Krakow, Poland


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Europe » Poland » Lesser Poland » Kraków
September 24th 2014
Published: September 25th 2014
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When I drop the money into her basket I see it is bellied with heavy coins and high-denomination bills. Darkness is descending and a cold Autumn drizzle with it. Spectators pull their heads into their collars like baby chicks and hug themselves against the chill. Winter is in the air. The woman is very thin. She stands in front of a great stone wall next to Saints Peter's and Paul's Church on Grodza Street. A squat, battery-powered speaker, cabled to an i-Pod in her hand, sits beside her on the wet pavement like a patient pet. Standing alone in her Houndstooth skirt, black stockings and red Cardigan she looks like a lonely waif. Her voice is pure. Each note rings clear and true. She sings some arias and then she lets loose with Agnus Dei from Les Misérables. Her eyes follow the climbing moon as she sings. She looks as if she's folding into the stone backdrop. Becoming smaller with every chorus. My heart aches with melancholy. We are in Krakow and there is much to ache over in this place.

We left Liptovsky, Slovakia on an eight-hour train journey that involved four changes of vehicle in places that I
On The Train To BohuminOn The Train To BohuminOn The Train To Bohumin

Bohumin is a major rail intersection in the Czech Republic. However the city did not appear on any of our maps nor did anyone in Slovakia know of it. It turned out to be a one-horse town with a two platform train station.
had never heard of before. Names like Silina, Katowice, Bohumin, and Glowny. Some of our waits lasted an hour while others had us dashing about looking to purchase tickets for a train that was about to depart only to discover that some Polish train stations are very poorly staffed and buying a ticket may require a lunch just to break up the wait. We met a middle-aged woman on one of our rides. She was heading east to Crimea to rescue her mother.

We met a young married couple from British Columbia on a 3-month, whirlwind tour of Western and Eastern Europe. Matt and Anna were their names. Good kids but they need to get started on making babies. We wished them luck and added a few 'must see' recommendations to make their journey even more frenzied. We really enjoy doing that.....

We finally disembarked at Krakow Plaszów station. A small, plain looking suburban stop which the Nazi's once used as a loading point for Auschwitz-bound Jews. Schindler's enamel factory sits next to the station as does the Krakow Ghetto and the Plaszów concentration camp. No gas chambers there. Just firing squads. Very busy firing squads. When the
WaitingWaitingWaiting

The waiting room in Silinia, Slovakia's train station.
Germans learned that the Russians were nearly upon them, they bull-dozed the camp and sent the remaining inmates on a death march to Auschwitz. All that remains of the concentration camp is a barren field and a marker. What a difference 70-years makes. Or not.

We spent two nights with a couchsurfing couple and their one-year old daughter in a two-room flat on the south side of Krakow. It was as nice as it sounds. We spent our first day in Krakow scouting the town. The 'Old City' is stunning. Krakow didn't suffer Warsaw's fate because the mayor of Krakow surrendered the city as soon as the German troops arrived in 1939. In stead of being blown to rubble like Warsaw; Krakow retained all of it original buildings. In thanks for his service the Nazis executed the mayor three years later.

We walked through the old Jewish quarter. Krakow was designated by the Nazis to be a model of ethnic cleansing. An example of what was possible. On March 3rd, 1941 the Krakow Jews were moved to a walled Ghetto on the other side of the Vistula River. Fifteen thousand people crammed into a tiny neighborhood that originally held three thousand residents; Four families to an apartment. Others slept in the streets. The film director, Roman Polanski, was part of this group. He later wrote; "My own feeling was that if only one could explain to them that we had done nothing wrong, the Germans would realize that it all was a gigantic misunderstanding."

Film record of Jewish evacuation to Krakow ghetto:

http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_fi.php?MediaId=188

Beginning on May 30th, 1942 the Jews were shifted from the Ghetto. Some went to the Plasznow concentration camp to labor in factories there while others were sent by train to the Auschwitz and Belzec death camps to be murdered. Those in the Ghetto who were too young or too old to travel were shot in the streets. Estimates of those killed in the Ghetto over a two day period range from 800 to 2,000 people.

