Thursday 17th to Monday 21st December
As always, we crammed as much as possible into the five days we spent in and around Krakow, walking 10+ kms each day, so here we go….. hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Up early to catch the 8.20am train to Kraków Thursday morning, and rather excited to be visiting there again. Arrived at Centralna railway station in plenty of time, because we always tend to get to stations, airports etc early to allow time for error, particularly in non English speaking countries. Decided to have a coffee while we waited. Asked for 2 ‘HOT’ latte’s please? The lass asked ‘big or small’? Span wanted big, me small. All good so far… Got the coffees, and umm…. they were both the same size!! Mmmmm.. said to the lass… ‘err… both the same size’? In a most exasperated manner, she pointed to each glass saying ‘BIG’ …. ‘small’…. errr still puzzled, cause the glasses were exactly the same size, I looked up at her in innocent questioning….Ya right, more like .. ‘What tha??? And in a more exasperated tone she pointed to each in turn and said…..’SMALL! …. BIG!… One espresso…. Double espresso!’ Ahh got it! New understanding of small & BIG!!
The train trip took around 4 hours, because we opted for the slow train to see more of the countryside ….. and it was cheaper; the return fare for both being around $100 Australian. The train was very comfy, quite new and slick, except for the one attendant He was a rather large chap with a really, really, REALLY BAD odour as he walked by! We were right near the loo and the dining carriage though, which was a bonus, although the hot dogs are not recommended!
The country side as we whizzed by is very flat, mostly farming. Some of the homes so very old, grey and tiny, whilst others were newer, brighter and modern.
The soil looked to be very sandy, and the forests are many. There was some white frost on the ground in places, that showed clearly through the now bare trees, not a single leaf in sight. Most trees are a silhouette of a darker grey against the grey buildings, that is except for the silver birch, which provide a nice contrast with their silver white trunks.
We stopped at many stations along the way, some old some new. At one station, we stopped for quite a while, then went back the way we had come….. Yikes!!! Well, we were on the slow train, and now we know why…… it takes detours!
Had time to kill, so decided to give the dining carriage a go. Pancakes seemed liked a safe option, but no…. they were not available. Next choice … Hot dog and a coke for 9.9.Zl ($3.47). Placed the order…. all good so far. But then…. OMG the galley door opened to reveal Mr Smelly! Perish the thought… One can only hope he washed his wee handies!!! My feeling of apprehension at eating this hot dog that oozed mustard and tomato sauce was not at all relieved by my dear husband who was doing a charade of Mr Smelly stuffing the hot dog and sauce down the roll with his fingers…. Ugg!!
As we came closer to Kraków, the terrain became a little more hilly and undulating. The soil has changed to a dark browny black and looks very rich. Lots of ploughed fields and what looks like cabbages, sprouts etc.
We arrived safely at the station in Krakow, and were immediately greeted by a beautiful huge Christmas tree. There was a small market in the square near the station and the food looked and smelled wonderful…… tantalising our taste buds BUT unfortunately we were not hungry. Damn the hots dog we had on the train only an hour ago!
Coming back to Krakow was full of lovely memories for us, because it was here in 2011, that we met a lovely young Polish couple Kasia and Greg who lovingly refer to us as their ‘gypsie parents’, because we travel on the bike so much.
We headed on into the old town and the decorations and Christmas market were just beautiful in the daylight.The many horse and carriages just adding to the magic of the scene before us!
John certainly excelled himself with the accommodation this time. We were in a house boat hostel on the river, just a 10 minute walk from the main square and all the christmas festivities that we were keen to see. It wasn’t too bad, except that the bunk beds were a little short! My feet were touching the end board, so you can just imagine how John fared. No problem though, he simply took the mattress off the top bunk, so that brought the height up so his feet could hang over the edge. I guess you had to be there, but it was rather funny.
We had read about the pollution in Kraków during winter, but we were still surprised at the smog we saw hanging over the land on the way in. Having sorted out our home for the next 5 days, we headed into the Old Town and the Rynek Główny or Market Place. It was getting dark by now, at 4pm, and the lights were a treat
Next morning it was up for breaky at the hostel. All that can be said is that it was a disgrace, so we headed off into the town to look for some nourishment…. well maybe coffee n cake! Over coffee we planned the next few days of sightseeing. Today was to be Wawel (pronounce Vavel) castle and its surrounds..
But firstly, what is a medieval town without a legend??? At the base of Wawel Hill, and beneath the walls of Wawel Castle, is where a dragon’s cave was said to be. The dragon reeked havoc on the villagers as dragons do, after being awoken by some young boys. Today, at the cave entrance, there is a big bronze statue of the seven headed dragon rearing up. He even belches fire at regular intervals, which was a treat to see both by day and night. The dragon features at many locations throughout the town, including the cathedral.
