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)!

Zamosc:The End of Our Tour of Southeastern Poland

Zamosc Town Hall

Every time I try to pronounce this city name, Poles don’t understand what I’m saying and I have to write it down. When they say, “Oh…ZAM-ootshch” I think, yeah, like I said! But apparently I don’t get it close enough to recognize. I had first read about Zamosc in Mitchner’s book Poland last summer, where the town square was described as being similar to that of Siena, Italy. Having been to Siena with my book club, I thought it would be fun to check it out. The tour books confirmed that Zamosc is “one of the best-preserved Renaissance towns in Europe.” It was planned and built from scratch in the 1500s according to Italian concepts of the ideal town by Jan Zamoyski, one of the powerful Polish magnates. A program of restoration began in the 1970s and the town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So we took a mini-bus to Zamosc – about 95 kilometers southeast of Lublin. (These mini-busses are great little entrepreneurial businesses. In every city we’ve been to, a fleet of vans has set up shop near the government-run bus station. They run very cheap, regular service to the most popular destinations. While some of them cram in a few too many seats and are more than willing to take stand-up passengers…and they do tend to drive a little fast…and the shocks aren’t all that good…they are a great mode of transportation for those of us who don’t want to venture driving on our own on the Polish roads.) Still cold and snowy, we found our way to the old town square - which was practically deserted, though the buildings are very beautiful. I’m sure in the summer when the square is filled with cafes it’s a delightful little day tour.
Zamosc Town Square
However, we quickly realized that on a cold day in November there wasn’t much to do or see and decided to return to Krakow. We found the Tourist Information Center on the square quite by accident (not being where it was listed on my tour book) as we were looking for a café, and fortunately it was open on a Saturday morning, even though we were the only tourists anywhere to be seen. The nice lady there said she didn’t speak English, but she did well enough to inform us that there was only one train and one bus scheduled to go from Zamosc to Krakow each day and that they had both already left. She checked the mini-bus schedule for us and found out there weren't any that go to Krakow on Saturdays (it would have been quite a long ride in a mini-bus anyway). We really didn’t want to spend the night here, so she kept checking various alternatives and finally came up with a bus to Jarislow (yar-EES-waf), a small town in the middle of nowhere, that left in 4 hours. With a 30-minute layover, she assured us we could walk the short distance to the Jarislow train station and purchase a ticket to Krakow that would get us home around 11 p.m. John was very skeptical.

Ruins of Zamosc' Old City Walls

Without any alternative, we set out on our snowy, foggy ride through the desolate countryside. We were glad our bus driver was very cautious, since the roads were winding and narrow with no shoulders (it gets dark at 3 p.m. here, which added to the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere). The landscape was gorgeous when we could see it in the lights of the bus with snow on every twig and branch of every tree and shrub – often with the tree branches meeting over the road. One tour book describes this area as “the least populated and least known part of Poland: a great swath of agricultural plains punctuated by remote, backwoods villages and a few market towns.” None of this helped with John’s sense that we would be stranded once reaching this place called Jarislow. However, we made it there on schedule, made the switch to the train in plenty of time, managed to get on the right train even without any signage anywhere in the station, and then settled in for the several-hour ride to Krakow. Returned to snow on the ground here as well. Winter has arrived. (Though we didn’t see much of it, turns out Jarislow is one of the oldest towns in the country and on the main road east to the Ukraine. It has a history as a trading town going back to the 12th century.)
Once back in the apartment, I read a little more about Zamosc: “Chiefly due to its off-the-beaten-track location, the town has neither assumed the prominence it deserves on the tourist trail, nor seen the sort of economic success that has revitalized Lublin. Early in the 19th century Zamosc had sunk so far that even the Zamoyskis themselves moved on!” But if we hadn’t made the trip, I would always have wondered what it was like. John says he doesn’t regret going either….we just have to do a little better job of contingency planning next time – and there’s nothing we can do about the weather, so we don’t want to let it stop us from seeing places we’ll probably never have a chance to visit again. (And, though the main square was beautiful, I didn't really see the resemblance to Siena.)

