Rained Out in Krakow

My husband tells me that he has to go to Krakow on business. He leaves on Sunday the 2nd of October, his birthday. Do I want to come with him? This is his nth visit to Krakow but I have never been there. I happily agree and plan to have a celebratory dinner together in Krakow. I book myself in another hotel as he will be busy in his conference and I won’t see much of him anyway. However I manage to get myself on the same flight in and out.

2 October 2016 

Our flight is delayed. Sigh! It is late by the time we arrive in a very cold and rainy Krakow. Our idea of settling in our hotels, changing and strolling out for a nice meal is not going to work. I had made a list of a few nice restaurants which we were going to check out. Instead we go to the fall-back option and head straight to an Indian restaurant recommended by friends. Dinner is acceptable but it is not the festive occasion I had planned it to be. My husband drops me at my hotel and we say our goodbyes. I shall see him only on the day we leave.

3 October 2016

After a relaxed breakfast, I set out to start my day of sightseeing. It is a gloomy day, very wet and cold. I had been hoping for better weather but it is not to be.

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My hotel is not far from Wawel castle. I walk along the Vistula river which looks as grey and miserable as the sky.

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The castle is a complex of buildings with a big central courtyard. Used for more than a thousand years by different rulers, the site has seen many a change over time. The complex includes a number of museums and a cathedral.

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Today being Monday two of the museums are free for visitors. I head first to the Crown Treasury and Armoury. How many weapons! Swords and lances, sabres, rapiers and daggers, guns, pistols, muskets and cannons. So many harbingers of death and destruction! The museum showcases both the treasures and the weapons used to acquire and/or protect them. I wander through the exhibits wondering where humanity would have been if only we had used our skills, our strengths and ideas in other directions. I also check out the Lost Wawel exhibition which has some interesting archaeological and historical information.

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I then head to the Cathedral. Sitting in the stalls, I admire the beauty around me. I have just passed by the grave of a 20 year old whose body was never found. My sadness from the armoury continues. How many unknown, unnamed young men have died in all these wasted pursuits of wealth and glory! How many mothers would have wept for their loss! I go and look at the crypt of Chopin. He at least has left a wealth which is a true treasure.

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Leaving the castle I walk up to the station to buy train tickets for my visit to Warsaw tomorrow. Then I indulge in a nice lunch at Glojonad, a vegetarian restaurant close to the Barbican and city gates. There is a ‘free’ walking tour in the afternoon which I plan to join. The old city is surrounded by beautiful parks. The first signs of autumn are strewn on the paths.

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The meeting point for the tour is close to the Barbican. Once part of the city’s fortifications, it serves a much more benign function now as an exhibition/event hall.

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I love my first look of the old city. The basilica of St Mary looms like a jewel in this gloomy day.

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I always enjoy walking tours and this is no different. Our guide weaves a nice tale, with a judicious mix of history and myths. This large central square with the Basilica, the Cloth Hall and gorgeous residences all around is a true masterpiece. Dating back to the 13th century, it is beautifully designed and meant to impress. Which it does.

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Over the next few days I am going to be revisiting this square a number of times. Each time I see something else to admire! Look at that beautiful lamp!

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Next stop in our tour is the Jagiellonian University. Founded in 1364 by Caismir the Great, it is the oldest higher education institute in Poland. Nicolaus Copernicus is one of its illustrious alumni.

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The tour leads us back to the Wawel castle and I am happy to learn some more about its history. We have walked for almost two and a half hours. My feet protest so I decide to head back to the hotel for a rest before finding something to eat. I had researched about a vegetarian restaurant close to the hotel. Unfortunately it is closed so I walk to the Jewish quarter to another vegetarian cafe. This is not very good so I am not giving a link here. I am very tired by the time I get back to my hotel and no wonder, my fitbit tells me that I have done 33,841 steps today!

3 October 2016

I am up early and have a nice breakfast before setting out towards the station. Tram 2 which stops right in front of the hotel gets me there quite easily. There is a ticket dispensing machine in the tram; it takes only coins. In case you are wondering how I know which stop to get off, I follow our route on my mapping app in which I have marked the station in advance. The main hall of the station has an electronic timetable with platform numbers so it is easy to find my train. At the train, I hesitate. Is the coach and seat number on the ticket? Or is it free seating like in Switzerland? I ask a young woman for help; she points out the details printed on the ticket. The train leaves at 8:20, right on time. Fast, clean and comfortable, I recommend this as a very easy option for fellow travellers. There is only one other passenger in my coach. How flat is the country which streams outside my window, how green! I notice a lot of agricultural land.

