Krakow, Poland: Where no one asks me how to Pronounce my Name

DSC_0047Hello all, I am writing this on the bus on the way from Krakow, Poland to Warsaw.  Although we have spent little time in Poland, it has been very busy and very draining.  We spent about 11 hours traveling from Prague to Krakow.  The bus ride was beautiful, I didn’t expect Poland to be so forested and green.  We passed through extended groves of trees alternating with rolling hills of farmland and small farming villages.  It was late upon our arrival, so Jordan, Ally, Laura, and I met a few others down in the hotel restaurant and ate some really, really great pepper chicken with veggies.  After a rather short night of sleep and an abrupt, unexpected wake up call from hotel reception, we had a short walking tour of the old city.  We visited a castle, and I finally learned the difference between a palace and a castle: a castle has fortifications like walls and moats, while a palace doesn’t.  The old church inside the castle was fascinating, containing about 130 giant tapestries  (less than half of the original collection, most of which disappeared during the Russian occupation of Poland after World War II).  According to our guide, a weaver would spend one year weaving one square meter of tapestry fabric. Krakow is called “Little Rome” because of the number of churches and cathedrals present, 136.DSC_0057  Krakow also contains the largest square in Europe, over which a trumpeter plays a tune from the spire of the cathedral which would have denoted an enemies approach centuries ago, but is now played for the sake of tradition.  We visited the oldest university in Krakow, where in 1939 the Nazis arrested and transported many of the professors after they continued to teach, defying the order to close all universities.  Krakow earns it’s name from a legend about a fearless knight who vanquished a dragon and rescued a number of beautiful young maidens, and this is commemorated by naming the city after the knight, and by the appearance of dragons in architecture all over the city.

DSC_0078We then spent most of the rest of the day visiting Oscar Schindler’s factory, Birkenau, and Auschwitz.  I’ve written a separate post for Auschwitz and Birkenau,  please visit the link here or go to the main page to read it.  The Schindler factory was a really wonderful museum, with relatively little information on Schindler and what he did and mostly information on the Nazis in Poland, and how they slowly, systematically, methodically destroyed the reputation of the Jewish people in their communities, seized their possessions, gained the support of their neighbors, and eventually transported them to camps to either die immediately or be worked to death over various lengths of time.  It was a Great museum, and I certainly suggest visiting it for anyone in the area.

After we returned from the camps, most of us didn’t feel like doing anything.  I felt sick to my stomach, but I hadn’t eaten anything except a few gummy worms since breakfast so I went with a good size group to a 24 hour pierogi joint in the old city, led by our Polish native and fearless leader Jo. The pierogi were no disappointment, and we ended up swapping around a bunch of them to try new flavors.  I also got a cup of beetroot soup, the perfect nourishment after a day of trying to settle my stomach.

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DSC_0340This morning, we packed up our things to head to the last city we will visit all together, Warsaw.  On the way, we visited the salt mines just outside on Krakow.  This was a wonderful experience. The mines have been in use for 700 years, and only stopped being operated in the 1990s. There are about 200 caverns, about 440 meters deep (maybe, I missed part of the explanation), all excavated by miners, which produced about 1/3 of Krakow’s monetary support during their operation.  We explored three levels of the mines this morning.  The caverns were beautiful and far more vast than I would have thought, supported by original wooden logs notched together, sometimes from hundreds of years ago.  The salt itself looks a bit like marble, but tastes like salt (yes, I licked the wall).

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DSC_0336The salt mines also hold the world’s largest underground church.  I was not prepared when I walked into the cavern for the splendor of this church.  There are three massive crystalline chandeliers, with each crystal carved out of salt.  The salt floors have been chiseled into hexagonal tiles that look like black marble.  There are salt statues carved from the walls all around the cavern, depicting Jesus on the cross with a glowing salt crystal heart, the nativity scene, and the last supper among others, and at the back of the cathedral is a salt statue of Pope Jon Paul II, who was born and raised in Poland.  The church was carved by three miners and took 66 years to complete, an amazing feat of both strength and craftmanship.  There were also salt statues spread throughout the mines.  As we walked down a flight of stairs lining the mining cart tracks, one could not help but think of Gringot’s bank from Harry Potter, especially when we came across a small cavern with eight statues of dwarves hard at work mining and carting salt.

That’s all I have for now, back to the bus ride, then Warsaw!

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