On this morning we had a tour of Krakow (pronounced “Krakov”) with Renata. She was perfectly suited to lead this tour since it’s her home town, and she still lives there. Krakow is a smaller city than Warsaw, with fewer than 800,000 citizens (vs. Warsaw’s 1.7 million). We got on the bus, which we found out that morning was the bus used for the Polish national soccer team. That explained why so many people in passing cars had been staring at it all of the prior day. We were headed first to the Jewish Square, which was used for the ghetto scenes in Schindler’s List. It doesn’t actually look like it did in the movie, though. Renata told us that the residents had to be paid to take down their satellite dishes while the movie was being filmed, otherwise the ghetto scenes just wouldn’t have made any sense. This short walk would take us past several synagogues, one of which was the Old Synagogue, which dates to the 15th century. Here, we also saw where we’d be dining in the evening – Ariel. That dinner was pretty solid, and it was accompanied by kleizmer music, a Jewish style of music, from a three piece with a violin, stand up bass, and accordion. The woman playing the violin sang in Yiddish when she wasn’t shredding. We also got to try some Polish bison grass vodka called Żubrówka. I would later buy a bottle of said vodka to bring home. I’m not a vodka drinker, but it was pretty tasty. There’s actually a blade of grass in the bottle, which comes from a bison pasture, and it gives the vodka a uniquely vanilla and menthol flavor.
We walked past several more synagogues and a neat little café called Singer Klub, where all of the outdoor tables were Singer sewing machine tables. Around the corner, the bus awaited. The next stop was the Royal Castle. It was so damn cold and windy on that day, so it was great to get inside.
Overlooking the Vistula River, Wawel Hill is not only home to the castle but also Wawel Cathedral. The complex dates back to the late 10th century, with the oldest surviving section being the Rotunda of the Virgin Mary. The Castle, as a center of Polish political power, can be traced back to Mieszko I in the late 900s. Not quite 100 years later, Casimir the Restorer would develop Wawel into the political and administrative center of the Polish State. It is now the center for the Lesser Poland Voivodeship, the province in which Krakow is located. Krakow was occupied by the Nazis in WWII, and Wawel was, for some time, the residence of Hitler’s personal lawyer, Hans Frank. It is now a national museum, and services are still held in the Cathedral. The hill on which it is located is the highest point in Krakow at around 750 feet and dates back to the Miocene epoch, around 25 million years ago. The limestone which forms it is even older at over 150 million years. In fact there is a famous cave in the hill – the Dragon’s Den, or “Smocza Jama.” The cave contains remnants of its distant oceanic past in the form of tiny little crustaceans called Niphargus Tatrensis that only live in the karst waters of eastern Europe.
Leaving Wawel, we walked north toward Old Town via Ulica Kanoniczka, cutting through a little plaza dedicated to Mary Magdalene to Ulica Grodzka, where we faced, along with the Magdalene, the Saints Peter and Paul Church, constructed right around the turn of the 17th century. Tucked away discreetly this Baroque church looks like something you’d expect to see in Rome around any street corner. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to stop inside for a peek, but when you’ve seen enough basilica /cathedral / church interior, you can pretty much imagine what it looks like from the outside.
A few more windy blocks later we arrived at the Old Town Square. The reason for the morning rush (it was only about 11.00 by this time) was that we had to be at St. Mary’s Basilica, or “the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven,” for the daily unveiling of the altarpiece. It’s not just any altarpiece; it’s a truly one-of-a-kind Gothic altarpiece from the late 15th century and the largest altarpiece in the world. Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer, actually had it shipped back to the Third Reich in 1941, and it wasn’t found until 1946 in the basement of Nuremburg Castle. It’s a pretty impressive piece, I must say, but a theme I’ve picked up on in my travels is that the Catholic sure does have an apparent obsession big ornate shiny things and little wearable shiny things. After the unveiling we made our way out into the Plac Mariacki, a square which was a cemetery until the beginning of the 19th century, and not, in fact, a Mariachi Plaza. Here, Renata directed our attention to the highest tower of the Basilica, where a trumpeter played the Hejnał Mariacki, or Krakow Anthem. This tune is famous for its abrupt end, commemorating the 13th century trumpeter who was allegedly shot in the throat while playing it to alarm the city of the impending Mongol attack, an invasion that would destroy the original Basilica. The grounds have been gradually rebuilt and added to over the centuries since, most recently in the late 19th century.
