Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Krakow, Poland

Posted on November 22nd, 2005

Aw! Isn't that pretty?

So, everything went textbook perfect on the morning of my departure from Wroclaw, heading to Krakow. I slept late, woke up, lazily packed my bags, drank free coffee like… well, like it was free, and finally strolled across the street to the train station 20 minutes before my train, so I’d have time to grab a banana from one of the news stands and serenely eat it on the platform before rolling off to Krakow. You can just smell the impending disaster, can’t you? This is me, we’re talking about after all…

Well, as is God’s way, even the easiest, best laid plans can turn into a screwing of biblical proportions when you’re me and you allow yourself to get this complacent, which brings me to my Poland Warning of the Day: Beware of the announcement boards in the train stations in Poland. You know that giant board with the flipping parts that everyone stands and stares at to figure out what time and which platform their train will depart from? Well, in Poland they have reversed the board layout so that the arrivals are announced first, on the prominent left side and the departures are somewhere off to the right where banana munching travelers lost in reverie are unlikely to naturally see them, even if they could determine the words “arrivals” and “departures” in Polish - something like “ftyghtfynb” and “dfjbvierbgviuwhtoihgnjfderivunbe” if memory serves. Although having checked the schedule at the hostel and knowing that my train departed at 11:00AM on the button, the big board seemed to indicate that my train was actually leaving at 11:14AM. Assuming that my train was just a little late, as many inter-city trains in Poland are, I dutifully marched to my platform and waited for the 11:14 to Krakow. Well, of course, the 11:14 never came, while several trains coming from mysterious locations and departing for other unfamiliar destinations came and went. Finally, after lurching through several excruciating Lost in Translation encounters with the station staff, I trudged back to my hostel where the error of my ways was pointed out to me by the cute hostel manager. I still blame Poland though. Departures on the left you idiots!! Sheesh!!

I arrived in Krakow at 5:30PM, over two hours later than planned. As the sun sets at about 4:15PM this time of year, it was pitch black night by this point. It was too late, too cold and too dark for me to try to walk to the hostel, so I followed the wonderfully accurate tram directions to Stranger Hostel and was being checked in by yet another gorgeous Polish a few minutes later. The Krakow branch of the Stranger Hostels is much less flashy than the one in Wroclaw. There’s still free Internet/wifi, coffee, breakfast, giant screen TV, DVD library and expansive makeout couch, but the building is louder, the facilities are in dire need of updating, the bathrooms are smaller (and fewer) and the unisex showers with the comically too-small curtains and see-through doors provide so little privacy that only Danish and Germans travelers can shower without apprehension. (I can’t be sure, but the cute Polish clerk seemed to spend an exorbitant amount of time in the bathroom “fixing the hot water heater” during one of my showers. Heh, still got it!) There were only about eight people spread out in four rooms on two floors on my first night in Krakow, but each subsequent night, six to eight people would arrive, with zero departees, so by the end of the week there was a permanent line three people deep at the toilet and free erotic shower shows, something you’d pay $20 to see in a Minneapolis strip club before tip, were on offer every time I went to brush my teeth (six times a day). If I didn’t have such a small bladder, I probably would have spent the rest of my life in that hostel.

Hi! I'm a drunk Polish guy doing a drunken jig on the Rynek at 11:30 on a Wednesday morning! Ain't life grand?