There are a couple of stories as to how the poor old dragon was slain, but both feature either a cow or a lamb stuffed with Sulphur and fed to the every hungry dragon, who demanded regular offerings of cattle to keep him from ‘munching’ on the local villagers. In the 13th century story, ‘it is said’ that the Polish Prince Krakus, having slain the dragon by feeding it a cow stuffed with sulphur, built the palace over the slain dragon’s lair. He was killed by his brother who became king and took credit for the dragon slaying. When found out, the murderous brother was banished and the city named after Krakus. The other, and apparently most popular story, from the 15th century, was that Krakus was king. He built the castle and town, but was plagued by the dragon who had ‘a particular taste for young maidens’. It is said that to keep the dragon from plundering and killing, he would be fed cattle each day and a ‘young maiden’ regularly…. Being a boy clearly had its advantages at this time!! All the young maiden’s having been offered, and eaten, there was but one left.. the king’s daughter. He offered her hand in marriage to the man who could slay the dragon. Many noble and brave men perished in the attempt, until one day a poor shoemaker’s apprentice by the name of Skuba, came up with the idea of stuffing a lamb with sulphur. After eating the lamb, the dragon had an insatiable thirst and pain in his gut, so he drank and drank from the Vistula river until he swelled so much that he burst! messy!!! BUT, as all great legends go, it has a happy ending, the cobbler married the princess and they both lived happily ever after .. Ohhhhhhhh, I hear you say!!!! Both are great yarns, but I rather like the ‘happy ever after’ ending..
Being up on a small hill, the magnificent Gothic style Wawel Castle and cathedral, have beautiful views over the Vistula river. We spent more than half the day in this beautiful castle area, because there was just so much to see.
Inside the castle walls is a town within a town, so too speak. The central courtyard sets the scene and has a huge Christmas tree complete with lights to complete the picture.
We were told that Wawel castle was the political and cultural heart of Poland in the 16th century, and Krakow was at one time the capital of Poland, which is possibly one reason for the fierce rivalry between Warsaw and Krakow…. not unlike Melbourne and Sydney really! Both are most beautiful and special cities, each unique unto themselves.
Wawel Castle is now a museum in five sections. The State Rooms, the Crown Treasury and Armoury, Royal Private Apartments, Lost Wawel and and exhibition of Oriental Art. One has to pay a separate entry for each. There is so much else to see as well, such as the cathedral, the John Paul exhibition, the castle walls walk, just to mention a few, so the day went very quickly, and we did not get to see it all.
It is amazing that so many treasures have survived the castle being sacked and vandalised over the centuries, and it has been rebuilt and repaired many, many times over the centuries too. During WWII when it was known that the Germans were coming, the people packed up as many treasures as possible and sent them to Canada for safe keeping. It is with great thanks to the forward thinking of such wonderful people, that we are able to view these treasures today.
The tapestries were an absolute hi-light for us… such a feast for our eyes! To think they are hundreds of years old, and still so beautiful, colourful and intricate. It blows me away to think of the weavers using so many, many coloured threads to create such amazing images that are still here for us to see so clearly and brightly. Some tell stories, some are so very big, and indeed some took up whole wall spaces. We were told the large ones were years in the making. Firstly the artist would sketch the picture, then send it off for approval before the weaving could begin. Such absolute artistry was a joy to behold!
Whilst at the castle having a coffee we were fortunate to be able to view a wonderful example of an ‘all around nativity scene’. The brochure tells us…… “it is one of the most beautiful and original Cracovian traditions. Nativity scenes, intricate constructions fascinating with their exquisite shapes and rich colours, are modelled on the architecture of some of Krakow’s finest buildings. Back in the 19th century, they were made by poor builders to support their income in winter; today they are testament to the passion and talent of their makers, frequently representing generations o the same family…. the scenes depict the story of Christ’s birth with frequent and surprising allusions to the present day.’
After the castle, it was back to the market place for another walk, looksee, and dinner. We had decided that tonight, we would simply wander from stall to stall and taste as we went. WOW, we were not disappointed! As we were sitting munching our dinner, a lovely young lass called Anna sat down with us. We chatted for quite a while over some warm mulled wine, after we had finished eating. It was freezing, so the warm wine went down a treat. Anna is working in Ireland, but home now until February. She very kindly invited us to visit her to see her home town of Poznan, so hopefully we will get there. We chatted a little longer before heading back to our celubrios accommodation for a well deserved rest (we had walked almost 13km today), and we have the tour of the Salt mines tomorrow… more walking…..