Friday, November 23, 2007


In the morning of our second day in Lublin, we took a bus to Majdanek, which is just a few kilometers from the center of town. Above is the entrance to Majdanek and its impressive monument by the entry gate. This former Nazi death camp is massive and well-preserved (it wasn’t destroyed after the war because the Soviets used it afterwards to house members of the Polish resistance before deporting them to Siberia). It is also extremely sobering because it is so close to the city of Lublin and very visible from the main road -- there could have been no doubt as to its existence during the 3-4 years of operation. It was built in 1941 as purely an extermination camp…there was no pretense at being a work or relocation camp. The questions about how these places could have existed keep coming up. It is very difficult to walk into the barracks and imagine what it would have been like as a ‘prisoner.' It’s almost impossible to take in the fact that an estimated 230,000 people were murdered here, of which 40% were Jews. The rest were anyone who opposed the regime or who were considered undesireable or who might pose a threat - such as intellectuals, writers and college professors. The list goes on….it could be you or me. And this camp is just one of so many. During its occupation by the Nazis in WWII, Poland's population was persecuted, terrorized and partially exterminated: 7 million Poles were killed, including 3 million Polish Jews. In three days in November 1943, the Nazis concluded their extermination of Lublin-area Jews by machine-gunning over 43,000 residents remaining in the town's Jewish district. The mausoleum at Majdanek contains the ashes of many of those murdered here. One of the barracks was filled with the shoes of former inmates…... The cold, biting air was a fitting atmosphere for our visit.
View through the memorial toward the mausoleum

Kazimierz Dolny

Kazimierz Dolny castle ruins

On our second day in Lublin, we took a mini-bus to Kazimierz Dolny, an “ancient and highly picturesque center” on the Wisla (Vistula) River, set between two hills and “possessing one of Poland’s finest architectural ensembles as well as quiet, rustic backstreets.” Not to be confused with the Kazimierz section of Krakow, this is a town in Eastern Poland billed as an artists’ colony, attractive because of the quality of light there…and wouldn’t you know it? When we arrived, the sky was blue (though the air still cold) and we saw the sun for the first time in days. I’m sure it’s much nicer for strolling in warm weather, but the buildings (many of them wood – unusual from what we’re used to in Poland, which are mostly brick, stone and plaster) were quite interesting.

Kazimierz Dolny rynek (town square)

We stopped at a café and I couldn’t resist buying the local snack: a very large challah-type loaf of bread elaborately- shaped in the form of a rooster! It’s a good thing, too, as it became the major portion of our sustenance on the train trip home the next day.

Back to Lublin for another wonderful night in our hotel. I even did the Turkish bath they had in their basement…I was the only one in it (thank goodness) and it was wonderful! I’d never had a Turkish bath before – it’s bathing by steam rather than submersion in water, and after a very cold day of touring it was just the ticket!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

"Lubely" Lublin

We took a trip to southeastern Poland this week. We decided to go to Lublin because John had discovered in his genealogy research that a great Aunt and one of her sons had been killed at the Nazi concentration camp there. It took us 5 ½ hours by train to travel from Krakow to Lublin. When we arrived, the weather had turned very cold, windy and snowy. We (foolishly) walked from the train station to the old town area where we had booked a hotel. It wasn’t that far (about a mile – and we’re used to walking and didn’t have much luggage with us), but the wind was brutal. Thank goodness our hotel (the Grand Hotel Lublinianka) ended up being absolutely wonderful – even though we stayed in their “economy” room. (This meant it was on the 3rd floor in an attic-type room, which wasn't a problem since they had nice, modern elevators, and there were skylights rather than windows in the room. The beds and bedding were wonderful, the room itself was great…heated floor in the bathroom and heated towel rack…fine crystal wine glasses.) After checking in we walked to the old town and looked at the absolutely amazing buildings all around the square (called “mannerist” architecture in the tour books….the plaster on the outside is not just painted, but carved into decorations). The buildings are all original (not having been destroyed in the wars of the last few centuries) and have either been, or are in the process of being, restored. We saw a few that were in the early stages of restoration and what a production when they are so old! Much of the insides need to be gutted, but in such a way as to retain the structure and architecture. Even in the cold and snow, the town square was very impressive.

I couldn't decide which pictures to post, so I've included a number of the houses from the town square.

We ate dinner one night at a restaurant on the ground floor of this building.

We walked to the castle (which we dubbed the “white castle” both because it is white but also because it reminded us of the White Castle logo) which is close to the old town center and were able to get right into the chapel to see the amazing frescoes painted in 1418. Entrance to the chapel is closely controlled (only 25 people at a time and then closed for 10 minutes every hour to check humidity levels and ventilation) and the tour books recommend making advance reservations – guess there are some advantages to winter touring! By the time we finished touring the castle, the weather was so bad we just went back to the hotel. We had a lovely light dinner at the hotel (their restaurant is first class, but we weren’t dressed for it and we didn’t want a big dinner so we just went to the café), including a glass of a great Beaujolais Nouveau. (Though it made me a bit homesick: my brother Randy always brings a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau when he comes for Thanksgiving dinner.) We still weren’t sure whether we would stay another day because the weather was so bad.
The next morning we went to breakfast (included in the hotel price and an excellent spread of food, with the best coffee we’ve had since arriving in Poland – can you tell I liked this hotel???) and decided to stay another night in order to go visit Majdanek (the concentration camp) and some other area sights. It was a good decision.