The last of Krakow's Jews made their escape from Poland in the 1960's and 70's assisted by the Polish authorities granting of free emigration. By that time, Polish discrimination and a number of 'Pogroms' had convinced the Jews that their futures lay elsewhere. A Jewish social worker I met told me that there might be a grand total of two hundred self-recognized Jews currently living in Krakow. The old Synagogues are still here. Used as tourist attractions and tended to by the Polish run Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. Yamakas and little wooden carvings of Rabbis are widely available for purchase in the city. L'Cheim!

The old city's Market Square is a European crown jewel. A beautiful plaza surrounded by substantial Rococo and Baroque buildings. The center piece is St. Mary's Cathedral which sits in a corner of the square. 18th Century carriages, pulled by matched teams of horses in ornamental harness. They do a brisk business running tourists around town. The coach drivers are Top-hat capped women dressed in long-tailed, green-felt coats. The hats are banded with flowing silver-scarves. It's a trip to see them cruising around the old city, the hollow sound of horse hooves on cobble stones trumpeting their arrival. The horses are well-treated. Watered regularly and from the look of them they haven't missed any meals. Wooden brown food kiosks in the square sell long links of grilled Kielbasa served along with Kraut on thick, plate-sized slices of crusty peasant-bread. Cafes line the square and serve everything from
St, Mary's ChurchSt, Mary's ChurchSt, Mary's Church

Market Square, Krakow.
Polish to Georgian to Italian cuisine with varying degrees of success. Their tables are covered in white linen and set with good china.

Prices in these establishments; while steep for Poles, are quite affordable for us. A fine meal for three people can be had for $40 US. A Western European experience for a third of the cost. As a result, Krakow is very popular with the Germans, French, British and those Americans who still travel. The few Yanks we run into are usually employed by one of the many IT companies like Cisco that have set up shop here.

The market square is full of musicians. Singers, guitar players, duos of peasant-dressed women and men playing folk songs. We listen to a man playing Bach's toccatas and fugues on a giant accordion that sounds like a pipe organ and he doesn't miss a note.

Our friend was coming in for a visit. To get to the airport we took the #208 bus from the train station. It costs 3.80 Zloty or $1.20 for the 45-minute ride. A taxi for the same route costs 89 Zloty or $30 and takes just as long. Buses run every 20-minutes.
Market Square FountainMarket Square FountainMarket Square Fountain

A wonderful public space in the old city.
The airport is a hot mess as it undergoes a massive renovation. If you need to go there, leave early.

We secured a room at the Hotel Camea. $120 per night with breakfast and what a room. Old refurbished building right off the market square. Great staff who couldn't do enough for us. Ancient, polished, oak stairways, vaulted brick ceilings, comfortable beds, strong WIFI and a perfect location. Dozens of good restaurants nearby and easy access to public transport. One of the best hotels we have enjoyed on our trip thus far.

They'll have to start turning on the heating systems here soon. The Poles worry because the Russians have reduced natural gas shipments to Poland. Many here are praying for a mild winter. They are not alone as a few other countries, like Slovakia, are receiving the same treatment from Gazprom. The political focus here is on the eastern horizon.

If you're meeting Poles working in a restaurant or a shop or you have been introduced to them by another Pole they can be very nice people. But should you find yourself lost or in need of assistance making a call or getting a question answered they can be quite disagreeable. Rude. When Karen and I arrived we exited the train station to find a taxi but there were none. After 30-minutes of waiting for nothing we inquired at area cafes and asked bystanders for assistance. I made my queries in German because it is a partially official language here but very little English if any was spoken in these precincts. The responses varied from outright refusal to people pretending that they couldn't see me. One cafe manager asked me to leave her establishment. And she meant it. A railroad worker watched what was happening and finally strolled over out of mercy. We got our taxi but in the ensuing days we learned that what we had experienced was not an anomaly. Poles in Krakow are belligerent as a rule. The drunk ones are made worse by drink. Great town if not for the residents.

As we did in India, we discovered that running some money up our flagpole as a signal of distress could change Krakovian demeanor right quick. Karen and I have to constantly remind ourselves that the folks in eastern Europe have enjoyed true freedom for only the past 25 years. Customer service is a new concept to them. Things are changing. The newer generations can be kind and engaging. It will take time but things will, inevitably, change for the better.

