Monday, August 25, 2014

Krakow

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After Budapest, the next stop on our Central European Tour was Krakow, Poland. We took a 6 hour bus ride from Budapest to Krakow, which Nicole had booked before she left. She joked that her confirmation email either said we were booked for 3 seats to Krakow, or she had just purchased an organ grinder monkey. So when they let us on the bus, were were already in a good mood. We had a rest break in Slovakia, which was on the Euro, and required one to use the bathroom. After running around getting change and then waiting in line to go, the bus was already running when Lana finally got back on the bus. It was a very pretty drive, and a much more comfortable bus than we'd been on in other parts of the world (Bolivia we're looking at you).

In Krakow, Nicole had arranged for a two bedroom apartment with a full kitchen, in the old town district.  After settling our bags there, we explored town a bit, found a grocery store, and stocked up for making our own breakfasts for the next several days.  After eating both lunch and dinner, we knew Polish food was wonderful, but we also knew our only healthy meals were going to be the breakfasts we’d cook for ourselves.

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We had no plans or tours for our first full day in Krakow.  We decided to wander through old town, and then up to Wawel castle to the south.  Though Poland is very, actively Catholic, and we saw large numbers of priests and nuns, generally the locals had reasonably immodest clothing—perhaps the unusual heat explained that more than anything.  Of course the locals are very proud of Pope John Paul II; we were amused to see a Buddhist monk admiring one of the statues in his honor.

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In the afternoon heat, we moved from shade to shade, and frequented cafés to re-hydrate and rest.  The passing crowds were always interesting to watch.

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We saw a meetup of roller-bladers forming a long human chain in the main square after dinner, and a pretty sunset in the smaller square just outside our apartment just before we turned in.  The sun sets quite late here, as it’s pretty far north—the 50th parallel, compared to Colorado’s 40th.

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The next day we had a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkeneau, which deserves its own post.  It was a long day and wore us out physically and emotionally; fortunately, Nicole had predicted that, so the following day was wide open, and we explored the city again.  We discovered a Fiat festival gathering in the main square, with more old cars driving in as we watched.  The stretch limo Fiat above served as the Pope-mobile for PJP (we started referring to him by acronym) at some point, depicted by the photographs laminated to the hood and trunk, but the rest of the cars were tiny.

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We had to duck under shelter for a couple of brief rain showers in the morning, which did not cool things down, but did make it muggier.

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In the afternoon, we returned to Wawel castle, which was much less crowded, and climbed up the bell tower of the church there, which was quite fun.

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On our way back into old town, we found a parade featuring several different cultures in traditional garb; these represent Macedonia.

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On our last day, we visited the ghetto where the Jewish population of Krakow had been forced to live starting in 1939.  We visited a synagogue, and a couple of cemeteries, then crossed the river to visit the Oskar Schindler Factory Museum, which focused on the story of Oscar Schindler specifically, but also Hitler's invasion and occupation of Poland more generally, including the Polish resistance movement. For us, it was as uplifting as any museum about the Holocaust could be.

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The Jewish cemeteries were destroyed by the Nazis; many of the tombstones were used as paving stones for the concentration camps.  The cemeteries have since been restored.  The recovered headstones that were too fragmented were incorporated in the new perimeter walls. Since the fall of Communism in Poland, the Jewish section has thrived, and is now active and prosperous, which was very refreshing to see.  We ate a tasty lunch there before heading back to old town.

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It was our last day in Krakow; we slowed down and spent more time watching people and talking, whether sitting in the shade of a café, or strolling the greensward around old town.  Poland has some grim history, and we didn’t avoid it.  It was not all joyful sightseeing, but all three of us were committed to seeing the entire package, not just the lighter side.  Krakow was nevertheless an enchanting city with cobblestoned streets and an several squares filled with outdoor cafes where you could have a drink or eat dinner and people watch.

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When we first mentioned Central Europe as a destination, one of Lana's former coworkers told her to go to Krakow. That he had proposed to his wife there. We're glad we took his advice and explored this little bit of Poland.