Sunday, May 20, 2007


9th May: Kazimierz, Krakow

My mum & I flew from Bristol to Krakow on 9th May. The airport is named after the previous pope, as he was Bishop of Krakow. We got the train into Krakow from the airport (I bought our tickets using my Polish phrasebook) and walked to our hotel from the station, via the green belt that surrounds the city centre. The walls were slighted in the 18th century by the Austrians, and they planted trees instead. This green belt is called the Planty (plurals in Polish seem to be formed by adding a -y). After we had settled in, we went to explore the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. We had beetroot soup (delicious) and challah (bread) in the Café Alef. It seemed strange to be eating challah on a weekday. The café was very atmospheric, with a vaulted ceiling and lots of pictures of Jewish life on the walls. We booked a table there for the evening and discovered that there was going to be a klezmer band on as well. I love klezmer, so was very pleased about this. We then went to the Old Synagogue, which has an excellent museum of Jewish life. Several times tears started welling up, as we were very aware that the Jewish community in Kazimierz was almost wiped out (there were 17 000 before the war and only 2000 survived; as many Jews left for Israel, there are only about 100 Jews in Krakow now). In the museum were beautiful scrool-holders for the Book of Esther, used for the feast of Purim; mezuzot; Ark screens; pointers for reading the Torah; Hanukah candles; spice-boxes for the end of the Sabbath (Havdalah); a ketubah; and an amazing pair of paper-cuttings. There was also a really poignant series of photos of Jewish life in Kazimierz in the early years of the 20th century. It was particularly heartbreaking seeing the photos of the children; they were probably all wiped out. We then wandered around the Jewish quarter, looking at the other synagogues, and saw the Augustine monastery and the Lateran church; also a big baroque church of St Stanisław in the monastery precinct. The Polish Gothic style is very tall. A lot of the churches have Baroque interiors. We walked a little way along by the River Vistula and back through Kazimierz. We walked all round the old Jewish cemetery before finding the entrance, which is through a synagogue with a small courtyard inside the gate. It was closing, but we looked through the gate at the old gravestones, and read the plaques in the entrance courtyard. One of these was put there by a Holocaust survivor who was the only member of his family to survive. I read it and burst into tears. It was very sad. It's difficult to take on board thousands or millions of deaths, but when you find one specific story, it really brings it home to you. Then you somehow have to multiply that story by millions to understand the utter awfulness of the Holocaust - while still holding onto the feeling that this one story made you feel. We also saw a couple of groups of Jewish men having a guided tour around the area (they were wearing kippot).

I made a few notes back at the hotel to try to capture the sense of loss, of absence of the vanished Jewish life. It wasn't like they'd never been there; they had lived full rich lives and then been cruelly eliminated.

Echoes of Jewish life,
the glimpse of the Shabbat candles,
light snuffed out,
only glimmers of silver and gold,
old photos and paintings of Rabbis,
Purim plays and dreams of Israel,
Seder and Passover.

A whole culture wiped out. We must not let this happen again.

We went to the Café Alef for dinner. I had beef knedlach (dumplings) in dill sauce; my mum had carp. The meal was accompanied by sauerkraut salad (delicious), and for dessert we had Purim cake (kind of toffee and walnut pie) and charoset. The klezmer band were excellent; they set the feet tapping, opened all the right chakras, pulled at the heartstrings. There was a double bassist, a violinist and an accordionist. We bought the CD; they are called The Saints. They did a couple of tunes that I know (Araber Tanz was one) but the rest was new to me. As we came out of the café, we saw Venus shining very brightly over the rooftops.