Having been enthralled a by the Wieliczka salt mines during our 2011 visit, we really wanted to go back there again. The town of Wieliczka is not far from Krakow, and the second visit was just as good. One usually has to descend almost 400 wooden steps to go down into the mines, but luck was with us today as the local fire fighters were having a training drill and using the stairs to jog up and down loaded with full kit… lucky buggars. This meant we unfortunately had to use the lifts, which are usually used just to bring the tourists back up to the surface. Such a shame, as we remembered those stairs so very fondly!!
It is amazing to think this mine was first opened in the 13th century and continued to be commercially mined until the late 1990s when low salt prices and flooding caused operations to cease. It is more than 1000 feet deep, has more than 280km of tunnels and the amount of wood used ot brace the tunnels and other parts of the mine is simply mind blowing.
The miners of early and recent times were not only skilful with mining activities but also with sculpture, which they did in their spare time when below ground. The salt looks like black granite, and throughout the tour we saw so many examples of their creativity. One story that took our fancy was that of ‘the Treasurer’. Our guide told us that he was guardian of the salt treasure in Wieliczka. Legend has it that the miners believed in a good spirit of the mine who would warn them of imminent dangers such as collapse, fire or methane explosion. The last being a constant threat in the mine. If ‘the Treasurer’ appeared, then the miners would immediately leave that area for a safe place. Glad to say he did not pay a visit the day we were there!
There are 9 chambers in the salt mines that can be used for Mass, weddings musical recitals, business functions etc, etc. There are a number of chapels both small and large. The two of note are the chapels of St Kinga and St John.
The chapel of St Kinga is by far the largest (465 square meters), most impressive and most breathtaking; it can hold approximately 400 people. It is used for many events such a simple mass, weddings and concerts. IT IS SPECTACULAR to say the least! It must be the crown jewel of the mine…. and to think it is 101m below the ground and all carved from salt, is just WOW!
The black intricately carved hexagonal shaped floor shines brilliantly. It is hard to believe the ornate and yet delicate looking chandeliers are also made of salt. On the walls the relief of the last supper has such a brilliant dept and 3D effect. The further away you stand from this image, the greater the depth to it….. just brilliant .Hope these pics give you some idea of this very special place.
In the 13th century, St Kinga was a Hungarian princes betrothed to the Polish Prince Boleslaw V. She cared little for worldly goods and when asked by her father, the king of Hungary, what she wanted for a wedding gift, she replied that gold and jewels only brought unhappiness and tears, so she wanted something that could save the people she was going to live with… salt. The king gave her the most prosperous salt deposits in Hungary. On her way to Poland, Kinga stopped at the Hungarian mine entrance to kneel and pray; she then threw her engagement ring into the mine.
She took with her some the of the best Hungarian salt miners to Krakow. When she arrived, she asked them to start digging and looking for salt. They started digging and hit a hard lump of salt. When they broke it open, there was Kinga’s engagement ring… and that folks is how Kinga brought salt Poland. She was most charitable during her reign, caring for the poor and lepers. Following the death of her husband in 1279, she sold all her worldly possessions, giving the money to the poor. She joined the poor Clares order and died in 1292, aged 68. She was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1999.
The chapel of St John is small, but again exquisitly beautiful with it’s art and 18th century figure of Christ crucified. It is 135m below the ground and a little more intimate than St Kinga’s because it holds only 40 people. Had a tough job explaining to Span that it had not been named after him!!!
The stairs and white wood structure up to the Michalowice chamber are impressive. Situated 109m below the ground, it holds around 100 people for various events.
There is a most beautiful brine lake that has partly flooded the Erazm Barącz Chamber, some 100m below ground. Our guide tells us it is is saltier than the Dead sea. Water has and still is a constant issue for the mines and must be constantly pumped out to maintain their integrity. This is vitally important because the town of Wieliczka is built over the mine, and a collapse would be ‘catastrop’!
The floor in some tunnels is made up of salt blocks…… the salt licks that they use for horses.
Today the mines are a huge tourist attraction, with more than 1 million people visiting each year. As well as the many chambers being used for events, there is accommodation and a health spa. People come to experience the healing effects of breathing the salt. There is so much to see and take in down in the clean slightly salty air, such a wonderful experience. Indeed when we left the mines, our guide suggested we lick our skin, and yes it was salty.
It is thanks to the legacy of hard work of generations of miners, not just with the mining works, but their skill and artistry in sculpting the salt into magnificent chambers, chapels, statues and other works of art, that we are so fortunate to be able to enjoy this magical underground place. It is not surprising that it is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
From the salt mines it was back to Krakow for more exploring. Like Warsaw, Krakow also had a walled Ghetto where Jews were forced to live. So, from the mines we headed to the Jewish quarter, whilst we still had a little daylight left. We still get caught with the light fading so very quickly each day, by 3.30 to 4pm
Krakow has so many beautiful old buildings that date back to medieval times, unlike Warsaw who had to rebuild the Old Town post war due to it being flattened. The medieval buildings of Krakow are original and beautifully preserved, and likewise the Jewish quarter, although the Jewish quarter is more shabby and tired looking. But you know… this just adds to the charm.
