Feb. 1, 2016: Krakow
I must admit I’d initially had reservations about our reservations in Krakow; it seemed that 3 nights might be too long to spend here. I’d always had the impression that Poland was a rather drab country; but what I’ve seen so far indicates that such an impression was quite mistaken. Katowice was a rather intriguing city, and it’s quite clear after our stroll through part of Krakow last night, that this city is anything but drab.
But first things first: breakfast in the boat’s dining room, included in the price of our lodging. It’s a spread laid out with carnivores in mind, featuring a couple of types of cold cuts. But there are also items enough that we can partake of: bread, cheese, oatmeal, granola and yogurt. And of course coffee and tea. Somebody went to a fair amount of trouble to lay it all out, but for the time being at least, we are the only takers.
Then we get our gear together for the day’s outing, after removing our clean and dry articles of clothing from their drying place in the bathroom. With two state-of-the-art radiators (one in the bathroom and one in the main cabin), we should be able to hand-wash all of our wardrobe in the 3 nights we’re here. And then we walk back across the bridge, a short distance to the heart of Krakow (and don’t call it CRACK-cow; it’s pronounced more like CRACK-ov).
First and foremost, we have a date with a dragon.
Not just any dragon. THE dragon. The one they erected a metal statue of that actually breathes fire at unpredictable intervals. (The Polish word for dragon is smok, which is pronounced somewhat like smoke. Isn’t that interesting?)
He’s a legendary dragon that supposedly terrorized the city (then little more than a village) in ages past. According to the legend (or at least one version of it) he was finally defeated by a shoemaker’s apprentice who lured him with a fake sheep filled with pitch or sulfur, and when the dragon devoured it, he became so thirsty that he drank water from the Vistula River until he burst. In some versions of the story, the dragonslayer is a king, or later becomes a king, and is named Krak or Krakus — and thus the city is named after him.
As touring entertainers for kids, we’ve performed our own version of the tale numerous times over the years. In our version, which I scripted, the shoemaker is also an inventor who dabbles in fireworks; and it is such chemical compounds that cause the dragon to explode when he breathes fire. You must admit, it’s a bit more dramatic. Also in our version, it is the apprentice, egged on by other kids, who had entered the dragon’s lair and awakened it in the first place. So in addition to the potent theme of overcoming evil with creativity and resourcefulness rather than brute force, there’s the added element of atonement for past mistakes. The Dragon Of Krakow is one of my very favorites among the hundreds of folktales I’ve read, studied and tinkered with.
The entrance to the dragon’s cave is nearby, but curse our fate, it’s closed for the season.
The entrance is in the side of Wawel Hill (pronounced VAH-vel), which now has a castle and a cathedral sitting on top of it.
Look closely, and you’ll see a couple picnicking on the side of the hill, beneath the castle walls. No, it’s not us.
The castle was completed in the 14th Century, and the Cathedral in the 11th Century. Apparently, the dragon story is even older.
I wrote the script for our show back in the days when the Internet was still in its bone knives and bearskins state, so my conception of how Krakow actually looked was a bit off. For one thing, I imagined Wawel Hill being rather larger than it is. But then, it would have seemed larger to kids, especially if it was (as I gather it was) more wooded back in that “once upon a time” time.
The castle offers a vista of the Visitors’ Center beside the Vistula.
It’s now an art museum, so we don’t invest the time and money in exploring its insides when there is so much outside to explore in the city.
The cathedral, however, is open free to the public, so we go inside.
The west entrance has bones, reputed to be from the dragon, hanging overhead . There is speculation that dragon stories in general originated because of the discovery of prehistoric critter fossils. Which is quite plausible, since it’s certainly true that the fertile human imagination and penchant for storytelling take over wherever there is a gap in the facts, for better and for worse; and these “dragon bones” hanging over the entrance to a church are an especially fitting reminder of that.
No photography is allowed in the main part of the cathedral, and so one would have to be rather stealthy to snap something inside, such as, say, the little shrine dedicated to Pope John Paul II, a local boy who made good.
As we’re shuffling along through the cathedral and admiring the sights rather than watching our step, I manage to plow right into a priest who is standing and chatting with another priest, and he apologizes in Polish as if it was his fault, which it clearly wasn’t. But I can’t explain that, being utterly clueless about the local tongue, so I feel like a total ass, and even wonder if he doesn’t suspect that, for whatever reason, I bumped into him deliberately.
In the basement of the cathedral are the crypts of several Poles who made great contributions to the nation’s history and culture.
Among them is Frederick Chopin, whom I’ve always greatly admired. He was the composer of a number of popular pieces of piano music. A very large number. It’s as hard to conceive of piano music without Chopin as it is theatre without Shakespeare.
