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Krakow Part I - A Celebration of Life

Pole John Paul II, A Dragon Parade, and a the Vibrant People of Poland

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I took the train the next day, bound for Krakow, Poland. Before hopping on the train, I grabbed a hot dog at the Olomouc train station. They cost about 75 cents!


I had to change trains in Katowice, Poland. After being able to spread out on the first train and work on the blog, the Polish train has us packed in like sardines. I ended up standing the entire way in the little compartment right where the doors are and the train cars join. For some reason the doors where I was standing were padlocked shut on both sides! Just wondering, but is there some sort of fire code on Polish trains?


Arrival in a new city is always exciting and confusing at the same time. I immediately changed money at the train station in Krakow at the ATM, which only gave me bills in denominations of 100. I finally located the correct tram, and when I tried to buy a ticket from the conductor, he said, "2.50." When I sheepishly handed the 100 Zloty note to him, he said something like, "Wha! Bla? Kra!!" and smacked his head a few times. He then kicked me off the tram!! I hid my face as the tram full of Krakow natives passed me by, staring at me in disbelief. I had to look around to find somewhere to break the giant note (worth about $28). I finally found a Kebab stand and got a sandwich (kind of like a gyro). They were going to cash the 100 for the sandwich, but I felt bad about it and got 3 bottles of water from them as well, adding another 4 Zlotys to the bill.

Back at the tram platform I met Jacek, who was very helpful, assuring me I was in the right place. Jacek works for General Motors in Poland, doing import/export work. He is from a small town in western Poland and has been in Krakow for three years. He says working for GM has definitely been interesting in these hard economic times. He said that he thinks they have been in the equivalent of Chapter 11 in Poland for the past 5 years! Thanks for your help, Jacek, and good luck with GM!


Despite the fact that the directions were backwards, I finally made it to Nathan's Villa Hostel!


My room at Nathan's, in a 6 bed dorm. I was on the far bottom right, on the first floor next to the window on the street. I was worried about this at first, but the noise wasn't a problem. Notice the nice big lockers - they even give you a free lock to use at check-in! Total price? $17 U.S. a night!


Nathan's turned out to be quite the place. They even had a renovated basement with a pool table...


and a home theater! Notice the couches on risers!


In the common room of the hostel I began to work on the blog. Soon I met Matthew, who is from Eastern Washington State. He said that people are surprised to find out that that area of Washington State is desert country, with rolling hills, sagebrush and tumbleweeds. Matthew is traveling for three weeks after doing student teaching in Ireland in ceramics. He hopes to return to the U.S. to find a job teaching ceramics in High School or College. Matthew is a photographer too, and soon hopes to set up a web site for his best work. Matthew and I made plans to explore Krakow together the next morning after breakfast.


I also met Krisztina, who is from Targu-Mures, Romania. She is an English language teacher, with excellent English speaking skills. She was accompanying 20 6th grade students and 20 adults on a trip to Krakow on a school trip. They were all staying in the same hostel as Matthew and me, and were very well behaved. Krisztina speaks 5 languages, which amazed me. She thinks that travel is terrific education for the kids. Krisztina enjoys practicing her English using Yahoo messenger with friends she has made from around the world. I told Krisztina that she would make a great our guide! It was great to meet you and your students, and good luck in school!


The next morning Matthew and I headed out after the free breakfast at the Hostel (bread, butter, and jam). This was a neat sign right across the street. Can you imagine driving around with it on the top of your car?


I have always paid attention to interesting graffiti. I even wrote a paper on it on Semester at Sea. I loved this mouse!


A great older couple jamming on the street!


We even met some traditional Polish military officers on the main square. Matthew took this picture. I just hope that thing's not loaded....


I kept seeing these beautiful window boxes all over Krakow. People really seem to take pride in their city.


Near the city gate, we ran into this character. He was playing accordion with all his heart. I recognized the tune, but it took me a minute to place it. He was singing Jambalaya, by Hank Williams! In Polish! I picked up and began to sing with him in English. We must have made quite a couple that morning, and I know we turned a few heads. "Son of a gun, we're gonna have big fun on the bayou!"


A beautiful balcony.


Matthew had to make arrangements for his train out of Krakow later in the day, so we stopped by the main train station.


The giant Galleria shopping center is right next door. I did not so much as even step inside!


We both did a double take at this sign. Are we being watched?


According to Rick Steves, a city wall was built around Krakow after the Tartars destroyed the city in 1241. This round building is the Barbican, a defensive fort standing outside the wall to provide extra fortification to weak sections.


Behind the Barbican was a Polish music group playing in traditional dress. So colorful.


