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Cherry Vodka, Cheesecake and Coffee
Member Name: lamorna
Date: 04/10/05, updated on 04/10/05 (1074 review reads)
Advantages: City of culture, good food, good beer, welcoming people.
Disadvantages: I loved it all.
Krakow was once the royal capital city of Poland and was designated to be the European City of Culture in the year 2000 and it is easy to see why. The city universities carry the same status as Oxford and Cambridge and as soon as we arrived at our Hotel Wyspianski, after a two hour flight from London Gatwick and the short drive from the Pope John the Paul 11 Airport, by late afternoon and within a three minute stroll we were in the centre of the vast, magnificent, medieval Old Town market square, second only in size to St Mark's Square in Venice. The square is surrounded on all sides by cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as imposing merchant houses and palaces, so we sat under a sun umbrella of the nearest café and christened our safe arrival with flavoursome cold Polish beer, absorbing the surroundings and the grand variety of architectural styles of buildings, the flower sellers, musicians, mime artists and people meeting up under the central statue of Adam Mickiewiicz, Poland's premier romantic poet and philanderer.
The tourist rated Hotel Wyspianski has a restaurant, and although we spied many enticing restaurants surrounding the square and in the cobbled side streets, travelling is tiring so we were ordering dinner in the hotel restaurant by seven o'clock. This first meal was memorable. Herring and soured cream and meat balls for first courses, then veal escalope and rabbit plus potatoes and onions fried in goose fat, plus two deserts and several drinks and we signed for a bill of twelve pounds for two of us. The Zloty is the Polish currency and we were unfamiliar with this, so we double checked the bill but this was the true cost.
Next day, after a filling breakfast, including a wide range of International and Polish hot and cold buffet style dishes, we were ready for our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the satellite camp of Auschwitz. It was a bright, sunny August morning and the thirty two miles drive from Krakow through the surrounding countryside was very interesting. Particularly the way the Poles farm in small individually owned strips and even the smartest new build houses grew fruit and vegetables, and kept chickens and rabbits in their large front gardens rather than the landscaped yucca and gravelled minimalist gardens we favour in the UK.
The moment we arrived at Birkenau and stepped down from the coach, an icy cold wind blew across the huge expanse of the grim looking camp with wooden sheds stretching as far as the eye could see. It was silent. I imagined a cold deserted winter day here and not the crowds and sunshine of the peak tourist period in August. The Final Solution at Birkenau was carried out at a fast pace by the SS with Jews transported by rail from all across Europe being killed in their thousands every day. As we walked across the railway line and over the unloading platform towards an incinerator an old Jewish man was shuffling towards us held up by two very young Jewish males; I imagine his Great-grandsons. The old man was in his nineties, small, bent double and dressed in white robes with the Israeli flag bordering them complete with white skull cap. I looked at his bowed head and the shape of his brow and the tears welled up in my eyes and my heart was overturning. My Jewish Father died four years ago in his mid-eighties and this old Jewish man could have been him. He was his double.
I hadn't expected to cry. I knew the history of the Holocaust. I looked at the rest of our group, and realised that very young people were crying too as the English speaking Polish guide softly relayed the background information of the 'bathhouses,' corpse cellars and crematorium ovens; an industrial extermination factory; as I imagined for many of the younger visitors this may have been the first time they had heard the truth in as much detail. Auschwitz itself is two miles from Birkenau. The short journey on the coach to Auschwitz with our fellow travellers was spent in silence. Walking through the infamous gates of the extermination camp at Auschwitz sent chills down my spine. My lasting memory will be the floor to ceiling displays of hair shaved from the female prisoners, false limbs, spectacles, shoes and childrens' clothes.
We had been out all day visiting the camps and when we arrived back in the Market Square in Krakow at 4.30pm we understood why there had been no lunch-break. Who could eat in that horrific environment in the knowledge that millions had died of starvation in Hitler's Final Solution?
We sat in another café/bar appreciating our freedom and putting our lives into perspective as I sat sipping my Cherry Vodka, a perfect black coffee and a mammoth slice of sultana cheesecake as sweet and sour as my Polish Grandmother used to make, raising my glass of Vodka and silently thanked her for being so brave and giving me life.
In the centre of the Market Square is the Gothic and Renaissance Cloth Hall, an elegant shopping arcade lined on both sides with wooden stalls, and a history that goes back to the 14th Century when it was a major trading centre with the East, trading silk and spices in exchange for lead, salt and textiles. The stalls sold mainly amber jewellery, leather goods, clothes and tourist memorabilia and had a charming atmosphere and I loved the happy smiling faces of the Krakow stall holders as they took loads of money from the hordes of visitors buying their goods. The Poles are embracing tourism - and so they should after years of repression. They appeared to be enjoying taking money from us with broad smiles and a happy attitude.