Take a taxi over the same route at the same time of the day on multiple days as we did and the fares will never be the same. Ranging from 20 Zloty's to 35 Zloty's. If you need a taxi the most honest outfit we discovered was Radio Taxi-iCar in Plaszów/ Krakow. Their number is 12 653 55 55. One driver in particular; His name is Mark, was very helpful and spoke great English. His direct number is 88 177 43 02. With everybody else it is catch as catch can. Meters can be rigged, drivers take circuitous routes, they mis-quote the meter or say that they cannot make change for a large bill. Always ask for a receipt. A receipt must be provided by law and they are printed by the meter automatically. Krakow and Warsaw are taxi-hustle capitols. Use public transport when you can. It's a much better way to get around.

If you don't have an ATM card with an embedded chip then there are
Market Square FlowersMarket Square FlowersMarket Square Flowers

Poles love to buy small bouquets which they will carry about.
'No Zlotys for you!' US ATM cards without chips are unusable in Poland. We came to call Polish ATM's 'The Zloty Nazis'. Currency exchanges here are well known rip-off operations. NEVER use a currency exchange in either the airports nor the train stations. Official rate for the US Dollar was 3.25 Zlotys during our stay. The train station's exchange was paying 2.40 Zlotys. Banks were paying 3.12. Shop around, especially in the old city where the rates can swing wildly from day to day. Zlotys are useless outside of Poland so only take what you need. Neighboring countries will not exchange Zlotys no matter what anybody tells you. Zlotys are great for starting a fire in a foreign country but that's about it.

The top thing to do in Krakow according to the Krakow chamber of commerce is....? Go to Auschwitz! Which isn't even in Krakow. They bus you 50-miles to the camp. Give you a guided tour. Snap a few pictures standing in front of the ovens or the shoe pile or the hair pile or under the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate and then it's back to Krakow. Asian tourists get positively giddy posing for photos there. I
Market Square Food KioskMarket Square Food KioskMarket Square Food Kiosk

Smells great and tastes just as good. There are a dozen operations like this one.
swear that if the Poles let it happen; Some folks would climb into the crematoria just to get a shot of their beaming faces poking out of the the oven doors. It's just that weird. Bus tours to Auscwitz usually head out around 9:30 AM but you can hire a taxi to run you out there. Prices vary so shop around.

Our friend had been to Dachau and had little interest in repeating the death camp experience. So we stayed in Krakow, enjoyed the food and the architecture. Went to the Jazz-Rock Klub near the market square. Superb heavy metal scene with inexpensive drinks, a great sound system and a female to male ration of 5:1. Our friend was very happy.

We paid a visit to an on-line acquaintance I had made in Nowa Huta. His name is Piotr (that's Peter to you) Nowa Huta is a Krakow suburb. When the Communists took control of Krakow they tried to pass some Socialist initiatives via a referendum. The vote went poorly for the Communists so they decided that adding poor people to the voting pool was just the ticket. They razed three villages east of Krakow. Paved over the fertile farmland that was there and built a town. The centerpiece was the Lenin Steelworks. It turned into the largest producer of steel in Poland. People flooded into town because, in the end, it's all about the jobs. Things went well for a while even though the coke required to fire the converters had to come from Silesia and the iron ore from Russia. Russia's finest architects designed the town from top to bottom. Public squares here, housing there, parks, theaters and government buildings sprinkled throughout. Blocky, gray-stuccoed affairs built to last.

The town became a hotbed of anti-Communist activity. Uprising after uprising. A renegade priest named Karol Józef Wojtyla kept erecting a cross downtown which the authorities would tear down only to discover another one staring down at them the next day. Roman Catholicism was the national glue of Poland. Never able to eradicate the faith of the people the Polish police decided that killing a priest, sloppily, might be a good move. When the priest's body was discovered the Poles arose En Masse. The feces hit the fan. Katie bar the door. It was the end of the Communist party in Poland. By 1982, fully eighty-percent of
Nowa Huta BathersNowa Huta BathersNowa Huta Bathers

Life was good here in the 50's. Almost looks like life in the States.
the workers at the Lenin Steelworks were members of the Solidarity Union. Lech Walesa, Nobel Peace Prize, Gorbachev, 1989 and here we are today. The renegade priest later became Pope John Paul II.

