Call of the North, (28): Krakow – Pearl of Poland

Aug 7th, 2008

In the movie “The Terminal”, Tom Hanks plays a Polish man who gets blocked in an airport terminal because in his country a separatist group declares independence of the “Republic of Krakozhia”, with guns and turbulences. I still don’t get it. Is it a joke on the Polacks? If it is, I think it’s weak. If it’s not a joke, then it’s plain stupid. Especially considering how the city of Krakow (in Latin, Cracovia) looks like in reality.

I’m sitting at the “Arlekin” terrace in the main square, i just posted the previous story about Warsaw – that’s because this city seems to be “covered” by wireless internet. For free. Like Estonia. Sponsored by IBM, Intel, the local community and I donno who else.

It’s 8pm, sunny, warm. I just ordered a fruit ice cream cocktail, after I “liquidated” a creme cake – it’s the last night, i’m splurging. 3 hours from now my train is leaving, on the long way home, but before that, there is Krakow and then another story to be told.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to move inside soon, as battery runs out. But first, I’ll enjoy the ice cream, and then we’ll see.


I ate the ice cream, and took a stroll through the square. Feeling kinda nostalgic.

Yesterday, when losing my towel (will get back on that), i wanted to go home – it was clearly starting to fall apart, time to go. Now that i’m a few hours from leaving, it’s not that I regret, but i feel nostalgic. In the last 4 weeks, all these strangers i am watching now passing by, taking pictures of themselves with the towers, watching a ukrainian-polish concert (will get back to that), riding in horses carriages, sitting under the statue of their national poet, or simply getting on with their lives – all these people have been, in a way, part of my life in the last month. I will leave them behind in about 2 hours.

I’m back, sitting at another terrace, with electric lampions which drew me to it – means it HAS to have a power source – and I found it. So I can still sit outside and write. Unfortunately I can’t get back onto the public wireless network, and I can’t crack the password of the network from the hostel behind me, so I’ll just jot it down and load it later.

Meanwhile, the story about Kraków (pronounced “krah/coov”) starts in… Warsaw, yesterday morning. My train was at 5 past 8 am. I wake up in time around something-to-seven, but i waste time as usual and before I know it it’s 20 to 8. What options do i have? taxi, which is ~20 zloty, which i dont have. and no time to withdraw money. There’s a bus which takes ~10 mins, comes every 10 mins, costs – how much can it cost? i have maybe 7 zloty left, shd do. last option is to walk, for about 25 mins, with bags and all… no.

so i head for the bus station. approaching the main street, i hear noise, loudspeaker noise. I ignore it. until i see the people. i thought i dont see well – the hord of young religious people in uniforms i had seen yesterday hanging out in the city was marching now happily, occupying half of the street – the half where my bus was supposed to come. Police with them, everything, organized and all. i would have fainted, but i had no time to – obviously, no bus was circulating in “my” direction.

It took me a few seconds to internalize the information. for another few i acknowledged i just missed the train. then i sweared (in my mind) at these merry kids, before erupting (inside, of course): I’M NOT GIVING UP JUST YET.

So I started walking towards the train station. it was 12 to 8. After about 5 mins i calmed down and stopped swearing at the religious people, even asking for forgiveness. it was not their fault. had i started out at half past 7, as planned, i wd have had plenty of time to walk.

I focused on trying to walk most efficiently, the 200 kg of luggage pulling me down. ok, maybe they’re 25 kg, but feels like 200. I made it to the train at 3 to 8. Enough to hop in.

Insider tip: the magic towel. for the whole trip i carried a small towel in my backpack. does wonders after you chase a train and are dripping wet.

I slept like a log till krakow. first touristic tip: tourist info are on line 3 in the train station. why exactly, eludes me. people are very friendly and well-informed.

Hostelul Flamingo is not very visibly marked (they’re not allowed to put big signs on historic buildings), but was declared the best on in 2007. Indeed.

Room’s not ready, so I leave luggage as usual, applying the “no backpack while strolling” scenario, just cameras to my belt, pockets full of maps, hands and back free.

I had reserved a walking tour ticket. Thought it’s a good way to get the pulse, given the short time. Till 2pm when tour was starting i had time on my hands, enough to satisfy the King Kong syndrome in the first tower that I saw. This one.

It offers a good view on the Big Square,

about which I had heard it’s the largest in Medieval Europe. Doesnt seem THAT large, but ok, if they say so. Further back, Wawel castle, a place I need to see.

I go down and start walking around the big building on the right, when I suddenly realize that I had seen only half of the square! There’s another half beyond the big building, which takes the centre! Aha, now you’re talkin!

It’s huge :). The guide will tell us that it is in competition to Venice’s San Marco for the status of “largest in Europe”, de difference being minimal.

