We arrived in Krakow safe and sound on Tuesday 2nd of July 2013 ready to see and experience as much as possible in two and a half days. Ewa had chosen the Klezmer-Hois Hotel to stay in, a delightful, atmospheric old Hotel with a restaurant and musical connections as well as live Klezmer music in the evenings. I couldn’t work out though why the bottom sheet on my bed only covered the bottom ¾ of the mattress, rather unhygeinic as there was no mattress protector either so there was nothing between my head and the mattress other than the pillow, perhaps a cultural thing? I still don’t get it and I’ve not encountered that method of bed making anywhere else. That certainly provided us with a bit of a giggle.
As we were staying in the Jewish quarter surrounded by Jewish/Polish restaurants that meant we were also surrounded by awesome food! For our first lunch we chose a restaurant with a very traditional sounding menu. Needless to say we wanted to try everything but restricted ourselves to three main dishes and a beer. When we returned for drinks and dessert that night we discovered that we were the ‘talk of the town’ as ‘the two women who ordered 3 dishes for lunch’, that gave us a laugh, well if we were going to get a name for something, it might as well be for appreciating good food.
The first afternoon was taken up walking through the main square and the market hall, what a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, if you didn’t know the history you wouldn’t be able to guess it from the current lifestyle. There was a band playing in the square and a lovely young lady dancing. I wasn’t sure whether she was part of the act or whether she was a passer by captivated by the wonderful sounds, either way she was obviously a dancer as her movements were very elegant.
Oh, the produce for sale in the square! Stalls of freshly baked bread, preserved vegetables and fruit, smallgoods of all descriptions and traditional gingerbread were just a few of them. The obligatory living statues were of course present and bars, restaurants and cafes everywhere. One bar in particular is of interest to mention. Piwnica Pod Baranami. This cellar with atmosphere was opened in 1956 and has been an extremely popular political and artistic cabaret since then. In July each year it becomes the home of jazz. The story goes that this cabaret was so popular in the old days that when they couldn’t let any more people in the door some people (especially a particular actress) would slide through the window. A rather dangerous practice I would have thought as the bar is below street level, but I guess there would have been many hands ready to catch.
Then of course there were the real statues and sculptures dotted all over the city, both classical and modern, serious and funny. We walked along the old walls of the city, peaked in corners and shops discovering all sorts of evidence of a city with a very interesting and diverse culture.
The next day, 3 July, we walked our feet off again going to, through and back from, Wawel castle, heaps of history, treasures, crazy armoury and of course dead kings in the cathedral. As in all castles it was fascinating to hear the history, and seeing as I knew little about Poland prior to WWII, I enjoyed the education. At the castle is where I discovered yet another restricting aspect of myself that I hadn’t realised had become quite so bad. In the grounds of the Wawel castle are steps that lead down to the ‘Dragons Lair’. I had no idea what was down there but
have a look. Well, that didn’t happen, as part way down the tight spiral rock steps a panic struck me and I simply had to get out of there, rushing back up the steps the wrong way. I always knew I had a touch of
claustrophobia but hadn’t realised it had become so bad, oh well, useful to know.
The rest of the day was taken up with more walking, beer tasting and of course searching out as many traditional dishes as possible, that provided a lot of fun and kept us busy. Before we knew it there was only one day left to check out what else Krakow had to offer.
On our last day in Krakow, 4th July, lots had to be achieved. Those who know about the holocaust and
happenings in Poland will of course be aware of what went on in this city, so we had to go and find out more for ourselves and in fact learned things I’d never heard of. I won’t go into the gory details, you can look it up, but yes it was a horrible place to be for both the Jews and the Poles.
Before setting off for the day we, of course needed breakfast, I don’t do anything before my first coffee! We had noticed an Israeli café around the corner from the hotel so that is where we headed. I was over the moon with not only the coffee but also the presentation and surroundings.
