Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kraków: Dragons, Castles, Salt, Snow, & a Sad Look Into the Past

November 29, 2008

This post has been a long time coming... Sorry for the delay, I've been super busy! In a nutshell, my weekend in Kraków, Poland, was fabulous!! I immediately fell in love with the city, and the feeling didn't fade as the weekend passed. The best things of Kraków: a medieval castle and gothic churches; snow; the Polish language; and it's amazingly cheap! The city itself has even been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Eastern Europe is usually skipped over by tourists in favor of cliché places like Italy and France, which is a shame since so many hidden treasures, like Kraków, are there. If you ever get a chance, I can't recommend Kraków highly enough!!!

Day 1, 11/21/2008 - Scheduled Departure: 8:35am, Actual Departure: 1:45pm!

My flight to Poland was early Friday morning from Bologna, so I'd crashed at my friend Susan's apartment the night before so I could get there in time. This trip marked the one and only time in Europe I wasn't flying with Ryanair, instead I had chosen the super-cheap Hungary based Wizzair. I suppose I should have realized in advance that you usually get what you pay for - and since I only payed $60 roundtrip, I should'nt expect much at all. Well, Wizzair did not disappoint. I got to the airport at 6:30am, only to learn when I check-in that my flight is delayed til 10:10am! Shit. Whatever though, less than 2 hours, right? But as I was sitting in front of my gate waiting, I glanced up at the screen and saw that the time of departure was now 11:45am! Wtf. I napped a bit to pass the time, and when I woke up, surprise surprise, it was delayed another hour to 12:45pm. At this point I started to worry that the next thing to show on the screen would be a notice announcing the cancellation of my flight. Luckily this was not the case... It was just delayed until 1:45am! Believe it or not, it didn't change again, and I finally departed, 5 hours after my original time, a tad disgruntled but excited nonetheless.
I actually flew into a city called Katowice, 2 hours outside of Kraków, where I'd booked a shuttle bus. Even though I'd missed the one I originally scheduled, they had arranged another one for the passengers of my flight. After 2 long hours on a crowded, smelly bus, I arrived at the Kraków bus station, took out zlotys from the ATM, and caught a cab to my hostel.
Let me take a moment now to gush about Ars Hostel, by far the best hostel I've stayed at in Europe. I was welcomed with a delicious raspberry vodka shot - to warm me up - and then given a tour of the place. Instead of a dorm-like atmosphere, it was more similar to an apartment, with a super cozy living room area complete with couches, TV, computer with internet, a stocked kitchen, rooms with beds that were actually made and were comfortable, and free lockers. And then the bathrooms...they were actually clean and there was even a large private one complete with shower that made me feel like a was showering at home and not in a nasty hostel! The attendant showed me my room and bed, made me a cup of tea, and then left to let me get settled in. There were already a bunch of people lounging on the couches chatting, but I was a little startled when I heard someone say my name. I turned around and was shocked to see An, Sarah's friend from Oktoberfest, standing there! Turns out she'd come to Kraków alone, too, and was staying at the same hostel! Small world, right? Unfortunately, while it was my first night it was her last. She gave me some great info and tips on the city though.
She also told me that the hostel arranges activities in the evenings for lodgers and that night they were going out for traditional potato pancakes and then to a bar in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of the city. Although I was tired, I was definitely in! They brought us more of the yummy raspberry shots (which I later discovered happened every night at 8pm), and then we headed out. An and I decided to split a pancake since neither of us was very hungry, and then we headed to the bar while the woman from the hostel waited for our food. The bar was pretty cozy, and our group took up a whole corner. An and I went to order drinks and asked for "something Polish" and were given vodka with Cappy apple juice... I was skeptical, but it was delicious! The juice was more like a cider and it wasn't strong at all. The potato pancakes finally arrived, and ended up being more like fried hash browns topped with cheese. They were huge and obviously pretty heavy, so after a few bites An and I were done, but it was still fun to try something traditional.
The rest of the night was spent enjoying some great conversation with some great people from all over - England, Australia, Canada, and even Asia! Some were backpacking through Europe, others were just on holiday, but all were eager to chat and share experiences, and the conversation flowed freely. An and I went outside toward the end of the night to get some air, and were surprised to notice soft snow flakes falling! The forecast had called for snow that weekend, but I hadn't been expecting it yet. They didn't stick, but it was still so pretty, and a great way to end the night.

