Krakow

From Zdiar I needed to get on the bus heading to Zakopane. The ride took me further along through the scenic Tatras.  Once in the Polish border town, I just needed to get some zloty and then book my onward bus to Krakow.  It was Sunday though, so finding a place to exchange my euros took a while and involved a long walk to the town center.  Still an old fashioned town.

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Once in Krakow, the next mission was to find my couchsurfing host’s apartment.  I had directions but managed to get on a tram going the wrong way.  This instead took me towards the football stadium, where Krakow had just finished defeating their rivals by a single late goal.  The people came pouring out of the stadium and then crammed on to my tram, where they chanted all the way to my host’s stop.

When I finally got in, he saw my apparent hunger and warmed up some pirogues.  The sun was already down, so I didn’t really have any intention of going out for anything that night.  We just talked a for a while in his living room.  He was a bit older and had spent about 15 years under communism, so hearing about that was interesting.  Aside from a few lacking liberties, it isn’t really such an evil thing.  He didn’t have any horror stories to share about that time, and he mentioned that everyone who wanted work had it.  The conversation ran way long but sleep was happened eventually.

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The next day, the two of us headed over to the old town to take part in another walking tour.  He had done it plenty of times before, but being between jobs meant that he had nothing better to do. (His words)  For this tour, I opted to do the walk through the Jewish ghetto (another word of Venetian origin).  Some of the other towns I’ve visited have also offered these sorts of specialty tours, but doing the one in Krakow was essential to understanding the history of this city.

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We had a long walk from our meeting point and then he started to show us some synagogues and such.  He also explained the extent to which this place has changed since WWII.  For example, a third of the city’s population was Jewish before they war, but now there are only 97 fundamentalist members left.

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He was also pointing out the different places that were used in filming Schindler’s List.  There was a flight of stairs people hid behind, the sewer that the boy escaped from, and also the balconies from which the Nazi soldiers were tossing luggage.

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From here we crossed another bridge covered in locks.  This gesture of love is now very cliché to me, having seen them everywhere.  The locks are spreading like zebra muscles.  Anyway, on the other side of the river was the former Jewish ghetto, where all Jews were consolidated and forced to live.  A wall bearing the shape of Jewish tombstones was built around the area, as both a cruel joke and grim  foreshadowing.  There weren’t many that escaped this prison…

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Our guide brought us through the different stages of the liquidation that took place here.  The chairs in this square are in honor of all those Jews that are no longer home to sit in them.

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The tour concluded at the gates of Schindler’s factory, the only remaining portion of the original complex.  The guide gave a brief summary of what happened here, but admitted there were some differences between reality and what most people believe.  The movie is a Hollywood depiction of what happened in a book authored by an Australian, so naturally some things have been…enhanced.  In the end though, the guide suggested that ‘he who saves a life, saves the whole world’.

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That was the end of the tour, and I had about an hour to get back to the meeting point in the center of the old town for the walking tour about historical Krakow.  On the way though, I needed to get myself a Zapiekanki from the best spot in town.  These are essentially just half a baguette, loaded up with whatever toppings you want.  I took the standard, and it was incredible.  There was a scad of the mangiest pigeons I’ve ever seen that gathered around me, all agog at any crumb that fell.

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I met back up in the old town with a new group of people and got ready to set out again.  This tour included all the usual stops, like churches, the university, and then a few other little nuggets about the history and quirks of the town.  This is the main church on the square, St. Mary’s, and at the top of every hour a trumpeter plays the same call in each cardinal direction. This has been going on for hundred of years.

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We finished the tour near the large castle on the edge of the old town.  There is a cathedral here that contains the bodies of a lot of important people.  Of course each one needs its own chapel, which were added gradually over time.  The result is a real hodgepodge of architectural styles all at once.

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After our stroll, one of the guys on the tour invited myself and a couple others to grab a few drinks.  I had already made plans to join my host at another couchsurfing event later, but had some time to spare.  We gathered at the Herring Embassy and had a few of the local brews.  I did go over to meet my host eventually, and there I was able to meet a number of other foreigners.  I think we only hung around for an hour before taking off for some sleep.

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I left town that next day, but for my final afternoon in Krakow I visited a few of the spots I missed during the tour.  I wanted to go into the Schindler’s Factory museum, which is was 95% about the Nazi occupation, rather than Schindler and the factory itself.  I knew this going in though, so there was no disappointment.  I found this plaque outside noteworthy though.

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Another stop was the the contemporary art museum next door.  It wasn’t massive, but definitely had a few nice things worth checking out.  I’m not a very artsy guy, so sometimes I enjoy strolling through a large room filled with all the things I can’t do.  I liked this one.

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The next stop was to the big church on the main square.  This one was famous for the massive alter piece carved from wood. The scale of the creation was incredible, but also the history during Nazi occupation added to its legacy.  It was found in the storage in Germany after the war.  From there it was refurbished and brought back to where it belonged.  This was cool, but I also really liked the blue ceilings – I thought that both the color and style of it was unique.

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For my final museum, I went down below the main market square to see the ancient foundations of the city.  A few years ago, they excavated the square, and then decided to make it all one giant museum below the heart of the city.  I was impressed at the engineering behind it all, and the subject matter was well presented, but I was pretty much ready to go not long after getting there.  Marvel at these old wooden things.

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That night too, I was going to meet my host at another of these couchsurfing gatherings but along the way was distracted by a particularly gifted street musician.

I arrived at the pub where I got him a beer to show my appreciation.  There were a number of people from the other day’s event, as well as some new faces.  I was only sticking around for an hour or so before my train, but found time enough to share in a nice chat with a Swede about a potential career decision.  I also had a sickeningly sweet honey beer.  Who would knowingly order one of those…?  I got some cheese and bread for this road, but this was pretty nasty too.

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Poland surely has other things that the traveler should see, but Krakow is the most famous of its cities.  Historical Warsaw was destroyed after their failed uprising by the Soviets, so there isn’t much  reason to go.  I hope to come back to this country and see some of what I missed, someday.  I want to find some more street art.

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