We started our big tour flying into the northern Polish town of Gdansk. It is small with a pretty impressive old town located on the river. We ate very well with huge pork and potato dishes and beer for under £20. We explored the brand new Roads to Freedom museum which is a tribute to the Polish escape from communism. We then waked around the main sights of the town including a few churches, the Neptune's fountain and the Green and Gold Gates. After tasting some perogis (dumplings) we walked it off by climbing the tower in St Mary's Church, all 400 of them - helpfully (or torturously) marked every 10 steps. The views of Gdansk from the top were well worth it though. That evening we were given a shot of Polish vodka in the hostel and were only told that it was a strong mix. Strong it was as well as thick and creamy, a very odd mix that we would be happy to not have again.
We trained through to Krakow (11hrs during the day) and were glad to arrive in the evening, grab a quick dinner then get to bed - doing nothing all day can be exhausting! We upped the sightseeing after this though and did a tour of Auschwitz & Birkenau concentration & extermination camps. Some of it was still in the original condition but some had been rebuilt after the Nazi's burnt a lot down to destroy evidence. It was a sad place but odd to visit on such a sunny day with large grassy areas around the building - quite different to the photos of the time. They also had huge displays of the prisoners belongings including almost 2tonnes of hair which was used to make felt. Back in Krakow we did a walking tour taking in the old town, the university (one of the oldest in the world), views of Wawel Hill, which contains the castle, and ended up in the Jewish quarter. Our tour guide who is from the Jewish quarter advised how lively the place is now compared with the 1990s. The next day we visited the Wieliczka Salt mine which dates back at least to the 1300s. This has been a UNESCO site for a long time and is a really well laid out tour with multiple cathedrals underground and beautifully carved sculptures. We tried some cauliflower salt (named for the shape it forms, it still tastes salty) and went through 3 souvenir shops 100m underground. We had a quiet evening at the hostel meeting fellow guests and tried a couple of different vodkas the went out to a jazz bar in the old town, it was a cute little cave with some great Italian jazz players.
Our final day in Krakow and unfortunately our lovely sunny weather came to an end and we had torrential rain. We knew this was coming so had planned a museum day but still had to get between them so got quite wet shoes in the process. We visited the Rynek Underground, an old medieval market place located under the main market square. It was well laid out with many parts of the old stone stalls still in tact and artefacts on display including some skeletons taken from burial grounds. We also visited the Schindler's factory south of the river. It was set up as a museum to the Polish WWII story rather than just about Oskar Schindler and was very well set out. With all our sightseeing completed and with still a good few hours to kill before our night train we visited a number of cafés to shelter from the grey day - we were glad for Poland being such a cheap place to visit. Then it was finally time to get on our sleeper train at 10pm to Vienna, we had a 2 bed compartment that had our own sink, and a few free water bottles and snacks for breakfast - very impressive!