Having done one of the labors of Hercules in culling my Poland photos from roughly 1300 down to 59, I should get around to that whole trip report thing. But it’s likely to take multiple posts, so this is only the first installment.
We flew to Poland via Frankfurt, which I think may challenge Heathrow for length of odyssey from one gate to the next. Seriously, it is the most inexplicably complicated mess of hallways, stairways, escalators, elevators, slidewalks, and tunnels I’ve ever seen. Plus a five-minute bus ride to the plane itself — no really, I timed it. Two minutes in, I asked Kyle if we were driving to Poland. Four minutes in, I said they were taking us to a ditch at the edge of the airport, where they would shoot us for holding up the departure. (Our flight from San Francisco took off an hour late.)
But we make it to Balice outside of Kraków, where one of kniedzw‘s Polish co-workers picks us up. The area around Kraków is quite pretty: alternating farmland and forest, which displays itself to good advantage on a sunny autumn day. (Also, it is very flat. Surprise!)
He drives us to the Stare Miasto, which is the old city that, until fairly recently, is all there was of Kraków. The defensive wall that used to guard it is largely knocked down now, except for a bit around St. Florian’s Gate, but they’ve taken the ground once occupied by the wall and moat and turned it into a narrow ring of parkland called the Planty, which makes for an elegant boundary. Within that, the space reminds me in some ways of the City of London, and in some ways not at all. They’re roughly comparable in size, and both are stuffed to the gills with churches. But the Stare Miasto hasn’t been colonized by the financial industry. It’s quite a congenial area: there’s a sharp restriction on what vehicles are allowed to drive in, so it’s a very pedestrian zone, and easy to learn your way around.
We start that process right away, because we’ve arrived at our hotel (about two blocks south of St. Florian’s Gate) around three in the afternoon, and if we don’t do something we’re going to pass out and compound our jet lag. Besides, it’s an absolutely gorgeous fall day, and (as the co-worker has warned us) that may not last.
So we venture out, and stumble almost immediately into some kind of street fair in the courtyard behind what we later figure out is the Church of St. Mary. There are food stalls and craftsmen, including a portable forge, with a female blacksmith pounding out something right there. (I take about eighty bazillion pictures, to net one that isn’t motion-blurred to hell and gone.) My first meal in Poland, therefore, is kielbasa from a street stall, which seems appropriate. Then I have a chocolate-covered apple and some hot chocolate, and discover the thing I will love most about Kraków: they do hot chocolate right. God, that stuff was good. Wandering onward, we stumble from the street fair to a . . . Mongol archer? WTF?
We are, at this point, along the side of the Church of St. Mary, which dominates the northeastern end of the main market (haven’t gotten that far yet). Every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter stands in the window of one of the towers and plays the hejnał mariacki, which I mentioned before. This used to be played at dawn and dusk, and the opening and closing of the city gates; it was also used as a warning signal in times of fire, etc. The legend (we won’t talk about how old it is) tells that when the Mongol army came to assault Kraków, the trumpeter played the hejnał to warn the city, but was shot by an archer, partway through the tune. This, they say, is why the hejnał always ends abruptly, before the completion of the tune.
Since the church is going to close to visitors soon, we head in there next. The interior? Is gorgeous. This is my first introduction to the massive scale on which the Polish build altars: it’s kind of like somebody transplanted bits of Luxor into the church walls, except that it’s all in a beautifully harmonized shades of marble and gold. The ceiling in the choir is blue, and studded with gold stars. I would have pictures, but a) I have no tripod and the light is too low for me to get non-blurry shots, and b) when I try, I get harangued in Polish by a little old granny who apparently doesn’t care that I don’t speak her language; that isn’t going to stop her from giving me a piece of her mind. (Upon consultation with kniedzw‘s Polish co-workers, I believe my offense was taking photos in the first place. Never mind that I had paid for the photography permit.)
Back outside, we finally make our way around to the charmingly lopsided front of the church, which faces onto the main market. Because my brain has approximately two European models to compare Kraków against — London and Rome — I can’t help but think of St. Paul’s. Despite me being an American and not religious, it somehow feels right to have this kind of thing, a central church facing onto a square where people can gather. Something about the social space it creates pleases me — I can’t put it more specifically than that.
I’ll have more to say about the main market in a future post, but the short version is that it’s filled with a bunch of stalls selling flowers, more street performers, etc., as well as the Sukennice (Cloth Market), Church of St. Adalbert (or St. Wojciech, depending on what map you look at), and the tower that is all that remains of the old City Hall. It’s a photogenic spot, and all pedestrian, so very pleasant to stroll around.
But by this point, I’m starting to tire badly enough that we wander back toward the hotel. (I got only about an hour of sleep on the plane, so I’m pretty much running on fumes.) Stopping by the front desk, we ask what the occasion was for the street fair, performers, flower stalls, etc . . . and are told there’s no occasion. That’s just what this place is like all the time. This turns out to not quite be true; while the performers and flower stalls are, indeed, an everyday occurrence, the little fair behind the church was specific to that weekend. On the other hand, there’s another fair in the same place the following weekend, so the difference may be largely academic.
We settle in, then go downstairs to get dinner in the hotel crypt. Despite this being a shiny modern building, it’s clearly been planted atop something older; the restaurant is in some kind of renovated cellar. Pricy, but the food is excellent: kniedzw promptly declares the sausage to be “the best goddamn sausage in the world — it’s amazing!” (The sausage then becomes the yardstick by which we measure everything else on the trip. “Wow, this view is amazing! Like, as good as that sausage was!”)
After dinner, once more into the street, just to keep ourselves from passing out too early. And here we discover something surprising: the Stare Miasto does not go to bed at night. It isn’t just a tourist area; there are lots of shops selling trendy clothing, and (as becomes obvious after dark) a number of nightclubs. This is basically the last thing I would expect out of the old part of town, the area full of churches and historical landmarks and tourists, but there you have it.
Did I mention that Kraków does hot chocolate right? The stuff I get from a coffee shop by St. Mary’s isn’t as good as the cup earlier that day in the street fair — which, for my own part, I think was better than the sausage — but it’s damn good. (Strawberry flavored. Before I leave Poland, I will have also sampled their white and rum flavors. All excellent.)
. . . you know, this was supposed to be the story of days 0.5 and 1. But since I’ve blathered on for more than a thousand words already, I think I’ll cut it short here. Until the next post!