Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Post 9: Old Town Kraków

The Old Town section of Kraków is among one of the oldest and most historic sections of Kraków. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back in medieval times, the town was surrounded by nearly two miles of walls, fortifying the city from invaders such as the Tartars who destroyed the city in 1241.

View of (part of) Old Town from the top of the Town Hall Tower.

Most of the walls and moat have long since been removed and are now a pleasant greenway surrounding the Old Town and separating it from the rest of the city. Cars aren't allowed in the Old Town which makes it a pleasure to walk around in.

The main square is the largest medieval town square of any European city, and it's where you'll find St. Mary's Basilica (more on that in a bit), the Sukiennice (the renascence cloth hall currently filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, and merchant stalls) and the Town Hall Tower, which used to be part of a larger building but is now just a tower that is open for tourists to climb to the top (for a small fee, of course!) There's also an underground museum exploring the old town's original streets, sewers and stuff which had been covered and lay underground for centuries until a recent archeological dig excavated the area and opened it for tourists. It's the "Underground Kraków" tour! (I sometimes joke that I only like to live in cities that have an "underground"--Seattle has an Underground too.)

Note for anyone visiting Kraków--get tickets for this immediately if you want to visit. When I got tickets, there was a sign saying that they had no more tickets available for the day. "Okay, how about tomorrow?" I asked.

"No, sorry, but there are no tickets available tomorrow either." This was on a weekday for goodness sake! Not even a weekend!

"Pojutrze?" I said. (Polish for "the day after tomorrow.")

Finally, they had a ticket available. Fortunately, I was living in Kraków so I could have gotten a ticket a week later if I had to, but the point is, these tickets can be hard to impossible to get at the last minute. If I was a tourist in town for a day or two, I might not have been able to get one at all. So if you're at all interested in the underground tour, check the ticket counter first thing when you arrive in Kraków.

But back to St. Mary's.... It's an interesting church given how asymmetrical the church is with two entirely different types of towers on each end. I heard a legend that each of the towers were built by two brothers, each trying to outdo the other in terms of splendor. It's probably just a legend, and the story doesn't have a happy ending with one of the brothers killing the other in a murderous rage.

The church is also well-known because every hour on the hour, a trumpet signal is played from the top of the taller of the two towers and the tune cuts off in mid-stream to commemorate the 13th-century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm of the Mongol attack on the city. The noon-time hejnał is broadcast live by the Polish national Radio 1 Station. I watched it several times during my stay in Kraków, but I sometimes had trouble finding where the trumpeter was located--they didn't always use the same window in the tower! I'd hear the trumpet, but couldn't see any trumpeter from where I was standing and would quickly have to move to another location to catch sight of it. But it's quick--I doubt it lasts for even one minute--so there's not a lot of time to move position to look at the windows of the other side of the tower.

I never did get any photos of the trumpeter, either.

The main square always seemed to have stuff going on when I went to visit on weekends. I didn't even know what they were celebrating most of the time. One time, there were hundreds of people, many dressed in period costumes, parading through the square and dancing and sucking in passing civilians. It was kind of hypnotic to watch, but I had absolutely no idea what the special occasion was!

The cloth hall (Sukiennice) on the left and the Town Hall Tower on the right.
Town Hall Tower
St. Mary's Basilica--note how different the two towers are!

When I first arrived in Kraków, they were repaving this section in front of the church. I was impressed at how quickly they finished, though. It was just a few days later and they were done!

The Old Town used to be surrounded by nearly two miles of defensive walls with seven gates. This is one of the old gates.

The section of the old defensive wall is mostly covered with artwork for sale.
The horse-drawn carriages are a common and popular activity in Old Town. (I never did that, but still admired the beautiful horses!)

St. Mary's--at night!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Post 8: Of Knights and Dragons!

Kraków used to be the capital of Poland, and it is where the royal court lived, ruled and died. Even today, the church at Wawel Castle there on the banks of the Vistula River is the final resting place for Poland's kings. Poland today has no kings, queens or other royalty, but a thousand years ago, King Krakus--the founder of Kraków--and ruled over Poland.

