Upon first arriving in France, there were several places I knew that I wanted to make time to see while I was in Europe for the semester. For whatever reason, Poland was not one that initially came to mind, although I had no reason to not want to go there. I think something about it seemed very distant, even though it’s much closer to Paris than, say, the distance between Philadelphia and Kansas City. I think it may subconsciously have something to do with the divide between Western and Eastern Europe, or maybe it’s just because I honestly don’t know that much about Poland. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter. When my friend from high school, Janka, invited me to come visit her in Krakow, I did not hesitate for a moment to take up her offer. It is not often that you get a tour of a city from someone who lives there and is fluent in the language! As the time drew nearer for me to leave for Poland, I became more and more excited. Whenever I mentioned the trip to someone, they always had great things to say about the country and how much they enjoyed it. I looked into the kinds of things Krakow has to offer, and found that I would have more than enough to see during my short day and a half there.
I left Friday afternoon with no trouble getting to the airport or on my flight with just a little carry-on suitcase. As I was landing in Krakow, I had an amazing aerial view of the city. I could see everything so clearly, and it was so refreshing to see something incredibly different from Paris. All of the buildings are evenly spaced, surrounded by trees, and often are repeated in groups. I tried to find a picture online that demonstrates this, but Google seems to have failed me.
Once at the airport, I got out some money from the ATM. The Polish currency is the złoty. $1 is about equivalent to 3 złoty, which you can imagine was quite a wonderful break from the disastrous euro-dollar conversion. I love how their paper money looks. They have neat illustrations of kings on them. After that, I met with Janka and we took the bus into the city. I immediately noticed how many parks there were, which are full of big, beautiful trees dropping many colorful leaves. It reminded me of home, and I realized I hadn’t seen trees like this since coming to Europe. Overall, the passing buildings and landscape were the homiest looking things I’d seen in a long time.
Once we got to Janka’s apartment, I dropped off my stuff, re-hydrated, and then we headed out to dinner at a vegetarian place. Janka is also a vegetarian! We walked there, since Krakow is a very walk-able city. On the way there, we passed through the center of the Old Town, which was filled with a traditional market. I swear there was a man singing “Guantanamera” (a traditional Cuban song) which I thought was strange, but Janka said it wouldn’t surprise her. The food was so great, one of the few and best vegetarian meals I’ve had since coming to Europe. By the time we were done eating it was dark out, but we spent the night walking around most the city while Janka pointed out different sites to me. We discovered a really amazing hand-made gift shop that I decided to come back to the next day. There was something for everyone I know in there! We also got some candied nuts at the traditional market, which were super yummy. After walking around for a while, we stopped in a cafe. I decided to try something new, which ended up being hot raspberry wine with vanilla ice cream and raspberries. I’ve never heard of anything like this but it was actually quite good. By the time we headed back to her apartment, it was late and a very thick fog filled the city. It was eerie, but I also really like fog.
Saturday morning we took it easy with a delicious breakfast consisting of one of my favorite things; peanut butter, bananas, and honey on toast, with tea. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d eaten that combination. Then, we headed out to start off the day with some churches. The previous day, Janka had explained to me how Poles are still very Catholic, which is obvious if you go into any of the many churches. Unlike the churches in Paris, which have seats for prayer and candles you can light, but are otherwise rather visitor-oriented, these churches all made me feel very intrusive with my camera. They all had people in them, praying, and were either completely quiet or had organ music playing. Most of them also had nuns or laymen doing preparational things. For these reasons, I only took a few photographs in the churches. Still, they were absolutely stunning to see.
The first church we went to had a sermon going on in an adjacent room, so I put my camera in quiet mode but then forgot to change my other settings. As a result, all of these photos have some pretty bad camera shake but I’m posting them anyway.
Outside this church was this interesting mural/sculpture thing:
The second church we went in was incredibly ornate and beautiful. It’s probably one of my favorite churches I’ve ever been in! This was also the emptiest church we visited, and the organist was practicing, so I felt more free to snap away my camera without being disruptive.
Across from the church was a pretty little courtyard with sculptures in it.
Next, we went into the courtyard of the oldest building of the Jagiellonian University, which is also the school Janka attends. This particular building now only functions as a museum. It was also the most touristy place I’d seen so far. It is very significant, though, being the oldest university in Poland, second oldest in Central Europe, and one of the oldest in the entire world. The courtyard had lots of sculptures in it, and a cat 🙂
After that we headed back to the Old Town square, where we climbed the tower, which is the only remaining part of the original Town Hall. That tower has the steepest stairs I’ve ever had to climb!
The view at the top was totally worth the climb. You can see the whole city stretch out around you.
After the tower, we went to St. Mary’s Basilica, which houses the famous Veit Stoss Altarpiece.
Right outside of the basilica are people dressed in various period costumes trying to make money. One of them came up behind me to try and scare me but was surprised when I didn’t even react. Take that!