A few more pix i shoot quickly before tour starts: a pregnant lady photographing,

a thinking statue,

the “small square” (well, a relative term in this case)

and a new breed of horsecarriagedriver…esses.

Then quickly 2 “sarmale” at one of the stands, when I realize there are no better sarmale in the world than those mad by my mama, not in Latvia, not in Poland. Sorry guys.

Tour starts. Highlights:

Jagellonian University,

2nd or 3rd old in the world,

University church, the only one wearing its original baroque,

a photo exhibition on Krakow 20 years ago vs today.

I asked the guide where did they get the money from for these massive restauration works. It’s UNESCO patrimony, then the EU, government, other partners. Still, I’m amazed – the city is huge, not fully refurbished, but still, to a large extent. Must have costed a fortune. We’d need to do that at home too… It probably makes a difference in your daily life mood to live in a city that looks like this.

People from Brasov and Sibiu should know.

From the 41 towers, 3 are left, the rest being demolished in the very pragmatic 19th century (“they stand in our way”). Today you see only where they used to be.

The episcopy building is important since this is where John Paul left from to go to Rome. To become a Pope.

Nowadays there seems to be an entire “cult” around “JP2”, every community wants a statue, big business there for sculptors. He is one of the 2 great personalities of Krakow, the other one being Kopernikus, who studied here 3 years, and, as an anecdote, apparently was not speaking Polish at all. During that time Poland was split between different empires, and in the North where he came from they were speaking German..

Further on down the street…lets,

up to the Wawel castle, with the Royal Cathedral, where all Polish kings were crowned, even after the capital was moved to Warsaw (of course, big rivalry between the two cities, Warsaw is the economic centre, Krakow the cultural/intellectual – i.e., warsawians are the “materialists”, krakowians the “lazy”).

The cathedral is a rare architectonic melting pot,

apparently whoever had enough money could build a chapel here. I find the crazy style mix cool, in its own way. They say long ago a dragon used to live around here. King Krak killed it, by feeding it a sheep filled with sulfur. It got thirsty, went to drink water from the river Wisla, but water with sulfur… it exploded.
What does it have to do with the church? At the entrance there are a few bones which they say are from the dragon (!). Scientists and non-romantics say they tested and they’re from a mammoth and a prehistoric whale, but who believes them anyway. What surprised me was catholic tolerance to pagan legends, putting dragon bones above the church entrance.

Next to the cathedral is the royal palace,

former royal headquarters, until austrian occupiers turned it into a garrison.

The bearded dude on the left is the guide, a funny latvian.

He speaks perfect british english (lived in london for a while); i asked him why they put an “s” at the end of almost every Latvian name. He said thats the way it is. Latvian and Lithuanian are a special breed of slavic languages, significantly different from all others, they don’t understand and are not understood by other slavs, which is unusual.

That’s where the tour ends. I went alone to Kazimierz, the Jewish neighborhood. Before WW2, 100000 Jews lived here. About 60 were left thereafter. In Poland, from 3.5 Million, around 20000 survived.

The “ghetto” is not as spectacular as the one from Vilnius, a bit more run down,

so i didnt spend much time and returned to the old city centre

and to the main square, only to witness a… bycicle race!

In the movie below, 2 cyclers panic as someone wants to cross the “track” in front of them.

Below’s a slideshow with some of the pix taken at the event:

I didn’t stay till the end, went ahead on Florianski street,

towards the gate with one of the square towers

and on to the barbican (=fortified tower).

Then back,

in the evening light

at this obscure bar

where the guide had told us there are good pancakes. I enter, dzien dobry (hello), they answer kindly, then – i’m stuck. The menu is in polish. The blonde lady, NOT A WORD in english. Not even “yes” or “no”. Not only that she wasn’t speaking, but she noticed I am struggling to figure out the menu – couldn’t care less. I asked her a few things – answered in polish, on a bored tone. Other people at tables didnt care either. She raised her shoulders and went to the back, to her business, leaving me pray to dilemmas. I wanted a salty pancake, for dinner. The first one on the list was with yogurtowy and orzechami. I figured out yogurtowy, but asked what is orzechami. She answered, I quote, ““orzechami”. Empty look, not hostile, not friendly, just sheepish. And then continued to clean the desk.

Annoyed, I decided to take the orzechami thing. It was walnut. And sweet. GRRRR. I ate gruntling, and then moved on to the lactobarul at the corner.

The menu…

Of course the lady spoke no single word in any other language. I can not believe i am the ONLY tourist ever entering those locations. Impossible. Still, I asked her what the first item on the list meant, she raised her shoulders and… retreated frantically!! I couldnt believe it! What is it with former Communist Europe and services?!?

My personal hypothesis has to do with “culture of serfdom”. Working in services, anything that has to do with “serving others” was looked down upon in communism, where “all had to be equal”. People don’t respect “servants”, it is degrading. I have rarely seen people working in services and being happy about it. I guess they are not respected, and return the favor. Just a hypothesis.