Wawel Castle, the former royal residence.

But he had a problem. There was a terrible dragon who, each day, would beat a path of destruction across the landscape. The Wawel dragon would kill the villagers, pillage their homes, and eat their livestock. Allegedly, his favorite snack were young maidens because, really, why not? So young, plump and delicious, right? The dragon could only be appeased if the villagers left a young girl in front of his cave each month.

The king sent all of his best knights to defeat the dragon, but they failed, dying in the dragon's fiery breath.

Until their was just one young girl left in the village: the king's daughter. Desperate, the king offered his daughter's hand in marriage and half his kingdom--if only that person could defeat the dragon.

That inspired great warriors from near and far to battle the dragon, but again they failed. It seemed that the dragon was invincible. Until a poor cobbler's apprentice named Skuba took up the challenge.

Rather than attacking the dragon directly, he had another idea. He stuffed a lamb with sulpher and set it outside of the dragon's lair. The dragon ate it, as dragons are wont to do when they find a plump little lamb outside their cave, and became incredibly thirsty.

To quench his thirst, the dragon turned to the Vistula River and drank and drank. It seemed like no matter how much he drank, however, it wasn't enough, and eventually he drank up half the water in the Vistula River--until he exploded.

Having conquered the dragon, the young shoemaker's apprentice married the king's daughter as promised and they lived happily ever after.

This, I have no doubt, is a 100% true and accurate story, because you'll see dragons everywhere in Kraków. It's the symbol of the city, and they take great pride in their little village having conquered the terrible dragon. *nodding* =) It's also the reason I know a couple of seemingly odd Polish words such as "smok" (dragon) and "siarka" (sulpher).

The dragon's lair was located at the base of Wawel Hill, and there's a fire-breathing dragon statue there in his honor. On the hill itself is Wawel Castle, the former royal residence and how an essential tourist trap of Kraków. It's the Eiffel Tower of Kraków.

And so, with that, I'll show you some of the photos I took in and around Wawel Castle. =) On a side note, Kraków was largely spared from devastation in the aftermath of WWII. Wawel Castle certainly was quite run down at one point from lack of care and maintenance--a problem long since rectified--but it never suffered the kinds of damage like Malbork Castle had. The Germans, apparently, only had time to blow up things like bridges and other infrastructure directly related to the war effort.

If you ever make it out to Kraków, definitely visit Wawel Castle. The grounds are open and free to visit, but the interior areas--the royal chambers, and cathedral and such required tickets. I toured some of the places, but photos weren't allowed in the interiors (at least not the areas I was in) so you won't see any interior photos here. Even if you don't choose to go to any of the paid exhibits, the grounds and views from the castle on Wawel Hill are wonderful and well worth a visit.

View of the Vistula River from Wawel Castle.
Wawel Castle, as seen from the other side of the Vistula River.

The same view (mostly) of Wawel Castle--at night! There was some sort of dragon festival going on during my visit when I was told about a fireworks show near the castle, so I had to go and check it out. That hillside in front of the castle is filled with thousands and thousands of people--not that it's particularly obvious in this photo.
There were fireworks, indeed! But it turned out to be so much more! They had guys who put on a show choreographed to music on jetpacks in the water, a laser light show, giant balloon dragons dragged up and down the river on boats and the entire show lasted for a good hour or so.
Back in Old Town the next day, the dragon festival continued with the parade of dragons! (These were the same giant dragons that had been dragged up and down from boats the night before during the fireworks show, but my photos of them did not turn out at all in the darkness.)

"Wielka Parada Smoków" is Polish for "Great Parade of Dragons."
Not sure if this was related to the dragon parade, but there was a tent set up here with a bunch of people playing bridge and they laid out all these cards to.... I guess, get people's attention. Otherwise, who would notice a bunch of people playing bridge? =)

Some of the videos I took included scenes from the Dragon Parade, the fireworks and a few other miscellaneous happens in Kraków which I've merged into this one video. It starts with the fire-breathing dragon at the base of the castle! He really does exist! =)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Post 7: Welcome to Kraków!

