Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Krakow – Jewel of Poland

My journey to Krakow started at 6.00 on Friday, 18.11.2005. Yes, that’s how early I had to leave to catch my train to Krakow. I was surprised to see it start to snow as I traveled north (through the Czech Republic) to Poland. I knew that it would be cold, but I didn’t think about the possibility of seeing snowing during my trip. There was a woman in my train car that was from Krakow. She has been living in Vienna for the past 22 years, and she was going to Krakow to visit friends and go to the theater. I enjoyed talking with her during the trip, and she even gave me the name of a café to go to in the Old Town. When we arrived at the station, her friend’s son met her at the train. I said goodbye to her, and then she turned to me a moment later and said that her friend’s son had asked if I could go to the theater with them that night. I thanked her for the offer, but declined since I didn’t have any nice clothes to wear. We all laughed about it, and then went our separate ways. It was such a nice beginning to my trip.

After finding my hostel and getting some money (the currency in Poland is zlotys) I walked to the Old Town. Krakow has the largest town square in Europe, and I was impressed when I walked into it. A large part of the square was under construction, but it was still incredibly large, even with that part fenced off. Since I had arrived so early, I was able to walk around the Old Town for a while before the sun went down. I was amazed by how compact the Old Town was and how all of the streets are laid out in a perfect grid pattern (after the Tatars invaded and destroyed the city in the 13th century, the streets were rebuilt in a perfect grid around the main square). After walking around for a few hours, I found a café. It was a nice little place with about five tables and really good cappuccino. Krakow is such a pretty place, and it seems so different from the other Eastern European countries that I have visited during my travels. After enjoying the café, I went back out into the cold and wandered around some more. I had a dinner of meat pierogis and a Fanta for less than 2 Euros – the food in Krakow is really cheap! Before heading back to my hostel for the night, I was able to hear the bugler play from the city watchtower. This is an interesting tradition, and it dates back several centuries. During the Tatar invasion, a watchman in the tower saw the enemy approaching and sounded the alarm. Before he could finish the tune, an arrow pierced his throat – cutting him off in the middle. Today, the bugler always stops on the same note that the watchman was on when he was killed. I also learned that the buglers in the tower are actually firemen who watch over the city. Their first duty is to be a fire lookout, and the second is to play the bugle.

I got up on Saturday morning (19.11.2005) at 6.00. I was catching the 7.18 train to Oswiecim, so I needed to be ready early. The train ride took a little over an hour, so I arrived in Oswiecim around 8.30 that morning. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, “Oswiecim” is the town that Auschwitz is located in. The Nazis renamed the town “Auschwitz” when they arrived in Poland. By the time I arrived in Oswiecim, there was 3-4 inches of snow on the ground. It was incredibly cold and it was still snowing. Out of respect for anyone who may be reading this, I am not going to give any more details of my visit to the camp. I can say that it is the most emotional experience that I have had during my travels. I think it was very appropriate for me to be there on a cold, snowy day so that I could experience even a small fraction of the discomfort that the people in Auschwitz experienced. If you want to discuss this part of my trip in more detail, please feel free to email me.

I had dinner with Steve (from Australia) and Vanessa (from Canada) from my hostel on Saturday night. We had seen each other at Auschwitz, so we ended up spending the day together. For dinner, we found a little café and had a wonderful meal of pierogis and cabbage rolls. I was sooo full by the time we finished eating, but it was incredibly good.

I got up on Sunday morning (20.11.2005) and headed to Wawel Castle. Along the way, I was able to see several sights in the city, including the house that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla lived in before he became Pope John Paul II. Wawel Castle is located on Wawel Hill, which overlooks the entire city of Krakow. I was able to visit the Wawel Cathedral (the Polish National Cathedral) and the Royal State Rooms in the Wawel Castle.

Steve and Vanessa met me at noon, and we agreed to meet up again at 2 pm after they had toured the castle. I wandered back down the hill and ended up at Jama Michalika Café, which is located on Florianska Street (one of the main streets in the Old Town). This is the place that the lady on the train told me about. It was a neat place, with artwork all over the walls and an elegant atmosphere to have a cappuccino and a piece of cake. I really enjoyed it and I am so glad that I was able to find it before I left Krakow.

I met Vanessa at the bottom of Wawel Hill at 2 pm, and we headed for a shopping mall that we had heard about. It was near Kazimierz (the Jewish Quarter) so we walked through the Saturday Market on our way there. The mall was very nice and I felt like I was at home when I walked inside. It was just like being in Crabtree Valley, with Christmas decorations and everything. Plus, it was a Sunday, so I was really excited to be able to shop. (There are no shops open on Sundays in Vienna, which is something that Lara and I have not been able to adjust to.) We had a good time looking in all of the stores but I didn’t find anything to buy. That night, we ate dinner at the Bar Mleczny, which means “Milk Bar.” This is a cafeteria-style restaurant that was subsidized by the government during the Communist era so that the citizens could afford to go out to dinner. I think my meal cost 2 Euros, and it included meat pierogis and a mixed salad plate – very yummy! (I really enjoyed the pierogis there!)

Monday (21.11.2005) was my last day in Krakow. Since my train did not leave until 3:30 pm, I had a good part of the day to explore. Vanessa and I decided to go to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is 30 minutes away from Krakow. The Salt Mine is over 700 years old, and it is truly amazing!! We started the tour by climbing down 360 steps (200 feet below the surface) to the first level of the mine. During the tour, we visited the top three levels of the mine (there are nine levels total). There were so many great sculptures and the underground lakes were very pretty. The Chapel of the Blessed Kinga was incredible. It was carved by three men over a period of 67 years and the entire thing (even the chandeliers) is made from salt. I think the most amazing part of the salt mines was that all of the different sculptures and carvings were done by miners who taught themselves how to do all of the sculpting in their spare time.

Our tour guide told us a lot of great facts about the mine during our tour. For instance, the miners stopped digging the salt in 1996 – now they produce the salt by evaporating and purifying the brine from the underground lakes and the mine produces 15,000 tons of salt per year. She said that about 1 million people visit the mine per year and that there are more tour guides than miners currently working in the mine.

After the tour of the salt mine, we headed back to Krakow and had lunch before I went to the train station to head back to Vienna. It was a wonderful trip, and I am glad that I had the opportunity to go there. If you would like to see additional pictures of my trip, click on “Andria’s Travel Photos” and look in the folder labeled Krakow.



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