So, the inside is incredible. This was by far the most touristy of all the churches we went to. It was amazing seeing the altarpiece in person. Just one of the many things that I learned about, never dreaming I’d actually see it in person so soon, if ever. This particular altarpiece is special because it is the largest wooden altarpiece in the world. During WWII it was dismantled and taken by the Nazis to Germany, so it’s amazing that it was restored, recovered, and reassembled for people to see today.
After the Basilica we headed over to the Wawel Castle! On the way we stopped at the church of Saints Peter and Paul. The inside seemed pretty plain after the past few churches I’d seen, and I actually liked the outside better than the inside.
Some cool buildings leading up to the castle…
Once we got there, we didn’t go inside because it was actually remodeled in the 20th century, so it’s not original to the structure. We walked around the perimeter and went inside a courtyard.
The Castle also houses Poland’s only da Vinci painting, Lady with an Ermine. They are incredibly proud of it, and Janka says there’s a Polish movie where it gets stolen. It is displayed in its own room. It’s about the same size as the Mona Lisa. When we were looking at it, I saw no signage that said you couldn’t take a photograph of it, so I figured I would because why not? As soon as I did, the guards swarmed around me and were yelling at me in Polish, and I had to delete it. Of course you can’t take a photograph of the only da Vinci in Poland. So, here’s a Google image.
After that whole ordeal, we walked around the rest of the castle, which offers a great view overlooking the river.
We then walked down the hill to the river and passed the dragon statue. This statue has the ability to breath fire, though I didn’t see it in action. There’s a legend that a dragon used to live in the caves under the hill (which you can go in, if you want) and there’s a typical story of a guy slaying the dragon and winning the King’s daughter’s hand in marriage. The part I like is that his name was Skuba and he defeated the dragon by feeding it lamb stuffed with sulfur so that when the dragon ate it, he become so thirsty he drank from the river until he exploded. Classy.
Our next destination was the historic Jewish district of Krakow, Kazimierz. There are hardly any Jews left in Krakow after WWII, so it has become more of a cultural place for the non-Jewish people of Krakow. There is basically just a lot of Jewish restaurants and it has become pretty touristy in recent years, mostly thanks to Schindler’s List having been shot there (more on that in a moment).
I wanted to go see the museum that is housed in what used to be Oskar Schindler’s factory, but first we had a nice lunch in Kazimierz at a cafe Janka had eaten at once before. After we sat down, I noticed right next to us on the wall were stills from the movie Schindler’s List. I realized that they were showing scenes that had been shot right in the cafe. Then, for the entire meal tourist groups were going in and out of the cafe and we heard all about how it was the location for a 25 minute scene in the film. Since we had picked such a fortunate place to sit, we ended up being in a bajillion tourist photos of the photo wall. So, as neat as that is and everything, if you ever go there, that is the one place to not sit. Also during the entire meal I think I saw at least 3 different wedding portrait sessions going on in the cafe as well. It’s a pretty popular place. I ordered tomato soup which ended up having chicken in it. Who puts pieces of chicken in tomato soup??
Before going to the factory, we stopped in a market to get this traditional food called zapiekanka, which is basically half a baguette topped with cheese and whatever other toppings you desire. We both got the vegetarian one, which was delicious.
After all that food, we went to Oskar Schindler’s factory. It is now a museum that tells the history of Krakow’s involvement in WWII, starting with right before the German invasion and ending with the Soviet Union’s control after the end of WWII. It uses photographs, quotes, letters, and objects to immerse viewers in the time period. It’s a lot of information to absorb at once, but it’s incredibly interesting and educational. You really get a feel for what it was like to live in Krakow during WWII, both as a Jew and a non-Jewish citizen. Also, it’s probably one of the few places in the word that can get away with having a swastika-tiled floor.
After the museum, it had been quite a long day. We went back to the Old Town hoping to get souvenirs at that awesome handmade shop, but sadly it was closed. I was really disappointed, but also should have known better. This is Europe, after all. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the hours here. I somewhat made up for it by getting a few things at the traditional market, and I also tried another traditional Polish food: fried sheep’s cheese with cranberry sauce. It was really, really good. We also stopped in this great chocolate store where you can watch the chocolate being made. I got some more gifts in there as well.
We went back to Janka’s apartment and decided to go full-circle with Schindler. Janka had never seen the film and I’d only seen it once several years ago, so despite how late it was, we watched the whole thing. It was really neat seeing it the same day I had just been to many of the locations in person, and I could compare the facts I’d learned at the museum to how the film portrayed the events.The next morning all I had time to do was get ready, go to the airport, and head back to Paris.
So, even though I was there for such a short time, as you can see I got to do quite a bit. I really, really enjoyed it and I definitely plan to go back some day to see not only Krakow, but more of Poland as well. I was surprised with how homey it was, and I’d like to see if more of the country is like that as well. I highly recommend that if you have the chance to go, take it! It will be so worth it. It also helps if you have a friend that’s a local to be your tour guide and translator, but not everyone is as lucky as me!