After five weeks, my time in Sopot had come to an end. It was time to see more of Poland, and for the second half of my Polish adventures, I moved to Kraków. Kraków is the second largest city in Poland (Warsaw, of course, is the largest) with a population of about 750,000 people (with about 8 million people living within 100 kilometers) and it is the most popular area in Poland for tourists to visit.

But first, I had to get there. I woke up early my last day in Sopot and took a walk along the waterfront watching the sun rise over the Baltic Sea for the last time. A couple of hours later, I was boarding a train that would take me all the way to Kraków in the southern part of the country--about a five or six hour train ride.

My last sunrise in Sopot.... =(

The train passed by Malbork Castle (hey, castle, I remember visiting you!), making relatively few stops along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. I was taking the train to the end of the line, though, and stayed put.

The train quickly filled, but I was pleased to see that nobody was assigned the seat next to me. My official seat was an aisle seat, but I moved over to the window seat to enjoy the view.

That lasted until Warsaw when a blind man arrived who had the window seat. I don't want to sound raciest towards blind people, but I found myself a little annoyed at this. Why does a blind man need a window seat?! I've never been through Poland before--seems fair that I should be able to look out the window and see the scenery go by!

The train to Kraków was clean, fast and efficient. Two thumbs up! =)

The train arrived at the end of the line in Kraków pretty much on the nose when it was scheduled. I hadn't gotten off the train for more than about 5 seconds when I heard my name being called.

A short red-headed girl was getting my attention: Agata. I didn't know anyone in Kraków and neither did Karolina to set me up with a place to stay, so this time I had the school I signed up with put me with a family. It wasn't really so much a "family," however, a 30s something woman living by herself. I was told she was a "musician" which made me think she played an instrument--but professionally, she's a singer. Interesting!

Agata would be my roommate for the duration of my stay in Kraków. She might never talk to me again after seeing that I posted this photo publicly, though. =) We went out for lunch in Podgórze--which was the location of the Kraków ghetto during WWII.

In any case, I had emailed her earlier in the week and she said she could be at the train station to pick me up which was great since I had no idea where she lived or my way around Kraków.

Agata spoke excellent English having spent four years going to school in Boston and, in fact, and just arrived back in Poland from the United States only a few days earlier. Seemed somewhat ironic that the Pole was coming in from America and the American was coming in from Poland! =)

She threatened to speak a lot of Polish to me, which I was okay with, although not at the moment. She walked me to her car and started driving me around pointing out some of the sites, past the school I'd be attending and helping me get my bearings. I couldn't translate the Polish in my head fast enough and try to fill out a mental map of all the information coming at me, though, and begged her to speak English. =)

She pointed out the trams I'd have to take to school--her house was several miles outside of the downtown core where the school was located. It is technically walking distance, but when I mapped it on Google, it said it would take over two hours to walk. One way. As much as I would love to spend five hours a day walking back and forth to school, I just didn't have time for that, and I'd have to commute instead. It would be the first time in my life I ever had to commute regularly to anything. I've always worked and gone to schools within easy walking distance of where I lived.

After the long train ride from Sopot, I was kind of hungry and suggested somewhere for lunch. We ended up in Kazimierz, the Jewish section of Kraków where I got a zapiakanka. I also met Agata's aunt and uncle who worked a nearby food stand, telling me that she'd be in trouble if she didn't stop to say hi while she was in the area and they later found out. =)

I felt a little lost in Kraków. Within ten minutes, I'd never have been able to find where she had parked her car. I had absolutely no idea where in Kraków I even was. I was trying desperately to create a mental map of the area as we passed through everything, the car threw me off a bit, breaking different parts of town into areas that didn't connect in my head. I needed a map to look at too.

Anyhow, I'd figure it out. I always did. =)

Spring is in the air!

Eventually we went back to her place at the far eastern edge of Kraków. It was so far out there I wasn't entirely sure we were actually IN the city of Kraków anymore, but we were. Barely!

