Monday, March 17, 2014

Krakow, Poland

I spent this weekend in the incredible city of Krakow, Poland. 

We left Prague Thursday morning (and by "we" I mean about 80 students), and arrived in Krakow a whopping eight hours later. Our bus driver was probably the most the energetic, charming, and talented driver I've ever seen. He dutifully waved at every bus that passed us, and wove in and out of traffic without a care in the world. Oh, and he managed to parallel park the beast of a bus as if it was a smart car or something. I have no idea. He was amazing. 

Thursday night we were all pretty exhausted and hungry from the drive, so we meandered out of the hotel and stumbled upon a gem of an Indian restaurant just outside Krakow's main square. I'm not kidding when I say it was a gem. It was cozy, comfy, and exactly what we needed after the day's travels. 

Friday morning I woke up bright and early, only inclined to get out of bed because I knew there was free breakfast waiting in the hotel lobby for me. Food has amazing powers. If you give me food, I will probably do anything for you. Yes, it's that big of a deal. After stuffing my belly with the infamous yogurt that is so common around Eastern Europe (as well as a few crepes, shh), the group set out on a tour to see the the oldest parts of Krakow. Our guide was a middle aged Polish woman that looked Venezuelan, but spoke perfect Czech and would repeat the phrase "so this is what I would like to tell you" before telling us anything. She also liked to call her tours of downtown Krakow "ABC" tours, or "Another Bloody Church" because there are so many churches there (140 Catholic churches to be exact). She was adorable. 

We toured all around downtown Krakow, including the main square, the oldest street, and the Wawel Cathedral (pronounced Vavel). The main square has this huge building in it that was originally used to buy and sell textiles. It's now been renovated into a shopping area with boutiques and restaurants, but the middle is devoted to little Polish trinkets and souvenirs. 

Old Textile Trading House 

Some of the little trinkets sold in the textile markets

The Wawel Cathedral was located right in the middle of old town atop Wawel Hill (fitting, right?). This Roman Catholic church is extremely important in all of Poland, as it is the coronation site of all the Polish monarchs, as well as the place where Pope John Paul II was ordained into priesthood. So, kind of a big deal. I guess. Outside the Cathedral there was this adorable little man playing an accordion and singing what I assumed to be traditional Polish folk songs. He was so friendly, I'm pretty sure he could have been Santa in disguise, working a bit in the off season.

The Cathedral had so much history, and so many interesting aspects, there's no way I could describe them all here. It will have to suffice to say that it was outstandingly beautiful, both inside and out. I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside, but the couple I took of the outside don't begin to do it justice. 

Wawel Cathedral. Wowza.

After our tour of the city, we explored around the square for a little, stopping for lunch a falafel place (not the best in the whole world) and a little shop that sold ice cream and dessert waffles. Imagine our surprise when we discovered they also sold donuts that were as big as a human face. Doughy, glazed, deliciously filled donuts. I'm pretty sure this place was a small section of heaven. The donut was enough for five girls (barely), but we just simply weren't satisfied so we came back again on friday and indulged in the waffles. Warm and fresh off the grill, mine came with strawberry jam, whipped cream, and some of the thickest milk chocolate I've ever seen. I mean, does it really get better than that? No. The answer is no it doesn't.

Thursday I also visited the Salt Mines. The tour was incredibly fascinating, but a little long for my taste. We were down in the depths for two hours, and only saw about 1% of the entire mine. I can't even wrap my head around how huge that is! By far the best part of the salt mine experience was the opportunity to lick every single thing around you. Yep, that's right, I said lick it. Lick the stairs, the wall, the floor, you name it, because it's all made of SALT. Licking the wall was disgusting but satisfying at the same time...I tried not to think too hard about how many people had probably licked that wall before me. Gross. But it was so worth it because, really, how often in a lifetime are you invited to lick walls? 

 The night ended with an amazing feast at a traditional Polish restaurant. It was a giant four-course meal, with the star attraction being a huge platter of roasted chicken, dumplings, cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes, and steamed vegetables. It's safe to say I was close to bursting out the seams that night. Oh, and I can't forget the warm apple piecake for dessert. I say "piecake" because it was trying really hard to be pie, but just didn't quite make the cut. Thus, piecake. 

Saturday was a very sobering and emotionally intense day. I visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, and even reflecting on it now I don't think there's a single word or expression that could accurately summarize my experience there. It almost doesn't seem real in a way. There were thousands of people there, walking the same paths, going through the same buildings as the prisoners did not so many years ago. The tour was very defined and informative, without much emotional intimacy, which was better in a way I think. It gave the facts. 

The only times I was aware of any strong emotion was when we walked through a room where hundreds of suitcases had been piled. The suitcases belonged to the traveling Jews who thought they would be going home someday. Many had written their addresses on them, in case they were lost or stolen along the way. They really had no idea. The other time was when we walked through a hallway lined with photographs of the actual prisoners. Those things--the suitcases and the photographs, made everything so real. So tangible. I think the events of the Holocaust are often talked about in very abstract terms, which makes it challenging to really feel the intense disgust I felt seeing those items. In a class room it's easy to feel hatred and to feel sadness and even maybe pity. But being there in the camps, being present where these people were once present, that is entirely different. 
"Even alive prisoners looked like dead ones."

The rest of Saturday we roamed around downtown Krakow, and eventually went back to the Indian restaurant for dinner (apparently I was a creature of habit on this trip...not much variety food-wise. But it was just so good!). Sunday morning was a small tour of the Jewish Quarter and the area where the infamous movie Schindler's List was filmed. It was cold and rainy, so our tour guide let us do most of the tour from the bus. I told you she was amazing. She was choc-full of interesting facts about people that lived in the Jewish Quarter. Apparently Estée Lauder, the beauty and cosmetic icon, was Hungarian Jewish and spent some time in the Krakow ghetto. The most astonishing fact was that of the 70,000 Krakow Jewish people sent to camps in WWII, only 5,000 made it out alive. The magnitude of those numbers still shock me. 

The drive back feels like a blur now, with the in and out of sleep and the endless green pastures that boarded the highway. This weekend was an incredible experience, and I feel beyond blessed that I had the opportunity to travel to a place so rich with history and culture. But as we pulled into the bus station in Prague early evening on Sunday, the beautiful feeling of familiarity came over me. This is my place now. This is my town.
I was home. 

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