I eased out of bed at the crack of 9:45AM on my first morning in Krakow and after a long breakfast, I set out to dig Poland’s undisputed tourism capital. Krakow’s city map is made by the same thorough and cheeky people who did Prague’s city map. All streets are clearly plotted and labeled, all tram lines and stops are meticulously marked and the back has a bundle of information on sights, restaurants, clubs and useful Polish phrases translated like “Are you a nun?” and “69.” The first obvious objective was to head straight for the old town, just a few blocks from the hostel, which is surrounded by an inviting, thick perimeter boulevard. Thanks to timely and cunning Soviet liberation from the Germans in WWII, Krakow is one of the precious few Polish cities that wasn’t completely destroyed during the German retreat. Krakow’s market square, Rynek Glówny, is the largest in Europe, measuring 800 meters by 1,200 meters (874 yards by 1,312 yards), though I personally dispute these numbers. A thousand meters equals one kilometer, right? The Rynek is certainly huge, but 1.2 kilometers long? After two and a half years immersed in the metric system, I know damn well how long it takes me to walk a kilometer – 10 minutes, at a scorching pace – and it did not take me a scorching 12 minutes to cross the Rynek. Indeed it was more like a meandering eight minutes, that included a lingering pause to gawk at a drunk Polish guy who was improvising a Drunk Polish Guy Dance to the music of a small street band. One thousand, two hundred meters, may fanny! Nice try Krakow Tourism Bureau! But I digress… Despite deceptive advertising, the Krakow Rynek is indeed a magnificent sight. The 16th-century Cloth Hall, a market building, sits in the center (still utilized as a crafts market on the ground floor, with the Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Painting on the second level) and the perimeter of the square is ringed by numerous medieval buildings which are now all taken up by souvenir shops, billboards and restaurants. Even the basement of the otherwise striking Town Hall Tower, which conspicuously sits at the southwestern corner of the square, wasn’t spared by tourism development as it is now a trendy restaurant. The main attraction in the Rynek is the towering St. Mary’s Church in the northeast corner, which was experiencing a tourist bottleneck when I arrived with about 12 tour groups trying to squeeze through the door at once. I wanted to go in, but the heaving crowds made me reconsider and I decided to put off a visit for later, an ill-advised decision as Krakow’s other attractions kept me so busy that I never made it back to St. Mary’s. Instead I slowly circled the square, snapping photos while trying to frame out the giant section of the square that has been torn up for re-bricking.

Cloth Hall is in the background

Town Hall Tower

St. Mary’s Church

Leaving the square at the southern corner, I headed down Grodzka street where I stopped to admire the Church of St. Peter and Paul (two for one!), which, if it weren’t for the cross on the roof, would look like the Library of St. Peter and Paul, and a few steps later the Church of St. Andrew, which looks like an actual church. I entered St. Andrew and was immediately and comprehensively bit on the ass yet again by my own short-sighted wishes. After encountering so much construction and scaffolding on my 2003 trip through Europe, I whined at length about how the city planners should arrange to do all their restoration projects during the off-season when there are less tourists. Well, here we are in the off-season and what do I get? Effing scaffolding, just like I asked. The interior of St. Andrew’s was totally obscured by scaffolding. I could see through the cracks that there were cool murals and sculptures on the other side of the scaffolding, but trying to appreciate it was hopeless. Stupid poetic justice.

Church of St. Peter and Paul

My next target was the numerous attractions on Wawel Hill, including the castle, the cathedral and the Dragon’s Lair (A.K.A. Dragon’s Cave) dungeon below the castle. Wawel Hill is configured to bamboozle tourists in the same spirit as the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Parts of the grounds need tickets, but not all parts. The ticket office is in a vexingly discreet location just inside the entrance, with no obvious indication that you should pay them a visit. By the time someone asks you for a ticket, you are about a mile away from the ticket office and screw walking all the way back there. This is how I missed out on seeing the inside of the Royal Chambers, Private Apartments and the Treasury. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sorry. I was hitting a tolerance peak for royal opulence and riches at the time and when you factor in the camera ban in all of these places, it was unlikely I was going to come away from those attractions with anything more than a vague, unimpressed memory and fractionally sorer feet. Gratifyingly, there was plenty of Wawel Hill that did not require a ticket and I thoroughly enjoyed those parts. The Wawel Cathedral in particular was quite an experience. With a few notable exceptions, the interiors of most of the churches/cathedrals I had seen in Poland were pretty ho-hum, but not Wawel. It was dripping with intricate statues and adornments carved in white, black, purple, red and pink marble, wood carved pews and walls, tapestries, mosaics and various shinny things that I couldn’t identify, but stared at anyway. Although a ticket was needed, I sidled into the bell tower with a tour group and crawled up the jungle gym stairs and ladders to see the three surviving bells, one of which weighs 11 metric tons. These stairs and passages were not built for normal sized humans in mind and the situation was made even worse when the tower’s reinforcement infrastructure was built in, making the area even more cramped and forcing people to climb startlingly steep and shallow steps and then squeeze through tiny openings in the framework to get from one section to the next. I’m 5’-9” and 145 pounds and with the added bulk of my fall jacket, I was barely able to get through a few of those gaps, meaning the average American, hell even the average Pole, would have needed a shoehorn, some butter and a battering ram team to get themselves through those things. They should have put up signs at the bottom of the tower saying something like “If you can’t get into the backseat of a Ford Festiva unassisted, you cannot go on this ride.”

