The Royal city of Krakow

4 December, 1999

Leaving the Zakopane hostel we walked, fully loaded, to the train station. It is a quaint skiing resort town and it was a nice walk. When we arrived at the station we discovered that a train left in only 8 minutes - and there wasn't another for 3 hours! We hurried to the ticket window where a fasionalbe young dark haired woman was arguing with the woman behind the counter - she kept looking at her watch, so she was obviously trying to catch the train too. We spoke to her briefly, she was an American, fluent in Polish. It took about 6 minutes to issue her ticket. This did not look good for us!

We got to the window and asked for two tickets to Krakow. It took about 25 seconds to issue the tickets and they cost about $3.60 each. We ran for the train and discovered something interesting - Polish train platforms have TWO tracks for each platform number! An elderly Polish man saw us franticly running with backpacks and looking up from his name, told us which platform and which track to go to (there were only 3 platforms!). The young woman from the ticket window saw us walking down the aisle in the train and was quite surprised that we had made it!

The warm winter coat that i bought, used, in Budapest is a German Army parka... it has the same look as those German Army jackets with the german flag on the shoulder, that are so popular back home, but it is a knee lengh lined parka. And it is authentic. Very nice, very warm and cozy. However, from previous experince and historical knowlege i was aware that the Poles are none to fond of the Germans - i didn't exactly want to be walking around Poland with these German flags on my shoulder, on an army jacket no less! So in Prague i got a red marker, and using some medical tape, made small Polish Flags (just a red bar and a white bar) to place on my shoulders. I should mentione that i initially put them on upside down, so i spent most of the time in Slovkia with Monogasque flags on my shoulders -- i will just have to hope that the Slovks are not that fimilar with the flag of the tiny rich pricipality of Monoco! But i got it figured out before we crossed the border, so now my jacket had Polish flags on it.

When we arrived in Krakow, we had the typical conundrum of where to stay. There were several hostels and a few cheap hotels - we couldn't really figure out the differences between them. To add to our confusion the station area, already kind of confusing and offset from the main street, is completely under construction. The entire district of town containing the station has been sold to an American real estate company who has torn down most of the buildings and is building a gigantic (30 or 40 blocks) glass and steal, office and shopping mall and import/export complex.

We decided to stay at the PTTK hostel on the ring road around the center of town. It seemed to be a short walk away and a good deal -- The books, including the up-to-date official HI hostel listing said it was 14 zloty per night, just over 3 dollars. We walked 4 or 5 blocks and when the hostel came into view i suddenly realized that it was the same place that i stayed when i was in Krakow in 1990!! It was a bizarre surprise, but i was excited. It had been a nice place and i started relating to Cheryln stories about staying there.

As we approached the door we saw a sign for a sauna, which excited us because of our disappointment in Zakopane, but didn't worry us, as perhaps it should've. We entered the lobby, which was EXTREMELY luxurious looking. We walked up to the desk with all eyes upon us and asked about beds for the night. They told us in no uncertain terms that they did not have hostel beds, their cheapest bed was a double room at 140 zl per person per night and would we please leave NOW! We were confused and asked again about a bunk room and they showed us the door. We were not bodily thrown out, but almost. We wanted to sit down for a moment and look at the books to find another place, but they did NOT like having people with backpacks in their building.

It turns out that in some places PTTK has been privitized and this hostel had been bought and remodeld into a luxury hotel. We were quite disapointed and felt more than a little lost. We wandered out in front or the hotel and looked in our books. There was another hostel, but it seemed a terribly long way away. We figured we needed to call them first, as we didn't want to arrive only to find that they too, now disliked budget travlers. There was one of the ubiquitous Tabac kiosks, on the cornor and we bought a phone card there. We tried first one, and then and other and finally a third phone, before we realized that we were not being cut off, but that the number was busy. When we finally got through we were able to communicate enough to find that there WERE beds availible and the price of 18 zloty was correct.

Now we just had to figure out how to get there! We asked the young woman in the kiosk if she had a city map for sale, but she did not. Perhaps seeing how distraught we were she dug up a small pocket map of the center, which she gave to us and also gave us very explicit directions, sold us tram tickets, explained the tram system and just chatted for a few minutes. She was extremely nice and we felt better. Her wonderful help made up for the rudeness at the hotel.

We decided we would try to walk directly across the center of town, and perhaps get to see some sights as we walked. However our packs were pretty heavy and when the correct tram arrived at a stop right as we walked past, we did not hesitate to get on. It was a short tram ride across the center and just a few blocks beyond the ring road on the other side. We got of the tram where the woman in the kiosk had told us to (at the giant Hotel Crakovia) and after only a little poking around found the fimilar blue triangle indicating the hostel. The woman inside told us that they were still closed (it was about 3pm, they didn't open until 5) but let us put our packs into storage and made a note that we were there, as a kind of reservation.

