Poland Trip 2007

27th October 07 - 1st November 07

[1 - Crakow]


To Poland - my raison d'etre

In truth, I had been wanting to visit Poland for some time. In 2007, at the Lorelei Rock Festival in Germany, I had seen English band Pendragon in concert for the first time.  I had been aware of some of the music their keyboardist, Clive Nolan, had created in collaboration with Oliver Wakeman, tending towards a rock opera / rock musical style. One such work was a musical adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Now in 2007, in partnership with Agnieszka Swita, Clive Nolan had been composing and arranging the music to project She, based on a novel penned by Henry Rider Haggard in 1887. Though not a huge fan of musicals, I thought it was worth a shot nonetheless. Just the excuse I needed to pay this country a visit. I ordered my tickets and with suggestions from a few folk working at Xerox, notably Kamil Leonuik, I planned an itinerary, soon coming to the realisation that four days and a bit wasn't going to be long enough. I had secured bookings for Wera Guesthouse in Crakow, Villa Slimak in Zakopane, Poland's premier winter ski resort, and Camponile Hotel in Katowice, an industrial city, where the concert was being staged, at the Wyspianski Theatre, also referred to as the Śląski (Silesian) Theatr . I would have to leave visits to the Wieliczka salt Mine and Auschwitz concentration camp for another day. Not wishing to detract from the importance of the latter, I felt the need for invigoration from the fresh air of the countryside and the mountains. I even harboured ambitions of tackling Mt Giewont at 1894 metres above sea level, only to discover later that this was out of the question.


Crakow main square with the Cloth Hall, the Adam Mickiewicz statue and St Mary's Church.


Arrival in Crakow

My late neighbour saw me en route and offered a lift to  Royston station. Maintenance schedules on the rail network, the norm at weekends, meant bus trips to Cambridge (09h20 from Royston) and a 10h18 connection coinciding with train times, to Stansted, arriving just on the 2 hour before departure mark quite comfortably. I checked in quickly, my rucksack weighing only 11 kg. Time for a coffee and sandwich. I changed £100, though with some difficulty, as my credit card required extensive checks, largely due to the fact that I had recently paid for my end of the year ticket to Cape Town. It was a pleasant flight, made even more so by the friendly, gorgeous Wizz Air air hostesses. My scheduled time of arrival was 16h35. A rasta reggae band caused a slight delay upon arrival at customs, local officers perhaps suspicious of them carrying contraband. I managed to secure a place on the Wizz Ait mini-bus transport to Crakow via Katowice at a cost of 50zl, about £10. I made a mental note as to the location of the drop-off in Katowice for future purposes. How indeed, does one attempt to remember street names like Juliusza Slowakiego and Piotra Skargi? Darkness had descended and soon we were on the highway, arriving at Crakow bus station, located just behind the railway station. Only with the help of my DK guide book was I able to ascertain, upon leaving the station, that I was in fact heading in the wrong direction down Topolowa. I altered my approach towards the town centre down Lubicz and Westerplatte, crossing via a metal bridge en route. A left-turn at Miko Lajska and adjacent to a park led me comfortably to sw. Krzyza and the Wear Hostel. I was quite exhausted at this stage.


The Cloth Hall and the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's greatest bard and a serial philanderer - a regular meeting place. The statue is a copy, the original destroyed by the Nazis.


Wera Guesthouse - sharing with the dog

No sooner had I arrived and introduced myself, when the proprietress began to apologize profusely, claiming that she had made a mistake by letting the room to someone else, a friend. perhaps I should have paid more attention to the comment left on their website by "Unhappy in Poland" which read: "The location was the only redeeming factor of this guesthouse.  The stay was off to an immediate bad start when we arrived and our room had been double-booked for the first night", claiming a scam in the process. She was able to converse in German, which at least made it somewhat easier to make sense of the shambles that ensued. And so I was resigned to sharing the first night at least, albeit on the lounge fold-up bed-cum-couch. The lounge also turned out to be the hostess's living area, though I was spared the ignominy of having to share the bed as well. To add to this ludicrous situation, her boyfriend occupied the couch and the dog made itself at home too. She seemed genuinely embarrassed. I wasn't impressed to say the least, considering I had paid, but was also in no mood to go traipsing around Crakow at this stage of the evening, so I made the most of it and left around 20h00 in search of a restaurant.


