When in doubt, go to Krakow

Thursday morning and I've got a backpack loaded with a weekend's worth of equipment--clothing, reading, knitting, and even my running gear.  As I turn to exit my block of flats, I realize I'm not wearing my glasses--upstairs to retrieve them and then I'm running 80% of the way to my bus stop to ensure I'll still be early to my lessons at the conservatory.  Lessons completed, I turn my mind towards the necessary post-lesson notes and paperwork before jumping online to check some final plans.  Those final plans?  That, for understandable reasons, my weekend plans are cancelled.  For the following hour before my train, I peruse webpages, hostels, and train times.  Should I catch that train to Prague and have a spontaneous Bohemian or German adventure or should I stay in Moravia?  My packed bag tempted me to go, but I felt that I should stay.  What progressed for the next three days was a delightful, spontaneous weekend, spearheaded by a Thursday afternoon with my dear Jana.  I read Hugo at the city hall tour while waiting for Jana's lessons to finish.  Then a delightful afternoon and evening followed of cake, conversation, and a cello concerto (Dvořák's to be exact).  Before the night was over, my weekend plans had been made: Lena and I would head to nearby Krakow.

Old Town's City Square
Friday afternoon was business and preparation so I could leave with a good conscience.  Shortly after 5 pm, Lena and I embarked to Krakow.  Along the way, my anticipation mounted, and I found myself giggling over the stereotypical ill-repair of some various Czech and Polish train stations along the way.  Despite occasional instances of uncertainty regarding platforms/tracks, we kept to correct trains and I knit away on some socks as Polish fields and foliage passed by.  The second I entered Krakow, I was charmed.  Our hostel was in the Old Town, an egg-shaped part of Krakow surrounded by a wall and a green park.  We enjoyed the still busy streets and had some "apple pancakes" at a place called something like the country chicken.

Back-lit salt sculpture.
Our first night's "rest" was made difficult by our mounting anticipation and by the four other inhabitants of our room (mostly by the four other inhabitants).  That couldn't, however, crush my spirit, and I got up at 7 am to go for a run.  An addiction was born that morning: sight-seeing running.  The length of the run seemed like nothing as I took in the beautiful buildings, cute cafes, and cobbled side streets.  My goal was the castle, and once there, I enjoyed the almost-completely-vacated space.  After breakfast in the city square, we set off for the bus that would take us to the Kopalnia Soli Wieliczka or the Wieliczka Salt Mines located just outside of the city (it's even a UNESCO site).  These salt mines are famous particularly for the carvings found throughout them, originally done by miners.  In their free time (the little they had), they would carve the salt deposits into religious figures and the like.  There are many chapels throughout the mines.  One that is especially notable is called the St. Kinga's Chapel.  The carvings in this chapel became these men's life's work.  Three miners/artists worked on it in shifts for 60 years to create relief sculptures, statues, and chandeliers.   As you travel from right to left throughout the chapel, you follow the life of Jesus--his birth, the exodus to Egypt, his teaching in the Temple at 12, and so on. The entire chamber is made of salt.  If you look in the video below, all of that granite-looking material on the walls, ceilings, floors, and stairs is salt.  Our tourguide would take her flashlight at times and put it directly onto the floor so we could see the floor glow white.  All-in-all the tour was a very unique experience.

Entrance to Rema Synagogue
A little hungry after the 2-hour tour, we grabbed a traditional "pretzel" and headed to the bus stop.  We grabbed a quick lunch at a Kebab stand; I decided to try zapiekanka, which is basically a giant baguette grilled with some sort of topping--a 40 cm-long (16-inch) lunch.  We then meandered through the Jewish Quarter on the way to the location of the old Schindler factory.  In 1938, the population of Krakow was about 25% Jewish with about 60,000 Jews in residence.  A guidebook I have claimed that at the time of it's publication (2003), the population was 100.  The Jewish quarter is the site of the ghetto forcibly formed after Nazi occupation in 1939.

The Nazis saw what a threat education and art were
and not only arrested professors but tore down
artistic works.
Not far from this quarter is the Schindler factory, more accurately known as the "Emalia" factory, which produced enameled crockery mainly, but Schindler also produced some military things in order to have the opportunity to employ Jews.  It has now been turned into a museum.  The museum has three floors of well-designed and informative displays that take the visitor through the occupation of Poland as well as through the experiences of the Jews at the Schindler factory.  I especially appreciated the films of interviews with former employees of Schindler.  There was so much text, video, and historical items that we spent three hours navigating mainly 2 floors.  I appreciated that they didn't cast Oskar Schindler as a "savior," rather the Jews interviewed and those who made the exhibition acknowledged his faults and often tainted motivations as well as the good that he did and the risks that he took.  One interviewee mentioned an anecdote in which a couple cars took factory employees on a tour of the salt mines--which weren't being regularly toured at that time.  After the tour, the manager said he enjoyed the visit, but he also said he was sorry that he had to let them go, and he asked only that they wouldn't come anywhere near the factory ever again.  He then handed out envelopes.  The interviewee mentioned the swearing and disparaging talk among the former employees after their dismissal.  The next day, the Gestapo came to the Emalia Factory in almost identical vehicles as those of the previous day and read the names of employees to be summoned.  As he read the names, the secretary responded, "Dismissed, dismissed, dismissed . . . "

It was a heavy exhibit and very necessary.  Such visits are always very personally convicting to me.  I have to ask myself, what are the misdeeds that are happening even now, close to where I am presently that I have power of influence over?  What do I need to sacrifice in order to change those situations.  As I reflected, I ultimately asked myself why I was even in Krakow--could the money I spent on this weekend have been better used if I'd directed it elsewhere?  Nonetheless, we were still in Krakow, and we continued on.

That evening we went to a restaurant called Kuchnia Staropolska U Babci Maliny.  The first part translates as "traditional Polish Cuisine" and the second part as something like "grandmother of the raspberries."  We were directed downstairs and felt like we'd blasted into another decade.  Piano music was being played life and the waitresses were dressed in white lace dresses emulating the 1920s style.  Here I tried pierogi, something like Polish dumplings stuffed with pork and cabbage.

He even intermittently breaths fire. Fact.
Sunday held no specific program.  Lena had told me that a friend of hers ran a marathon with her camera in tow, so I decided to bring mine along for my morning run.  Ironically, when I entered the city square (on of the largest in Europe), I saw that final preparations were being made for a race course throughout Old Town.  I continued on by and tried to avoid returning to the square.  I ran through the castle complex and everything seemed to try to pull me back to the square on the way back to the hostel.

By the time Lena and I were leaving for breakfast, tape was being put off to restrict both vehicular and foot traffic.  We ended up at the ChocoCaffe for a delicious breakfast before wandering back towards the castle.  I had heard of a famed dragon that dwelt there, but as much as I looked, I couldn't manage to find him.  Lena remedied this, and I faced the fire-breathing dragon.  The masses that were constantly occurring kept us from entering any churches (ironic, huh), so we headed to the Cloth Hall, which is an indoor market area with pre-made stalls in which jewelry, souvenirs, and pottery are sold.  As it approached 10:45 AM, we agreed it was late enough to have ice cream and we followed the Polish people to Lody--a chain of ice cream shops that we had seen Polish people queuing up for. For about $1.50 we each got two flavours of some of the most silky, succulent ice cream in existence--a fitting conclusion to our spontaneous weekend trip.

Photos from the Castle Complex:
The cathedral within the castle complex

The main square in Old Town Sunday morning.  On the right is the most famous church and on the left is Cloth Hall


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