Piotr turns out to be a bright guy. Very bright in fact. He's trained in Sociology and Statistics. Marathon runner. Speaks fluent English. He's forty-years old and looks like he's twenty-five. I want his facial cream. Piotr asks excellent questions and he actually listens to our answers. He and our friend hit it off immediately. They start their conversation with the Polish death metal band, 'Vader' and run hither and yon from there. Piotr told us what Poland was like under Communism. The empty shops and the interminable waits in lines to purchase basic foods. He told us what he remembered of the uprisings. The protestor he saw murdered by a Polish undercover policeman in October of 1982 when he was 8 years old. How he felt about it all.

His apartment is in one of the original Communist-built residential buildings across the street from the 'Peoples Theater'. Two bedrooms with an eat-in kitchen and a full bath. Completely re-done. Fresh paint. New fixtures. The
Soviet TankSoviet TankSoviet Tank

Now a jungle-gym for both kids and adults.
nicest apartment we have visited in Eastern Europe. To a newly arrived worker in the 1950's a place like this must have felt like heaven.

Piotr gives us a tour of the town. We visit the steel mill and the central square which is now named 'Ronald Reagan Square'. No lie. The residential neighborhoods are surprisingly nice. Treed streets with playgrounds adjacent to every 4-story apartment block. Sixty years later the place feels like home and I wonder if there weren't a few things that the builders got exactly right.

Our friend the soldier and Piotr the free-thinker are discussing Russia and the Ukraine now. The fighting, the dying and what should be done about it. They wonder if this is not a repeat of German actions in the 1930's and England's corresponding inaction. We are sitting in Piotr's living room. Piotr is smoking a cigar. A thick, cotton plume of smoke hangs in the air above them like an ever-expanding thought balloon. Karen and I sit back and listen. We quietly smile. This conversation is best left to the young with a dog in the fight.

The sun is setting behind the thinkers. Soft golden light outlines their heads. Through the window I see the great Communist experiment that was Nowa Huta. The 'Peoples Theater', the white-trimmed windows set into blocky grey stucco. The Birch trees and the parks and the swan flecked ponds. The Soviet tanks now deployed as historical markers. I recall how, as Americans, how concerned we were with this. The Iron Curtain, the dark corners, the alien philosophy, Mutually Assured Destruction, STRATCOM, Ich Bin Ein Berliner, Checkpoint Charlie, Domino Theory, Cuban missiles, Dad-built bomb shelters and Fail Safe. I close my eyes, going with the flow. Listening to the music of the boys' voices. Enjoying this peaceful moment. Knowing full well that they never last.

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We're in Berlin now. Heading to Tunisia tomorrow where I hope to catch up on my blogs. I have a big one to write on Liptovsky. A wonderful place that deserves more than a passing review. Our thanks to all of our Eastern European friends who made this part of our trip a great one. Shouts to Polona, Miha, Eva, William, Piotr (love you dude), Alex, and baby Liza. We have one more month to go and then it's time to catch our boat
St. Mary's Ceiling Transition Into ApseSt. Mary's Ceiling Transition Into ApseSt. Mary's Ceiling Transition Into Apse

Beautifully decorated church that uses colors that you won't find in most cathedrals. Archways were decorated in what appeared to be Arabic motifs.
back to Florida for a breather before we head west. See you tomorrow Claus. How you doing John M? HTTR

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30th September 2014

See you soon
Hi, I am doing as well as can be under the circumstances. Can't wait to come visit you two hopefully in November. Enjoying the blog as usual, very colorful commentary, makes you feel like you are there. Take car and travel safe. John
30th September 2014

See you soon
Hi, I am doing as well as can be under the circumstances. Can't wait to come visit you two hopefully in November. Enjoying the blog as usual, very colorful commentary, makes you feel like you are there. Take car and travel safe. John

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