Just over a week ago 7 of us set sail for Krakow, Poland for what resembled a stag party with no stag. Not all of our time was spent drinking – we actually covered a lot of cultural ground. The juxtaposition of intense fun at night with the overwhelming sadness we felt at Schindler’s factory and Auschwitz made the whole trip seem very surreal. Rather than give you a chronological account of what happened on the trip (something I am not confident I could pin down if I tried), I will give you just 7 highlights in rough order that stand out from my blurry memory.
The first highlight was of a cultural nature and occurred on the first day, when we visited Schindler’s factory. At the start, it looks as you would expect any factory from that era to look, but as you delve deeper the exhibitions build in intensity as they tell the story of the oppression, segregation and eventual forced extermination of the Jewish people of Krakow. The rooms were disorganised in such a way that you had to check several to figure out the right way to go to complete the exhibit. Not sure I was going the right way I peered into a darkened room behind a cloth and instantly felt a chill over my whole body. In front of me, the only thing illuminated in the back of the darkened room was the first piece of Nazi memorabilia I had seen – an officer’s hat perched on a podium. It sounds mundane to describe it now, and I quickly snapped to my senses, but for a moment my whole body froze and I could really feel the evil of the place. Moving through the factory the stories and pictures got progressively worse, and by the end I couldn’t help but think that this was only a warm-up for Auschwitz.
The first night out, though a lot of fun, was fairly quiet and mostly a blur as the tiredness, combined with drunkenness, left me out for the count relatively early on. Therefore the second highlight was also cultural (doing well so far!). Come afternoon we had already made the half an hour walk into town, traipsed around most of the city centre and had lunch, so there were murmurings within the group that we should just find a place to drink, or head back to the hotel for a nap. I had other plans. I had read on the Internet of a set of dragon bones chained above a cathedral door, and became increasingly insistent we find them despite not knowing where the cathedral was, and not having a map. Eventually we guessed our way to Wawel Castle. After taking obligatory pictures there were further mutterings that we should turn back. I cajoled the group up the ramp into the castle, promising them the cathedral was inside (something I was in no way sure of) and we weren’t disappointed. The place was really stunning and the views were worth it alone. In the end we did find the dragon bones, but they were the least impressive thing we saw there (just an old rhino horn strung up to a whale bone). The most amazing thing for me was the decoration of the cathedral itself – full of ornate details carved into every crevice. I couldn’t help thing how much it would suck to be the guy that spent his whole life carving tiny patterns into the higher up windows that nobody would ever see.
After ticking off most of the sights of Krakow, it was time to get some serious partying in. However, I was wary that our Auschwitz trip was the next day - I didn’t want to tackle that place hung over, so I initially planned to pace myself. That went straight out of the window when I encountered the third highlight of the trip. Walking back from the cathedral we saw a sign saying “big beer – 3.5 zloty” - after doing a quick calculation, realising that meant 70p, then repeating said calculate to be sure, we decided we had to check this out. Walking down an alleyway we came to a doorway lit by a neon red light, leading down into a basement. There were looks of hesitation, but being a big group nobody wanted to be the first to cry wolf, so we descended the stairs… and it was awesome. What greeted us underground was an awesome bunker-like bar with good beer as cheap as advertised and a cute barmaid to top it off. The cheapness of the beer hadn’t really hit us on that first night, but now we felt like we were spending Monopoly money. From that point on we stopped keeping track of rounds and just bought whatever drinks we fancied, for as many of us that could still handle them. At one point in a club I bought an entire bottle of vodka and ten red bulls for 30 quid. In England a round like that would bankrupt me, but in Poland I couldn’t help but feel like a pretty big deal.
The club we decided to go to the second night had been recommended to us by a couple of patient girls we kept pestering the night before. It was called club “Cien” and had a reputation for being fairly upmarket. After sampling several apple vodkas and feeling good about how far our sterling was stretching, we decided the best thing to do would be a dance competition. Carving out a circle on the dance floor, we took turns in the centre to do the most ridiculous dancing we could manage. Pull the Rope, the Shopping Trolley, the Lawnmower – all the classics were employed to good effect. This brought upon us a great deal of attention. It seems in Poland the guys actually try not to make asses of themselves (such a different culture), so we stood out - allowing us to coerce a good proportion of the club into entering our competition. The highlight for me was that I won! More accustomed to being called a loser when I danced, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Auschwitz was a place I knew I had to see, despite knowing that it was inevitably going to be an uncomfortable experience. When booking the trip I had told myself to arrange it so that I wasn’t visiting the camp hung-over, but had broken this rule and felt a bit like I was underwater. The seven of us had a minivan to ourselves and the good mood from the night before hadn’t been broken. We bantered back and forward for most of the trip and were generally in good spirits, unprepared for what was in store for us. The mood quickly settled to quiet reverence once we walked under the famous “arbeit macht frei” sign (work makes you free). The first camp looked no different to a standard military barracks, and in fact did house Polish soldiers before the war. The initial exhibits were bad, but at that point no worse than I had seen in the British war museum. Then our guide warned us that in the next room, no pictures were allowed. I had been warned what would come next – what I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer scale of it: an entire glass cage filled with human hair. The tour guide explained that the inmates’ hair was shaved and used as material for making various products – one of many examples of the pure efficiency with which the Nazis committed their evil deeds. We moved through several other exhibits like this, including an entire, long, room filled with shoes from the victims. At the end of the tour of the first camp, we were all simply shaking our heads in disbelief, speechless. It seemed like months had passed since the good humour of the morning. After a short break to regroup and acquire some caffeine, we moved on to Auschwitz II, Birkenau camp. This camp is the one everyone sees in films, with the railway leading in, the barbed-wire fences, the guard towers, the primitive wooden huts where the prisoners slept. After the visual onslaught of the morning, we just walked around in a daze. It was a foggy day, and being in that evil place was hard for my tired brain to process. I didn’t say much, just wandered around at the back of the tour, concentrating on keeping my balance in the mud. No matter how prepared you feel, the sheer scale is what catches you off guard – the base extends in all directions, and was meticulously designed to de-humanise and destroy an entire race. I have never felt so fortunate in my life to have not lived in those times. Every time I have complained about something since, I think back to the conditions the prisoners of Auschwitz were living in, and mentally kick myself for being so spoiled.