This is the Florian Gate, Krakow's main entrance. A drawbridge once connected it to the Barbican, spanning a moat. The moat, no longer needed in the 19th century, was filled in and turned into a beautiful park, called the Planty, surrounding the city.


Matthew and I walked through the Florian Gate (in a much more peaceful fashion than the Tartars), and strolled along Floranska Street, a center for the city's artists. I saw this very strange creature on the sidewalk trying to interact with children. I can just imagine my mother telling me, "It's OK, you can go up and play with that strange unknown person kneeling under the blanket with a big wooden beak in his hand. And when you are finished, be sure to have fun playing in traffic." Creepy.


Jazz clubs seem to be everywhere in Eastern Europe. This one is the home to Janusz Muniak, one of the first Polish jazzmen. Muniak plays the saxophone.


Towering above the main square is the striking St. Mary's Church. The shorter tower belongs to the church, while the taller tower is actually a municipal watchtower. A live bugler plays a song from the tower each hour. My guidebook explained that a Krakow legend says that during the Tartar invasion a town watchman saw the enemy approaching, but halfway through the trumpet call an enemy arrow pierced his throat. Today the trumpet call from the tower still stops halfway through. 12 buglers (who are also firemen) work 24 hour shifts on top of the tower, sounding the hour around the clock. The call is broadcast on Polish National Radio every day at noon.


One of the reasons why I like the Rick Steves' Guidebooks is that they are so much more detailed in their descriptions than Lonely Planet's!

The interior of St. Mary's Church. Breathtaking.


The main statue on the square is Adam Mickiewicz, a Romantic poet considered the "Polish Shakespeare." His work "Pan Tadeusz" inspired patriotism in Poland after it had been taken away by various invading empires.


On one end of the square is the Church of St. Adalbert, the oldest church in Krakow, dating back to the 10th century. It actually predates the square.


The interior of St. Adalbert.


This is the Cloth Hall, built around 1555 on the spot where cloth sellers had their market stalls since the Middle Ages. There are still souvenir stalls inside. I saw a picture taken of this building in the 1870's, and it showed people strolling its colonnades just like in this picture. It really made me think of all of the people and of all of the afternoons that the amazing Main Market Square has seen over the centuries.


I love this shot of a boy chasing the pigeons. Look at his hair fly!


We were exploring the Main Market Square when this giant blue unicorn began to circle the square. Ummmm...OK. Matthew figured it out first - it is a rolling advertisement for the local newspaper, The Gazeta! It definitely caught our eyes. Maybe the Atlanta Journal and Constitution should try it. It might improve circulation.


This tower is all that remains of the Town Hall. By the 19th century it was easier to tear down the crumbling Town Hall than to repair it. Matthew and I climbed to the top of the tower, but glass kept us from going outside and getting a good view. While ascending the very irregular steps, Matthew wondered how on earth people centuries ago were expected to run up and down them all the time without breaking their necks! I do know that the twisting passage definitely was not meant for either of us.


At the foot of the tower was this cool sleepy lion. I don't think I have ever seen one like it!


I love this picture of two men sitting at a cafe in the square. It is fun to think of what story it might tell....


This giant, hollow head might be a little bit out of place in the square, but no one seems to mind. It is by Igor Mitoraj, a contemporary artist who studied in Krakow. The head is wrapped in cloth.

On a stage in the square Polish children did traditional folk dances. What was going on? Did we stumble upon some sort of festival? If we had tried to schedule a visit to it, we never would have made it. The fact is that we were just plain lucky. The dancers were dressed in their traditional best.


Watching the spectators was almost as fun as watching the dancing. This little girl in a pink hat stood out.

Then deafening guns went off and sirens sounded. A parade was making its way through the square! Men in traditional Polish military outfits came marching by first. Their fur uniforms and hats were particularly outstanding. Something just caught this one’s eye.

This one’s feather seemed to reach the sky.

For some reason I thought this guy looked like a High School wrestling coach.


Look at the fur on this one!


Now this guy was amazing. He looks like he is a prince in some epic movie.

The procession of regal gentlemen was followed by this guy. How would you like this as a summer job? “What did you do last summer?” “Uh, I was a beer, dude.”

