Wednesday, January 24, 2018


The center of Kraków is beautiful, and in January, a perfect place to see the accumulated architecture of hundreds of years unobstructed by heavy crowds and flags poking atop tour guide umbrellas. The frosty mornings hiking from our hotel on the Wisła river toward the warm glow of an open cafe in the city center were spent stopping to peek into a church and peer into a window without the feeling of being pulled into stream of pedestrians as in some busier metro areas. The best time to experience the charm of a new city is forever in the cold of winter, and Kraków was no exception.


Friday evening we trekked from the Kraków Zabłocie train station. The walk took us through the Kazimierz district, past the Old Town, along the edge of the castle, around a river bend and to the hotel, which was just glorious after a long day of travel with a little one. Novotel is very kid friendly, with a play room in the lobby, and a free toy on arrival. As I was sick with multiple fun and interesting ailments, by the time we settled in, I was pretty much done. We had a very nice but very slow dinner at the hotel's restaurant, in which I could feel my eyes closing involuntarily by 7 pm, so a good night's rest rather than exploring was the only thing on the agenda.

The city still had Christmas decorations lighting up the night. I have read conflicting information. Some sources say the seasonal decoration extend to different dates based on region, or for Orthodox Christmas on January 7, the day after the season ends elsewhere in Europe. Either way, it's pretty. This figure is the unofficial symbol of Kraków, called a Lajkonik. It is a man riding a hobby horse in clothing of a Tatar, and is said to bring good luck. From Kraków Travel:

The legend itself dates back to the events of 1287. Tartar armies crept forward without being seen to arrive close by the city. Here they decided to spend the night in the bulrushes by the Vistula, close to the village of Zwierzyniec, and to attack the city in the morning mists. They were discovered there by raftsmen, locally known as włóczkowie, who without hesitation overpowered the sleeping army, thus saving the city from ruin and plunder. They soon changed into Asian costume and rode into the city on the horses they had seized as trophy. They inspired all the city with fear, yet soon the townsfolk came to rejoice. On the same day the Mayor of Kraków announced that to commemorate the event, a raftsman dressed as the Tartar Khan will enter the city once a year, leading the cortege of Kraków włóczkowie. Today, during the traditional procession from Zwierzyniec to the Main Market Square, Lajkonik deals out good luck blows with his mace.
Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle sits overlooking the Wisła, commanding attention with its fortified walls and cathedral spires. We made brief attempts at visiting Saturday and Sunday, but ticket hours and worrying we wouldn't pass as parishioners kept us from viewing the cathedral and the museums throughout the grounds. I do think just looking around and taking in the river views was enough, as castles tend to eat a lot of time over all. In the spring and summer, the castle's "Dragon's Den" is open, where a walk through a tunnel system opens to a fire-breathing dragon sculpture. Emily was so upset when we realized it was closed!

I'm a little annoyed I didn't get a better picture.

Before he was Pope, John Paul II, lived and worked in Kraków. This statue commemorates giving his first mass as bishop at Wawel Castle.


We began the morning with a walk through the city. As is my favorite thing to do anywhere, we pulled off to a deceptively plain looking church I thought I remembered as being the second most important in Kraków in my very light scan of things to see (I like to just show up and see where the wind takes us. If I had made a detailed itinerary, I would have forgotten it anyway). Bazylika św. Franciszka z Asyżu, Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, is one of the most rich and visually interesting I have ever been to. Much of the interior was destroyed in a fire in 1850, making way for vibrant colors and patterns during its remodel. It was darkened when we went, save for the neon glow of Christmas lights, a nativity, and a light on the stained glass, created at the turn of the 20th century.

This is a stunning mechanical nativity, in a style seen all over the city. In the center is the Holy Family, with Polish dancers, framed pictures depicting the history of Kraków, and of course, a Lajkonik. For scale, you can see my six year old in the lower left hand corner.

This is a pretty good view of the basilica interior slightly more lit up:

photo credit

And this one really captures the colors:

photo credit

We then took an old fashioned carriage ride through the city. I have always wanted to take a ride in carriage, for a brief feel of the romantisicm of golden ages gone by. The time to do it is when you see it, so in we climbed. Touristy? Absolutely. Carriages are lined up all along the market square, and it was wonderful way to see the city, and a very special treat for Emily.

