Poland 2017, part two: Krakow

Once Claire’s dance competition was done, we were on our own in Poland for three very short but glorious days! Our first stop? Krakow!

Krakow fascinates me with its lengthy history and rich culture. Dating back to around the 7th century, Krakow flourished as a center for trade and education, and was the seat of royalty for several centuries. (The capital moved to Warsaw in the 16th century.) As it developed and grew, buildings were created in the dominant architectural style of the moment, and since this occurred over many hundreds of years, many different types of architecture are represented in Krakow (Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, etc.). Unlike Warsaw which was almost completely devastated in World War II, Krakow’s historic buildings remained unharmed.

Getting there

We took the fast train from Warsaw Central Station to Krakow Glowny Station, which took about two and a half hours. I always enjoy taking trains in Europe and Asia. Probably my number one reason is that we simply don’t have efficient and affordable trains in Canada, and I’m envious! Although I don’t mind driving (thank God, because I do a LOT of it), I don’t particularly appreciate the North American reliance on personal vehicles to get around. I also just like to travel in a country by the same method many of its citizens do that is different from our own ways – and in Europe, that includes trains. Lastly, we usually stay in or near city centers, and I don’t really want to bother with traffic and parking in a strange city when I really just want to sight-see on foot and by subway (when available) anyway.

Our hotel in Rynek Glowny

Upon arrival at Krakow’s Glowny station, it was just a short walk to our hotel right in Rynek Glowny, the main square of the old town. Dating back to the 13th century, Rynek Glowny is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe.

In the photo below, you can see St. Mary’s Basilica on the far left, and on the very far right, next to the United Colors of Benetton, our hotel, the Venetian House Aparthotel, a boutique hotel in a 16th century townhouse.

Just inside the entrance to the hotel, fresh greenery welcomed us.

The hotel looks small from the outside but that’s deceiving. We had a large one bedroom apartment all to ourselves, complete with a kitchen, dining area, living room and bedroom with three single beds.

It was a great hotel for us, and the location couldn’t be beat! Here’s Claire meeting St. Nicholas just steps from our hotel.

Enjoying Rynek Glowny

With only a day and a half (and much of that in darkness, considering that it was completely dark by 4 p.m. each day!), I knew we would not even scratch the surface of all that Krakow has to offer. So instead of trying to “see it all”, we decided to just really savour the experience of being in Krakow during the Christmas season. (We did fit in a bit of sightseeing – more on that below –  but it was scant and hurried.)

But back to the idea of Christmas … what better way to enjoy the Christmas season than to spend time in a European Christmas market?

My favourite booth at the market – aside from the food stalls, LOL – was the pottery one. I love everything floral, and that is what Polish pottery seems to be all about!

 

I couldn’t help but purchase a couple of mugs for myself at that stall. Other than that, we didn’t buy many souvenirs but it was still fun to peruse the wares and take in the market’s ambience.

Fresh evergreen trees and branches were available for sale in the square, and in addition to seeing it everywhere for decoration, we saw several people carrying some greenery home.

One of my favourite memories of being in the square (or even in our hotel room for that matter) was at the top of every hour when a bugler would emerge from the top of St. Mary’s Basilica to play the haunting hejnal. If you look closely in the photo below, you can see an open window through which the bugler emerged. The song is very short and ends oddly / abruptly, because according to legend, the original bugler’s throat was pierced by an arrow while playing the song to warn the city of approaching invaders. After playing the hejnal, the bugler would wave his arm out the window at all the people below before disappearing for the next hour.

If the ambience in the market wasn’t already on point with the evergreens, pretty market wares and haunting hejnal, the yummy food and drink offerings certainly made it happen! The big cask in the photo below is a stall selling mulled wine. Yum! The lineups at these stalls were usually quite long so we always got our mulled wine instead at the restaurant at our hotel (billed as the “best mulled wine in the square”, LOL).

(By the way, when we returned from Poland, it did not take me long at all to look up Polish mulled wine recipes that we could imbibe at home. And imbibe we did!)

The food offered throughout the market was incredible. I should have taken pictures of every stall. There were stalls featuring several types of Polish soups (Polish rye soup quickly became our favourite!), sausages in buns, chocolate-covered waffles, chocolate-covered pears and strawberries, pierogies, cheese and other things I simply don’t have names for!

This stall below sold open-faced sandwiches that we couldn’t resist. First, the guys behind the counter would slather a fat slice of bread with … well … I think it was lard. It sounds gross but really, it was amazing. Then they’d cover that in sausage, carmelized onions, and some other mystery stuff. Lastly, sliced pickles would be placed on top.

We’d definitely have that sandwich again but sadly we only had it the one time as there were so many other things to try!