We finally found out that the festival was called the Dragon Parade. According to Rick Steves, a dragon was instrumental to the founding of Krakow. “Once upon a time a Prince named Krak founded a town on Wawel Hill. It was the perfect location, except for the fire-breathing dragon who lived in the caves under the hill and terrorized the town. Prince Krak had to feed the dragon all of the town’s livestock to keep the monster from going after the townspeople. But Krak, with the help of a clever shoemaker, came up with a plan. They stuffed a sheep’s skin with sulfur and left it outside the dragon’s cave. The dragon swallowed it, and before long, developed a terrible case of heartburn. To put the fire out, the dragon started drinking water from the Vistula River. He kept drinking and drinking until he finally exploded. The town was saved, and Krakow thrived.” Look! A dragon has been spotted above the square! We’re all out of sulfur to cause indigestion. Will a Big Mac do?

Krakovians jammed the streets shoulder to shoulder and cheered as the parade rolled past. I guess this dragon must have been a little nearsighted.

The children marched in their full Krak the Dragon Slayer garb.

There was even a pool float dragon!!

An excellent troop of stilt dancers urged the crown on!

Watching the scene below from her apartment window, this beautiful lady reflected everyone’s mood that day. Rarely have I seen a city so full of vibrant smiles and life. This is one of my very favorite pictures.

We cut across town after the parade and returned to the route of our walking tour. I loved this planter we passed along the way.

We easily found St. Francis’ Basilica, Pope John Paul II’s home church while he was archbishop of Krakow. Its gothic beauty seemed a bit understated to me, perhaps making it feel even more powerful. This is the exterior.

Inside, the altar area with beautiful stained glass windows by Stanislaw Wyspianski.

A close-up of Wyspianski’s greatest stained glass masterpiece, God the Father Let it Be. Look closely at the details. I have never seen anything quite like it.

Walking past the altar I saw a lady doing some vacuuming! I guess even basilicas need tidying up every now and again.


I am very glad I had my guidebook with me or I would have missed one very important detail in the church. On the second pew from the last on your right as you are leaving is a small silver plate labeled “Jan Pawel II.” This was Pope John Paul II’s favorite place to pray when he lived in the Archbishop’s Palace across the street! Here is the pew.

I did not sit in the seat itself out of respect, although everyone is allowed to. I did sit directly behind however, and thought John Paul’s view of the Basilica from this vantage point was very interesting.

John Paul II often returned to Krakow after becoming Pope, and stayed in his old lodgings across the street. He would often stand in the open window above the arch and talk with the regular people gathered below. He would talk to them about religion, but also about things like current events, sports, and whatever other topics they were interested in. I was very impressed by this. In case you can’t find the exact window, just look for the handy Pope poster.

Matthew had the sharp eyes on this one. Walking through Krakow, Poland we saw – parked on the sidewalk, no less, this Maserati sports car – with an Illinois license plate! Man, that’s one long drive!!

Today Krakow has 142 churches and monasteries within the city limits, more per square mile than anywhere outside Rome. This is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. There are statues of 11 apostles (Judas is missing) plus Mary Magdalene.

This is the Hotel Copernicus, which has hosted (you guessed it) Copernicus himself, as well as George W. Bush.

This house is where John Paul II lived for 10 years following World War II.

We next climbed Wawel Hill (the Ws are pronounced like Vs, making the pronunciation VAH-vel ). The guidebook told us that Wawel Hill is “a symbol of Polish royalty and independence,” and is sacred territory to every Polish person. “A castle has stood here since the beginning of recorded history.” This is Wawel Hill.

The statue out front of the castle Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who is actually a Polish hero of the American Revolution and helped design West Point! I had no idea I had to come to Wawel Hill to learn American history!

Just look at the amazing variety of textures on the cathedral. Wawel Cathedral was gradually surrounded with 20 chapels over the years, giving its hodgepodge of styles. The Cathedral contains the Polish Royal tombs.


The river, where Krack finally vanquished the dragon!


The Castle courtyard.


Another in my ongoing series, "Horses With Hats."


The colonnade of the Cloth Hall.


I thought it might be interesting to photograph the photographer.


This lady advertised herself as a fortune teller. She sure looks like the real thing!


About this time Matthew had to leave to make his train at the station. We said our goodbyes and Matthew drifted off into the crowded square. Thanks for a great day Matthew, and good luck with your ceramics!


Ice cream being sold just off the square. My blueberry scoop was small, but terrific!


Inside the Cloth Hall.


"Excuse me Sir, but do you carry any Chess sets?"


This guy's look is priceless!


I wondered if this might be the latest shoe style. They certainly caught my attention!


These guys are getting in on the "Horses With Hats" fashion trend too!


The things that make a city beautiful are its details. I looked up and saw this impressive balcony.


Hey Buddy! What are you looking at?


Dinner that night at Dorothy's Kitchen - fried pork chops with butter and cheese: $4. Massive heart attack: priceless.