The "white castle"

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Jagiellonian University

Collegium Maius Courtyard
We toured the Collegium Maius, the oldest university building in Poland and the museum building for Jagiellonian University. The history dates back to the year 1400, when King Jagiello (according to King Jadwiga’s request – yes, she was Poland’s “king” because a queen was considered a spouse….Jagiello was her Lithuanian husband who became king too…it’s a little complicated, but led to the commonwealth of the two countries) purchased a corner house to re-open the Krakow Academy that had originally been founded in 1364 on the castle hill. The Jagiellonian University is considered the second oldest university in central Europe after Charles University in Prague and one of the oldest in Europe. This building and arcaded Gothic courtyard are beautiful; there’s a clock that does a whole “procession” in the courtyard on the hour and then plays the Polish national anthem afterwards.

The tour through the Collegium Maius includes a look at some astronomical instruments that were likely used by Nicolas Copernicus, a student at the university, other old scientific instruments (a brass astrolabe from 1054), and the oldest surviving globe to depict the Americas (although they are placed in the wrong hemisphere).

Ceiling of museum room
The “aula” (assembly hall), which is still used on occasion, carries the Latin inscription over its entry doorway: Plus Ratio Quam Vis – “Wisdom rather than Force” (or something close to that??).

One can rent the second floor dining room – wouldn’t that be something? After the tour we went to the basement café for a great cup of hot chocolate.

You and several of your closest friends can rent this dining room for a wonderful dinner!

I don’t think I mentioned our visit to the Czartoryski Museum earlier. An intimate little museum containing the collection of Izabella Czartoryska in the 18th century, housed in an interesting old building. Though her collection endured moves to Paris and ransacking by the Nazis, the highlights that remain include a rare da Vinci oil painting, Lady with an Ermine, 1482 (or 85), and Rembrandt’s Landscape with Good Samaritan, 1638. The da Vinci was painted before the Mona Lisa and, though the background has been heavily altered over time, it is in better condition - and some consider it more beautiful – than the Mona Lisa.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Flu Shot and Concert

Sts. Peter and Paul Church
I know, a strange combination, but that was our day yesterday. One of my students (from the Ukraine) told me about a clinic that serves foreigners (and thus have people who speak English) located not too far from our apartment. So I braved the Polish phone system to call for an appointment. It was a very modern, nice clinic and after seeing a health professional (don't know if she was a doctor or a nurse) to go through a brief physical and then paying 60 zlotys (about $25), I got my flu shot. It's nice to know the clinic is there if we ever need it.

There are concerts in the churches in Krakow almost every night, so we decided it was time to go to one. The flyers all advertise a set program of the classics of Chopin, Mozart, Pachelbel, Bach, Vivaldi, etc. So we went out to eat first at what turned out to be one of our best meals yet in Krakow....a very modern restaurant with more international rather than Polish cuisine. We even had dessert. Then we went to Sts. Peter and Paul Church where the Friday night concerts are held and were surprised to see it set up for a full orchestra rather than a chamber orchestra, plus risers for a full chorus. The church started filling up and soon they were adding more chairs; an older man with crazy fly-away white hair walked in and several people came over to kiss him, shake his hand and talk to him. We were beginning to suspect something other than the ordinary tourist concert. Turns out this was the last night of the Festival of Polish Music that takes place each week before their Independence Day celebration (on November 11) and we got to hear the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir! Two of the composers were in the audience, one of them being Wojciech Kilar - he of the fly-away white har. It was quite an experience (that would have been even better if the pews had been a little more comfortable...the church was built in the early 16th century, though the interior has been renovated). All this for the equivalent of a $10 ticket. And now we get to go back another evening to hear the standard concert.
Statue of the Disciples in front of the church.


We took a little day trip east to Tarnow yesterday (pronounced TARN-oof, just as Krakow is pronounced KRAK-oof). There was a description of it in one of our tour books as a nice day trip from Krakow, and it was. Tarnow, founded in the 1300s, is at the crossroads of two ancient trade routes between Germany and the Ukraine and Hungary and the Baltic Sea. As a result, it became a thriving commercial city and also was an early center of learning within Poland, with a branch of the Jagiellonian University being set up there in the mid-1500s. It has a very nice, well-preserved old town center. Though reminiscent of Krakow’s city center, it is more intimate than Krakow’s very large market square. Even the town hall in the center of Tarnow’s square (pictured below) looks like a miniature of the Sukiennice in Krakow. There are old, narrow, cobblestone streets leading off the square that make it fun for exploring.

We didn’t expect to find more wooden churches here, but there was one from the 14th and one from the 15th century. Older, but not quite as impressive architecturally as the ones we saw around Krynica, they were still pretty amazing.

On our way between the two churches, we walked through a wonderful cemetery with all the flowers and candles - some still burning - from All Saints Day.