We wandered through the St Mary's Basilica...

...then grabbed lunch at a Polish restaurant that centered around kasze, or various groats, like buckwheat.

Old Polish cuisine, both that of the aristocracy and of peasants, featured numerous ways to prepare groats: baking, roasting in an oven, cooked either thick or thin. Groats served as the base for nutritious and thick soups, they were eaten with curds or cheese, and seasoned with oil, butter, or pork scratchings. Mushrooms, prunes, or sultanas would also be added, the groats would be seasoned with gravy and served as a meat accompaniment.


To be honest, I was kind of dubious that a grain-based dish was going to be very satisfying, but my dish, which was perfectly seasoned and buttery, and topped with broccoli and corn, was very tasty.

Next stop was Podziemia Rynku, an archeological museum located beneath the Cloth Hall in the center of the square. Whatever the original intention behind the initial dig, it was such a huge discovery, the project went on for five years, and became a museum on 1000 years of Kraków's life and infrastructure. The main draw for me is it allows for some interactive learning for children. You can check it out here.


In the morning, we walked a good distance to find a cafe open when only those in church seemed to be up. It was incredibly cold, and a hot breakfast was definitely in order. We warmed up at a tiny place with excellent coffee called Gossip Cafe, the only shop within half a mile that opened early on Sunday. Once warmed, we tried the castle one last time to maybe "attend Mass," but abandoned that idea when we realized the cathedral door is guarded to keep nosy tourists out. And we definitely looked like nosy tourists. So what then, when it's -4*, you have a small child, and the museum you want to head to next is a 40 minute walk away? Ah, that's simple. A guided tour on a miniature bus, a few of which are always parked ever so conveniently in front of the castle. We negotiated what I presume was a fair price for a one way trip. I have written before of my general distain for tour buses, but shoot, it's only for up to four people, and you get historical commentary the whole way from a local. They are everywhere, plastered with the names of popular neighborhoods, and are a much more convenient mode of travel when you don't have a clue about the transit system. Our tour guide was knowledgable, but also had this nerve racking...talent? for driving through city traffic, while turned with his back to the wheel while gesturing emphatically to explain the significance of one thing or another.

The Ghetto

You cannot talk about Poland without discussing the atrocities of WWII, and I will do my best here. Our tour took us through the old ghetto en route to the Schindler museum. Our guide went into some detail, but also discouraged us from walking through Podgórze after he dropped us off as it's not extremely safe, so our time there was not as in-depth as I was hoping for learning about the area. I have been spending the last week researching from home, however, but find myself having to close the laptop for a while the more I read.

By the late 1400s, the Jewish community of Kraków was pushed toward the adjacent town of Kazimierz, where in the 1700s, the city walls were torn down and it became a district of Kraków. Treatment of Polish Jews was on par with other areas in Europe during those eras, which is to say not great, with periods of legal protection under the crown. And so it went for a couple hundred more years until Hitler's rise and subsequent horrors were inflicted upon them as means of total annihilation.

In 1939, some 70,000 Jews were living in Kraków, 20,000 of which were refugees forced in from outlying areas that year. By 1941 55,000 were forced out of Kraków. The remaining 15,000 Jews were commanded to move across the river to the Podgórze district, three times the population of the area previously. Walls were erected and windows facing the surrounding area were bricked up. Four gates were erected around the perimeter, and heavily guarded by German troops.

These are some historic photos I found at the Schindler Factory museum of one such gate, and the street at present day.

This is the last remaining segment of the ghetto wall. The shape is reminiscent of a tombstone. That was intentional.

A photo of the Plac Zgody, where imprisoned Jews sought a bit of open space in the ghetto, but it was also the site of mass deportations and executions. Following the war, the square was renamed Ghetto Heroes Square, presumably as the pharmacy on the corner was a front for aiding Jews by smuggling in needed supplies. The memorial here features bronze chairs to represent the thousands lost here, of whom many abandoned their few remaining possessions in the square before being sent off to exterminaton camps. Our guide told us, though I have not been able to confirm this yet, that the three small chairs represent children, grouped together to save bullets.

On a street unchanged in 75 years.

