In and around south-central Poland

Trip Start Feb 04, 2010
Trip End Oct 25, 2010

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Flag of Poland  , Lesser Poland Voivodeship,
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The train trip from Prague to Kraków was full of little annoyances and a bit of stress – our first leg train arriving 4 minutes after our second leg train had departed Katowice (southern Poland's main rail hub), but we made it to Kraków around 7pm with only a suitcase handle not making it all the way. Once there our adventure continued; having put Wes in an elevator with all 9 bags only to discover once we got down the steps that we did not in fact know where the elevator came out. Ray and Tracey went searching and found him in the basement area, which reeked of uric acid to such an extent that it even kept away the most dubious of locals. Then the hunt was on for the rental car people, hoping that our delay did not mean that we had been stranded in Kraków for the night. Luckily they were still waiting for us and after a few instructions and pushing the last suitcase and Babcia (aka grandmother, or Emily – Wes’ mum) into the car, off we went to Skszydlna. All was good until we encountered a maze of detours - lots of road works being carried out after the spring thaw - and it took another 2 hours, along with the (un)helpful advice of a group of young people, 2 sets of joggers, a gas station attendant and a couple of ladies out for a walk, to get to Wes’ aunt’s house, arriving approx 11pm. Secretly we were happy that Renate and Ray were in the lead car as we would have ended up in a dispute of civil-disturbance proportions had we been the pathfinders. Comment of the day is Kris’: “Well if we start hearing Czech being spoken, we know we have gone too far.” So ended the arrival day; late but intact and happy to stretch out at Ciocia (‘Aunty’ in Polish) Ania’s with a Polish ‘drynk’ which is usually a 1:2 ratio of vodka and apple juice. 
DAY ONE: The next day we had a bit of a down-day, with some concerted homework being done and then taking a casual walk around the town, meeting up with the church caretaker only to find out that this man was Renata and Wes’ friend from when they came here in ‘72. Marek is now fifty and is a bit of a character. He lives next door to where we are staying, so no doubt we will get together some time with a bottle of Zubrówka (bison-grass brand vodka) and exchange war stories. 

 DAY TWO: On our second full day in Skszydlna we risked the roads again and drove to the famous salt mines in Wieliczka, just out of Kraków. This was a worthwhile adventure which involved walking down into the Salt Mines as far as level 3 at 130 metres underground (there are 9 levels – at a depth of 330-odd metres). The highlight of the visit was getting to the chapel that was chiselled (or mined) entirely from Rock Salt, including three dimensional pictures and reliefs, chandeliers, statues, altars, a tiled-looking floor, staircase and balcony. Luckily we did not have to climb back up, the entry fee included a ride up in the miners two-storey lifts, packed in like sardines rattling up back to the surface was an experience in itself that theme park operators would have been proud of.
DAY THREE: Another down day followed, with a visit back to the old family home some 2kms from where we were staying – now needing some extensive maintenance – but still an awesome visit. To see the old house was a treat, although it’s hard to imagine how the grandparents brought up 6 children with just electricity for lighting but no refrigeration or heating. They had an outdoor long-drop, water drawn from a well and used coal and wood for heating and cooking on the range. Emily arrived back from visiting with an old school friend just down the road laden down with fruit cake and fresh strawberries, so an impromptu picnic followed. It is also great to see the old mill last used by Wes’ grandfather over thirty years ago is still intact. The 33 degree daytime temperature made for a pleasant day, but sleeping at night without air-conditioning was difficult – a bit like Auckland really. 
