We’ve done this numerous times already; we’ll be walking through the streets and just admiring our surroundings when one of us will ask the other “Can you believe we live here?” Each time that we’ve talked about it the answer has been the same:
“No, it still feels like a vacation. A long vacation, but still just a vacation.”
The conversation then inevitably turns to home and if we miss our Canadian lives. We talk about the things, the people, the places, the food that we miss; the things that make life worth living and although the answer is that we still don’t feel like we’re anywhere near ‘done’ here, we are homesick for certain things. Who would have thought that we would get a taste of what we had been missing on a trip to Poland, of all places. You see, Raeleen had been invited to a photography workshop in Krakow by a group called Let Me Italian You. The group works with cities within Europe to promote tourism and to show the beauty of the target cities by bringing amateur photographers from different parts of the world to photograph and learn in these cities. They have worked with cities/areas like Krakow, Sicily, and Barcelona and have been promoted by publications like National Geographic. So when Raeleen received this invite we knew that we had to attend (after, of course, researching to ensure that it wasn’t a scam).
So we took a look at the map, planned our routes, and made some decisions. Vienna is on the way, and although we had TECHNICALLY been in Austria before, it was so fast that it was over before we got a chance to start, which meant that we were going to split our drive into 2 days on the way to Krakow. Loading up our reliable car we made our way into eastern Slovenia and then Austria, arriving in Vienna at around 2pm. It started out as a beautiful day, but storm clouds loomed large and we figured that at some point it was going to get very wet for us. We rushed around the center of the city and were amazed by the amount of history and the buildings around every corner that dominated your view. I literally could not turn my head without finding more amazing architecture in this city.
We spent the day walking as much of the city as we could trying to see it all. I have a feeling that we barely scratched the surface, but by the time we left I think we managed to get a pretty good view of the city center as well as Schonbrunn palace. If there is one bad thing to say about Vienna, though, it’s the people all over the streets trying to sell you on the concerts. I think cockroaches are probably easier to deal with and after you see the first 15 people dressed up in old timey clothes trying to peddle the tickets you get sick of the next 150 that approach you asking the same questions.
Continuing our journey to Poland, we made a few unscheduled stops in the Czech Republic as we just couldn’t let the opportunity pass us by to see a few sights in a new country. We will definitely be back to see more as we were very impressed by what we did see. After a delicious authentic supper of Subway in the Czech we made our into Poland and finally Krakow. We had said that we were exhausted and just wanted to get to sleep, however, the old city called and we ended up staying up way too late wandering the streets, having some drinks, and taking pictures. It turns out that this was a good indication of how the next 5 nights would go.
We awoke the next morning for a meet and greet with the other photographers and a tour of the old city of Krakow. Even though we looked a bit cliche, what with 30 photographers walking around with their cameras out snapping pictures of literally anything and everything, it felt good to be part of a group and not off on our own for once. It was also a bit surprising at how fast we became comfortable with each other, feeling more like old friends than new acquaintances.
The next day would be a trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. I must admit that I have always wanted to visit these sites. What they mean, the history behind them is so overpowering that being on the grounds is a very sobering experience. You can’t help but feel heavy with sorrow from seeing the worst of what humanity is capable of. I do not feel like we had enough time at either of these sites but then again, if it was up to me I would have spent the entire day there reading every single thing.
After Auschwitz I, we were taken to Birkeneau which is about 10 minutes away by bus. Birkeneau is much larger in size but a lot of the old buildings have been destroyed as the Germans tried to cover the evidence of what they had done as WWII was coming to a close. Seeing what is left gives you a good mental image of the scope of what was done here and it’s a hard image to get out of your head. After a tour of the Jewish quarter in Krakow, we heard just how successful the Germans had been in their ‘Final Solution.’ In Krakow before WWII 1/4 of the population was Jewish, around 60,000. After WWII, the Jewish population in Krakow was around 140.
As we got more comfortable with each other in our large group of around 30, certain things started to happen. We started to feel like a group of friends that had been together for what seemed like an eternity, I (as always happens) managed to find myself as the target of many jokes after a good night out and we all seemed to forget that this was only a short trip and in a few days we would all be heading back to our regularly scheduled lives with jobs, school, responsibilities and all that jazz…except for us of course, oh and Annemarie too (our Austrian friend); the lazy bum ;) .
At this point though, we were having the time of our lives. We were living high on the hog, and the wine and perogies flowed like the salmon of Capistrano (anyone catch that reference?). Every day became a blur as we were ushered around the city to see the next beautiful site or photograph the next model that was lined up for us. The nights were filled with laughter, suppers so late we thought we were being punished with starvation, and less sleep than the night before.
In the end we spent 5 days in Krakow and it seems like we only scratched the surface of what Poland has to offer. However, with so many great experiences with our new friends we now have many more sites to see throughout Europe and new friends to experience them with. In the not so distant future we will be visiting Lithuania, Italy, Budapest, and Austria because of the people we have met on this trip.
After saying our goodbyes on our final day we made our slow trip home. We had wanted to see as much of Slovakia as we could and felt that this was a perfect time to fit it in. Again, this is one of those countries where I felt like we didn’t get to give it the time it was due, but we made the most of what we had with a quick stop for the night in a small town in northern Slovakia to see an impressive castle ruin and a stop the next day at Cicmany.
In Cicmany there is a tradition of painting the houses with white symbols. We’re not exactly sure of the significance of the symbols but they are quite beautiful and the Slovaks are quite proud of this village as the symbols were even included on the 2014 Olympic team uniforms.
All in all, the entire trip was an amazing experience and one we will not forget.