Having satisfied the coffee needs we started off by walking to Schindler’s factory (yes of the Schindler’s List book and movie). Although we didn’t really have time to go through the museum there was quite a bit to see just in the entrance and the cafe area. Photos of most of the people that Schindler helped to get out, some pieces of machinery, photos of the movie and the gate which was used in the movie as the entrance to the factory, a red leather copy of the movie script and lots more. We were very disappointed by the behaviour of one bicycle tour guide. As we were in the middle of taking photos he turned up with his group and got them all to park their bikes in front of the gate where we were taking photos. His excuse that they needed to put their bikes in the shade, we pointed out that there was plenty of shade across the very narrow street, but of course he didn’t care. So very rude! Rather interesting that such arrogance was being displayed in a place where horrific historical events took place.
So here is some advice for fellow travellers;
Please! if you are in a tour group and you can see that the leader is causing disruption to other tourists, please, please do something about it. There are many people wanting to see and photograph the same things and so a few manners help everyone achieve their goal.
We went back to the Square through the rectangular memorial tunnel which was a very interestingly creative memorial. It was built in a place where the Jews were marched to the trains which took them to Auschwitz. In the ceiling of the tunnel the word Auschwitz was carved in such a way that when the sun shines down the word is reflected in the shadow of the internal wall, very clever. We tagged onto a free walking tour just at the time when the leader was answering the often asked question of why didn’t the Jews fight back. That’s where I learned about the process of demoralisation which was so brilliantly executed that by the time anyone realised what was going on it was too late and the inhabitants of the ghetto didn’t believe anyone who told them that they were in danger. He quoted the movie ‘The House I Live In’ where apparently they draw parallels between the way the ‘War on Drugs’ is being waged in the US to the system of demoralising the Jewish people during the Nazi period. I still haven’t seen the film so can’t make any personal comments, just re-iterating the guide’s words.
We also learned of the pharmacist Tadeusz Pankeiewicz (a Catholic) who, like Schindler, helped out in many ways. He chose not to re-locate to a gentile area when told to do so by the Nazis and managed to get permission to stay on as the only pharmacy within the walls of the Jewish ghetto. Through his actions many people were saved, his memoirs have now apparently been released in English so that would also be an interesting book to read.
In front of the pharmacy is the square within which is an art installation comprising 68 giant chairs. Each chair represents 1000 people who were crammed into the small area of the ghetto. They stand as a stark reminder of the transportations that happened from that very same square. Some of the smaller chairs are placed at the tram stop so people waiting for the tram can use them, this symbolises that anyone can be a victim.
From there we walked to the remaining piece of wall which surrounded the ghetto to prevent people from escaping. Just like the Berlin wall, stark and ominous but now softened by the greenery of mature trees.
I had already decided that I would not go to Auschwitz. After Dresden, the Berlin holocaust museum and Krakow I couldn’t handle any more, I just couldn’t face any more horror. Apart from which I’m an ‘empath’ and soak up energy like a sponge, and it takes a lot to shake it off (if that’s even possible). So, although people say that you haven’t been to Krakow unless you go to Auschwitz, some don’t really need to put themselves through that. I think my mother’s stories of the labour camps she was in and the scenes she witnessed on the day of the Dresden bombing of the ‘skeletons’ in ‘striped pyjamas’ shuffling past the camp where she was interred, are enough for me.
Of course after all the memorials of such dreadful times it seemed almost incongruous to just get on with ordinary life and sightseeing, but that’s the way it is, so a spot of lunch then off to the main Square again to check out St Mary’s Basilica and the markets.
We were side tracked by a chocolate factory and café. It was stunning, the creations that the chocolatiers made were incredible, whole buildings, shoes, hearts etc then we found another chocolate café, seemed like chocolate was the flavour of that afternoon. It was a beautiful evening to be out and about, with music in the square, birds going crazy at sunset and chocolate! And so ended our time in Krakow. The next day we said farewell to this lovely city and I was off on my next adventure.