Day 2, 11/22/2008 - Into the Old Town and Down to the Salt Mine

Kraków is divided into 3 major areas: Wawel Hill, Stare Miasto or Old Town, and Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. I'd planned on exploring these when I got in around noon Friday, but since it was delayed I missed daylight and lost half a day. So Saturday I got started early to make up for lost time. When I walked outside Saturday morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find a light layer of snow on the ground and the parked cars! I didn't know then but it was a sign of what was to come...
Wawel Hill (remember the 'w' in Polish is pronounced as a 'v') is famous for the medieval Wawel Castle and Cathedral which sit at the top of it. My hostel happened to be located 5 minutes walking from there, so I made it my first stop of the morning. Former home to the Polish King, it is now a museum and has opened it's grounds to visitors. While it is indeed a castle, the exterior doesn't resemble your "standard" fairytale castle. Instead it is a vast, somewhat ecclectic mix of buildings, complete with towers and courtyards.
The most visually stunning part, however is the Cathedral. Poland's most important place of worship, the Cathedral dates back to 1384 and is the burial sight for most of the country's royalty, bishops, and national heroes. From the outside, it is a beautiful cluster of towers and domes with a red brick base. Inside wasn't as spectacular as I'd been expecting; you follow a path that takes you past lots of tombs and other relics, but the church itself is not breath-taking.
While Wawel Castle is probably Kraków's most prominent tourist attraction, the Wawel Dragon is also quite famous. At the foot of Wawel Hill there is a cave, where, according to legend, a fire-breathing dragon once lived, wreaking havoc on the city. Desperate to be rid of the beast, the Polish King offered the reward of his daughter's hand in marriage and part of his kingdom to any man that could slay the dragon. After several failures, a cunning man tried a different approach - he covered some sheep with poison and led them to the cave. After they were consumed, the dragon's stomach started burning so he drank from the nearby Vistula River. Nothing could satiate the fire within him, and he kept drinking until he finally exploded. Outside he cave is an iron sculpture of a dragon, but I wasn't able to go into the cave because it is closed in winter. While this is story is obviously just a playful legend, it's well-known and a part of Polish culture. In fact the rest of the day everywhere I went that sold souvenirs shamelessly exploited the legend of the Wawel Dragon.
From Wawel Hill, I headed into the Old Town. As I made my way to the main square, I passed the pretty St. Peter's and Paul's Church, best known for the 12 statues that line the front representing the apostles. Directly across from the church was a cute little square with a statue in the center, called Plac Marii Magdaleny.
Next I checked out 2 more well-known churches at opposite ends of the same street. The first, a pretty brick gothic church called the Dominican Church, I only saw from the outside.
The other, called the Franciscan Church was less impressive from the outside, but I decided on a whim to go in and I was pleasantly surprised! It was quite dark inside and took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but the style was very different than most churches. It seemed to have a floral theme going on, with several gorgeous, colorful, flowery stained glass and a wallpaper of flowers. As I turned to leave, I was stunned to see a gorgeous stained glass of a man in lovely blues, greens, and violets.
When I got back outside, a smile crept across my face because it was actually snowing! Not heavy, but certainly noticeable flakes, and I started to get the impression that this was not going to be a fleeting occurence...
I finally made it to the famous Rynek Glowny, or Marketplace, one of the biggest medieval squares in the world, and at the heart of the Old Town. The beautiful square is filled with impressive buildings and an array of stores, bars, and restaurants. In the center of the square, the pretty yellow building called Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) cannot be missed, and is now a market full of souvenirs and local wares. Next to Sukiennice is the clock-bearing Town Hall Tower.
Bordering the square is St. Mary's Church. The gothic exterior is brick and dominates Rynek Glowny, but inside is the real highlight. The church is most famous for the Veit Stoss Altar, which requires a special ticket just to see! Located behind the main altar of St. Mary's, the huge and elaborate alterpiece, carved between 1477 and 1489, shows scenes from the life of Mary. The center shows her dormition, coronation, and assumption, while the 6 side panels, when opened, show the joys of Mary. I was lucky enough to come in just as the panels were being opened : ) The alterpiece survived remarkably well over the years, even coming out of WWII unscathed, and was very pretty to look at.
After I'd stared at the Veit Stoss Altar for a while, I explored the rest of the church. With it's colorful and gilded decorations and bright blue ceiling, it was easily one of the most stunning churches I've been to, but very unique as well. An interesting feature of tourist sights in Poland, I found, is that instead of prohibiting photography, they simply charge you a little more and put a sticker on you which allows you to take pics. I think it's an interesting concept, and as long as it's pretty cheap, I'd much rather pay than not be able to take photos!
As I walked back outside, I was just in time to hear the Hejnal Mariacki, a trumpet signal played live from the top of St. Mary's every full hour that's cut short suddenly in memory of a trumpeter shot and killed by a Tatar arrow in 1241. Check out the video clip below!