These rolls below were one of our favourite treats. They are made of dried fruit, nuts and seeds. That one with bright orange (mango) was so yummy that we bought a bunch of it and enjoyed it throughout our stay in Krakow. I wish I could have brought some home as gifts but sadly, customs would not have smiled on our generosity.

At the stall pictured below, I thought those little decorative formations were bread at first. It turns out they are cheese! They are made of salted goat cheese called oscypek.

This lady was grilling small circles of oscypek and topping them with cranberry sauce.

Of course we had to try it! They were delicious but super-salty. And I’m a salt fiend so that means they were extremely salty. One or two bites was all I could handle!

And of course, what would a visit to Poland be if we didn’t eat Pierogies? For every meal. And in between as snacks. And for dessert. (Just kidding about that last one: we actually forgot to try the dessert pierogies!)

We tried several kinds of pierogies but loved the ruskie pierogies the most (both boiled and deep fried). Sometimes if we were getting too cold, we’d take our plate (or soup bowls as the case may be) back to our hotel to eat.

But most of the time, we’d eat in the square.

Krakow was once a major international trading center for its own exports (salt from the nearby Wielickza Salt Mine, lead, and textiles) and imports from the East (silk, leather, wax, spices, etc.). Trading began in this square in roughly 1300. The original building for trade burned and was subsequently replaced in the 16th century with this renaissance structure (below) known as the Cloth Hall.

The main floor of the Cloth Hall features a shopping arcade on the inside, and shops and restaurants on the outside.

The inside of the shopping arcade within the Cloth Hall:

And at night:

We stopped at most of the shops but I especially loved this one featuring Krakow szopka (nativity scenes).

These nativity scenes represent a tradition in Poland from around the 18th century of creating nativity scenes that contain historic buildings in Krakow (such as St. Mary’s Basilica) as a backdrop to Christ’s birth. There is an annual competition held every year before Christmas for creators of large-scale szopka, which unfortunately we didn’t get to see. But at least I got to see these pretty souvenirs!

I swear, I’m part crow. I love anything shiny. And if it’s colourful, that’s an added bonus!

Having grown up in a strong Catholic family where our nativity set was always prominently placed during the holiday season, I could definitely appreciate the Polish szpoka tradition.

Underneath the Cloth Hall is a museum called Rynek Underground devoted to Krakow’s past. For me to call it a museum is a bit of a misnomer because it’s actually a multimedia archeological site of Krakow’s history from medieval times on, inspired by discoveries made during an excavation there in the early 2000s. It’s a neat combination of historical finds and high tech displays. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was pretty cool.

The square doesn’t have a town hall anymore but it’s town hall tower still remains. The tower pictured above was built in the 13th century in the gothic style (with the top “helmet” rebuilt in a different style after a fire) and is open to the public for climbing in order to get a few from its observation deck on top. So that’s what we did!

Claire was funny on the way up the tower. From a girl who can dance for hours, she sure can complain about a few {hundred} steps!

At the top, we were rewarded with gorgeous views through the glassed-in observation areas.

You can see our hotel in the photo below.

 

Back down at ground level at the base of the tower, there’s this guy.

Officially known as Eros Bendato (Eros Bound), this sculpture by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj is more commonly known as the Head.

We ended up visiting the gothic 14th century St. Mary’s Basilica at night which wasn’t ideal considering we’d miss the full effect of its renowned stained glass windows. It was also very dark so I knew my photos wouldn’t do the beautiful basilica justice; I only bothered to photograph the 15th century wooden altar and the gorgeous blue starred ceiling.

Grodzka Street

One of the main streets leading off of Rynek Glowny is Grodzka Street. It’s also one of the oldest streets in Krakow, and used to form part of the royal route that kings would travel on to reach Wawel Castle. It too was our path to the castle.

For our walk, we grabbed some rich, thick hot chocolate.

It was the thickest hot chocolate I’ve seen outside of the famous Angelina’s in Paris. I felt so bad that we were enjoying this treat without Ren as I knew he’d love it. I’ll have to try recreating it at home for him sometime.

Along our way to the castle, we went past the 17th century baroque-style Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul with these larger-than-life-sized statues. Normally I’d stop in at every such sight along our walks but being short on time on this trip, we breezed right on past. It was a little painful.

And yet another historical building we shot past in a hurry … St. Andrew’s Church from the late 11th century built in the Romanesque style:

Historical buildings like this are always staggering to me. Being from a young country like Canada where our many of our “old” buildings tend to be demolished to make way for the new, I can’t get over the length of time these have existed (nevermind the difficulties faced building these without all of our modern equipment!)

Wawel Castle

It wasn’t long before we reached Wawel Castle. Built in the 13th and 14th centuries by Casimir III the Great as the royal residence, it is now a national museum.

