Krakow Stories

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Stepping off the train into Krakow was like coming home. I can't explain the familiar feeling of this place, but it was utterly comfortable to be there. Even though I speak no Polish, it didn't matter. The people looked like folks from my childhood and were just as friendly. The buildings reminded me of some of the architecture in Pittsburgh. The food was heavenly, but that's a post all in its own.

Poland Itself

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Zoupi and the snowy Wisla River

I had no clue about Polish history, so it was a surprise to learn that Poland was once invaded by the Swedes. That was back in the day (let's call it 1600) when they formed a commonwealth with Lithuania and their borders stretched up to the Baltic Sea. And then there was that time that Poland ceased to exist entirely. For the whole 19th century it was split up and doled out to neighbors.

After WWI, Poland got its mojo back, but then got into a mess of horror during WWII. Faculty of the university in Krakow were rounded up and either killed or exiled. The university continued to teach classes in secret by meeting in people's homes. Pope John Paul II, one of Krakow's truly beloved, attended this underground college when he was a young man. During Communism, universities were reinstated and free to attend, but the church was where you went to learn about things outside Poland and to borrow contraband literature and movies.

Today many of the buildings in the Jewish quarter and elsewhere in town are crumbling to ruins because the original owners can't be found and can't be proven dead. All 65,000 Jews in Krakow were exterminated by the Nazis leaving no paper trail; and later on the communist state did nobody any favors when they redistributed the wealth of the landowners to the people. Some of the nobility got their buildings back after 1989, but many couldn't provide proof of prior ownership. It's a shame that the government doesn't find a way to resolved the untitled buildings.

And one silly thing: Polish is the cutest language. Lots of words end in y: Planty is the park that surrounds central Krakow; you can easily guess what lampy and laptopy are. Really Polish is a morass of consonants that are not pronounced as I expected. So I didn't try to speak much, though I did get good at "piwo" and "┼╗ywiec"!

Chopin & Other Music

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Part of the 22 meter chandelier at Palace Bonerowski, where we heard a Chopin concert.

Krakow is very proud to claim Chopin amongst its luminaries. There are daily Chopin concerts; we attended one played by a Japanese pianist from Hachinohe, Kazuko Tsuji. It was a pleasure to hear Chopin played live in a lovely old palace building.

Our tour guide, Anna, recommended we get a recording by Rafel Blechacz who won the International Chopin Contest in 2005. He is one of the best pianists I've ever heard; listening to his CDs made me cry. Blechacz is highly expressive and interpretive.

I was surprised to hear music I know and like on the radio. One day, I heard Magnetic Man playing in a restaurant. That made me smile.

Shopping Mall Entertainment

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Christmas performance at the mall. Watch a video clip.

It was cold, so we sheltered in the huge Galeria Krakowska and did some shopping. There was lots of holiday buzz, including a gingerbread station, complete with oven and icing.

We stopped to watch these kids performing on the special holiday stage. There were a couple of standouts among the older kids - two girls who were developing an interesting stage presence, and one was a strong dancer. The older boys were quite lively and funny. In one number a girl sang a solo while all the boys pantomimed winter sports that devolved into a snowball battle, complete with pratfalls. At the end of the song, the boys zipped themselves out of their snowsuits to reveal tuxedos and stepped into place for the next piece. It was brilliant.

Christmas Market

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The Christmas Market glowed at night

The reason I wanted to go to Krakow in the first place was the Christmas market. It was delightful - stalls of kitchy stuff, but mostly lovely handcrafts, holiday decorations, stained glass, dishware, and lots of food. We ate and drank rather than buying lots of goods from the market, but that's just how we are. All the things I really wanted to bring home were just not going to make it - fresh mistletoe, candle wreaths, and more cookies that Tod would allow. (He let me have plenty, just not as many as I really wanted...)

Wieliczka Salt Mine

One of the things on our must-do list was the salt mine at Wieliczka. Like the ossuary at Sedlec, the salt mine is a UNESCO heritage property.

We had another transport adventure, taking the bus one way and the train back, but it didn't compare to the three hour, 3.5 km underground walking tour of this mine that's been in use since the 13th century. There were corridors and caverns, a chapel, salt chandeliers, salt lakes, some silly sculptures and some beautiful art.

One 30 meter high chamber was buttressed with huge, tree-sized timbers that were placed by hand in the relative dark of lamplight. What an accomplishment. People do such amazing things that it touches my heart to see their feats. I get all choked up over engineering.

During the tour we were encouraged to taste the walls; they were salty.

We waited for the shaft lift to take us back to the top with several other groups of people, including a couple of garrulous, drunk old-timers who got the evil eye from some of the more prim and proper ladies. One of them had a beaked nose that reached down almost to his upper lip. It was monumental. They reminded me a bit of the mill hunkies on the South Side of Pittsburgh and wondered if they might have been miners back in the day. (The mine stopped commercial operations in 1996).

Hotel Pugetow

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Me in bed taking notes about our adventures

I loved our hotel in Krakow. It is a little boutique place with just six rooms that was once the carriage house of the palace it's named for. Hotel Pugetow had the best staff - always friendly and helpful. We arrived very early on Saturday morning and not only did they let us leave our bags until check in, but they also gave us breakfast. And on our last day, when we came back to pick up our bags before our train in the evening, Anna the receptionist made us tea, brought out some slices of cake leftover from breakfast, and we sat and chatted for a while. It was a great experience.

1 Comment

oh I love this story

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