We broke off for lunch for a few hours, and I knew exactly where I was headed – Multi Qlti Tap Bar. This place got excellent reviews for beer, and I needed beer. Really, I needed food, but I felt inclined to satiate myself with some luscious liquid calories and warm my bones from the biting cold I had been exposed to since 08.30. It was now shortly after 12.00, and we would all soon be hangry. The bar was an easy find, but alas we were confronted with quite the calamity – they did not open until 15.00. I had gone and got my hopes up that I might limber myself with a savory stout, but I was mistakenly anxious. I nearly cried. My dreams had been dashed on the cobblestone streets of Old Town Krakow.
Renata had suggested a place nearby St. Mary’s to lunch, so my grandpa, Debby, and I resorted to that as an easy decision and made our way back to the square. I remembered I had written down one other place to delight in fine suds a few blocks east of the square near the embassies. Finally locating the very small sign under a sizeable awning, we walked in to find something entirely counter to what was described in the reviews I’d read. Very modern and no signs of heavenly brews. Times were growing desperate. We would soon have to turn to eating our lunch as a last resort. The neighboring location had a large outdoor menu, so we frantically perused it for whichever morsels may quickly satisfy our aching bellies. To our delight there was an entire page of pierogi choices. And they had beer. Good, dark beer. There was one downside – the proprietors spoke less English than I Polish. Pointing my way through my order and using simple Polish words like “big,” “small,” and “good,” I managed to procure for myself a large plate of bacon and potato stuffed pierogi and a large Okocim Porter. An efficient hearty lunch packing plenty of sustenance into a dozen delicious dough pockets and rinsing them down with a dark, heavy Polish pint.
We paid and made our way back to the square to find some souvenirs and such with our remaining time. I made use of about 15 minutes blissfully snapping pictures of unremarkable things in Plac Mariacki before our group was corralled and we took a short stroll to the bus. Pawel, our skillful driver, navigated the narrow streets back to our hotel, where we had a chance to quickly freshen up before our afternoon tour. The weather looked like it was trying painfully to make for a pleasant afternoon, but every five minutes it’d darken up again. As the blue began to break through for slightly longer bits, we would be bidding it a temporary adieu and heading underground to visit the crab people. I mean we would be descending into salt mines a short drive outside the city.
Wieliczka Salt Mines maintains the Polish theme of age, dating back to the 13th century. It produced table salt continuously until 2007 and is now a national monument. In total its corridors and passageways span nearly 180 subterranean miles and descend to a depth of nearly 1,100 feet. The tour we’d be taking would last nearly two hours and cover less than one and a half percent of the mines. Our guide was an attractive young Polish woman named Isabella. As she led us deeper and deeper into the mines, we saw different tools and machinery used throughout the centuries. One huge key to the mine’s operation was the use of horses to raise the salt to the surface. The horses would essentially live their entire lives underground, walking in circles all day so people could add salt to their food. The Nazis actually intended to convert the mine to a labor camp at one point in the war, but quickly decided otherwise.
One jewel in the mine is St. Kinga’s Chapel. Our guide informed us that two brothers had carved the chapel by hand over a period of some 60 years. Everything in it is made of salt from the altar to the chandeliers – yes, chandeliers in a mine. There are even bas relief recreations of famous paintings carved into the walls. On one wall is The Last Supper in perfect bas relief, and as you back away from it, it appears to get deeper. Yet no point of the carving is deeper than 6 or so inches. We finally made our way into the underground gift shop, which is cavernous enough to “fly” a hot air balloon, and I say that because it has actually been done. For super spiritual people, you can buy salt lamps here made of official Wieliczka salt.
That evening was dinner at Ariel, which brought us full circle to where our tour began that morning. This place reminded me of some of the old country home style restaurants I dined at in my youth. A bunch of people you don’t know are crammed into a room and stuffed to the gills on food and drink, possibly entertained with a story or live music, as we were, and finally sent on our merry ways. The food was good and the musicians were great. The awkward part about the evening was that my party was seated at the table immediately adjacent to the musicians, so it felt like all eyes were on us the entire night. But thankfully, I’ll never seen any of those people again, so that’s consoling. We made it back to the hotel around 10.00 and had to clean up and repack, because the next morning we’d be shipping out again.