Sunday, December 16, 2007

Krakow Ethnographic Museum

Today we toured a wonderful little museum located in the old (14th century) town hall in the Kazimierz section of Krakow. This is a folk museum with examples of houses, re-creations of real interior rooms using orignial furnishings, various machines for making and decorating textiles, a fantastic costume collection, and great displays showing how Polish people celebrated holidays (particularly Christmas and Easter) in the 19th century, among many other things.
We love the little museums here...just right for an hour or so on a Sunday afternoon. The Wyspianski Museum and the Jozef Mehoffer House are both renovated houses devoted to the works of well-know Polish artists; the Czartoryski Museum is a bit larger museum showing a very impressive private family collection (including a DaVinci and a Rembrandt); the Jagiellonian University Museum is about the old building in which it is housed as well as the history of the university; we saw the Christmas Crib display at the History Museum downtown on the main square; and then there's the huge Wawel castle, which is a museum of a whole different sort. We are not running out of things to do and see....

Friday, December 14, 2007

Back to Winter

All the main streets in the old town are decorated for Christmas: Above is Florianska

The lights decorating the main square...John think they look like beer mugs
We're back to cold and snow....just in time for Christmas.
One of the many Christmas Market booths in the square

Wooden bead necklaces are very traditional (particularly in red), but they have also become somewhat of a fashion statement amoung the young women here. Many of my students wear them.

This is how Krakow lights up their fountains in the winter - they're beautiful!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Szopka (Christmas Cribs)

A special Christmas tradition in Krakow is the building of szopka (pronounced SHOP-ka). Originally designed as portable theaters for puppet Nativity plays, now these Christmas "cribs" have become elaborate structures that are nothing like the crèches we are used to. They are very colorful and richly-decorated extravaganzas inspired by Krakow’s churches, with the spires of St. Mary’s church in the main square prominent in many of them. All have a nativity scene included somewhere, but there are a lot of other things going on too: some have moving parts, some have electric lights, and all have a tremendous amount of decorative detail. There is a competition each year for the best cribs, including a category for children and teens. It must take the major portion of a year to construct one!

The successful entries for the current year are displayed in the City of Krakow Historical Museum throughout the holiday season. We toured this year’s exhibition and they were amazing…some very large and elaborate, others like little jewel boxes. We also discovered that the grand prize winners from previous years are on display at the mall we walk through on our way home from the University.

We have decorated our little apartment for Christmas, including a wreath, a little tree, Christmas cards (including one with a picture of a szopka), and a poinsettia. We have our gingerbread cookies from Torun and now we’re just waiting for Alison and Nick to arrive – seeing them will be our best Christmas gift!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Torun - the End of our Trip to Northern Poland

Statue of Nicholas Copernicus, Torun-born scientist/author of the heliocentric theory (that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the "universe.")

OK, so we tried again to do a short "stop-over" at a town we wanted to see on our way home from Gdansk. This one went better than our side trip to Zamosc, but not by much. The nice weather we experienced in Gdansk turned to nasty rain (at least it wasn't snow and ice) by the time we reached Torun. But this time we had the train schedule for getting back to Krakow before we stopped and bought our tickets home before we went into town.

One of the gates leading to Torun's town square

Torun is best known as the birthplace of Nicholas Copernicus (the university here - Copernicus University - has a prominent astronomy program) and for its gingerbread. We stashed our luggage in a locker at the train station and took a taxi into town...took pictures of the old town square, including the statue of Copernicus, walked down to the ruins of the Teutonic Knights' castle (which the locals dismantled brick by brick in the 15th century after they chased the Order out of town - guess they were happy to see them go), and stopped in one of several gingerbread stores to stock up on a supply of cookies for Christmas.

