- Category: What we have seen and done.
- Published on Thursday, 30 September 2004 20:00
- Written by Kath Douglas
- Hits: 2782
Hello again. Some of you seemed to enjoy our impressions of Berlin so now I'll tell you about Krakow, a captivating city with seemingly enough history for the entire world. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow was not devastated during the Second World War and it's historic architecture survived intact together with an enduring sense of tradition and legend among the Cracovian people. I will mention a couple of popular legends later.
Today, Krakow is known as the city of students - over 100,000 study at the numerous universities although as you walk about the streets, there is no obvious evidence of it being a university town. Not like Christchurch or Dunedin, or Oxford or Cambridge. The inner city streets are quiet cobbled lanes and the outer streets are even quieter tree-lined thoroughfares. One could imagine they had stepped back in time and that is precisely how I felt throughout our 3 days there.
On arriving in Krakow, passengers leaving the train must descend underground to pass below the multiple railway tracks leading into and out of the station. Along the subterranean corridors the walls are lined with stalls offering old books, toys, cheap cosmetics, L.P. records (once the bee's knees of home entertainment - or the mainstay of one of Bronwyn and Kerry's parties!) and the ubiquitous pretzel stall every few yards. The sharp eyed vendors wore a mixed air of pleading that somebody might hand over a few groznys for their battered wares, and hurt pride, as if to say, "I don't have to do this you know but it's something to do."
Above ground again we had to pass through the station building, a bit of an 18th Century relic of a once dignified era when steam train travel was the height of sophistication. Now, the pre-loved grand chandeliers high up in the ceiling of the spacious marble floored main entrance provide an undisturbed roost for the pigeons as modern day travellers hurry through with heads down intent on their busy lives. Pete was busy lecturing me on not talking to people who will inevitably approach us in the street for they will be asking for money. We crossed the foot bridge spanning the road beneath when, our hotel only a short distance away on the next block, a swarthy complexioned man caught my eye but I quickly looked away because I could see he was going to speak.
He called, "Excuse me?" but I kept walking, assuming Pete had realised and was doing the same. But the man ran after us calling out excuse me's until Pete (who is getting deaf in his old age) finally heard and stopped. The man was holding a creased and torn map of Krakow and once he had Pete's attention he asked if we knew where such and such a university was. Because Pete had been to Krakow before, he thought he might be able to direct this bloke but he didn't know the place and said, "Sorry, don't know". The man tried to engage in conversation, asking us where we were from and asking again if we knew where this place was, his eyes darting around the street. We realised he was up to something - I mean to say, it was obvious we were tourists who had just stepped off the train by the fact that Pete was dragging a suitcase and we both had backpacks on our backs.
As we edged away from him, two other men suddenly swooped down on us, one holding out a wallet with some kind of badge on it similar to what the police have to carry. He didn't do the talking - the other guy bombarded us with questions such as, "What were you talking to this man about?", "Did you give him any money or did he give you money?". "Show me your passport." (Pete's Irish passport is written half in Gaelic which often confuses checking-in staff at airports). "Where are you from?" I had my hand ready to unzip my bag to get my passport out but he waved me away and said he didn't want to see mine. "What money are you carrying?" Both the swarthy complexioned man and Pete produced their wallets; the swarthy one had a heap of American dollars in his and Pete had ten Euros! He demanded that I hand over my purse then and all I had was my Switch card, credit card and a handful of Euro coins. "Show me your credit cards?" he asked Pete and the swarthy one. "What is your PIN number?"
At which point, Pete laughed without humour and said, "No no no. Not a chance" and we made to move off. "We're just doing our job" the two guys muttered and thankfully let us go. As we approached the hotel door, two authentic Polish cops, decked out in distinctive uniform and armed to the teeth, were walking towards us. Whether they had been watching our little exchange or not we don't know because we almost knocked each other over in our rush to reach safety inside the hotel. "And you were saying Peter......?"
The Main Market Square has been the centre of the city's life for centuries. The Rynek (Market Square) was laid down in 1257 after the Mongol hordes had swept through Krakow. It was 'an emporium of the Black Sea trade' and a place of festivals and public meetings. The aristocracy built their palaces around the square and these now house cafes, restaurants, pubs, shops and museums.
Dominating the square, Europe's largest medieval market place, are the Cloth Hall in the centre and St Mary's Basilica on the north east corner. The architecture of the Cloth Hall is unusual in its semi-Spanish semi-Gothic design. Long and narrow in shape, each outer side has archways opening onto a 'porch' sheltering the shop fronts. Down the centre of the building is an open thoroughfare lined with wooden stalls which I believe are original. This was where people from the East came to barter their spices, silk, leather and wax for Krakow's textiles, lead and salt, while the merchants traded from their shops.
St Mary's also looks somewhat incongruous, situated on the edge of the square. Its two towers are of unequal height, as if it was damaged in some bombing attack, like the Kaiser Wilhelm Cathedral in Berlin or Coventry Cathedral in England, and never fully restored. But when the evening sun bathes the red brick exterior the church glows with a warmth and softness that enhances its strange formation. We didn't go in to the church but from all accounts it is apparently 'crammed with gold and studded tombs'. Pictures of the alter show a richness bordering on vulgar (in my opinion) but nonetheless the 14th Century stained glass windows are reputed to be among some of the worlds most magnificent, especially with the sun shining through them during the day.
And this is a good place to entertain you with one of Krakow's touching legends. From the higher tower of St Mary's, a bugle call is played every hour where the sound carries to the four quarters of the world. But it is poignantly interrupted, as it was hundreds of years ago. This is a tribute to a watchman who warned his fellow Cracovians of an approaching Tartar invasion by playing an alarm call. The brave fireman-bugle player paid for it with his life, as he was shot in the neck by a Tartar's arrow.
Pete is listening to the bugle call in the early evening in the attached photo. You can't quite see the bugler in the top window.
The second photo shows you what the Cloth Hall looks like. I wish now that I had taken a photo inside it showing the stalls. They all sold amber ornaments, amber jewellery, Russian dolls, hand embroidered traditional costumes and more amber jewellery. It was abit like an Aladdin's Cave; very colourful and busy.
We ate in a traditional Polish restaurant, Wierzynek Kawiarnia, on our first evening - sitting outside at tables under huge umbrellas. It started to rain before our meals came out but most of us simply pulled our chairs closer together under cover while extra hands held an umbrella over the waitress's heads as they rushed about with plates of food from the kitchen. I had Pieczen Wieprzowa - roast pork with garlic and plums in beetroot and bacon sauce with a touch of Zubrowka Vodka, served with cabbage stuffed with pearl barley. Pete had Chateaubriand - both meals were delicious.
The rain didn't last long and people were soon promenading around the packed square again in the warm refreshing evening. Armed police patrolled in pairs; it was both comforting to know that anyone trying to cause trouble wouldn't last long, and worrying that such a show of force was necessary. I commented to Pete that I thought we'd stick to the well lit areas.
Next installment will be about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau but we just have to dash off to Tuscany for a week so it will be a little while in the writing.