We asked her if there was a Milk Bar nearby, but she kind of waved us off, so we went out for a walk, to explore and to find food. We passed a nice hotel that had, as many do in Poland, a tourist information sign outside. Cheryln went in and although she could not find an information desk, the woman at the main desk was friendly and helpful and she said there was a Milk Bar just a couple of blocks further down the street towards the center. We found it easily enough --we would've walked right past it -- but i don't know if we would have recognized it. Many Milk Bars don't have a name, other than Milk Bar, but this one was called Milk Bar Barcelona. We were not sure if it was opened -- it seemed dark and vacent when we walked past, but i tried the door and we went inside for our first real Milk Bar experince.

It was steamy and warm in the Milk Bar and we were happy... and hungry. The way the Milk Bars operate is that you look at the menu posted on the wall and see what has a price attached to it. If there is no price, that item is sold out, or not availible today. Then you tell the cashier your order. It's very easy... but since we don't speak, or read Polish, it was rather intimidating. We did know Perogis... which are yummy potato dumplings (at least the Perogi Ruskie are potato) we eat them at home and had been looking foreward to them. And somehow along the way we had figured out the word for potato. So we ordered two plates of Perogi Ruskie and a plate of something that had Zeminaskie [sp], potatos, in it which turned out to be mashed potatos. Just like in Zakopane they had no Kakao, it is, i guess, just for mornings. We were very happy to have such a yummy filling meal. Oh, and it cost about 2 bucks total!

Although it was now pitch dark, we stilll had some time before we could get back to the hostel so we wandered across the street, through Jagalonian University (the second oldest in Europe) and into the Rynek (town square). The Square in Krakow is very dramatic, and very very large. In the middle of the square is the old marketplace, a semi-enclosed building which is now mostly focused on touristic merchants. We wandered around the large, beautiful square and discovered in one corner a christmas market which was fun to wander for a while. One of the specialties for the time of year was warm wine and there were many kiosks selling it -- and all of them were giant barrels on their side!

At the entrance of the market we discovered one of those Peruvian bands, guitar, drums and pipes, that we have seen in just about every city we have been in, including Seattle. Most of them are pretty good (although in Bonn we saw a really terrible one that used mostly recorded music.) This one was one of the best we have seen and they had a large crowd!

We walked up some of the streets connected to the Rynek ... some were very touristic, but most semed to be functional parts of the city and we found another milk bar! Eventually we headed back to the hostel and it was PACKED!!!! There were dozens of Polish students and a few travellers. It was a darn good thing we had our little 'reservation' (although we had to remind her at first who we were!). We settled into our comfortable room and got ready for bed - we were the only people in the 6 bed room. It was a nice place, although the kids were extremely loud!! Just before bedtime a group of people came in to the who were from Ukraine - Lvov, the part of the Ukraine that was given to the USSR after World War II and most of the Polish residents were resettled in the area of Wroclaw - it was facinating talking to them.

There was a different person working at the hostel each day, and although one was rather bitchy (the person who was there the first night... even she was rather helpful, and the other two people were extremly friendly and helpful. Although it is hard to complain about paying just under $3 each per night, we did notice that the Polish people seemed to pay less than half of that!

The hostel was in a very interesting neighborhood, right next to the University and close to the old town center, it was surrounded by student housing and libraries and museams. There was also a dense residential neighborhood around it and several large parks. It was a fairly short walk into the old town and of course there was the wonderful Milk Bar Barcalona on the way.

Also we had two nights alone in the our room after the Ukrainians left, and then the last couple of nights there was a group of three Aussies... they were a bit shallow, but friendly enough - they were not like most Aussies who travel for a year or more at a time, they were just on the road for a few weeks. We have remembered them because of how outragously stupid one of them was -- she has become the joke whenever we have to deal with annoying Australians (most Aussies are very nice, by the way!). Everything was exceptionally dramatic for her. "PRAUGE!!! I LOOOOVVEED Prauge! It was so BEAUTIFUL!!! AND SO FRIENDLY! Bratislava -- oh Bratislava was AWFUL! Such an UGLY UGLY City." And on and on and on. The funniest part was that when a couple of the kids were sitting and talking on the steps, this girl came into room, closed the door and stood in front of it and then, as if she was sharing important world news with us, said, "We are having a little DRAAAMA out there!"