A little of what's left of the Teutonic Knights' castle and fortification walls

Then we grabbed a bus to get back to the train was very crowded and John and I got separated. He was by the door and I could see him. When the bus stopped, I saw him nod and thought he meant this was the place to get off, so I exited the bus. As the last one of the crowd to get off, the bus door closed right after me and when I looked around, John wasn't there! (Later I found out his "nod" meant that there was a seat for me up front with him.) Fortunately, I saw the route the bus was taking and it wasn't too far a walk to the train station. And John was there waiting for me. Just another little adventure! We made the train - a long trip back to Warsaw and then back down to Krakow. We love these little trips, but it's always good to get back "home."

Torun is also known for its magnificent old brick are a few:

Can you see the 1311 date on the upper left corner?

Monday, December 10, 2007


"Molo" - the Sopot pier
Sopot (SOH-pot) - just a $1.00 ticket, 20-minute tram ride from Gdansk - and you're on the Baltic Sea at a gorgeous beach! In the summer it is the most popular resort on the Baltic coast and we were fortunate to have a lovely spring-like afternoon when we visited. The pier (called the Molo) is more than 1600 feet long - Europe's longest wooden pier. (Are you seeing a pattern here? Longest, oldest, largest......) Apparently in the summer there are vendors selling a particular type of waffle with whipped cream and fruit, but we didn't see any. There is also usually a charge to walk the pier and we were able to just walk on and stroll all the way to the end with no crowds. But we could imagine all the young people flocking to the beach and walking the pier in summer.....and it is a beautiful beach! (Almost as nice as Holland State Park on Lake Michigan.) They also have a "Grand Hotel" .... Sopot reminds me of a combination of Saugatuck, Mackinac Island and Balboa Island.

Sopot beach on the Baltic Sea

The Sopot Grand Hotel. We walked through the surprisingly small lobby and saw their very nice (and very large - it took up the whole lobby!) Christmas tree.

Sopot is listed as the place where "media personalities traditionally come to see and be seen".....I'm sure that's in the summer. But here I am (in my newly purchased Polish coat - with the pole at the end of the pier coming out of my head)!

John look much more like a "media celebrity"!!!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Malbork Castle

The Teutonic Knights were one of three major military-religious orders to emerge from the Crusades. When the Crusades ended in the 12th century, the order moved back to Europe and were hired by the Duke of Mazovia to subdue a tribe of pagans called the Prussians who had been attacking his lands. The Knights massacred most of the original Prussians, turned the others into serfs, and decided to stay in what is now northern Poland. Around 1275 they began to build Malbork Castle, which became the biggest brick castle in the world and largest castle of the Gothic period. (Though the Germanic Teutonic Knights called it Marienburg.) In the mid-1400s the Polish king took control of Malbork (by buying off the Czech mercenaries who guarded it) and Malbork became a Polish royal residence. In the 20th century, the Nazis used it to house POWs; about half of it was later destroyed by the Soviet army, who saw it as a symbol of longstanding German domination. Much of it is still in the process of being painstakingly restored and there was a lot of construction going on during our visit.

One of the advantages of touring in the winter is the lack of crowds. One can only tour the castle as part of a guided group, but since we couldn't understand the Polish, we were free to wander around on our own using pages from our tour books as a guide. This is a very large, old castle! The amount of brick used is amazing.

Inner castle courtyard with well in the most protected area of the castle

My favorite part of the castle was the Grand Master's Palace "Grand Refectory" room - the delicate palm tree vaulting in the ceiling was amazing for a brick building this old.

We had seen the castle from the train on our way from Warsaw to Gdansk and I thought I would be satisfied with that (and bypass the 45-minute train trip back to tour the castle). But John wanted to see it, so we made the half-day trip from Gdansk and I'm SO glad we did.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Gorgeous Gdansk

I know what you're thinking.....Gdansk, the city of industrial shipyards and Solidarity strikes - gorgeous? YES! I didn't really believe the tour books that said it was second only to Krakow as Poland's most appealing city, but it truly is one of the loveliest cities we have seen so far in Poland. (I think John would say it's the most picturesque). In many ways it reminds one of Amsterdam and, in fact, the architects for much of the old town area were Dutch/Flemish. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Gdansk (guh-DANGSK) was Poland's wealthiest city, owing largely to its location where the major river Wisla (pronounced VEES-wah, though we call it the Vistula in English) meets the Baltic Sea, and this prosperity resulted in a tolerant, progressive and beautiful merchant city.