As we started our walk through the Jewish quarter, we were again struck by ‘the oldness’ of everything around us. Once again our minds went back to the horrors that must have been endured here and the strength and courage of these Polish people. There were around 56,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war, almost a quarter of Krakow’s population at that time. The Krakow ghetto was established in March 1941. By that time there were only about 15,000 – 20,000 Jews remaining in and around Krakow, the rest already having been deported to forced labour or extermination camps. There is but one small section of the Ghetto wall preserved today in Krakow.
Well we got thoroughly lost, but finally found our way to Schildler’s factory. As we were about to go in a lady offered us a driven tour of the Jewish quarter. Schindler’s factory is now a museum. We decided on a very quick look, so to take advantage of the remaining daylight with the tour.
Several German factories used Jewish forced labor, the most famous being Oskar Schindler’s factory. Schindler was awarded the title of ‘Righteous amongst the nations’ in recognition of the great personal risk he took in saving so many Jews during the holocaust. After his death in 1974, the Jewish community had his body taken to and buried in Israel, such was the gratitude of the Jewish nation. The only Nazi party member to receive such an honour. From the front it is nothing remarkable, however inside there is much memorabilia.
Our guide Ava was just lovely and so informative. As it turned out, we had found many of the main sights, but her commentary added so much more and was well worth it. She took us back to the Plac Bohateröw Getta, a square in memory of the victims of the Krakow Ghetto. We had visited it earlier, but did not fully understand the concept even though we did feel a sense of dred when there. She explained that this was the site where Jews had to congregate to be deported. Amongst their belongings, many carried chairs, but were forced to leave them behind. Hence the chairs at this memorial are symbolic of the fact that deported Jews often were seen carrying a chair and other possessions with them.
The 14th century Gothic church of St Stanislaus, also known as the church on the rock, is a Paulite church and monastery that sits on the banks of the Vistula river. It is beautiful both inside and out. The gardens are very tranquil and are just behind St Stanislaus well.
St Stanislaus was the first native Polish saint and is the patron saint of Poland. As Bishop of Krakow, Stanislaus was not afraid to stand up to the brutal King Bolesław II, the bold and opposed his immoral behaviours and treatment of women. It was after Stanislaus excommunicated the King that he gave orders for Stanislaus to be executed. We were told that the kings men refused to kill such a good person as Stanislaus, so the brutal king did so himself. He firstly beheaded Stanislaus, then hacked his body and threw the pieces into the ancient well. However the body reassembled itself in front of peoples eyes, and was later buried in Wawel castle. The king fled and was later exiled. The water from the well is now said to be holy water and safe to drink…… similar to the water at Lourdes. As at Lourdes one can also take water away from this well. The water is very rich in minerals and other elements and tastes a little of sulphur.
Ava kindly dropped us back to the market place, where we again feasted from all the wonderfully scrumptious food stalls, all amply washed down with warmed wine which was welcome on another very cold night! We wandered around again until very late, looking at the stalls. It was fun to watch the children singing Christmas carols, along with their adoring and proud parents.
We had also visited Auschwitz – Birkenau in 2011 on a brilliantly bright sunny day. It had such a profound affect on us that we wanted to come back again. Today was the polar opposite to 2011. When we arrived after the hour bus trip, it was very foggy and cool. We were lucky, rugged up in our warm coats and scarves and with no hunger to feel. One can not begin to imagine how terrible it must have been here feeling cold, hungry, sick and afraid… every single day.
Auschwitz – Birkenau needs no introduction and my words most certainly would not be adequate, so we will simply share our pictures. Most pictures need no captions, and the lesser quality pics were from the iPad, but still thought their inclusion to be appropriate.
One picture we were not allowed to take on this visit were the rooms of full of hair. It has been decided that this is now sacred and so inappropriate to photograph. It was however one of the most moving scenes of the visit.
Suffice to say, our second visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau left even deeper feelings than the first.
Back in Krakow, we came upon this monument to ‘man’s best friend’; it was so very touching. The inscription reads…
‘The most faithful canine friend ever, epitomising a dog’s boundless devotion to his master. Throughout the year 1990/1991, Dzok was seen waiting in vain at the Rondo Grunwaldzkie roundabout to be fetched back by his master who had passed away at the very site’
Our trip to Krakow was again a memorable one, and we leave you with just a ‘couple’ more pictures that hopefully you will enjoy.