  I didn't have far to go, so from that point of view at least, I was fortunate. St. Mary's church was only a block or two away, with the huge main square surrounding the Cloth Hall, located in the middle. I explored the area and soon found a place which appealed to me, known as the Jazz Club, in fact a cellar. Unfortunately, there was no jazz on view that evening. Despite this I enjoyed a starter of olives and a bowl of Bigos, basically a cabbage stew, a national dish. It was absolutely delicious. I texted my brother Gordon, as I often do when travelling abroad. Often he gets out an atlas at home and attempts to trace my precise location. Still at the main square, I found myself being "stalked" by a pretty young girl, Agnieska and her friend, sporting a bandaged, broken finger, and proud of it. She held it up and proclaimed how drunk she was, well, just a touch. Just two young kids out having a good time, Agnieska got me to pronounce "goodbye" in Polish, though it escapes me now.  Shaking hands, in the friend's case, with the left, made them shriek with laughter. Delighted, they were soon gone. Crakow positively buzzes at night. I arrived back at the hostel. The dog went berserk. Fortunately, I was exhausted and crashed. despite the fact that "boyfriend" proved quite a snorer.

The medieval Cloth Hall (the Sukiennice) which also serves as a market (known as The Rynek) selling jewellery. There is a gallery on the top floor.


Exploring the old town

With the lounge curtains drawn and the room in virtual darkness, I lost track of time and only surfaced at 09h00 on the Sunday morning. I used the owner's tiny bathroom by mistake, only later, upon being moved to the room I had actually booked, was I shown its large adjoining bathroom. She had intended this but not mentioned it. I was able to vacate to this rather comfortable room, the total cost being 200zl for the two nights. Despite the inconvenience, a more than adequate breakfast had been provided in the form of rolls and ham, some of which I saved for later. It was only around 10h30 that I marched off to the old town, armed with my cameras. Crakow, Poland's second largest city, seemed perpetually in the mist. This did not discourage Crakovians from coming out. Mime artists entertained. Kids fed the pigeons. Horse-drawn carts took tourists for a ride around the square. Services at St Mary's continued all day, out of bounds to tourists, evidence that Polish Catholics take their religion seriously. On the hour, each service ends with a blast from one of eight trumpeters clad in regimental blue and reminded by computer, from the taller tower. By tradition he breaks off mid-melody to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. The Grand Square is all of 200 metres square, the largest in Europe. It was laid out in 1257 after the Mongol hordes of Gengis Khan swept through the city. "The Rynek (market) has a great sense of majesty about it. And to lap this up, there are several vantage points from which one can view the square, which is precisely why I was stuck there with my camera for hours. Many of the buildings are very grand, as the aristocracy wanted their palaces here. They went to town in this respect, lavishing money on their architects".


Fun for the kids on the Grand Square on a Sunday amidst the crazy pigeons, with St Adalbert's church in the background.


Take a ride on a Sunday morning around Crakow Grand Square from the market, near the Cloth Hall and St Mary's.



"During the summer, when the cafes bring out their chairs, the entire ring pullulates. It is a good place to sit and watch the world go by. Indeed, with its buskers and flower-sellers, its mad pigeons and mime-artists, its wonderfully lively and varied architecture, the Market Square is never a dull place. It is one of the real joys of Crakow". Yet there is a legend behind the mad pigeons, that dates back to a Prince of Krakow named Henryk Probius, who harboured ambitions of being king and reuniting the kingdom that had been divided between 5 sons, of which he was one. After a witch appeared in the great Market Square where the Prince had agreed to meet her, a sharp glance and a swift gesture of her arm transformed the knights into pigeons. But while the pigeons have lived on, Crakovians treat them with such respect. They are indeed no ordinary birds but the enchanted knights of Henryk Probius, still full of hope and awaiting the arrival of their Prince with the crown of a King. Crakow is known for its stag parties, particularly amongst Brits, where it can be arranged for the groom to be captured in true Russian mafia style.  