When I finished at St. Mary's I decide to take a lunch break and headed to a place nearby that An had recommended. Along the way I passed more attractive gothic brick buildings and a small, pretty, white church that stood out among it's red brick surroundings.
In addition to being hungry, it was getting pretty cold by then, so I was very happy to spend some time indoors : ) The restaurant was called Zapiecek, and specializes in pierogi - little dumplings stuffed with either sweet or savory fillings. A Polish staple, I knew I had to try some, so I ordered some ruskie-style, stuffed with potato and cottage cheese. The pierogi are relatively plain, but in a strange way they are oddly satisfying and quite tasty.
After lunch I made my way toward the Planty, a large "park" that surrounds the entire Old Town. With the falling snow, the plethora of trees looked quite pretty.
At that point my plan was to find another church and the main university building, but the snow decided to make itself fully known, and before I knew it I couldn't see 5 feet in front of me! Although I was thrilled by the fact that it was snowing for real, and not just a few flakes, I quickly realized that I couldn't wander the city in conditions like this, because 1) I couldn't see anything, 2) I was freezing, and 3) I couldn't take pictures. So I headed back to Rynek Glowny, where I took refuge in the Sukiennice and browsed the stands for some souvenirs, watching the swirling snow outside I'd eventually have to back into.
When I was finally ready to brave the snow again, I started walking, but quickly ducked into an ecclectic little store, bent on finding a snow hat. I found a cute blue one with hearts that covers my ears and ties underneath, and emerged from the store much happier.
When I got back to my hostel, I was a human popsicle, wearing all white, and no longer quite so dazzled by the snow. The cars from this morning were quickly being buried by snow, as was everything else! So I decided to defrost and relax at the hostel for an hour until my scheduled tour of the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine that evening.
I had booked my tour beforehand and the company was scheduled to pick me up around 4pm at my hostel. When I went outside to wait, the snow had stopped but had left a thick blanket covering everything! I really think snow makes everything look prettier.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in the town of Wieliczka, also happens to be an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the second oldest mine in the world. The mine was actually open for active mining up until 1996! The mine reaches a depth of 327 meters, and is over 300 km long, but only 3.5-km, less than 1%, is open for visitors. To get down to the 150-meter level of the mine, visitors must walk down a spiraling wooden stairway of some 400 steps. The tour lasts about 2 hours and takes you down to 3 different levels, through the mine's corridors and its amazing chapels, and past statues carved by miners from rock salt and an underground grotto and lake. Rock salt is naturally grey, in various shades like granite, so that the statues resemble carved unpolished granite rather than having the white or crystalline appearance that many visitors expect. Along the way we were also shown old mining equipment and machines, some of which still function,and told stories of the mines history.
My favorites things include the little carved gnome statues, which miners believed brough them luck, and the fabulous, jaw-dropping Chapel of St. Kinga. Since mining was such a dangerous job and miners were usually very religious, they built and carved several chapels throughout the mine for them to worship in because they spent so much time underground. This particular chapel is basically a large room with salt carvings everywhere - the crosses on the altar, the walls, the stairs - everything was salt! The wall carvings are mostly scenes from the life of Christ, but there is even an imitation of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper! The chandeliers as well were made out of salt crystals that really sparkled in the light. A large statue of Pope John Paul II, former Polish Archbishop stood in the chapel, too. If you didn't know any better, you'd think it was just a normal chapel, but once you know it's salt it just blows your mind! We were told that the chapel can be rented out for concerts, banquets, and weddings, too, and just as we were leaving we saw a bride and groom coming down the steps with their bridal party and a photographer!
After the tour visitors take an elevator back up to the surface. The elevator holds 36 people (9 per car) and takes roughly 30 seconds to reach the surface - basically you're stuffed into the car like sardines and then shoot upward at a shockingly scary speed!

