Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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The train arrives late in the evening in Warsaw, I am accosted by a drunk for money, eat a falafel at the station (I haven't eaten all day) and I have just enough time to get changed and go to a milonga, then walk back to my hostel about 3 in the morning, have a short sleep, then catch the train to Krakow, 3 hour's away
I have a musical first evening in Krakow - first I see a Polish Folk show, the highlight being a couple of young British lads being plucked out of the audience (actually they were dobbed in by their girlfriends), dressed up in rooster costumes, and made to stage a mock cockfight. They had been drinking beer while watching the show and this didn't help their performance.
Straight after I went to the Galicia Jewish Museum (Galicia is an old name for this part of Poland), which is dedicated to preserving the memory of Jewish life in the south of Poland after the Holocaust. It is in the old Jewish Kazimierz quarter and I heard a fantastic trio called Nazzar who played a great variety of Jewish music. The only thing to do after that was to eat at one of the Jewish restaurants nearby. I had a very good meal at Arka Noego (Noah's Ark) - barley & vegetable soup with meatballs, fried goose & potatoes, and crepes with sweet creamy cheese, and drank my first kosher wine, Carmel Cabernet Merlot, and a honey liqueur as a digestive.
Krakow is dominated by Wawel Hill which was the first centre of political power in Poland, from around 1000AD, lasting until the capital was moved to Warsaw in the late 1500s. It comprises a large castle, royal apartments, museum, and the cathedral, considered to be the most important building in Poland, where most of Poland's kings were crowned, including the first Polish King Wladyslaw the Short (aka as the Elbow-high) in 1319, and where many are buried
In the afternoon I caught a bus to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, on the outskirts of Krakow. Although quite touristy they are fascinating. We started by descending 380 steps to the first level at 64 metres, then continued until we reached 150 metres underground (the deepest shaft is 327 metres). As you walk along the tunnels and galleries everything is made of salt - the paths, walls, ceilings, etc. So many people have walked there that it looks like stone and in some parts almost like polished marble. You can scratch the wall as you go along and taste the salt. We passed by the St Anthony's Chapel built in the 17th century, the huge Chapel of St Kinga (22,000 metres cubed) which is decorated with salt statues, sculptures, murals, etc., another huge hall used for receptions, congresses, etc, and a salt lake that has 300 grams of salt per litre.
In a few sections pine logs have been used for supports and we were told by the guide that although pine is a soft wood, it becomes rock hard in the salty environment. The air in the mine is supposed to be very good for your lungs and there is a constant 15 degree temperature
The trip back up to the surface was very interesting, or scary, if you are at all claustrophobic or don't like confined spaces. The lift has 4 cages taking 9 people each. There is barely enough room to fit 9 people, and with backpacks, bags, etc it's even tighter and there is no light, so basically you are squashed into a dark cage that rattles slowly up to the surface (at least you can't fall over because you are squashed so tight next to your fellow passengers). I ended up having dinner that night with an English couple I met while waiting half an hour for a bus in the rain. Later, for a nightcap I unsuccessfully tried to find the Noworolski Café where Lenin used to entertain both his wife and his mistress (separately I presume), but found a pub 4-5 metres underground, where there was a big group of Danish university students from Copenhagen and I discussed our relative education systems with a young guy who talked to me while swaying on a swing in front of the tiny bar while drinking double shots of absinthe (88% alcohol by volume) - him, not me, I drank a local drink called something balsam which the bartenders recommended to me. The students in his group ranged from 17 to 70 and the student explained how egalitarian and informal the Danish schools and universities were, eg teachers and students mix and socialise after school. The Danish girls were getting very boisterous and drunk and asking the bartenders 'are you having fun' - the poor bartenders had been working 15 hours, and no doubt were paid poorly and tried not to look resentful about what to them were young, rich kids out having a good time.