Something else we weren’t prepared for was the history of the town’s Jewish section. Prior to WWII, fully 40% of the city’s population was Jewish! But between June 1942 and September 1943 any remaining Jewish residents of the city were shot or deported to death camps by the Nazis and almost all traces of their lives in Tarnow were destroyed. I’ve attached a picture of the remains of what was apparently a magnificent 16th century synagogue.

A memorial has been built at the site where 728 local people became the first group to be transported to Auschwitz in June 1940.

We walked out to the Jewish cemetery – surprisingly not destroyed by the Nazis – which is one of the largest and oldest Jewish cemeteries in Poland.

We ended up on the “local” train coming back, which took a while longer than the express train we took going to Tarnow (90 minutes versus 60). By then the weather was bitter cold, rainy and windy so it was surprising that the train was almost unbearably HOT! Have I mentioned that buildings all seem to be overheated here? Both in my office and in our apartment, we have to open a transom window just to keep the rooms at a comfortable temperature (there are no thermostat controls in the room). Seems like a big waste of energy…. We arrived back in Krakow and saw people shoveling coal that had been dumped into a big pile on the sidewalk into their building.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

All Saints' Day (November 1)

Rackowicka Cemetery on All Saints Night

On November 1st, a national holiday in Poland, virtually the entire country decamps to cemeteries (and almost everything was closed - if it's like this on All Saints' Day, what will it be like on Christmas? Guess we'd better prepare!).

Day and night, candles and flowers are laid on the graves. This may sound like a very sad and solemn scenario, but it is actually a very loving experience as whole families go to the cemetery to honor and celebrate their ancestors and relatives who have died. Since it was a long holiday week-end (Nov. 1 was a Thursday and Friday was also a holiday at the University), I asked people if they were going away for the long week-end. They all - even the young people - said "Oh no, I'll be going the cemetery with my family since we have many graves to visit."

John and I went to the Rakowicka Cemetery, which is very close to the University, once evening came and experienced the glow of thousands of candles in transparent, colored vases gathered on graves and at the foot of memorials. Priests were praying in the outdoor chapel; fresh flowers adorn every corner. It feels like you're walking through a sort of lagoon of glowing colors. All about, there's a hushed, respectful atmosphere - it's an incredibly dignified and celebratory tribute to the departed.

Many of the graves in Rakowicka are works of art in their own right. It seems the memorials were designed with this ceremony in mind, as many have large flat surfaces for flowers and candles.

This tradition of All Saints is now firmly intertwined with the Catholic church, but it has its roots in pagan traditions. In the historic lands of Eastern Poland there was a custom called 'Dziady' (forefathers) that fell at this time of year. Poland's most cherished poet, Adam Mickiewicz (the one whose statue is in the Krakow town square), made this the key feature of his play of the same name. The Catholic church absorbed the tradition into the church calendar and Poland adopted November 1 as a national holiday. The candles are designed to burn for many hours and some last days after November 1. Another interesting cultural experience!

Perhaps you can see the chapel in the background of the first picture....

An individual grave site in the second.

Monday, November 5, 2007

In Honor of Artists

Stanislaw Wyspianski's stained glass window in St. Francis' Basilica: "God the Father in the Act of Creation"

I was wondering why it seemed like such a large proportion of the statues and other memorials in Poland were of artists of one sort or another: the huge statue in the main square here in Krakow is of a poet I'd never heard of (Adam Mickiewicz); the gorgeous statue in the middle of Warsaw's major park is of Chopin (OK, so I'd heard of him); the crypt, below, of a major church in Krakow is filled with tombs of artists, not church bigwigs, kings, politicians or generals.

Crypt of the Pauline Church on the Rock

Then we visited the Wyspianski Museum yesterday (I'd never heard of him before I came to Poland either, though I'd taken notice of his stained glass windows in some of the churches we'd visited). This was a truly remarkable guy: painter, stained glass artist, playwright (The Wedding), costume and set designer, typographer/graphic designer, interior designer, furniture designer, architect....he did it all. He was part of a group of writers, painters and graphic artists labeled "Mloda Polska" who were crucial in defining Polish national identity. And this is at least one of the reasons why Poland holds their artists in such high esteem: In the 1800's, the Mloda Polska school developed when Polish culture had been struggling to survive. This was the period when the three countries of Russia, Germany (Prussia) and Austria had sliced up Poland among them; they tried to eliminate the Polish language and suppressed the teaching of Polish history and literature. In this climate, the work of writers, painters and artists became the only way of defining Polish national identity. The artists of Mloda Polska made a point of celebrating Polish folk traditions, and would prove to be essential for creating a national Polish consciousness that eventually led to independence in 1918 (at least for a while).
Chopin Statue in Warsaw