Wawel Cathedral

Courtyard of Wawel Castle

I got my petit self to the top of the tower just fine and was rewarded for my compact size with several nice photo opportunities not only of the bells, but also some fine views of Krakow. The trip down got ugly. I suffered a weird Charlie Horse in my right quadriceps after only the second flight of steps and by heavily favoring my other leg succeeded in suffering the same injury in my left leg two flights later. Both legs felt like they were at the failing point for the rest of the way down, forcing me to virtually hand walk down the stairway railings. Once safely at the bottom I rested on a old pew and massaged my legs until I felt I could walk normal. I exited the cathedral and circled the entire grounds one more time only to find that the Dragon’s Lair is closed during off-season (grrr!), while taking some nice pictures of the Vistula River before descending Wawel Hill in search of lunch.

After an exasperating search for a bar (A.K.A. milk bar, A.K.A café, where tasty and filling Polish food can be found for a pittance), amongst a calculated deluge of over-priced tourist restaurants and an absurd number of Italian places, I found exactly what I needed and stood in a very long line with students and moms with children to order lunch. The lady at the counter didn’t speak English so after what seemed like a simple series of pointing and grunting, I thought I had ordered two meat and cabbage rolls and a side of mashed potatoes. What I got, however, was three meat and cabbage rolls and the mashed potatoes with a bonus breaded pork fillet and some cabbage salad (they eat a lot of cabbage here). I stood there with the two giant plates of food not knowing what to do. First, I must say I was deeply impressed that 10zl (about US$3) had scored me so much food. Unfortunately, having already paid and not being able to communicate (even at the most basic level apparently) with the lady behind the counter, I quickly concluded that my only option was to retreat with all that food, amid a roomful of stares by all the less gluttonous diners who were only digging into one plate each, take a seat and do my countrymen proud by eating the whole goddamn thing.

I waddled out of the bar 45 minutes later so woozy and bloated that I staggered off in the wrong direction for about a half mile before I realized my mistake and had to backtrack to get the Kazimierz neighborhood, where Krakow’s Jews were relocated from the Old Town in the 15th-century before they were relocated again during WWII to the ghettos in Podgórze on the south side of the Vistula River. There are several synagogues here, including the 15th-century Old Synagogue which barely made it through the War, a market that peaks each morning and on the weekends and a few cemeteries with War memorials. Unfortunately, by the time I hauled my distended stomach down there, virtually everything was closing up. I quickly crisscrossed the area, taking photos in the fading light before I was forced to abandon the effort and hastily return the hostel before it got too dark and the monsters came out.

The following day I sucked it up and headed for Auschwitz, 60km west of Krakow. Auschwitz is the smaller, yet most notorious of what was once three concentration camps in the area – the other two being the much larger Birkenau and Monowitz camps. Retreating Nazis destroyed part of Auschwitz, most of Birkenau, where the vast majority of extermination actually occurred, and all of Monowitz. You can enter both Auschwitz, which has been almost entirely restored, and Birkenau, which is little more than a barren lot, free of charge. Auschwitz has more to look at with many of the surviving buildings hosting displays which depict life in the camp, but it’s definitely worth the effort to cross the road and visit Birkenau as well. Though there’s little of substance to see at the Birkenau camp, the staggering size - 175 hectares (432 acres) - with barbed wire fences stretching off into the vanishing point, gives one a startling idea of the titanic scope of the atrocities committed here.

