An overnight, modern train zipped from Budapest, Hungary to Krakow, Poland while I snuggled beneath a thick, white duvet in a couchette sleeper. Throughout the night, the weather got progressively worse (reminding me I was in Eastern Europe) and I slammed my window after realizing that my dream of splashing in a puddle was really sheets of rain being thrown like tiny javelins at my bare ankles.
At 6 o’clock am, the conductor tapped on the tiny door, announcing “Krak-off.” I guessed that the “w” was pronounced as a “v” in Polish and realized we were stopping in Krakow, the final destination. My second speech observation came shortly after stepping onto the solid ground of the main train station; all announcements involved a whistling sound hidden within the vowels and consonants of the Polish language, as if the lady calling out the train departures had just lost her two front teeth. Every time a new announcement was cast on the loudspeaker, we started chuckling, putting ourselves in a great mood despite the dreary weather through which we’d have to wade to find the hostel.
Above:Krakow’s town square is a mix of modern and medieval.
The first day in Krakow was spent sipping java and reading in an English coffee shop, running intermittently to the city center to explore when the rain was drained of energy and the sun took back its reign. Wawel Castle, which has been the home to kings for 500 years, sets in stony triumph at the base of Krakow’s Old City.
Above: A sketch of Wawel Castle during the 16th Century and a photo of it today.
Inside is ornate furniture from Italy; cordovan wallpaper (a thin leather covering which was decorated especially for the Royal Family) and carved wooden heads attached to the ceiling of one room, portraying everyone from servants to family members of the king.
Above: Wawel Castle’s Head Room
Encircling the whole Old City, including Wawel Castle, is The Platy, a well-groomed, tree-lined path with 50 meters of park on each side. Walking to and from Krakow’s historical destinations is not done as a stressful city-like rush, because The Planty sets the stage for a meander through the park. This walkway filled with trees, fountains, benches and grass was created after 1807, when Medieval city walls were demolished and a green strip remained in the empty area of 52 acres.
Above: The Planty surrounds Krakow’s Old City, adding a natural breath of fresh air to the bustling city.
After avoiding rain storms and catching an English viewing of the “Other Bolyn Girl,” a hearty, hot meal was in order. The famous Ubabci Maliny was recommended as a “grandma’s style cooking” restaurant by a local girl. Buttery pierogies and Polish sausages practically bounced up the steps toward us as we descended to granny’s kitchen. Smells of home-cooked European food brought back memories of Midwest potlucks and Sunday dinners with my extended family. The decor consisted of old quilts hung on racks and baby buggies filled with curly-haired dolls. Old fashioned ovens were stuffed with loaves of ”mod podged” bread for looks only.
Above: Ubabci Maliny serves the world’s best pierogies.
This quickly became Jason’s favorite restaurant, since the pierogies reminded him of his Polish grandma’s masterpieces and we both admitted that the aroma and community seating made us a bit home sick. Seeing the kitchen crank out enormous portions, we decided to share the meat and cabbage pierogies. This is when I learned that Jason had a rare ability for devouring the little stuffed pastas and I never made the same mistake of sharing one serving with the pierogi hound during our repeat visits to Ubabci Maliny!
The days in Krakow passed quickly, filled with simple pleasures such as listening to an accordion quartet outside St. Mary’s Basilica. Music reverberated though Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, as we stumbled upon the final day of the Jewish Cultural Festival.
Above: People danced traditional jigs at the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow.
Kazimierz was where Oskar Schindler ran his factory, made famous in the movie “Schindler’s List.” Schindler employed over 1,000 Jews during Nazi time. By insisting on keeping his workers at the factory, Schindler saved the lives of many Jews who would have been sent to Auschwitz, one of the many Nazi concentration camps.
Drab, horrifying and a must-see is the concentration camp called Auschwitz, a Nazi labor camp that was responsible for exterminating 1.1 million people, of which 90% were Jews.
Above: Barbed wire ensured prisoners could not escape Auschwitz.
After buying a book written by some of the prisoners that did escape this concentration camp, I learned that many were in the dark about what the Nazis were doing. These escapees spread the word of the horrifying acts that took place in Auschwitz, which then in turn encouraged the allies to step in and end the war. Many barracks, which are no more than stables, are now converted to museums dedicated to each county’s losses. Not only Jews but gypsies, homosexuals and everyday civilians who had a talent for building were captured and brought to Auschwitz. Most prisoners died of starvation and disease and many more were shot at the killing wall or gassed when they were lead to believe they were just taking a shower. It is hard to believe this type of treatment happened only 60 years ago. It all was so barbaric.