I went for a walk around the neighborhood to get my bearings, but there wasn't a whole lot to see in the immediate area. A few shops and lots of housing, and eventually I headed back for the night.

The next morning, I took a bus to a tram stop, then took a tram the rest of the way into town following my progress on a downloadable map on my smartphone. I got an early start, just in case I did something stupid and got on the wrong bus or train or had trouble finding the school. They also asked me to arrive earlier than normal so they could interview me and see where my Polish stood.

I arrived at the school without any trouble, though, and was quickly shown around the place before my interview.

Which, honestly, I think was a disaster. I swear I couldn't understand a word coming out of their mouths. I thought they were supposed to be speaking Polish! =)

But I'll talk about the school in another post. I want this post to be more about Kraków, the city. =)

After school was over, I wandered over to where I was told I could get a monthly bus/tram pass. I expected to be in town for five weeks and would need to commute on a daily basis, so a monthly pass seemed like a good idea. I purchased it (about $25, as I recall), then took a walking tour around Old Town to fill out my mental map of the place.

Which is when I spotted it: the fort from the front of my bus card! I could totally recreate the photo from my bus card. =) I had seen the building before when Agata was driving me around the day before, but I had no idea where it was located until I just stumbled into it.

The bus card had a tram going by the fort, so I lined up the signs and trees from the photo as best I could with the actual location, then waited a few minutes until a tram went by and snapped a couple of photos. Perfect! I had held up the card in the photo so both the card and the real-life setting would be in the photo, but I decided I need one without the card it in as well. The photo on the card didn't have someone holding a bus card up, after all.

So I had to wait several more minutes when another tram went by. Perfect! I don't know why, but taking these photos were among some of my favorites of my entire trip to Poland. They aren't spectacular or anything, but they just ooze goofiness, and I love goofiness. =)

My hot-off-the-press bus/tram card. =)

What do you think? A pretty good imitation of the photo on the card? It was really hard to get the tram in JUST the right spot because it's moving. It's not at a stop!
Here's the second version I took without the card in the photo.

Then I stopped somewhere for dinner--I don't even remember where anymore--before taking a tram back to Agata's place.
For the first week in town, that was my usual routine. Take a tram into town, go to school, walk around a new area of Kraków within easy walking distance of the school after school, find something for dinner, then head back to my home away from home and do homework.

Another day that week I returned to Kazmierz--the Jewish area of town. Another time I headed to the Podgórze region where the Kraków Ghetto was established by the Nazis during WWII. That was a somber visit, knowing that area had been used to terrorize and persecute the local Jewish population. Interesting note: the most famous survivor of the Kraków Ghetto is Roman Polanski. Which struck me as noteworthy because he's still alive today. There are people still alive today who remember the Kraków Ghetto when it was operating! Reading about it in books is one thing, but walking around the places this stuff happened is another. And knowing that it's not ancient history--that there are still people walking and talking who actually remember it happening. It chilled me to the bone.

A preserved section of the old ghetto wall. The wall was intended to look like headstones lined up side-by-side! Sick Nazi bastards.
Not that life was good anywhere in Poland under Nazi rule, but they took it up a notch when they created the ghettos. There are still two sections of the old ghetto wall preserved, now a memorial for those who suffered and died in the ghetto. It seemed like an especially cruel joke that they created the wall to look like headstones lined by side-by-side.

But, of course, the ghettos weren't even the worst of it. Another kilometer or down the road was the Płaszó concentration camp. It wasn't an extermination camp like nearby Auschwitz, but life there was brutal and thousands were killed and starved. Later I walked out to this area. There's nothing really to see there anymore except open fields and somber silence. Bodies were buried in layers and layers in trenches and late in the war, Germans exhumed and burned them in an attempt to hide evidence of the horrors they inflicted. The setting now was calm. A few people walked around quietly and dandelions dotted the empty fields like a miniature Dr. Seuss forest. I really couldn't imagine what the area must have been like during WWII.

The former location of the Płaszo concentration camp is now just an empty field filled with dandelions. Hard to imagine the atrocities and thousands of people murdered here or the heaps of exhumed bodies that the Germans burned near the end of the war.