Buskers play a melody on Crakow Grand Square, enjoyed by Crakovians and tourists alike.


Believe it or not, a Communism deluxe tour, lasting about 4 hours, exists. The arrangement  includes transportation in a 1970’s Communist bus or East German Trabants (for smaller groups), a typical Polish dinner in a Communist-Era restaurant, a 1980’s live concert during dinner, a short ride in our crazy, two-stroke Trabant 601 and a vodka tasting with real Polish workers in our 1970’s exclusive and unchanged apartment. St Adalbert's church is the oldest building in the market square in Krakow. The first stone church was built 1000 years ago and 200 years ago the present church was built. The baroque dome was added in the 18th Century. The age of the church is apparent when you look at the church's original entrance which is now nearly 2 metres below the current level of the square. St. Mary's Church, construction of which began in 1355 and lasted 50 years, has two unequal towers. The church was to have two slim sky-piercing towers to direct people's eyes toward God's firmament. Two architect brothers who had recently arrived in Krakow were given the job, and they decided each would build a tower. They made a bet as to which would be finished first. The competition soon resulted in hostility between the brothers. The older brother finished his tower and added a spire with a golden crown. The celebration by the older brother to which he invited his younger brother soon resulted in a quarrel during which the older brother fatally stabbed the younger one. The next day he was tried, sentenced to death, and executed. No one wanted to finish the shorter tower, so it was covered with a metal dome. The marketplace and commercial hub of the city has at its centre the Sukiennice, the medieval cloth hall now of interest mostly to tourists for its craft items, jewellery, sweaters, and souvenirs. Terrace cafes are along the sides of the Sukiennice, and flowers are sold under yellow umbrellas. There is an art gallery on the top level.


St Adalbert's church, the oldest in Crakow, with the two towers of St Mary's, to the rear.



I wandered down to Wavel Hill at a leisurely pace and after walking up a cobblestone path, one is confronted by the cathedral and the castle, whilst overlooking the Wisla River. A huge open square created 200 years as a parade ground, separates the two structures. Wavel Hill is where for over 500 years the countrys rulers lived and governed. The main buildings have not changed much.

Leaving the Grand Square down Grodzka towards Wavel Hill; Where to next, as the tram rushes by?


Approaching Wavel Hill Cathedral and Castle via Kanonicza, containing the State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments


Wavel Hill

Prior to entering the courtyard, scattered with autumn leaves which made for a colourful sight. I bought a ticket to enter the cathedral from a thickset, stoic looking elderly nun at the small adjoining building housing the cash desk. Tickets to visit the castle state rooms had to be purchased from the main tourist office upon entering the square. A young girl next to the nun smiled and explained that they were administered separately, though she also found the procedures complicated. Even after the capital moved to Warsaw, Polish monarchs continued to be buried at Wavel Cathedral, and many Polish poets and heroes lie in state in the historic buildings. The first Wavel Cathedral was built almost a thousand years ago. The brick and sandstone basilica is a Gothic structure built in the 1300s. The tombs of 41 Polish monarchs are mostly in side chapels with elaborate decorations. Members of aristocratic families are also interred here. Wavel Castle was converted from a Gothic structure into an Italian-style palace in the early 1500s. After much deterioration and pillage, reconstruction began in the 1880s. During World War II a German governor used the palace as his private quarters and let Nazi officers live in the royal apartments. Most of the castle's furniture and art were taken out of the country for safekeeping when World War II began. The castle's art collection includes 136 tapestries, the oldest from the 15th century. Eighteen have Old Testament scenes, including Noah's Ark and the flood. In one particular room, sculptured masks adorn the ceiling. Security in both the cathedral and the palace understandably tight and no photographs were allowed in either. I had to check in my rucksack at the baggage room and entered the state rooms via a metal detector at the entrance, not surprising, since the palace houses the history of Poland.  


View from the ascent to the bell-tower in Wavel Hill cathedral.


Wavel Hill cathedral bell-tower.