Day 3, 11/23/2008 - Auschwitz & Birkenau

Sunday I had a tour of the concentration camps Auschwitz and Birkenau so I made my way to the meeting point in the Old Town. Along the way, I saw many of the sites from the day before now with a fresh blanket of snow. The newly white Planty was especially beautiful with its trees and benches now covered.
One new thing was the Barbican, a fortified outpost or gateway on the north side of Old Town. It's one of the few remaining relics of the complex network of fortifications and defensive barriers encircling the city. It looks more like a castle though, with its moated cylindrical brick structure, an inner courtyard, 7 turrets, and a tower named Florian Tower.
The square we were meeting in, Plac Matejki was big and very pretty after the nights snowfall, with imposing buildings on either side and a statue of a national hero in the middle. It took a while to get checked-in, but finally they figured it out, gave me my ticket, and I hopped on the warm bus, ready to go.
The bus ride took about an hour and a half, during most of which I napped : ) I knew that while the tour would be informative, it would also be sad and depressing, so I'd tried to prepare myself as much as possible beforehand. In hindsight however, I don't think anything can prepare you to experience the excruciating and haunting realities that were the Holocaust.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of Nazi Germany's concentration camps and was in operation from 1940-1945. It can be divided into 3 subcamps: Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, which served as the administrative center for the whole complex; Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was the largest and served as an extermination camp; and Auschwitz III (Monowitz) served as a labor camp. The tour covers only the first 2 camps. It is estimated that 1.1 million people, about 90% Jews, were murdered here during those 5 years. Most victims were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon B while other deaths were caused by starvation, forced labor, disease, individual executions, and "medical experiments".
The tour began at Auschwitz I, which now houses a museum. The whole camp is made up of brick buildings and could be mistaken for a normal, abandoned place, if not for the double barbed wire fences surrounding it. As I passed through the entrance to Auschwitz I marked with the infamous sign "Arbeit Macht Frei”, or “work makes (one) free”, I couldn't help but get the chills, which had nothing to do with the cold weather.
Our tour guide lead us through the streets of the camp, giving us some background history, before taking us inside several of the "blocks", or buildings, which make up the museum. Inside we were shown devastating photos, given tragic facts, shown various possessions of prisoners like shoes and suitcases. The stories that accompanied these exhibits were heart-breaking; and let me tell you, reading about the Holocaust is nothing compared to standing on the earth where it took place, and seeing what was left behind with your own eyes. This is the very reason why it is so important to preserve the camps for future generations.
Though Jews were sent to Auschwitz I, this camp was initially used for holding Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members, then also for Soviet Prisoners of War. Most Jews were sent to Birkenau. The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates among the prisoners, estimated at 70,000, most of which were Poles and Soviet POWs.
Our tour eventually lead us to Block 11. This building was known as the "prison within the prison", where violators of the numerous camp rules were punished. Some prisoners were made to spend the nights in "standing-cells", about 1.5 square meters, with 4 men squeezed into each one, unable to do anything but stand, and then were forced to work during the day with the other prisoners. In the basement there were "starvation cells", where prisoners were given neither food nor water until they died. And then there were the "dark cells", which had only a very tiny window and a solid door. Prisoners placed in these cells would gradually suffocate as they used up all of the oxygen in the air. Looking into these rooms, places of so much suffering and death, was incredibly difficult.
Back outside, we were lead the execution yard between blocks 10 and 11. In this area, individual prisoners were executed. Some were shot, against the so-called "death wall" which still exists; others suffered a more lingering death by being suspended from hooks set in two wooden posts, which also still exist. The wall had dozens of flower bouquets and other items strewn in front of it, brought by visitors as memorials of those who perished there.