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At Warsaw station, I find the public transport ticketing office and buy a day pass for 15 PLN. The accompanying transport map is not easy to read with my middle-aged eyes. Finding my way to the stop for a tram to the National Art Museum, I confidently get into the tram but realise after a few stops that it is headed in the opposite direction! Thank God for my mapping app! I get off, cross the track and soon find myself in the right tram. The museum has a nice collection of 19th century art. I am not a fan of it’s 20th/21st century galleries.

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Though I am not fond of Medieval Art,  the collection here is impressive. By the time I finish I am ready for lunch. To save time I eat in the museum cafe. My meal is very tasty and I enjoy it with a hearty appetite.

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Next I get a bus to the Royal Castle. The bus stops are not as near each other as I expect; my stop is a good distance from the castle. It is cold but the skies are blue so walking is no hardship. Built in the 14th century and expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was bombed during the war in 1939 and then blown up by the German army in 1944. The castle was reconstructed in the 1980’s and opened to the public in 1984.

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At the castle I buy the tickets and head straight to the Lanckoroński Collection which includes the above two paintings by Rembrandt. I just love the works  of Rembrandt; seeing these was a real thrill!

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All the shiny gilt in the state rooms of the castle pleases the bling-lover in me! Look at those shiny eagles above the throne! There are lots of art works and objets d’art to admire. Information plaques in English describe the functions of each room.

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But the room which truly thrills me is the Caneletto room. These paintings were an important part in the reconstruction of Warsaw after German troops razed it during the war. I really enjoy this visit to the castle.

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I am well in time to join the walking tour at 3:30 pm. The meeting point is at the Sigismund´s Column which is right outside the castle. There is a musician singing Polish songs. Though I understand not a word, I enjoy the music. A handsome voice is a handsome one in any language, isn’t it!

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Soon the tour commences. The guide is a young lady who has a very nice style of delivery. She gives a historic context of the city, talks of its destruction and the literal rise from the ashes. I cannot quite believe it is a reconstructed city! How very well they have done it!

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We walk past the old city to the newer section. We are shown Marie Curie’s home (the white building second from left). I hadn’t realised that Marie Curie was from Poland, I always thought she was French!

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The guide tells us about the Polish uprising and the Ghetto. The story of Warsaw is a sad one. My throat feels heavy with unshed tears for all those who have suffered through the years. The Ghetto Boundary Markers are especially poignant. Our walking tour comes to an end here. This land has borne so much sorrow!

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I take a bus back to the station and get down one stop early to take a picture of the Palace of Culture and Science, the tallest building in Poland. I have a sense of déja vu – surely I have seen this somewhere before? Later I do some research and find that it is in the style of several buildings in Moscow some of which I saw last year. At the station I buy myself a sandwich and drink for dinner. On the trip back I reflect on the indomitable spirit of the Polish; like a phoenix they have risen from the ashes again and again, have they not! What a courageous nation!

Only 22,832 steps today, much like a normal day in my life but I am tired and sleep soundly.

4 October 2016

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I wake up to another wet and cold day in Krakow. As I plan to spend a fair bit of time in Museums today, I am not much bothered. Still..a bit of sun would have been welcome! I start the day with a brisk walk to the tourist office. On the way I pass by a hairdresser and see that the rates are very reasonable as compared to Switzerland. As I am need of a cut, I walk in and make an appointment for the next day.

At the tourist office I get myself a 2 day pass for 100 PLN which includes entry to a number of museums and use of public transport. I calculate later that the museums I visited would have cost me 113 PLN in entry fees and about 15 PLN in transport. So it was a good deal after all.

I head first to the Rynek Underground exhibition which is right under the market square. This is a fascinating, very well put together exhibition with interesting displays related to the history of the market square. It is very dark so I don’t take any photos but I do recommend this to visitors interested in history. I spend just over an hour and a half here. There are information plaques in English at each exhibit but they are positioned in such a way that they are rather hard to read.

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I then head up to see the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art in the first floor of the market hall. Though I take great interest in art in general, I am not familiar with Polish artists so this is very educational. It is a small gallery but it is my favourite amongst all the galleries I see in this trip. I am particularly taken with the works of Jan Matejko and spend a lot of time admiring his large history paintings. I spend about an hour in this museum.

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Next I walk across the square to the 14th century Basilica. It is simply stunning! I love the exuberance of the decor. Just look at that ceiling! Most impressive of course is the famous wooden altarpiece by Veit Stoss.