The 15th century crane, used for loading ships, is considered the symbol of Gdansk

Gdansk has a rather international history: it was seized in the 1300s by the German Teutonic Knights, who "subdued" the native Prussian population and called the city Danzig. (More about the Teutonic Knights later.) In the late 1300s, the city joined the Hanseatic League, a trade federation of mostly Germanic merchant towns and by the 15th century it was a leading member of this network, which virtually dominated trade in northern Europe. In the mid-1400s, the people of Gdansk rose up against the Teutonic Knights and it became a semi-independent city-state with loose ties to Poland. The city flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, often called its Golden Age. When Poland was partitioned by its neighbors in the late 18th century, Gdansk again became part of Prussia (later Germany) and was again called Danzig. After WWI, it became an independent city-state, part of the "Polish Corridor" connecting it to Polish lands and effectively cutting off Germany from its northeastern territory. In 1939, Hitler started WWII when he invaded Danzig/Gdansk to bring it back into German hands. After WWII, Gdansk officially became part of Poland and was reconstructed to replicate its golden age (since nearly 80% of the city was destroyed during the war). In 1997 Gdansk celebrated its 1,000 birthday with a wave of renovation and refurbishment, which has left the atmospheric old town looking great!

The Gdansk Armory - a "pearl" of Renaissance architecture

Mariacka (mar-ee-AHTZ-ka) Street
"Arthur's Court" - the medieval version of the businessmens' club (named after King Arthur)

Just another house on the main square!

There is no way I can post enough pictures to give you a feeling for how lovely this city is. Of course it helped a lot that the weather was much nicer than during the last trip we took (to southeastern Poland). John says I should say it was "gdamp" when we were in Gdansk, but there really wasn't much rain. The B&B we stayed in (the Gotyk - supposedly the oldest house in Gdansk) was also nice - small, well-decorated, with modern plumbing, right in the middle of the old town (though we did lose power a few times because of all the construction going on). From our bathroom window we looked right at the "largest stained glass window in Poland" which is in St. Mary's Church - the biggest brick church in the world (most large Gothic churches are stone), built in the 14th and 15th centuries and still retaining many of its original decorations (a few days before WWII broke out, locals hid precious items in the countryside).

The beautifully carved main alter and large stained glass window of St. Mary's Church

The magnificent "crystal" vaulting of St. Mary's Church.

Gotyk House B&B

Calling this area the old town is misleading, since it is a very active part of the city's normal activity. And to be accurate, this section of town is really the Main Town. Each morning I would watch people walking to work from the window of our room. It's not some "museum" for tourists, but an active, beautiful city. ALTHOUGH.....there are amber stores all along several streets (including Mariacka, where our B&B was located). This area of Poland is known as the "Amber Coast" and 75% of the world's amber is mined here, so of course I had to buy some as a souvenir. Did you know that amber comes in white, yellow, green, brown, black and all shades in between? That it is both clear and opaque and the only thing that makes one piece more valuable than another is if there's a bug stuck in it? (It is petrified pine-tree sap.) There's actually so much of it all over - including great big chunks of it - that it gets to seem rather common. (I didn't let that stop me though.)

Even the Gdansk train station is impressive.

And, yes, there are shipyards in Gdansk. Here, the monument to the shipyard workers who died during the protests that eventually helped end communism in Poland.

Mid-Year Fulbright Meeting in Warsaw

Stalin's "Gift" to Warsaw: the Palace of Culture and Science, Poland's tallest building.