Our rung out emotions needed to dwell on pleasanter things so the next day we started the morning walking the mainly pedestrianised city as it is surrounded by beautiful gardens with the ring-road placed beyond them; rather good urban planning; then to explore the Jewish Quarter stopping for lunch to eat a real kosher meal. We began our cultural experience at the famous Jagiellonian University of Krakow in the six hundred year old Collegium Maius where Poland's famous son Pope John Paul 11 studied. The Gothic courtyard houses the University Museum with memorabilia of famous students and tributes to the USA President Herbert Hoover who was responsible for aid and support to Poland after both World Wars.
Then we hopped onto a double horse and carriage driven by a beautiful young Polish woman wearing the same coloured livery as her sleek and healthy steeds and we clip clopped along the cobbled streets to visit the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz, where in 1941, up to 68,000 Jewish people were confined by the Nazis to ghettos before being transported to Auschwitz for 'resettlement' in other words - extermination. Stephen Spielberg chose Kazimierz as his location for the film Schindler's List. Kazimierz is run down and dilapidated as the area has been left as it was after the war as tribute to the horrors that took place there. Nevertheless, I had promised Morty a kosher meal like my Grandmother used to make, so we sat in the courtyard of the Ariel Jewish restaurant in the central square of the Kazimierz district and ate herring and sour cream, dumplings, potato latkes, chicken liver with egg, gefiltre fish, matzos and honey cake topped off with kosher beer. Food I happily remember from my childhood.
We walked off our substantial lunch with a stroll back to the royal castle of Wawel, the residence of Polish kings for centuries. Wawel Castle is a magnificent Renaissance building with an arcaded courtyard and houses many museums illustrating Polish history and culture, including the Royal Apartments, the Armoury and Treasury. We enjoyed the underground tour of the remains of pre-Roman and Gothic walls under the foundations of the Castle and the Dragon's Den, a long cave that was once allegedly home to a child eating dragon. Just time to walk back to the Market Square to catch the hourly single trumpet fanfare from the tower of the 14th Century Gothic St Mary's Church, which historically warned the city of impending attacks, before my daily requirement of Cherry Vodka, coffee and cheesecake and a rest before dinner.
Krakow has a comprehensive range of places to eat from the ubiquitous McDonalds to inexpensive and expensive national dishes and globally fashionable cuisines, such as Italian, French, Chinese and Japanese. Whatever your pocket and your palate eating in Krakow is fun with something to suit everyone with excellent service and all of a very high standard. You won't go hungry. After dinner there are many jazz clubs and blues bars to visit, all offering live music until the early hours of the morning. Our hotel was minutes away from the late night-life yet during our five night stay we were never disturbed by people turning out to go home at three in the morning as can happen in the UK and late night drinking. The Poles know how to drink. It wasn't unusual to see people of all ages and gender drinking a litre of Polish beer at 9.00am in the morning. Perhaps 'Binge-drinking' isn't in their vocabulary or culture?
We were up early the next day for our trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, thirteen miles outside Krakow and Poland's oldest working salt mine and UNESCO World Culture Heritage site. The mine has ninety miles of galleries, chambers, tunnels and lakes all sculpted from salt, but we were only to walk for about three miles. But first we had to walk down eight hundred steps having been assured we would ascend via a lift! It was far more interesting than I thought it would be illustrating amazing engineering skills from over nine hundred ago. There is a chapel with alter, chandeliers and art all carved from the salt rock complete with a Polish military band 'Ooompahing' away and available for weddings.
We were deep down in the mine for over two hours and I began to feel slightly claustrophobic and wanted to get to the surface. We began queuing for the lift. I had imagined something resembling a large cable car carrying a hundred people at a time as there were thousands of people following on from each other along the tunnels. We queued for a long time. The panic was rising in my throat. Was there something wrong? Suddenly, an official guide grabbed nine of us and we were shoved into a minute industrial miner's cage with no lights. I have never been as intimate with strangers before. Everyone screamed in shock as the tiny cage lifted off in total darkness, shooting to the surface in 45 seconds, then the cage door opened and we all stumbled blinking and disorientated into the reception area. An extremely pretty young Polish woman approached me and said sweetly 'I love your perfume. It smells so good. What is it please?' and I realised that for 45 seconds I had been physically closer to another female than ever before in my life.
Our last day was spent visiting the numerous art galleries in Krakow; all are within easy walking distance of each other as it is a city to explore on foot and at leisure. Krakow has a temperate climate with hot summer days and frosty winter ones complete with a ski season from December to March on the Tatra Mountains, a two hour drive from Krakow. The rest of the year the Tatra Mountains offer hiking, bird watching, rock climbing, cycling and paragliding for the more energetic and activity minded. There are National Parks and castles all within easy reach of this stunning city.
There are many cheap flights to Krakow offered on the Internet as well as a variety of accommodation for the independent traveller.
So be it art, history, culture, academia, music, religion, activity or simply a Cherry Vodka, a coffee and a slice of cheesecake that you fancy, then Krakow has it all.
Summary: The sense of history, culture, the art, the architecture and the people.