’ were typically the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with disabilities.
For obvious reasons, some of the exhibits at Auschwitz I were not allowed to be photographed. Piles of everything imaginable were laid out for visitors to see – everything from human hair to glasses (spectacles) and even artificial limbs. There was hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of everything, yet this was just a tiny piece of a much bigger puzzle. One cannot begin to imagine the horrors of Auschwitz – a camp built to exterminate Jews on an industrial scale.
In one of the brick buildings at Auschwitz I was a corridor lined with photographs of Auschwitz’s victims, along with dates of birth, the date on which they entered their camp and the date on which they died. There wasn’t time to look at the hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of photographs on display but two of them, side by side, were the most poignant for me. Maria Krajewska and her twin sister, Czeslawa, entered Birkenau together yet were killed two months apart. I couldn’t help but wonder for days afterwards what was going through Czeslawa’s mind between her sister being killed and her own death. Did she know her sister’s fate? Did she know her own fate? Many twins at Auschwitz were picked up by Dr Josef Mengele on arrival at Auschwitz and used for various inhumane experiments – resulting in the death of a large number.
A visit to Auschwitz is a must for anybody visiting Poland but allow plenty of time for a visit. Half day tours of the camps can feel rushed and you will pass by buildings without knowing what is on display inside. Find your own way to Auschwitz and spend an entire day learning about what went on, whilst remembering those who were lost.
Auschwitz is a thought-provoking experience. It is a must-see memorial for all.
All too soon, another break was at an end. Poland was a new country for me but one that has already been added to the ‘must visit again’ list. The people are very friendly, your money goes a long way, there’s plenty to do and the weather (certainly in the summer) is great as well. On our last day in Poland, we were enjoying lots of sunshine and a temperature of 36 degrees.
I can’t wait to return.