Although I had spent only an hour in the state rooms, I emerged to darkness outside.It was time for dinner. Though not in keeping with traditional Polish food, I settled for a salmon and tuna pizza, appropriately named an "Oslo", at the local Pizza Express off Kanonicza, washed down with a glass of red wine.  South of Wawel lies Kazimierz, where the Jewish quarter, which has experienced something of a revival, is located. According to DK, the Jewish community is now about 6000 strong. A number of synagogues exist, the oldest being The Old Synagogue. In appearance this neighbourhood seemed in stark contrast to the town centre, in an architectural sense as well as the way it had been maintained, as if the area had escaped restoration. I returned to the main square for a much-needed coffee at a restaurant adjoining the Cloth Hall. The delightful arches just outside the restaurant are depicted on the images page (URL below) using my fish-eye lens. The Barbican, just outside the Florian Gate, is located on the north side of the old town, is a fortified outpost or gateway - a barbican - it serves as an exhibition centre.

Czartoryski Museum in the background and the Joiners' and Carpenters' Towers.


Jama Michalika Café

The Florian Gate was built around the 1300's and is one of the best known Gothic towers in Poland. East of St Florian's gate is the Haberdashers' Towers and the towers of the Joiners and Carpenters are to the West, the latter adjoining the Czartoryski Museum, with its art collection assembled in the 1800's. It was approaching 11h00 and my interest was waning at this stage. Florianska Street was still a hive of activity. Just down from St Florian's Gate towards the main square lies Jama Michalika Café, at 45 Florianska Street. In 1895 Jama Michalika opened a patisserie near the Market Square. It became very popular with students of the Fine Arts School, who called the place jama (grotto) for its lack of windows. Poets, writers and artists soon joined in and in 1905 established the cabaret Zielony Balonik (The Green Balloon). The greatest artists, actors and men of letters of the period known as ‘Mloda Polska’ or Young Poland used to gather here for a talk and amusement over a cup of coffee or a glass of absinthe. Their caricatures still adorn the walls. The performers soon attracted a large audience. Satirical puppet shows soon became particularly popular. In 1910 Michalik extended and redecorated the premises, the main room receiving a glass ceiling. Most of the interior decoration, furniture and stained glass is in the Art Nouveau style. The café is still an inviting place where customers can enjoy the atmosphere of the fin de siecle, as well as see the endearing puppet show. The picturesque hideout seems to keep the time frozen since the days when the 20th century was young and innocent. And for most of Polish intelligentsia Krakow’s Jama Michalika café remains a sanctuary of Bohemian spirit. And so I returned the comfort and confines of my room.


The Art Nouveau Jama Michalika café, once the meeting place of students of the Fine Arts School around 1905.


Final hours in Crackow

On the morning of Monday 29th October, I arranged to keep the room till around midday, so that I explore the town once more, before my planned departure to Zakopane in the south of Poland. I wolfed down my breakfast an left around 09h00. Once again an early mist hung still and motionless. I headed down Kanonicza towards Wavel, until I saw an entrance to a park bathed in the colours of autumn. I instinctively knew, after some distance, where this would take me, as the path wound its way around the perimeter of the old town. It was beautiful.  Ultimately I found myself at the Barbican, on the north side, through the Florian Gate and past Jama Michalika Café, where I had been the night before. Back at the Rynek, I enquired about buses to Zakopane. Three different companies operated on the route, each to their own timetable, collectively every half hour, ensuring that the possibility of my getting there was never in doubt. I drew cash at a Deutsche Bank, slipped silently into St Mary's for a quick view, despite church services still being in full swing, finally returning to the hostel. Gathering my rucksack, I retraced my way back to the station, picking a far more direct route, being much the wiser as far as the geography of the place was concerned. A midday bus was about to leave just as I got there.  After boarding, I settled down for the two hour journey, at a measly cost of 16zl. Soon we had left a congested Crakow and found ourselves in mountainous terrain as we headed towards the Tatras, the highest mountains in central Europe.


Autumn beckons in the park on F. Straszewskiego, a short distance from Wavel Hill, on the perimeter of the old town.


The Barbican and Florian's Gate, on the north side of the old town.


Just off Czartoryski Museum.


[Home Page]


[Part 1 - Crakow]

[Part 2 - Zakopane & Katowice]

[Part 3 Crakow (more images)]

[Part 4 - Zakopane (more images)]


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