Next we were lead to the gas chamber and crematorium with it's lone chimney, passing still-standing gallows along the way. In September 1941, an SS officer experimented on 600 POWs and 250 ill Polish inmates by cramming them into the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide. This paved the way for the use of Zyklon B as an instrument for extermination at Auschwitz, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker. This gas chamber operated from 1941 to 1942, during which time some 60,000 people were killed. I can't explain with words the feelings that overcame me as I walked into this building and saw the ovens where they destroyed body after body. Thoroughly depressed, we concluded our tour of Auschwitz I and hopped back on the bus to make our way to Birkenau, about 5 minutes away.
Birkenau, which is 26 times larger than Auschwitz I, was built in 1941 to ease congestion at the main camp. It was designed to hold several types of prisoners, but mostly Jews, and to function as an extermination camp in preparation for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" - the extermination all Jews worldwide. To accomplish this, the camp had 6 crematoria, and by 1945 more than 1 million prisoners had been killed, most from gassing.
A railway, which is still present, ran through the entrance of the camp, and almost daily prisoners were loaded onto trains throughout Europe and made their journey to Birkenau. As they were unloaded, the infamous "selection process" was used to determine those who were "fit" for labor and those who were "unfit". The latter category included children, women with children, the elderly, or those who were deemed sickly or too weak after a quick inspection. The "unfit" group, usually about 3/4 of the total, were immediately taken to the gas chambers under the impression that they were to shower. They stripped, were lead to a room with fake shower heads, and were gassed with Zyklon B. Afterword their clothes and belongings were collected, their bodies were inspected for gold teeth, sometimes female heads were shaved, and then the bodies were collected and burned in mass.
Our tour guide lead us into one of the barracks where we saw the triple-stacked wooden bunks where the prisoners slept. It was snowing again and was absolutely freezing, and I couldn't help but try to imagine what it must have been like for the prisoners in winter in those conditions. In what seems like a cruel joke, a long furnace was built down the center of the barrack, but with nothing to burn, the prisoners could use it for nothing but a bench.
Before we left, we climbed up to the top of the main watchtower overlooking the entire camp. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to see Birkenau as it was 65 years ago, a place where families were destroyed, murder was a daily activity, and all hopes were lost. I could almost see the ghosts of all the victims trudging through the snow.
I hope my description of my experience of Auschwitz-Birkenau wasn't too morbid, but that was the reality of te Holocaust. If you ever get the chance to visit, I highly recommend it as a reminder to all of what we humans are capable of and to ensure that it will not happen again in the future.
I slept again on the bus ride back, and then walked back toward my hostel. I hadn't really had lunch, so I headed into Kazimierz to find this burrito bar I had a coupon for from the hostel. It happened to be right next to the beautiful Tempel Synagogue, a building I had planned on seeing. The burrito was decent and satisfied my craving for mexi food at least until I get back to the states, but it was no California burrito! I've also concluded that real salsa does not exist in Europe, so I have that to look forward to when I get home, too. I called it a night super early with my alarm set for 1:30am to make my journey back to Padova.

Day/Night 4, 11/24/2008 - Nonstop Napping

My flight back was at the ungodly hour of 6am, and since I had to arrive 2 hours early, and it takes 2 hours to get from Kraków to Katowice, that meant calling for a taxi at 2am. My journey back can be summed up as a series of naps; first on the bus, then at the airport, on the plane, on the bus from the Bologna airport to the train station, and finally on the train back to Padova. Imagine my shock, however, when I wake up mid-nap and look out the train window to see everything covered in snow! For a minute I thought I was either dreaming or back in Poland, until I realized I had just left the snow only to come right back! The snow didn't disappear as we approached Padova; indeed, it had snowed quite a bit the previous night and the ground was actually noticeably white. Although a little sad that I'd missed the first snowfall of the season, all I wanted was to get home and take a nice hot shower and sleep!
I had such an amazing time in Kraków, I could have easily spent a week there. It's so great to return from a trip that you truly loved, despite any negatives or challenges. I'm so glad I got to experience everything, and I'm sure I'll return sometime in the future!

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