I am getting quite hungry. I had earmarked a vegetarian restaurant quite close by which I find quite easily. They have Pierogi on the menu, something I have wanted to try. Mine are filled with vegetables, mainly cabbage. They have a crisp shell and seem to be baked. Served with a cream sauce they are quite delicious.

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I take a tram to the main building of the National Museum. The permanent galleries are those of 20th century Polish art, Arms and Uniforms and Decorative Art. I have a wander through but the periods and subjects are not of my particular interest.

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By now I am comfortable with the public transport here. I take a tram back to the old city and head to Bishop Erazm Ciolek’s Palace which houses the galleries of old Polish art from 12th to 18th centuries. I seem to be their only customer! They have a small but nice collection.

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It is evening by now and the lights cast glimmering reflections on the wet pavements. I still have time to see one more museum. But as I try to work out  my transport options I recognize that I am museumed-out for the day. It has started raining heavily again; I think longingly of my comfortable hotel room! Though not really hungry, the thought of coming out again to find dinner is not in the least attractive. I go back to the restaurant where I had lunch and get myself a bowl of soup and then take a tram back to the hotel. I enjoy a few hours of internet browsing and read myself to bed. At 21,998 steps, this day has not been too hard on my feet.

5 October 2016

I had made my haircut appointment for 9am. I am the first customer. The lady at the counter speaks very minimal English and the hairdresser has no English at all. But I get my meaning across and soon emerge with a nice coiffure.

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I take a tram to the Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, where I join a walking tour this morning. The meeting point is outside the old Synagogue which is now a museum. There seem to be a good number of Americans and Israelis of Polish origin who have joined this tour. I wish I could chat with them and hear of their experiences. Are they first generation or second? Do they think of Poland as their ‘home’ country? Do they still have any family left in Europe? Many questions rush through my head…

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The tour guide is good with probably the best English I have heard in Poland so far. He is not Jewish but says that he has just learnt of his Jewish Great-Grandfather. He takes us into a working Synagogue. This is my first experience inside one and I am quite fascinated.

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The tour is informative and interesting. Though of course I have heard many stories of the atrocities committed here, standing on this earth and listening to the tales is a sorrowful experience. My heart is heavy as I stare at the stark and lonely memorial at the Ghetto. From here we walk to Schindler’s factory where the tour comes to an end. I go inside to visit the museum. Ah the sadness of it all! This is a monument of the failure of humanity; what happened here is as inhuman as it can be. I am not Jewish, nor a Pole, not even a German yet I am ashamed and distressed beyond measure. After about an hour here, I find that I cannot bear to read anymore, know anymore. I walk back to the tram stop, my heart heavy.

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I need to eat and rejoice in life once more. I go back to Glonojad and have a plateful of Russian Pierogi. They are quite different from what I had yesterday. Their casing is soft and the filling is made of cheese and potatoes. They seem to be boiled or steamed. I am a fan! I wonder if there is a ‘how to’ video on youtube..

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Finally I get to see the old city on a sunny day! The squares are buzzing with crowds. I take pictures to my heart’s content. Tourists to Krakow invariably visit two of its most important sites – Auschwitz and the Salt Mines. I had decided even before coming here that I will not visit Auschwitz, I am sure I would not be able to handle the experience. I had reserved the Salt Mines for this afternoon. But after seeing the sun for the first time in Krakow, I do not really feel like spending the afternoon underground.

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Instead I spend a happy hour clicking pictures and browsing through the market.

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There are a number of actors in period costumes but they are all just waiting about. I watch them for a while, wondering if there is a film shooting but nothing much happens so I wander away.

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I decide to climb the Town Hall tower for photo opportunities. There are 110 steps and I huff and puff my way to the top. Sadly there is glass on the windows, and not very clean either. Still, it is nice to see the city from a high vantage point.

Given that I still have some time, I decide to check out the Europeum, the European art collection. I enjoy the walk. This is a small museum and there is no one here but me. I do a quick browse but nothing much grabs my fancy.

I go back to the city for some more strolling and photo ops before having dinner and calling it a day.  At 26,776 steps, this has been a fairly heavy day but thanks to the sun, they were very happy steps!

6 October 2016

I check out and meet my husband at his hotel for our trip back. He has had a busy and productive week and so have I!! Though my time in Warsaw was too short to do justice, I feel content that I have explored Krakow quite well. This has been a good trip!

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