There are two guided tours per day, at 11:00AM and 1:00PM that are a hefty 25zl (US$7.62), but I wasn’t feeling up to a three and a half hour lecture on human slaughter, so I took my time getting ready at the hostel and headed out intending to arrive well after the second tour had set out so I would be able to wander the grounds and contemplate the poignant displays in solitude.

My careful plans failed before I even left the hostel due to my failure to factor in the Off-Season Cookie Traveler Quotient. I had nearly forgotten about the Off-Season Cookie Traveler Quotient, a subject which I became an authority on during my time in Italy in December of 2003. You see, in addition to marginally more elbow room, off-season travel offers added pizzazz in that for some reason this is the time of year when the Cookies collectively get the urge to slip out a side door of whatever institution that their being held at and hit the road. I can’t explain it, but the number of noteworthy eccentrics on the backpacker circuit seems to double or triple right around the end of October, remaining strong until about March or April when they retreat back to their respective half-way houses. I suppose it’s possible that the Cookie numbers are consistent year round and perhaps the diminished number of well-adjusted backpackers during the off-season makes them seem more conspicuous, but nevertheless I inevitably suffer personally by the phenomenon. In this case, I was accosted at breakfast by a British guy (for the sake of his anonymity, I’ll call him “British Guy”) with glaring social awkwardness issues. Truthfully, the guy was perfectly nice, but his junkie-needing-a-fix shakiness and incessant babbling - each sentence was punctuated by a grating nervous laugh, e.g. “Can you pass the jam? Hehehehe.” - put me off right away. Before I had a chance to make myself lucid with coffee, I let it slip that I was heading for Auschwitz and he invited himself to join me. I knew immediately that my day was ruined right then, but it only got worse. We took the tram across town to the temporary bus station - the real one is adjacent to the train station, but it’s in pieces due to a massive construction effort. Unfortunately, when they relocated the bus station, they didn’t bring along any of the bus station signs and they cunningly decided to place everything in a parking lot behind a non-descript business center. We blundered past the hidden bus station twice, though in my defense I was distracted as British Guy was telling me the long, sad tale of how he came to Poland to see a girl he’d met a few weeks earlier in England and she had promptly abandoned him within 24 hours of his arrival in Krakow. Finally, I spied some buses exiting an unmarked driveway and we hurried around back of the building and into the shack serving as the ticket office with only five minutes to spare before our bus departed. Just as we entered the shack, our bus rocketed out of the parking lot and left. After standing there for a full minute with our mouths open, we consulted the schedule only to see that it differed from the schedule posted at the hostel and differed yet again from the actual timetable. We had to cool our heels for another hour only to get picked up by a half-busted bus that left at yet another random time. I had mentally composed a long essay about the Krakow bus system by that point where I ripped a city that is supposed to be Poland’s tourism focal point for having a bus system ostensibly organized by brain damaged monkeys.