The castle complex consists of a number of structures built on Wawel hill, none of which we actually toured due to time constraints! (Insert sheepish face here.) My sister-in-law Chrissy tells me that the Royal Apartments are particularly impressive.

The famous clock on the Wawel cathedral tower:

Walking the castle grounds:

At the base of Wawel hill near the Vistula river we found Smok the Dragon.

There are several versions of the legend about Smok, but I’ll just share one here. One of the stories is that the dragon appeared in the city during the reign of King Krakus, the city’s legendary founder. The dragon devastated the countryside and the city, pillaged homes, ate livestock – and especially enjoyed devouring young maidens. No one could defeat the mighty dragon. Finally, however, a young cobbler bested the dragon. He stuffed a sheep with sulphur and left it outside the dragon’s den. Sure enough, the dragon ate the sheep and became so thirsty that it drank water from the nearby Vistula River until the dragon actually burst! The King looked kindly upon the young cobbler and allowed him to marry his daughter.

Everywhere in Krakow, they sell little dragon stuffies, figurines, keychains, etc, and of course these were also present near the dragon’s den. We decided to pick out a little stuffie for our niece Sophia while we were there.

Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter

Part of the reason that we didn’t tour any of the castle’s buildings was that we wanted to participate in a free walking tour of the jewish quarter that would be starting shortly. Thankfully we made it there just in time.

On the tour, we learned that before World War II, some 68,000 Jewish people lived in Krakow, many of whom lived in the area of Kazimierz. During the war, the Nazis forced all the Jewish people of Krakow into a small ghetto in nearby Podgorze (more on that below). If they didn’t die there due to disease, they died during the liquidation of the ghetto or at the extermination camps where they were ultimately sent. After the war, only about 3,000 jews returned to Krakow.

Now, there are less than a 1,000 (active and inactive) Jews living in Krakow.

We toured past several synagogues, including the Old Synagogue (now a museum):

The Izaak Synagogue:

The Remah Synagogue:

And the Temple Synagogue:

These synagogues survived the war because the buildings themselves were useful to the Nazis. Some of these were used as storehouses, for example.

Aside from places of worship, we also visited beautiful Szeroka Street which is full of quirky bars and restaurants.

Also on Szeroka Street you can find the childhood home of cosmetic great, Helena Rubinstein (see the seafoam-coloured home in the center of the photo below):

And just on the other side of Szeroka street is the statue of Jan Karski, a famous resistance fighter during World War II who escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland to inform the western allies about the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and the existence of the extermination camps.

Following World War II, Kazimierz was largely ignored by the communist authorities and fell into disrepair. However, in the early 90s, that all changed when Steven Spielberg came to film Schindler’s List. Although historically most of the story actually occurs in Podgorze, much of the movie was filmed in Kazimierz including in the street pictured below.

As a result of the international attention brought to Kazimierz by the movie, tourists began to flow in and redevelopment occurred quite quickly. Now it is a bustling and heavily-touristed area of Krakow.

Leaving Kazimierz, our tour continued across the Vistula River into Podgorze, the area where the Nazis created the Jewish Ghetto. To get there, we crossed the Bernatek footbridge featuring lovely acrobatic sculptures.

The footbridge is also known as the Lover’s Bridge, as it is adorned with padlocks left by lovers.

Podgorze

On our way through Podgorze, we passed through the square where Jews were loaded onto cattle cars bound for the camps. Now known as Plac Bohaterow Getta (the Ghetto Heroes’ Square), it was then called Plac Zgody. The 70 empty chairs in this square represent the nearly 70,000 Jews who lived in Krakow before WWII.

A street in Podgorze …

Only this small part of the Jewish Ghetto wall still remains.

Lastly, our walking tour took us to Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory. It is now a museum of Krakow’s history during WWII. Paul and I both read Schindler’s List and would have liked to tour the museum. However, we didn’t tour inside – not for time constraints this time – but because it is advised that visitors be 14 years of age or older. With Claire being only eleven and having been only recently introduced to information about the Holocaust, we felt she wasn’t ready yet for this type of tour.

Izaak Stern, a key figure in Schindler’s List, is pictured below.

By the time our walking tour was done, it was already dark outside. We headed back to the Old Town, found a cute restaurant and enjoyed some sour rye soup.

We warmed up a bit, enjoyed the Christmas market a little more, and then ended our evening at the outdoor (glassed-in with heaters) restaurant outside our hotel, drinking mulled wine (for us) and hot chocolate for our Claire-bear. It was our last night in Krakow. Early the next morning, we would depart for Warsaw.

We were sad to leave Krakow after only a short visit but we were also grateful for the wonderful memories made there. It may have been a whirlwind visit but it was a great one!

 

 

Stay tuned for part three of our adventure in Poland!

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  • Marianne

    Wow….thank you for your detailed tour….beautiful pictures of course!ReplyCancel

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