DAY FOUR: The following day (Sunday 13 June) we decided to head into Kraków (Cracow) city and check out the many sites. This started with a visit to the Barbakan the main gate outpost, where you can still see knights re-enacting fights, although we were 1 day late for this month’s spectacular. Then onto a walk around the reconstructed city walls which included information boards identifying the different towers, who built them and when together with information about which guild was responsible for maintaining them back in the day, which was interesting from a historical perspective (totally lost on the kids). There were even towers belonging to the Guilds of the Torturers and the Hangmen. From there we took a stroll through the cobbled streets to the main square, where we took in the wonderful St Mary’s Church and arrived just in time to hear the trumpeter give his hourly call. We then took a horse and carriage ride around the square – simply a must – and then on to fulfill a “must” of Renata’s - a fancy coffee in a fancy place [with a fancy price] in the square. Before we headed home we visited Wawel Castle, which was the royal castle until the seventeenth century, with its armoury and cathedral. We also took the opportunity to pay our respects at the grave of the recently-deceased Polish president and his wife, who are entombed in the castle crypts.  
DAY FIVE: On the 14th of June 1940 the first Polish (political) prisoners were brought to Auschwitz. Wes, Tracey and Ray took a trip to the infamous concentration camp on this day which happened to be the 70th anniversary of this tragic chapter of history. Auschwitz is one of Europe’s most poignant Holocaust museums. Tour guides are compulsory which turned out to be a blessing and disadvantage. Tracey thought that the extremely unemotional and factual narrative given during the tour was an advantage - in that she did not break down as she expected she would -, and disadvantage -as it made her feel distanced from the horrors of some of the physical remains and photographic evidence-, which may not be a good thing for a place that wants people to be shocked and appalled so that it won’t happen again. The Birkenau camp was about 10 times bigger than Tracey expected and definitely had more of a spooky feel to it than Auschwitz. We brought a book on the holocaust which was signed by the author himself a survivor, who happened to be visiting on this anniversary day. Wes’ view was that the older the camp becomes the less ‘raw’ it looks, which minimises the shock effect of the place. But that is understandable, given that a balance needs to be found between reconstructions, preservation and changing the exhibitions to meet the needs of running both a museum and a memorial to those who perished. 
DAY SIX: The next day brought about a day trip to the “Queenstown” of Poland: Zakopane. It took about 1˝ hours to get there by car and then find the cable car up to one of the mountain lookouts. After coming back down we walked around the pedestrian streets, with their many vendors selling everything from sheepskins to traditionally made cheeses, an acquired taste to be sure. After a visit to Wes’s cousin (Zdisław’s) it was off back to Skszydlna arriving home just before 9pm. The day of course would have been a better if Wes had not been pinged doing 76km in a 50km zone. Apparently what a white sign with black building silhouettes means a 50km/h zone. The 100 złoty instant fine did not improve Wes’ mood driving through inadequately signposted and poorly sealed country roads with crazy Polish drivers [of which he is one]. Another funny moment (at least in a Polish sort of way) was when Ray and Renata took some photos with a chap dressed in a bear costume, who then demanded 10 złoty (about NZ$5) for the privilege. This was just a blatant rip-off so they told him it was too steep and he should be advising people in advance of making any gestures towards their kids to come over for a photo. Nevertheless, they had to delete the photos but we have a funny set of snapshots of a bear standing over Ray – I bet that doesn’t happen very often, given Ray’s height. 
DAY SEVEN: Between climbing over allsorts and commercial washing machines, the kids’ clothes have suffered greatly, so Tracey decided it was time to stop sewing up little holes and go to Limanowa, a local market-town, to do a bit of shopping for the kids. Wes was trapped in a bank with his mum – having brought only travellers cheques which apparently are a rare thing now, so they had to wait for the bankers to read up all the manuals on what to do with them and how, a process that took over two hours, so Tracey took the kids and off she went. Much to everybody’s surprise it seems, she returned with everything she needed even though nobody spoke English in the town’s shops and markets and Tracey’s Polish has not improved significantly. Nevertheless, pointing at colours, legs and a lot of hand waving is all it takes to get 2 pairs of track-pants, a top and a sundress. 
