Monday, November 15, 2010

Krakow is ... Wow

Rick Steve's said Krakow was the next Prague. Although Rick isn't my favorite travel writer in the world, I do have to agree. We rolled into the city on a night train around 6:30, and even in the dim mist, freezing our butts off, BH and I could see how that this city was going to be beautiful and charming. Just look at this main square. Deserted and gorgeous.

We spent the next three hours searching for our hostel. I couldn't figure out the map, and we just kept walking around in these huge circles. During this time, we also walked past a ton of beautiful buildings, including the castle, that we would visit later on the trip. When we finally made it to Atlantis Hostel, not the best, but cheap, we both immediately crashed and woke up at about moon to start our city tour.
Although Rick isn't my favorite travel writer in the world, he does write good walking tours. We started off in the northern part of the city at the old city gates and walked through the entire old town. Old Town Square is gorgeous, with tons of people and shops and beautiful buildings. Saint Maria Basilica is one of the most prominent churches on the square. After debating whether or not to go inside, BH and I marveled at the gorgeous interior, with a beautiful carved altar. It was finished it 1489, and when open you can see the Dormition (death) of Mary.
The ceiling was also gorgeous: a deep blue covered with golden stars. The square was also home to a building called the Cloth Hall. Once a trading place for, you guessed it, cloth, it later burned down and was rebuilt in an Italian Renaissance style in the 16th century. After some quick Christmas shopping, we moved on to the old Town Hall tower. Next to the tower there was a gigantic head. Some random piece of modern art that was, somehow, quite cool. It also made a great meeting place.
We continued on our walk past a bunch of churches (apparently there are more churches per square mile in Krakow than any other city besides Rome) and stopped at St. Francis' Basilica. Before Pope John Paul II was a pope, this was his church. BH bought a coin stamped with JP's face, and I sat down in the pew where he once prayed. Even though I'm not Catholic, it was a pleasant experience. The stained glass windows in the church were beautiful. Built in the Art Nouveau (or Young Poland) style, these windows were colorful, vibrant and fantastical.
After paying respect to JP II, we continued on our walk to Wawel Castle. Perched on a top of a hill in the southern part of the old town, the castle grounds are impressive and a major attraction of Krakow. The church was this hodgepodge of architectural styles from various renovations, which added to the compelling beauty of the area. Rick Steve's pointed out that Chakra adherents especially loved one corner of the castle. Apparently, it is one of the seven biggest Chakra energy points in the world. We even saw some random lady soaking up the energy. Needless to say, we felt pretty happy ourselves after leaving the castle.
After our long walk, we headed into the city and ate at a milk bar. These are cheap Polish fast food restaurants, but the quality is definitely better than the average McDonalds. BH had a list of items he wanted to try, and of course, we ate pierogis. Delicious.
The other Fulbrighters were in town for an ETA conference, so we tried to meet up with them. After waiting an hour or two, we met up with a bunch of the Bulgarian ETAs and went for a long walk around the city and saw Krak the dragon.
Ages ago, before Krakow was even a true city, there was a dragon terrorizing the town. Everyday, they had to feed the dragon their livestock. However, the citizens were starving themselves. Luckily, a man came up with a solution; he sliced open a sheep and filled the carcass with sulfur. The dragon greedily ate up the sulfur, and then became very thirsty. He ran to the nearest river and drank until he burst. Krakow was saved.
After our walk, the Fulbright group went out together for an amazing Georgian meal. It was a little expensive for Eastern Europe, but the meal was spectacular. Cheesy bread, nicely spiced meat, and a rich tomato soup.
Dinner was followed by a walk over to the Jewish district for a little bit of partying. Even though it was Monday night, we were only in Krakow for a couple of days and wanted to experience as much of the city as we could. Plus, this was my first opportunity to actually meet the Fulbright scholars that weren't living in Sofia. The Jewish district, or Kazimierz, was once a ghetto, but has been transformed to the student and nightlife district. After running into Rachel, we ended up at a comfy, chill bar. One of the other Fulbrighters happened to know sign language, which was awesome. After a couple of drinks, it was back to bed. We needed a lot of sleep to prepare ourselves for the next day: Auschwitz.

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