Schindler's factory--of Schilder's List fame is also in this area. I'd never actually seen the movie before and it seemed like it was about time I did, but alas, I couldn't find it available in Netflix back at Agata's place. Interesting, as soon as I returned to the United States, it was available. Seems odd that that movie isn't available in Poland on Netflix despite being available at least some other countries. (I'm still meaning to watch it when time permits!) But I took a tour of the factory, which is just a large museum about Kraków during WWII and actually didn't have many displays about Schindler himself. It was interesting, but it wouldn't have been on my must-visit places in Kraków.

Schindler's old factory is now a museum about life in Kraków during WWII.

I took three different days after school to hit all of the ghetto and concentration camp areas. It was a lot to take in!

I heard that they filmed parts of Schindler's List in this old quarry adjacent to the concentration camp and near the Kraków ghetto.

Not all of my explorations were so depressing, however. I also hit up the Polish Aviation Museum which had an impressive collection of planes and helicopters. They seem especially proud to have the helicopter that Pope John Paul II used to fly in while he was in the area. (The pope, by the way, in case you didn't realize it was from Kraków. He was born in a short distance from Kraków, but rose through the Catholic ranks as a Bishop, Archbishop and Cardinal in Kraków before his promotion to Rome.)

Pope John Paul II's helicopter.

Then there's the Nowa Huta section of Kraków, built during the Soviet area and is famous (or infamous) for the utter lack of interesting architecture. It was built as a utopian city, but is often disparaged as being one of the ugliest, most soulless parts of Kraków--and a tourist attraction for that very reason!

I headed out there and found the area to be... well, underwhelming. I suppose of you like wide, orderly streets and solid buildings, it's a nice place to visit. I definitely found the other parts of Kraków more interesting, however.

So that's some of what you can see if you ever find yourself in Kraków. I'm not done talking about other places to check out, though. Kraków is a big city and it's more than this one post can handle. There will be more! =)

More planes from the Polish Aviation Museum

When the Nazis liquidated the ghetto, they rounded people up in this square, stuck them on trains, and sent them off to places like Auschwitz to be murdered.

Evidence that, once again, the Camino de Santiago lurks behind every corner! =)
There's even a Camino restaurant and meeting point! I was actually a little surprised to see how much Camino material is available here. It's not like Poland is a popular starting point for Camino walkers--not even most Poles who hike the Camino start in Poland!
I really shouldn't badmouth Nowa Huta too much. It did at least have this one semi-interesting-looking (although not particularly pretty) church.
But on the other hand, they're promoting the "Wielka Parada Autobusów" here too. That's Polish for "Great Parade of Buses." Seriously--a parade of buses?! That's what they're bragging about?
The pigeons in Nowa Huta are smart, though. Best I can figure, this one found a piece of bread, ate the center of it out, then stuck its head through it and is wearing the rest like a necklace. Presumably to eat it later? Or maybe it's just a fashion statement? He's probably strutting his stuff and telling the girl pigeons: "Hey, check out my bling. You like?" =)
It seems as if this old building was preserved, but they build a new building completely over the top of it! It's a weird site, and I never did find out why this is like this. Did the old building need to be preserved for some historic significance? Why didn't they just build the new building taller instead of up and over the old building? I don't know!
Here's a picture of the buiding-over-the-building, as seen from the other side of the Vistula River. Wait a minute.... zoom into that thing in the river....
WTF? Like... seriously? That is weird. Even by Polish standards, I'm pretty sure that's a weird statue. =)

In the old quarry where parts of Schindler's List was filmed. (Can you see this old equipment in the movie? I've never seen the movie, so I have no idea!)
One weekend I walked all the way from Agata's place to downtown Kraków and passed this nice lake along the way. =)

I'm guessing.... owls? *shrug*
I loved the decor along this pedestrian bridge over the Vistula River! (I gotta admit, I'm so used to hearing the Polish word for the name of the river, Wisła, I had to look up what the English name of it was. I don't think I ever called it the Vistula when I was actually in Poland. It was always just the Wisła.)