"Mid-year" is hard to believe! But we have been here 3 months now and have a little more than 2 months remaining. We took the morning train from Krakow (3 hours, $32.50) and arrived just in time for the noon meeting. It was fun to see everyone again and hear how their placements were going. There were many good experiences to share as well as some expected frustrations of adjusting to long-term living and working in another country. John's comment to me afterwards: "Sounds like we really lucked out!" Our apartment is nice and conveniently located, my classes are full and going well, Krakow is a wonderful city with lots to do, we haven't had any major problems resulting from our poor knowledge of Polish, and John and I have each other for company! (Loneliness was a sentiment expressed by several Fulbrighters.) After the meeting, we all went out for a nice (and very large) traditional Polish meal, courtesy of the Poland Fulbright Commission. Several of us brought books we had finished reading to exchange - I've started "A Spot of Bother" by Mark Haddon, a book I probably would never have picked up otherwise.

The US and Poland have just completed negotiations on a new Fulbright agreement that will double the number of placements in future years. Anyone interested????
Palace of Culture and Science in the early morning (on our way to the train station for our trip to Gdansk).

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Now that December has arrived, the snow has melted! Don't know if it will last, but today was sunny and mild. Great for walking around, which most people in Krakow seem to be doing. The main square is now filled with Christmas decorations, a stage with ongoing music of various types (school choirs, folk singers, various bands), and many little wooden kiosks selling food and handicrafts. It constantly amazes us how busy this big square is, even in winter. It's obviously not just a tourist venue, but a place Krakowians (Krokowites?) visit regularly.

John and I are both recovering from bad colds but expect to be in fine shape for our trip to Warsaw on Tuesday. We're looking forward to seeing all the Fulbrighters again at our mid-year meeting. I've emailed everyone to set up a book exchange - should be fun to see what others have been reading.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Krakow in the Moonlight

Krakow town square at about 4:30 in the afternoon.....

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving at the Wawel

Laurel, James and Claire on the walkway up to the Wawel Castle

We were fortunate to have family visiting us during Thanksgiving week. John’s niece, Laurel, who lives in London was here for the week along with her husband James and their darling daughter, Claire. (They even let us watch her for a day when they visited Auschwitz and we had great fun!) On Thanksgiving Day we toured the Wawel (VAH-vel), Krakow’s castle and a symbol of Polish royalty and independence. A castle has stood on this hill at the southern end of Krakow since the beginning of recorded history. Krakow was the capital city of Poland until 1596, but even after the government moved to Warsaw it was in the Wawel Cathedral that kings were crowned and buried. We had walked the Wawel Hill grounds during nicer weather, but had been saving the tour of the castle state rooms and cathedral. It turned out to be a perfect Thanksgiving Day activity with our visitors.

The interior of the castle with its leather-tooled walls and huge 16th century tapestries was amazing. Sorry I can’t show you any pictures, since cameras weren’t allowed. (Once again, we were able to walk right in when normally advance reservations are needed since the number of people going through at any one time is limited.)

The Wawel grounds in nicer weather.

The cathedral on Wawel hill started as a simple Romanesque church in the 12th century and successive rulers surrounded it with some 20 chapels, many with their own domes and architectural style. The result is a mixture of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Renaissance and Neoclassical, evident both from the outside and when touring the chapel interior.
Some of the spires and domes of the Wawel Cathedral.

We finished off our Thanksgiving Day with a fish dinner at a nice restaurant close to Laurel and James’ hotel. (Our apartment doesn't have an oven, so I wasn't about to attempt cooking a Thanksgiving dinner at "home." The sports bar at the Sheraton hotel was serving what they billed as a Thanksgiving menu all week, but it we decided not to attempt the trip down there.) We have much to be thankful for and it was especially nice to have family here to share the day. It certainly made us a little less homesick than we might otherwise have been. (And having a year off will make cooking that big Thanksgiving dinner next year even more fun!)

Claire was a real treat! She was so good, even though she wasn't feeling well much of the time (she wasn't even afraid of that man with the grey beard)!