My First Solo Trip: A Weekend in Kracow Poland
I was chatting with an American friend a while back who wants to take her first solo trip before she turns 30, which is imminent. She asked when and where I had been on my first solo trip. I had to really think about the answer. I’ve been travelling all my life, from before I can remember, and have travelled without members of my family for a long time. I went on a school trip to Japan when I was 15, travelled to the UK with my best friend from New Zealand when I was 17 (and stayed with family there), studied abroad in the Czech Republic when I was 21, where I lived in the same apartment building as a Czech friend. But actually solo, without friends, family, partner, meet-ups at the other end..? It must’ve been a long weekend in Kracow Poland, when I was 21.
I took the train from Prague to Krakow in the early summer, with no real plan before I went. The fact that I couldn’t recall this easily wasn’t anything to do with the trip–it was great! It was because I had never even considered it my ‘first’ solo trip, because that idea of ‘travelling solo’ wasn’t really even a concept to me until I started reading travel blogs. (Read: until I started reading American travel blogs). In America, I’ve found there to be an overwhelming fear of the world. It creeps into everything, from politics to travel writing. Sure, not everyone ‘back home’ travels very much, or likes to do so by themselves. But the idea that a young woman would travel to a foreign country alone is not something that garners any particular attention, anxiety or respect. If you want to travel somewhere and nobody can join you, you go alone, right? That’s always been my attitude to solo travel, anyway. I like travelling with my partner, with friends or family, but that’s not always possible. And I’d rather travel alone than not at all.
Getting off the train at dusk, for the first time while ‘planning’ this trip, I remember a slight oh shit sinking feeling that I didn’t know where I was going to stay, it was almost dark and I was alone.
I was living in Prague when I took my first solo trip, in the first half of 2005. Krakow is roughly a seven hour train journey from there. I don’t remember why I decided to go by myself, but I suspect my foreign friends in Prague were busy. The only guide I had was some photocopied pages from my friend’s Europe on a Shoestring tome, and the internet was certainly not used for travel planning as much eleven years ago as it is now. I remember looking up a youth hostel in Krakow, sending them an email requesting a booking and not hearing back, but not giving it much thought. I figured I’d just turn up and find myself somewhere to stay.
The train arrived at dusk, and I headed to the hostel that I’d tried to book with my poor-quality map. Luckily, the train station was near the centre of the city, so I didn’t have to walk far. But getting off the train at dusk, for the first time while ‘planning’ this trip, I remember a slight oh shit sinking feeling that I didn’t know where I was going to stay, it was almost dark and I was alone. Krakow isn’t a massive city, but it’s big enough, and Central Europe isn’t the friendliest of places (at least, not on the surface). I didn’t have any kind of back-up plan. I arrived at the hostel to find that they hadn’t reserved me a bed and it was extremely busy, but they had one in a 20-bed dorm for just one night, so I took that.
The next day I got up early and wandered into Krakow’s gorgeous Old Town, found a smaller hostel to stay in for the following couple of nights, dumped my bags and headed back to the beautiful old square. I’d been living in Prague (which I think is the most beautiful city in Europe), but was still awed by Krakow. It is much smaller than Prague but similar in some ways: its medieval architecture is of a similar design, and it has a historic Jewish centre that was decimated during World War II.
My First Solo Trip: A Weekend in Kracow Poland
I spent most of my time sitting in the beautiful Old Town Square and in the parks, reading and writing. The weather was perfect. I had learnt enough menu-Czech by that time to get by in Poland. The languages are very similar, so I could read menus and signs, and use basic greetings. For instance, to say thanks I just had to turn my Czech d?kuji into the Polish dzi?kuj?. But I didn’t encounter any communication issues because, being a pretty touristy town, many locals spoke English.
The old part of Krakow is very small and easily walkable. I visited the Wawel Castle, walked the streets of the Jewish Quarter, and visited the Czartoryski Museum, where I was excited to find one of my favourite paintings: Leonard da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. I studied a lot of Art History at school and uni, including during my exchange semester in Prague, so this was definitely a highlight of Krakow for me. I also made the trip out to the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines. Central Europe is rich in salt, and this was a major part of trade and industry in the area. The Wieliczka mines include an enormous underground ‘chapel’, full of religious carvings and all the other paraphernalia of a regular church, only made entirely out of salt.
I feel icky traipsing around sites where mass atrocities happened, taking photos and supposedly enjoying myself (even through not enjoying myself). These places that still have sacred meaning to many people.
Krakow is the base for trips to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp. I chose not to go, because after several months in Central Europe I had decided that I didn’t like the idea of genocide tourism. I still don’t. I don’t mean any disrespect to the history of these places, or to the people who truly feel that they get something out of visiting them. Quite the contrary. I feel that I am paying these places much more respect by not visiting them. I am a curious traveller who always wants to learn about the places I’m visiting, so I make an effort to read extensively and visit the best museums. But I feel icky traipsing around sites where mass atrocities happened, taking photos and supposedly enjoying myself (even through not enjoying myself). These places that still have sacred meaning to many people. I can totally understand why school groups need to visit them, or why second-generation Holocaust survivors (for example) steel themselves to pay respects to the memories of their relatives. It was precisely for this reason that I didn’t want to go, or to visit the killing fields or Khmer Rouge-related sites in Cambodia either, when I was there.
Although I certainly didn’t plan the trip very well, everything worked out for the best, and I had no reason to feel anxious. So for all of you women out there who are considering taking a solo trip before turning 30, or 40 or 50, or whatever age (because it’s never too late), take my advice: don’t think about it too much, just do it. Have some confidence in yourself and in the world, and it’ll all be OK.
My First Solo Trip: A Weekend in Kracow Poland originally appeared on Wilderness, Metropolis.