DAY EIGHT: The day was sunny and our travels this day took us back through and past Zakopane, to a place called Morskie Oko which is world famous [in Poland] for the lake high up in the mountains, surrounded by the alpine vistas. We took a horse and wagon up there which was quite a pioneering-sort of experience, and then walked the 9km back down – which resembled more a Nordic walking experience but without the skis, as we zigzagged through the forest shortcuts. The scenic views from the top were just terrific and the whole experience would have been extremely tranquil - had not been for the 500-odd school kids on a last class trip before the end of year - but still a day to remember which was topped off by a fantastic Pizza dinner in Szczrzyc, the next town over from Skszyldna.
DAY NINE & TEN: For the next two days we had absolutely miserable weather which was not at all conducive to exploring or sightseeing. However, on the second day Wes Tracey and Kris braved it and went to the local museum in Szczrzyc, maintained and operated by the monks at the Cistercian monastery. They had some interesting artifacts including, but not exclusive to, religious memorabilia, coins, weapons and armour. Kris was thrilled as he got to try on a seventeenth century soldier’s helmet and a sixteenth century knights’ helm. The monk also told us the story of how the monastery was built (which Wes translated to English), and where the money came from – a story that more than slightly resembles the song “The devil went down to Georgia” complete with the fiddle/violin although as often happens in Polish folk tales includes a witch, some pious monks and divine intervention.
DAY ELEVEN: The next day was drizzling but we decided to go into Kraków, hoping that it was better weather there. There were only 5 of us for this trip as the rest were out with a bout of the bot, or perhaps just wanted to stay and keep our hosts company. We got to the Jewish quarter of Kraków (Kazimierz) with relative ease and when we first arrived the clouds seemed to be holding onto their moisture. However, it did not take long before the weather worsened and we headed home after seeing only one church and none of the Ghetto.
DAY TWELVE: The next day was pouring with rain so a down day was had by all. Homework, colouring in, TV and fighting with their cousins were the amusement for the kids, and the adults indulged in reading and Suduko.
DAY THIRTEEN: We set off the city of Bielsko Biała to meet up with Wes’s uncle Staszek, and his family, with whom Wes has been keen to catch up with since meeting up with them when he was studying here in the late ‘80’s. The day was a wonderful one with old times being talked about, food – there is always plenty of food – and photos, of course. We were also treated to a tour of his factory where it was obvious that Staszek is a natural “lean” manufacturer, probably without the benefit of even one six sigma course. So, if you ever see the Kaletka brand on any gas equipment or hardware it’s made in Bielsko-Biała.
DAY FOURTEEN: And we’re off on another adventure. First up for the day was an 18km raft ride down the river Dunajec, which was unique in that it passed down the river that had Poland on one side of the river and Slovakia on the other. On one stretch Slovakia owned both banks and in others Poland did, this was a result of a flood in 1934 which changed the river channels but not the border. The trip took just over 2 hours and it must be said that in comparison to other river rides, we left this one with a feeling of anticlimax. Next we went onto the castle in Nidzica, situated on top of the hill, as such things are, it had a commanding view of what was then the most northern part of Hungary. The castle was similar to those we have seen in the past but it was still fun to walk the walls, inspect the torture implements in the dungeons and the armoury. Unfortunately, at the end of the day the overall decision was that for the time it took and the cost associated with the rides and sites, the day was simply not worth it. Maybe we have been spoiled by our other adventures in other countries, or perhaps it is just our reaction against the surly customer service accompanying comparatively steep prices that is regrettably considered appropriate in some places. 
DAY FIFTEEN: The last day in the Kraków region took us to Dinolandia where - yes you guessed it- there are a whole heap of life-sized dinosaur sculptures. Kris had a great time and wanted photo’s in front of every dinosaur. We were also due to go onto ‘Miniatureworld’ next door, populated with all the architectural wonders of the world, but again the heavens decided to open up again and we had to head home. On the way home, while we could not actually stop to take a look, we did drive through the city where the Pope John Paul II was born and worked, until he scored the big corner-office job in Rome.
DAY SIXTEEN: After some very sad goodbyes and with huge amounts of gratitude we left our temporary home of Skszydlna and took the rental cars back into Kraków to catch the train to Warsaw where we will meet up with more of our Polish family.
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