On Sunday we were faced with a serious problem --The Milk Bar was closed. And since the hostel did not have self-catering, (we usually prefer to cook our own meals) we were kind of stuck. We got up and wandered a bit and near the Milk Bar we found a place called the Pink Elephant (in Polish, of course) with weird comics on the wall and rather good crepe like pancakes and (how decdent) an English menu. We had to wait 15 minutes or so for them to open, but we got a good hardy breakfast and although it wasn't as cheap as the Milk Bar, it was still under 5 bucks for both of us. Then we decided to follow one of the set walking tours in the tourist map so we could see the sights of this incredible mideval city. It was a blustry, grey day, but we were not cold in our cozy warm coats. Actually we did get a little chilled at the start because we had an hourlong relationship discussion on a street corner at the start of the tour route!

When i was in Krakow in 1990 the pollution was horrendous - not cars or wood smoke, but industrial pollution from the checmical factories around town - it actually hurt to breathe. But this time is was much much better - the major streets had a pretty terrible stench, but the bulk of the city, both the old town and where people lived, was pleasent.

The Tour took us through parts of the old University, and the old town center, of course through the Rynek and it told us about the various buildings in the square. It is a very pretty city with a great pride and confidence and an amazing history. One of the really overpowering things about Krakow is that it was untouched by the the horrible wars that have wracked Europe and so nothing is re-constructed as in most other places -- it's the real thing. There are many interesting stories and legends connected with the city, it's inhabitants and it's buildings... for example the main cathedral on the square is a huge, stunning building, with two very bizarre, and more importantly very DIFFERENT steeples. The story that is told of this tells of two brothers who were architects and each did a steeple and each tried to outdo each other until they finally gave up construction and started fighting. As with most of Krakow's stories, it ends with both of them being killed -- and the church being left the way they left it.

For lunch we had the best falafal i have ever had. Finally the walking tour took us a south out of the square (where we discovered another Milk Bar!!) and few blocksdown to the soul of Krakow, Wawel Castle.

Wawel (pronounced Vaval) Castle is one of the two cradles of Polish Nationhood, and for centuries was the residence of the King of Poland. It is said that on Christmas Eve every year, all of the former Kings of Poland gather together in secret in a chamber room deep in the castle and discuss the state that Poland is in. We decided not to hang around to try to catch a glimpse of that, but it shows just how central to the national character Wawel castle is! It is very telling that the Nazis did not damage the castle at all, but instead simply used it as their national headquarters - as a way to try to profane the Polish nation. Of course you will not hear about this occupation in Poland as all evidence has been completely erased.

Wawel is also a stunning, and very imposing building, or rather, group of buildings. I rode past it on a bus back in 1990, past the most imposing face where the castle is integrated into, and contiues above the top of a sheer cliff, but i did not have the time to visit and i always regreted that. So this time, despite having seen a dozen city castles already, we made it a priority. We walked up the steps, through the wall and into the central castle. There are nice views from the walls and the buildings inside the walls, especially the cathedral are amazing. The cathedral is a very detalied congolmoration of styles and eras. We visited one of the many museums in the complex, this one an archological museum that allows you to walk through the ruins under the castle, some of them over 1200 years old.

Probably the coolest thing about Wawel castle is Smok Wawelski, the resident dragon. There is a cave along the river at the base of the wall/cliff which, legend has it, was the residence of a fire breathing dragon -- the little boy who slayed it, of course, became king. There is now a modern art sculpture of Wawelski in front of the cave, which even breathes fire!

From the base of the castle we proceded through a real neighboorhood, to Kaczmarezm the old Jewish district. We visited the large Issac Synagoge which is being restored into a museum and has some stunning exhibits from the time of the Nazi occupation, as well as of life in Jewish Krakow before the war. It was a wonderful part of town with a lot going on and a lot of history to see, but it was eerie, bizarre. It is a Jewish district without Jews. There are, of course, no Jews in Poland anymore. Krakow, like all of Poland, had a thriving Jewish community before the war -- and despite small incidents of anti- semitism, it was valued as an important part of the city. In fact, Poland was a center of Jewish culture for 500 years -- and the early Zionists were originally suggesting a homeland for the Jews cut out of Poland! When the Jews were kicked out of Spain in 1492, the King of Poland eagerly welcomed them and they thrived in Poland, and as a part of Poland until the Nazi invasion in 1939 (as well as throughout the war, as history has told us!). They reached at times, almost 10% of the population. Today they make up a tiny fraction of a percent of the population. Due to the concentration camps, forced migrations, the various invasions and peace settlements Poland is now the most homogenious country in Europe, over 97% ethinc Poles.

After a stop at the other Milk Bar for a wonderful meal (this time we branched out with soup, kasha, keifer and Platski Zeminaskie ... potato pancakes!!!!) we went back to the hostel and to bed - our earplugs were essential as the kids were running wild all night! A couple of times around 11pm they knocked on our door, making the assumtion that their group had the whole floor, they were out visiting. They were VERY embarassed when we answered the door!

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000



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