I got mad and asked for ukrainian borsh, that I understood from the menu. In 20 words they explained “we’re out of that”. “Then what do you have?” “Žurek”. Sort of a borsh too, a sour soup not too sour, with… salami. Oh well. It was so-so.

(Paranthesis. Today I wanted to buy a t-shirt, from the railway station. Something written in polish on it. Anything, unless it’s something very stupid. At the first shop, I ask “excuse me, what is written here?”
“Size?” (pronounced “see-zay”) “XL, L?”
“No, not size, translation please, what does the WRITING mean?” (i show her)
“Aa.” She translates it, sighing.

Yet the one I want is not available in my size, so I go to the next store. Dzien dobry, dzien dobry. I call her out to show her, and ask the same question. Adding “translation, please”.

Nie wie”, she answers, and with a short paniced shoulder raise she disappears before I can say anything. Nie wie = I don’t know.

I thought she entered to get a dictionary or something, to help the translation. But as she wasn’t coming out, I went in and… she was sitting down, continuing to read the newspaper. Didnt even look at me.

Infuriated, I went to the other shop and bought the XXL shirt. Apparently, it shrinks upon washing, she said in Polish. I was so annoyed, I understood.

Let’s get things straight: i dont mind people not speaking english. They didnt study it in school, fine, no problem. What annoyed me was that they didnt even bother to try to help. Saw me struggling, couldnt care less. Sort of “you don’t matter” kind of a message. “You want to buy from me? Your problem. It annoyed me very much.

Meanwhile, and with this paranthesis closed, after a while i almost find it cool, how this nation is so open, yet so closed.

Where was I? žurek. After žurek, back to the main square, where I found the 4 acordeonists. Battery went out, i’d have liked to tape them more:

Lots of things happen in the Big Square, many at the same time – there is room. On half of the square there was a polish-ukrainian festival goin on, on a stage where various people performed. At night there was a ukrainian music band, a teacher and a few teenagers, cymbalons, violines – beautiful. Slavic music has a touch of magic. Unfortunately, no more battery for filming, so all i have are pictures.

It was getting dark. One more stroll around the square

to see the fire dancers on the other side.

And with that, go to sleep. As an overall impression, Krakow (also) exceeded expectations. Although not fully refurbished like Prague – you can still find grey houses in the centre,

it has a special charm to it. Mainly driven by the formidable Big Square. As opposed to Warsaw, the city escaped destruction during the war! Maybe because this was the headquarters of the Nazi force in Poland. Apparently they mined the entire town, to tear it down when they were leaving, but the “button has never been pushed”. Still, this didn’t contribute much to saving the reputation of the respective nazi governor, and the next episode will show why.

Meanwhile, back at the hostel before going to bed, i noticed i cannot find my towel. shit, i remember putting it out to dry, but dont remember packing it in warsaw… oh, it’s falling apart, i’m starting to lose things – time to go home, i guess. i wrote to the warsaw hostel to please send me the towel home (it was a special travel towel i grew fond of, and what is a galaxy hitchhiker without his towel!) and went to sleep.

The next morning I randomly checked the bottom of the backpack and… found the towel. I don’t remember putting it there – maybe that’s still a sign to go home. Not before there’s something to today, but about that – in the next episode. To end the story on Krakow, upon return that afternoon from the thing i had to do, i climbed the church tower

to see the trumpet player play. I had heard him yesterday too, at every hour, didnt know what it was about, he is playing an interrupted tune in all 4 directions.

A real trumpet player.

The tune is also the hour signal on Radio Poland. it is interrupted because apparently while the trumpet player was announcing the Tartar invasion in 1241 he was killed in the middle of the tune.

Today there’s a team of trumpet players who play in turn. You can get an autograph from them :).

The church itself is impressive too.

Sitting there i suddenly wondered: if the project of this church would have been presented to Jesus himself, what would He have said? Would he have approved it?…

In the evening it was only relaxing in the big square, strolling,

watching some polish rap,

sat down,

wrote (a part of this story), ate the ice cream mentioned above, strolled again, then went to the hotel, carefully arranged luggage, and then headed for the railway station, at a relaxed pace.

So relaxed that I missed the train.

One thought on “Call of the North, (28): Krakow – Pearl of Poland

  1. Sitting there i suddenly wondered: if the project of this church would have been presented to Jesus himself, what would He have said? Would he have approved it?…

    huuum good question, idk but i asked myself the samething and i highly doubt it, looks like people would come for the view rather for the real reason why they should be there in the first place but at the same time whoever built it knew what their were doin…but thats my personal opinion….

    I was very fasinated with the pics, the angle the view and everything it was nice, good pictures like that made check out the whole page and even leave a comment. Thats was up, kuz i neva take the time for this sh*t….but mad props i hope it was the experience of a life time.


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