Kraking on

Our only real time spent in Poland was to be in Kraków – easily the country’s major tourist destination, being the only main town to survive WW2 with no serious damage and the original architecture more-or-less intact. If any were going to, this was probably the right one…
The old town’s centred around the huge Market Square, with the long and elegant building of the Cloth Market slap bang in the middle, surrounded by various statuary (including one by our old friend Igor Mitoraj, whose work we’d met back in Sicily). All around the square, the tall town houses are now restaurants and cafés focusing on the tourists getting out of the numerous stately white horse-drawn carriages or somewhat less stately electric golf buggies cruising around for fares.

To one corner of the square, splitting it off from the sister Small Market Square (formerly a cemetery, but we preferred the beer festival that we tripped across), sits the immense Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady (or, as everybody calls it, the Mariacki), with the towers at either side of the frontage totally asymmetric – even different heights.

Just off to one side of the main square, all the trams through the old town disgorge, in the middle of a cluster of other major churches and just along the road from the Archbishop’s Palace, formerly the official residence of one of the city’s best-known sons; a chap who appears to be just about the patron saint of Poland – Pope John-Paul II. Everywhere you go, he’s smiling down at you, from a large picture placed in the window of the archbishop’s palace from which he used to hold “impromptu informal audiences”, through to large statues outside almost every church. The Dominican priory just over the road from the palace even has a plaque screwed to the back of one pew marking the spot he apparently preferred when he sneaked in for a little peace and quiet.

Many of the back streets of the old town hide umpteen small restaurants and bars – we seemed to repeatedly gravitate to one street, eating in three places almost next door to each other, including an immense Sunday brunch platter. Another back street hid the studenty, funky Koko bar/diner – for less than a couple of quid, a large and tasty portion of pierogi – stuffed dumplings not unlike larger stodgy tortellini – or for just a little more you could have had a big bowl of thick soup followed by a meat-and-two-veg plate. Bargain!

All around the old town, there’s the remains of the fortifications, mainly the former moat – long since filled in, now a ring of green parkland. Original walls sit around one section, with the near-circular Barbican gatehouse sat just outside, thoroughly deserving the nickname of “the saucepan”. To the opposite side, the huge Wawel castle sits proud, high above a bend in the river. Regarded as a symbol of the nation, the complex contains the cathedral and the former royal castle, whilst under the rocky base sits a cave reputed to have been home to a dragon. A statue of the dragon now sits just outside the entrance, breathing plumes of flame every few minutes, seemingly timed to catch anybody wanting a photo unawares…
Past Wawel, you enter the Kazimierz former Jewish quarter. At the outbreak of the war, around a quarter of Kraków’s inhabitants were of Jewish origin. Now, of course, there are far far fewer – and Kazimierz is more of a homage to their history than a quarter. Many of the large synagogues have been restored and are open to the public, whilst the main square of the area, ul Szeroka, is now full of vast Jewish-themed restaurants and cafés offering Klezmer music evenings and “genuine authentic” food. We looked around for something a little more individual, and wandered round a corner to find a sign-written 2cv parked outside the café it was advertising. Perfect! Top-notch fresh pasta with delicious and unusual combinations of ingredients (chicken and pear sauce) and fresh fruit juice (banana and blackcurrant, layered in the glass).

Kazimierz wasn’t the wartime ghetto, though – that was across the river, in the Podgórze area, with Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory on one edge. As ever, the Hollywood interpretation wasn’t quite the truth/whole-truth/nothing-but-the-truth version… Schindler’s initial aim was just to get as much work as possible out of the nice cheap labour that he had available, so he could continue to fund his lavish lifestyle. Whatever the motives, though, the reality was that those who worked in his factory might not have had enviable lifestyles, but they did a heck of a lot better than their peers elsewhere. After making radios during the Communist era, the factory is now two museums – modern art in the actual factory buildings, whilst the office buildings take you through the realities of life in the ghetto and wartime Kraków, with a varied, long and painstaking series of displays covering virtually every aspect.

The modern city around the old town doesn’t contain much of interest, but we did spend an afternoon hiding from the rain in the National Museum. The Decorative Arts collection contained a real mix of stuff, with the only linking factor being that everything was beautiful and intricate! From wrought-iron medieval door locks, through to Art Deco furniture, via embroidered cassocks… Of the temporary exhibitions also on, one was a real gem – taking urban living expectations at the start of the 20th century, and comparing them to the reality of early 21st-century living. A hundred years ago, Kraków was expanding rapidly, and trying to do so in a very civilised manner – the title of the exhibition was “From Garden Cities to Gated Cities” – the Garden City ideal had strong parallels in the UK, so it wasn’t a great surprise to see the name of Ebenezer Howard, the reformer who was behind Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, had been involved here.

We headed for a day out of the city to visit Auschwitz, which will be a separate post, returning to the campsite just before 2cv friends Max and Vic arrived. They’re travelling around as much of Europe as they can in a 2cv van, sleeping in a tent. At this time of year, living in a tent is not for the faint-hearted…

As they put their tent up, Ellie got stuck into making a massive chicken curry for everybody, which quickly got devoured before we all hid, chatting, in our van from the chill night air. It wasn’t just the four of us, either – we’ve been lacking on properly friendly camping cats for a while, but we made up in style here! A ginger and white kitten, almost a mini-me version of our friend Needy Noddy from Sicily, spent an evening with us all, before reluctantly being kicked out at bedtime. He had a good hunt for some replacement warmth, ending up peering down from between the inner and outer sheets of Max and Vic’s tent – unfortunately, Max isn’t much of a cat lover, and sent him packing. Bully…

We intended to spend the next day back in town, seeing inside the Wawel castle and a couple of other places – but that didn’t quite happen. The minor coolant incontinence that the van had demonstrated in Eger returned, but worse. A bit of digging found that a sensor, controlling the dash light warning of low coolant level, was badly cracked, letting water escape under pressure. It was almost broken in two, so we weren’t going anywhere until a replacement was sorted. A quick call to the VW dealer got a “Yes, but in five days…” response – not ideal. Time spent on the bike, internet and phone dragged frustratingly, until eventually somebody delivering bits to one garage suggested a nearby specialist parts shop – who said “Call us back later” instead of the “Oooh, no” that we’d got used to from everywhere else. When I did call back, the answer was encouraging – “Yes, I’ve got one here…” A quick 2cv trip to the shop resulted in the grand expenditure of two quid – and half an hour later, we were ready for the road again.

This entry was posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Poland, Food stuff, Van stuff, Wildlife stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

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