Wawel Hill is located in what is called Krakow Old Town, and for very good reason. It was a thriving metropolitan hub for about 500 years, beginning around the year 1000. Many of the structures look pretty much as they did back in the middle ages — we passed through here last night in the fog, and it was like walking through a fairy tale.
Remnants of the wall that surrounded the city 7 centuries ago, and the main entrance, called Florian Gate, still remain.
And amid all this antiquity, there are of course a few touches of contemporary culture, including one right beside Florian Gate.
Back home, we’d never be caught comatose inside a McDonald’s. But over here, we’ve noticed that many of them have rather unique interiors with real character. So we keep peeking inside them.
Just outside the old wall is the Barbican, a 500-year-old fortification that once guarded the gate.
In those days, it was surrounded by a moat. Now, it’s surrounded by artwork.
And while it was once filled with weaponry, it’s now pretty much empty except for when it serves as a concert venue.
Nearby, a model of its appearance in the Good Old Days sports a plaque that shamelessly caters to us English-speaking tourists.
The Main Square in Old Town also is about 7 centuries old, and is reputedly the largest of medieval town squares. It’s dominated by Cloth Hall, the Clock Tower and St. Mary’s Basilica.
Cloth Hall was constructed in 1555, but it’s been the site of a continuously operating bazaar for at least a couple of centuries longer than that. It’s the oldest mall in Europe.
So naturally it’s a great place to shop or browse for gifts and souvenirs. Among tiny stalls stocked with items that are made by locals in Poland rather than locals in China — and amazingly, don’t cost much more.
The Clock Tower, built in the 13th Century, once housed a dungeon and torture chamber. Since a strong wind damaged it, it’s been a leaning tower, though it doesn’t lean quite as much as the one we saw in Pisa.
St. Mary’s Basilica, completed in the 14th Century, was an otherworldly presence in the fog last night.
Every hour, a trumpet tune peals out from the taller tower of the church, but it’s interrupted in the middle of playing. This is to commemorate a 13th Century trumpeter who played the tune to alarm the townsfolk that invaders were approaching — until he was felled by an arrow in the middle of his performance. Of course, he was not stationed in the church tower, as it would not be built until the following century.
Growing hungry and deciding to sit down for a while and shake off the chill and take advantage of a free bathroom, we opt to eat lunch in a restaurant on the square. The one we settle on has a bovine statue in front, which suggests that it might be for carcass lovers only.
And the decor inside, which looks as if it’s trying to replicate the Ponderosa, suggests the same thing. The hides of slain beasts are hanging on the walls. But the hardwood walls and floors, the low lighting, and general atmosphere are still quite appealing.
So is the menu, surprisingly. Kimberly orders pierogi with caramelized onions, and I select latkes with portobello mushroom gravy.
And they are absolutely heavenly. If you thought Trader Joe’s latkes are great (and I for one always have), these make them look like… well, small potatoes. And astoundingly, this meal set us back only about 40 zlotys (10 dollars). [This will be our only time to eat in a restaurant in Europe, not counting the mandatory dessert in Vienna.]
While we’re taking photos and videos of our sumptuous meal, the manager of the restaurant happens to pass by on his way out, and stops to ask (in a friendly but apparently concerned manner) “Why you camera?”. Maybe he thinks we’re spies from a rival restaurant.
But we explain, to his apparent satisfaction, that we camera because we are American tourists who don’t know better, and we absolutely love the food. And sometimes we camera just for the sheer joy of cameraing.
Our bellies full, we press on through Old Town and beyond, encountering some fascinating pieces of sculpture along the way.
Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364 by a Polish king, is still in operation. It’s turned out such alumni as the aforementioned Pope John Paul II and Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), the great mathematician and astronomer who proposed the revolutionary and shocking thesis that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the contrary belief firmly held by the Pope’s church (and all others). Actually, he even proposed that the sun is the center of the universe, so he didn’t get it right, either. But he took us a big step closer to the truth.
The Juliusz Slowacki Theatre, named after a Polish poet, is a very young structure compared to many of the others in Old Town, having been built only in 1893. But it’s as magnificent as the best of them.
It really brings out the ham in American thespians.
Planty Gardens is a network of parks radiating through Old Town, established in the 1820s. They provide some very pleasant strolls with glimpses of many historic buildings.
Meandering beyond the bounds of Old Town, we find that even the more modern parts of the city retain an Old World flavor.
As evening falls, we come upon a vegetarian supermarket with an excellent selection of food at very reasonable prices (like everything else here). We also stumble upon one of those increasingly popular escape rooms, which we happen to be very fond of ourselves.
And eventually, Kimberly’s fabric store radar sounds the alarm.
And we encounter this rather arresting contraption.
Which is evidently modeled after a similar jalopy in the Blues Brothers movie.
And then it’s back through Old Town at night, with St. Mary’s once again a towering angelic presence, though this time there’s a rather devilish presence in the foreground.
And finally back home for another restful night on the Vistula.