10th May - Stare Miasto (Old Town), Krakow

We got the tram along Starowisłna (I bought the tickets using my trusty phrasebook again). We walked to the central square and saw the statue of Adam Mickiewicz (Poland's national poet) and the Sukiennice. We heard the hejnal, the trumpet call from the tower of St Mary's. This custom allegedly originated when the Tartars besieged the city; a trumpeter tried to warn the town, but they shot him in the throat with an arrow, silencing him. Another trumpeter replaced him after a short pause; so there is always a pause in the music to commemorate him. Very poignant. There is also a little tiny church in the main square, set at an angle to the rest of the square; when the Austrians occupied Poland in the 19th century, they took over St Mary's, and its local congregation had services in Polish in this tiny church. The tower of St Mary's church is amazing. We went in the Sukiennice, where there were lots of stalls selling amber, carved wooden boxes (bought one for N), and so on. Then walked down Ul. Jana (John Street) to the Czartoryczi Museum and round the corner to the gate of Ul. Florianska. Under the gate was a Baroque shrine to the Virgin Mary. On the other side were some folk musicians in traditional Gorale costume. Then we walked to the Stanisław Wyspiański Museum, and saw paintings, furniture and sketches in the Młoda Polska style (the Polish version of Art Nouveau). Most of them were by him (he was a very prolific chap) or by his friend Józef Mehoffer. We saw the preliminary sketches for the windows and polychrome wall paintings in the Franciscan church. Then we went and had cherry crepes and a strawberry, banana and blackcurrant smoothie in a café. Then we walked down past the Old Theatre (also in Młoda Polska style) and down to Collegium Maius of Jagiellonian University. It was beautiful (we didn't go round the museum, because our legs hurt after the previous museum). There was a medieval cloistered courtyard, with a well in the middle. Then we went to the church of St Francis of Assisi and saw the fabulous polychrome interior (by Wyspiański). There were lilies, and dandelions, and abstract patterns and stars, and a wonderful flamey sunburst effect around the arch where the transept crosses the nave. Then we had a late lunch in a small café opposite the German embassy (it was called the Grill Café, and the food was delicious). We had Bigos and potato cakes with gulash and sauerkraut. We returned via the main square ands walked about in the Planty for a bit. Very tired; walked back to the hotel. We went to the Ariel for dinner; also full of paintings of vanished Jewish life and culture. I had chicken stuffed with spinach amd drenched in mustard sauce; my mum had chicken in plum sauce.

11th May - Zakopane

We had enormous difficulty finding the main Krakow bus station. We eventually found it by asking for directions; it is accessed via a tunnel underneath the new shopping centre near the railway station (its location is marked incorrectly in both the Rough Guide and the Insight Guide - maybe it's moved since they were compiled). It also has two storeys, and the bus to Zakopane is on the top one. We found it about five minutes before it was due to leave. The bus journey was lovely, as the road wound through increasingly hilly countryside. Got a text from Nick telling me the BNP event had been cancelled - Yay! Power to the people! We saw lots of strip fields. About halfway to Zakopane, we started to be able to see the Tatra Mountains in the distance. We arrived in Zakopane at about midday, and got a bit lost - though we crossed the lovely meadow in the middle of town, so it was worth it. Then we heard a bloke with a Scots accent, and asked for directions (he was down from Warsaw for a couple of days, as he and his daughter were visting their former Polish exchange student - she gave us directions). We then had lunch in a charming restaurant called Karcma Zapiecek - if you go to Zakopane, eat there, as the food, decor and service were all lovely. My mum had black pudding with potato and sauerkraut, and I had meat dumplings; I've eaten something very similar in The Crown in Marshfield; I wonder if they have a Polish chef). After lunch we walked down the main street, through the market, and took the funicular up Gubałówka Hill. Some nice people made room for us on the seat by the window, so we could see the track receding behind us as we whizzed up the hill. There was a fantastic view of the Tatra Mountains from the top, and there was a topographical picture so you could identify them - the highest is 2610 m. We walked along the top of the hill admiring the view - very uplifting apart from the numerous stalls selling tourist tat. On one stall they had a real live lamb; it seemed a bit hot but was very cute. The view of the Tatras was framed by a row of pine trees. There was also a dear little wooden chapel with a carved interior. We went back down in the funicular and there was a Dominican nun on board. We bought some souvenirs in the market at the bottom. We tried to go to the folklore museum but it was shut. We then found another wooden church, with an even more ornate interior, and some 19th century wooden houses. We were really tired by this time, and decided to head back to the bus station, where we caught the 4.40 back to Krakow. We got a last glimpse of the Tatras from the bus on the way back - floating snow-streaked peaks. When we got back we walked down Ul. Florianska to the main square (and saw the inscription on Pod Roża about the tortoise and the ant), then had our dinner in the Grill Café. It was very atmospheric with the lamps lit in the gathering dusk.