British Guy filled the hour long wait by telling me yet another tale of romantic woe where he had met a Ukrainian girl on the Internet and after sending her money and getting mixed, conflicting messages from her, he traveled there to meet her, and by golly it seemed as if she was just a part of a large internet scam to relieve lonely rubes of their money! Who didn’t see that coming? But he wasn’t 100% sure that it was a scam, so he went home and hired a private investigator within the Ukraine to check out the woman, who promptly reported that she was a good, honest girl and was just very shy while he was there. British Guy eventually admitted that he had gotten the name of the private investigator from one of the woman’s friends and, in retrospect, it might be possible that the private investigator was in on the scam too. D’oh! Even after the Ukrainian disaster and now his ill-fated trip to Krakow, British Guy didn’t seem to be able to make the connection between his alarming departure from common sense and his perceived bad luck with women. His Ukrainian story – and a dozen tiresome tangents – went on for another 30 minutes into the bus ride before he got a text message on his phone from his mom and became totally engrossed in composing his reply (“She dumped me in less than 24 hours, mom! Can you believe it???”). The “ninety minute” bus ride was over two hours long. Two of the suckiest hours of my life. It seemed like six hours. We were dropped off at Auschwitz at 3:00PM. The museum closed at 4:00 and the sun set at 4:15, so we got moving.

There’s nothing more that I can add here about the horrific acts that occurred at Auschwitz that most people haven’t already read about or seen in blockbuster movies, so I will simply give you a brief run down on a few of the displays set in the former prisoner barracks:

• A room-sized, glass box display full of human hair that had been removed from gassed prisoners. The hair was allegedly sold and woven into much sought after fabrics back in Germany. The chemicals that were used to kill the victims had colored all of the hair a dirty gray/black color.
• A mound of eyeglasses, many crushed and twisted.
• Rooms full of shoes piled to the ceiling.
• Room-sized display cases full of combs, brushes and toothbrushes confiscated from arriving prisoners.
• A display case full of prosthetic limbs, crutches and braces collected as their owners were led to the gas chambers.
• Pictures of naked women who had lost one half or two thirds of their body weight while at Auschwitz.
• Pictures of naked, adolescent children that were so skeletally thin that you couldn’t identify their sex, who had been experimented on by Dr. Mengele.

The exhibits started closing down before we had finished the self-tour, but quite frankly I had seen more than my fill of atrocities while tolerating British Guy’s endless insensitive remarks about the victims and horrors at Auschwitz. It was nearly 5:00PM by this point and pitch black night outside. Auschwitz is creepy by day, but positively unnerving at night. I was feeling extra agitated because British Guy had stuck to my side like a jealous girlfriend the entire time, continuously invading my prized personal space as we made our rounds through the exhibits. We hustled out of there and arrived at the bus stop three minutes early for the 5:00PM bus back to Krakow. At 5:10PM we realized that the 5:00PM was not coming. The ticket guy informed us that the next bus was coming at 5:40 without any explanation as to what had happened to the 5:00. I fumed for the entire 40 minutes, imagining how I might exact revenge against the Krakow area bus officials for orchestrating a system that couldn’t have been less passenger friendly if it had been designed by the SS themselves.

Two and a half painful hours later we were finally back in Krakow. I rid myself of British Guy and sat down for a filling dinner of cottage cheese dumplings and sautéed onions in the neighborhood bar.

The following day I had intended to sneak out for yet another day trip to the salt mine in nearby Wieliczka, but British Guy walked in while I was professing my plans to the newly arrived Young American Girl, who was keen to join me. Young American Girl was also a bit socially off, but not so much that it zinged me and she was a collegiate swimmer, with a collegiate swimmer’s body, so as far as I was concerned, she could inappropriately invade my personal space any time, if that was her thing and I hoped it would be. Anyhoo, since British Guy was in earshot of my acceptance of Young American Girl’s request to accompany me, he took this to mean that he was expected to come along as well. Mother *&^%&%#^!!!

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a Material Culture World Heritage Site and second only to Auschwitz as Poland’s top tourist attraction. Nearly a thousand years of salt mining has resulted in a vast underground city of rooms and tunnels. Miners started making themselves at home in the mine when they started carving out little religious shrines and chapels to pray for safety and success. These modest sculptures were expanded in modern times to include giant, ornate statues done by famous sculptors and an elaborate chapel. There are two kilometers worth of rooms and tunnels, displaying mining equipment and techniques and the occasional odd attempt at a Disneyland-like animatronic show set to light and music. There’s also a museum and, predictably, a restaurant, gift shop and conference center. Oh and don’t forget that this gigantic labyrinth is staged hundreds of feet below ground, so claustrophobics are not welcome. But before any of that excitement, there was the delicate matter of getting into the joint.