We were in a sombre mood when we left the camp, and I can definitely see why many people recommend not planning anything for the night after going. If we had gone straight back to the hotel I doubt we would have gone out that night. However, we had booked a two-for-one deal, and were on the way to, of all things, a salt mine. After another hour journey, we pulled up at a restaurant outside the mine. None of us ate much, so we soon were heading down the seemingly endless steps with our tour guide. The air in the mine was clean and clear and immediately started doing wonders for my hangover. According to the guide the air is completely bacteria-free due to the salt, and many asthma suffers spend time in the mine to alleviate their condition. Down in the mine we entered the first room, and saw a chapel made completely out of salt. It was fairly worn down (being near the entrance so exposed to moisture) but was still pretty impressive. As our guide took us from room to room, deeper into the mine, we started noticing a few quirks. One of which was her stellar repertoire of salt-based puns. Still a bit emotionally drained from Auschwitz, we started to soften up when she told us to take the story she just finished relating “with a pinch of salt”. She told us to lick the walls if we didn’t believe everything was made of salt (yes I licked the wall: it tasted salty). As well as the salt-based humour we started laughing at the fact that she would systematically point at everything in each room, one-by-one, that was made of salt - “this is made of salt… and this picture, it is made of salt… this table, it is also made of salt… the very tiles you walk on, they are made of salt… if you were to fall in this lake, you would float, because it is very salty like dead sea… this chandelier is not made of salt, but it is decorated with the salt crystals…”. There is only so many times you can hear someone say that before cracking up. It reminded me of this deleted scene in Borat where he walks down an entire isle of cheese in an American supermarket, picking up every pack and asking the manager “is this cheese?”. Whilst it was bloody impressive that the workers in this mine had carved several churches and a massive cathedral out of salt, the pure oddness of our guide made the entire tour ridiculous. By the end we were in a completely different frame of mind to when we had left Auschwitz – the fact that someone can be so enamored with something so mundane and unassuming as salt, strangely restored our faith in humanity, and left us ready to enjoy our last night in the country.
After trying a famous “Mad Dog” shot whilst our taxis were waiting (the aftertaste saves you from the fact that you can’t shoot the whole thing without gulping), and a near run-in with a drugged-up American expat in an Irish bar, our night got of to a good start. We got to about the right level of drunk in Shakers club (a cool place with a foosball table we had been to every night), and headed downstairs to Frantic. First impressions were pretty overwhelming. The dance floor was 80% filled with some of the most attractive girls I had ever seen. Somebody even uttered this Inbetweeners-worthy line: “we should go somewhere else, the girls in here are too attractive to ever talk to”. We sensibly ignored our doubts and made a beeline for the bar. After a few rounds of Jaegerbombs we started to feel a bit less self-aware and started dancing. Remembering the hilarious dance off we had the night before, I was looking for the first signs that one of us was going to start dancing outrageously. Cue Scott, centre stage. My mate Scott is normally more ninja than pirate, so I didn’t immediately clock what he was doing. A few seconds later, I noticed a few people stopping to look at him.. what was he doing? Is that… yes, he is definitely warming up for something. More people danced strategically to get a better view of Scott as he worked his way through several common stretches. The crowd opened up as we got nearer to the chorus to form an entire circle around him, but his gaze was set dead ahead and he looked eerily focused. After 30 seconds of warm-ups, the chorus kicks in: he starts doing the sprinkler. The crowd watching him erupts with laughter, but he remains dedicated and doesn’t even smirk. Every time I think back to it I can’t help but actually laugh out loud. A perfect way to break the ice with all those unobtainable girls, and I respect the fact that he had the balls to do such a ridiculous dance move when the rest of us had just mustered up enough Dutch courage to do that non-committal sidelines dance thing that guys do. It really set up the rest of the night, and the rest was, as they say, history.
So hopefully these seven highlights give a bit of an insight into what made this trip special. Ideally it convinced you to make your next holiday a Polish one. I left feeling like we had achieved the perfect balance of pursuits cultural and hedonistic, and like all good trips, I came back feeling like something had changed. I complain less, I have stopped drinking so much (hard to stomach a London pint when you can buy a round for less in Poland) and I have started to revaluate how I spend my time and money. Why live for the weekend and drop over a hundred in overpriced London clubs when you could fly to Poland and have the holiday of a lifetime for the same price? I had more fun in those three days than I would have in a month of weekends in London combined. In fact, I have already started to live this new mantra – this weekend was my first completely sober weekend since I moved to London (giving me time to write this article), and I have already booked a holiday over the April bank holiday weekend: next stop Macedonia!