If I were a Pekingese I certainly wouldn't put up with this.


"Man, we can't do ANYTHING on this bus! OK guys, put up your trumpets!"


Back at he hostel I met Brenda, who hosts a BBQ on Nathan's deck nearly every night. She buys food with her own money and then grills it up for hungry backpackers who pay 10 Zloty each for Polish sausages, wings, salad, bread, and mashed potatoes. I thought it was a really smart way for her to make extra money. Brenda will go back to Syracuse University in New York at the end of the summer and then is off to Sydney Australia to stay for awhile to stay with some of the Australian friends she has met on her travels. At school she is studying International Relations with a concentration in media. Brenda wants to move to New York City eventually and find a job with a company doing business in Europe so that she can travel back frequently. Good luck Brenda, and thanks for the finely marinated wings!


I saw ts guy in the lobby and just couldn't let the opportunity pass....


The next day I was off for a day trip to Wieliczka to see the unbelievable salt mine there. I walked to the bus station. The first challenge of the day was deciphering the Arrivals/Departures board in Polish. Well, at least they use the same alphabet....


Outside the bus station the Coke Zero Police were on patrol! "ATTENTION! DRINK COKE CERO! COKE CERO IS NUMBER ONE!" Uh, no thanks. I'm a Diet Coke man myself. Now put those silly handcuffs away.


Any ideas as to what this creepy veggie-face billboard is advertising?


I was so used to things not being marked that when I got off the minibus in Wieliczka I automatically asked a local lady where the salt mine was. She just laughed and pointed to this sign directly behind me!


The exterior of the salt mine.


The guides had to wear these hard hats, but it made me wonder why there were none for us, the visitors!


To get down to the first level of the mine (there are 7 levels) we had to walk round and around, down over 800 steps. After a while I got dizzy! I was just concentrating on not falling on my head again.


The Wieliczka salt mine is a very special place. It produced sat for over 800 years, only just ending in 1996. In contrast to very short coal seams, the seams in a salt mine are often over 100 feet high. Over the years the miners in the mine began to carve things out of salt, eventually ending up with a number of statues and even chapels. This huge underground church absolutely took my breath away. Everything is carved from salt crystals, right down to the chandeliers!


Me in front of the altar.


A close-up of the incredible chandelier crystals.


There was even a statue of Pope John II here, also carved out of salt. Salt in its natural state here has a darker color, due to impurities. John Paul (who was definitely turning out to be quite the man in Poland) actually visited the salt mine 3 different times.


There was also an underground events center. "Come to our next business conference - 150 meters below the earth!" People actually get married here.


The afternoon was so nice when I got back that I took a walk through Krakow's Old Town, which constantly seems to be changing. On this day I found a group of nuns chatting on a street corner.


There was a guy doing a marionette show in front of a wildly appreciative crowd. Elvis really is everywhere.


A whole group of nuns passed right in front of me, on their way to St. Mary's Church. I never see nuns wearing habits in the States.


These guys were chatting animatedly in front of the door of the Church of St. Adalbert.


A pair of carriage drivers rattled slowly down a cobblestone street.


An earring seller taking advantage of a break to catch up on her reading.


I finally stopped for dinner at a traditional Milk Bar, a throwback to the old Communist days. It was a cheap cafe where locals eat good, sturdy Polish food. I had potato and sausage soup with meat dumplings. $3.50 total. While eating I pretended to be a cold, Polish factory worker taking his meal on a snowy winter night. It was warm, delicious, and filling.


One of the famous Polish vodkas is Bison Brand, flavored with a long blade of grass from the fields of the Polish Bison reserves. It is supposed to taste like Apple Pie. I wonder if the Bison have anything to do with that....


I also walked past these two girls lying on a bench with their heads on each other's shoulders. Have you ever had a friend like this?


The vibrant people of today's Poland, literally risen up from the ashes, truly warmed my heart. I saved an important part of their past, however, for my last day in Krakow. I was privileged to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. In respect, I will give it its own section.

Next entry: Krakow Part 2 - Auschwitz-Birkenau

Posted by sfoshee 13:10 Archived in Poland Tagged backpacking

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A well written and entertaining blog. I especially liked the bit about the Dragon March.

by donjasjit

hey, nice pics from krakau ;) I like the pink mouse graffiti aswell, its not just in krakau its also in other coutries so it´s funny to find them =) greets from Poland ;)

by Dagna

Very cool, I also stayed at Nathan's Villa when in Krakow. I stayed long enough to get the free shirt, however they didn't have any in my size, so the only person who has ever worn (and fit) the one they did give me is my girlfriend!

by AJEdwards

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