Salt sculptures

Even in November, the mine is overrun with twittering visitors, many of whom try to employ the line jumping techniques from their home countries. There was a pack of English pensioners who theatrically tried to rush the door twice, playing the part of elderly, confused tourists with accomplished talent. Even British Guy was disgusted at this display. To make matters worse, they are currently doing some work on the mine, including the elevators, which has temporarily resulted in a dramatic slow down in the entering/exiting process. The three of us waited in a non-moving line for about 20 minutes before noticing the nearly indecipherable announcement pertaining to the slowdown at which point we realized that waiting in line for another hour to get into the mine, then going through the three hour tour, then waiting another hour in line to get into the exit elevator, all on an empty stomach would be a death sentence. We abandoned our spot in line to retreat for a lingering sit down lunch, only to return to a vastly longer and slower moving line. After a 90 minute wait, we were finally allowed to enter the mine, descending 300-some steps down a tight, switchback staircase to the beginning of the tour. Initially, I was greatly impressed with our guide who was trained to lead tours in Polish, English, French and German until it became painfully clear that her English skills started and ended with the tour scripts, witty throw away jokes included, which she has memorized verbatim. Off-script, questions posed to her that required more than a yes-no answer were usually met with a bizarre and unintelligible reply. This detail aside, the mines are indeed a wonder of human achievement. Endless tunnels and staggeringly large rooms, all of which were mined by hand, seem to go on forever. Rooms and tunnels are all reinforced by a cobweb of gigantic, wooden beams - some more than 25 meters (75 feet) in length - that were so large and unwieldy that simply lowering them down into the mine, maneuvering them through the tight tunnels and getting them into place seem to have been small miracles of engineering achievement. An awesome infrastructure of elaborate mechanisms used for hauling salt, pumping water and moving equipment have been restored to demonstrate the mining techniques. Rail lines and horse stables – horses often passed their entire lives without ever going to the surface – remain as evidence of the complex network that kept the mine in production.

The Salt Mine's chapel. Note the scaffolding...

I’m not claustrophobic, but by the end of the tour with the very limited space down in the mines, I was ready to scream from the lack of space. The narrow steps, tight tunnels, crowds of people and particularly the diminutive freight elevator that was temporarily in use as the exit elevator - with British Guy trying his best to cuddle with me at every stop - had me longing for some extra breathing room so much by the end that I was willing to break noses to get it. To her credit, Young American Girl pegged British Guy as an intolerable annoyance by half way through the tour and did her best to avoid him, and therefore me as he was on me like a wine stain, for the remainder of the tour.

Of course, it was well after dark when we emerged, meaning we had once again managed to piss away an entire day on one single outing. I’ve since realized that all the slow, disorganized pandemonium that is required to get through each of Krakow’s sights is intentionally and cleverly designed to eat up a full day so that visitors are forced to extend their stays in order to see everything, thus spending more money. My intended three nights in Krakow were stretched to five as I crawled through the city’s attractions. Ingenious.

That night I was coerced into consuming a full bottle of wine with a gaggle of Aussies (not much of a challenge) and then dragged out to a night club with some of the hostel people. The wine and my general fatigue prevented me from overly enjoying myself or staying out very late. Nevertheless, the next day was conducted under the effects of a profound hangover. I was so stupefied that getting my plans together to take the train into Slovakia the following day took me well into the afternoon. Even after hours on my feet and massive intake of food and liquids, I was still too wine-stunned to do more than slowly stagger around Krakow, quietly enjoying the fall weather and doing a lap around the Old City on that wonderfully charming boulevard.

The next day, still a little dazed from sleeplessness and cheap wine, I fumbled my way to the train station, absentmindedly riding the tram for free, and set off for Bratislava, Slovakia.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012