12th May - Wawel Castle, Krakow

The castle is very impressive. We went in the Royal Treasury and Armoury and saw amazing horse trappings and shields, and the gifts of a sultan to a Polish king at the signing of a peace accord; all studded with turquoise. A lot of the royal treasure was looted during the Austrian occupation. There was some 12th century jewellery and a gold chalice and paten. There was armour and swords - enormous two-handers - and guns and crossbows. Then we went round the State Rooms, which were very impressive, with gold rosettes in carved wooden ceilings, leather wall-coverings, and old furniture, including a 17th-c English bed. In one of the rooms was an ensemble playing medieval music (a tune that we have on CD at home). Then we went round the cathedral and saw the royal tombs of the Jagiellonian kings. The interior was very Baroque and quite sombre. There were also some Młoda Polska windows by Mehoffer, and the tomb of Queen Jadwiga (canonised by John Paul II in 1997). There seemed to be a lot of power coming from her tomb. We sat on a wall by the the old chapel ruins to have lunch (we bought a picnic in a shop on the way). There were lovely flowerbeds there. There was also a music shop set into the castle wall, and we bought some Polish Renaissance and medieval music. Afterwards we went in the Royal Apartments, mostly restored in the 1920s, as there was a disastrous fire in the 18th century, and then the whole section was used as a barracks during the Austrian occupation. After we left the castle we walked up Ul. Kanonicza to the Dominican church of Sts Peter and Paul, then had icecreams - yum. Then we went back to the hotel for a rest, and later caught the tram into town and went to the Grill Café again (the food really is excellent there, and not very expensive). We heard the hejnal again from the café, and after the meal, we walked to the main square again to hear the 8pm one. We saw a little boy busking with an accordion, and a teddy bear holding his money pot. There was also a Goralese busker with a very impressive beard. We stood in the Plac Mariacki to hear the 8pm hejnal, and could see the trumpet sticking out of the window. Afterwards the man waved his hand out of the window, and then brandished the trumpet before closing the window. A fitting finale to our Krakow experience.


Ocean said...

Being that I am of Polish descent myself thru my maternal grandfather (whose last name was Wolzenski), I found this to be an interesting read. While most of my ancestry is Celtic, I do feel a strong kinship to my Polish heritage as well, although I must confess I haven't done much studying of Polish history, etc.

It is interesting that you mention the Jewish culture in Poland - I know that this was always something that bothered my grandfather a great deal (although he was a staunch Catholic). He abhorred the ways the Jews were treated during WWII and did what he could to try and help, although he was unable to serve himself due to flunking his medical test.

His business partner was Jewish, and I remember as a young girl being introduced to a member of their family, who rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattooed number on his arm. When I tried to ask more about what the number meant, I could see tears in his eyes, and then my mother shooed me away to go play with the other kids. Of course, it wasn't until many years later that I understood the meaning of that tattoo.

I think I will have to put Krakow and Poland on my list of places to visit...

Yvonne said...

It's all so sad. We were really cut up about it - the people and their life were so beautiful, and it was all destroyed. We didn't think we'd be able to cope with going to Auschwitz (which is not that far away), so we didn't. Though I think it's important that the evidence is there, as a memorial and a reminder.

But Krakow was very beautiful. Highly recommended.