The next day I had a very interesting, almost Kafkaesque experience (yes, I know it's the wrong city). I had decided to hire a car and got the receptionist at my hostel to ring a car rental company whose brochure they had. I caught the bus they had told me to get but I didn't have an exact point where to get off, and had to keep my attention on the road
So I picked up my very 2nd hand Fiat Uno and drove off and immediately came to the site of the Plaszow Labour Camp. Virtually nothing remains of this camp, from where Oskar Schindler got most of the workers for his factory, thereby saving their lives. I was there on a beautiful sunny day and it was hard to imagine the inhumanity and tragedy that went on there as I looked over the rolling green grass, with only the odd bit of rusting metal and broken concrete lying about to give any clue as to what had been there
I had hired the car because I wanted to go walking in the Tatras, the mountain range on the southern border of Poland adjoining Slovakia, about 140 kms away. They are part of the Karpathian chain of mountains which stretch down to south-east Europe. On my way to Zakopane at the foot of the Tatras, I stopped at a little village called Debno to see St Michael the Archangel Church. This area is full of beautiful wooden churches and buildings and this is considered one of the oldest and most beautiful. It was built in the 15th century and is made entirely of wood, with no nails used. The interior is original and very beautiful but unfortunately the church was closed so I couldn't see it, but I did get some indication of it via a picture outside.
At Zakopane I caught a bus up to the cable car which takes you to the top of Mt Kasprowy Wierch at 1987 metres, but unfortunately that was closed due to strong winds, so I walked up to the Polana Kalatowk mountain hut at 1333 metres, which had a great view up to Mt Giewont and warmed myself up with some mulled wine. After the flatness of the Baltic countries and much of Poland it was great to be in mountains and snow again - in the lower parts the track was icy and slippery, but in the upper parts there was still lots of snow and people were skiing. In some areas the snow had melted and purple flowers had sprung up and I saw 3 wild deer and got to within 50 metres of them
That night I ate at a rustic restaurant in Zakopane - clear beetroot soup with sauerkraut and a mushroom croquette on the side, a Mountaineer's meat feast, then after I had a half litre of mulled beer with honey and cloves, which I chose over Mountaineer's tea with alcohol. A band of 3 young men played lively, and occasionally soulful music down below the mezzanine where I was sitting and locals made requests and sang along. Later, 3 old gentlemen came in and ordered a glass of vodka, a cup of tea and what looked like a glass of water (but I guess it could have been another spirit) and the waitress lined up the 3 drinks in front of each and they worked their way through them. On my way back to Krakow I was stopped by the police for speeding (82 kmh in a 50 zone) but they let me off when they saw I was a tourist and I explained it was unfair as I was in open land between villages and I thought I was out of the 50 zone and there were no speed signs. I arrived back in Krakow very late that night after a beautiful day out in the mountains and very relieved that I hadn't been booked (or jailed).
My last morning in Krakow I presciently dropped off my luggage at the station, then toured the 'Jewish Trail' (Schindler's factory, remnants of the ghetto, Pharmacy under the Eagle which was a focal point for ghetto life and now a museum, and the courtyard in Jozela 12 where many of the scenes in Schindler's Ark were shot) - also past a couple of synagogues in the Kazimierz district, which was full of groups of (very noisy) young Jewish tourist groups
I sort of rushed through Krakow and regretted I didn't give it a couple of more days, especially to visit Auschwitz, spend more time in the Czartoryski Museum, see more churches, of which Krakow has a large number, hang out in the Rynek Glowny (Market Square), Europe's largest square, and last but not least, attend the Festiwal Golonki (Pork Knuckle Festival) at a local restaurant and try pork knuckle in a variety of ways, eg knuckle stewed in forest fleece, knuckle baked with garlic, plums and honey, knuckle in beer pastry, etc.
So to my Australian Polish friends, Alicia, and Bob & Krystyna, and any other Polish readers, I hope you enjoy reading about my very brief but very packed and enjoyable time in your country.