Oskar Schindler Factory Museum

The Oskar Schindler museum has much less to do with the subject of the Spielberg film, but rather takes you through exhibits that tell the story of Poland under Nazi occupation, and on into Soviet occupation. It is very well presented, and is the first time I have ever seen the war through the Polish perspective, which occurred to me to be a rather large blind spot in how WWII is taught in the U.S.

The pictures are of some of the 1200 Jews who were saved by Schindler, who used bribes to keep his workforce from falling victim to the Nazis. He ultimately went broke doing this, which is the reason I don't completely side-eye his motives.

In the exhibit, there are scans of journal entries by ghetto prisoners, one of which was Roman Polanski (whom I have definite opinions about, as well), who was a child at the outbreak of the war. He managed to escape the ghetto and hid in the countryside. I went back and re-watched The Pianist when we got home. Though it takes place in Warsaw, it's interesting to see direction from someone whose earliest memories are of horrors in the ghetto streets. It is based on a true story, as well.


Schindler's desk, a representation of ghetto tenement life, and a recreation of a real hiding spot.


Monday morning we took a cab to Kazimierz to see what was there, and grab a quick bite before our flight.

The first feeling I had was one of an incredible absence. The main street in Kazimierz is more or less a museum with a few restaurants and Judaica shops. The synagogues are more for historical and cultural interest at this point. We had a breakfast at an Israeli restaurant I highly recommend, and wandered around a little, though it was far, far too cold to spend much time at all.

Remuh Synagogue:

Ultimately only 1/2 of 1% of Jewish survivors and others have moved back to Kazimierz to reclaim lost property, but the way of life is gone. Today, a more youthful vibe is present with lounges and vintage shops popping up on the high streets. Saturday is supposed to be the big market day for antiques and such, but ultimately, Kazimierz appears the relic of a lost community.

I really got a lot out of this trip, and I know there is so much we didn't even get to. I just found 50 pln in my purse, so I guess it's a sign to continue exploring Kraków, study the intense histories, meet warm locals, soak up cafe life, and hop among the dozens of vegetarian restaurants around the university.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas Crazy

I decided to go Christmas Crazy this year, since this year has been, well, crazy. If we had to pack up and move across the ocean again, we were going to enjoy the hell out the holidays once we got here. And we did. The very best part of this time of year in Europe is the Christmas markets. The markets are magical and each one unique to the the town they are in. While all sell mulled wine and handmade ornaments, some have live music, rides, even animals. We hit up as many as we could, and had a lovely time at all of them, shopping, eating, and drinking among crowds of revelers.


Strasbourg is a short 90 minutes away, so we were able to drive over for the opening of Les marchés de Noël. The stalls weave throughout the old city center, so anywhere you find yourself, some delightful display is overflowing with trinkets or vin chaud.


This was small, a locals markt, but still very fun. There was great food and a few things for kids to do and see. The snow added to the charm, and we had a lovely time together.


Stuttgart's market was a wonderfully rambling place to spend the morning. I went alone to do some real shopping and take in everything at my own pace. The decorations impressed me the most here, with many over the top displays complete with moving reindeer, pyramids, and full Christmas trees. I didn't stop smiling once, not even when that joyless woman who would rather do anything than deal with customers only gave me a half full mug of heiße schokolade.

There is a huge area for kids here, too. I saw a ferris wheel and ice skating rink on the far end. Hopefully I can take Emily next year.

Esslingen am Neckar

This was really neat. Held in the old city center, one section was a normal Weihnachtsmarkt, and the other was a Mittelaltermarkt, or Medieval market, with a hand operated wooden ferris wheel, costumed frauen sipping from drinking horns, games and (vegetarian) food a plenty. I didn't take a ton of pictures as we were having too much fun, and didn't stay as long as we could have because it was way too cold, even with the glühwein und kinderpunsch!


For our final stop we have the city of Ulm. The market encircled the Cathedral in the mitte, with little lanes for each type of shop. Der Ulmer Weihnachtsmarkt definitely had its own flair. Emily and Cody took a ride on a kinder locomotive. There was also a huge model train display, with a fort kids could climb onto over looking it. A radio station was there broadcasting carols, and right in the middle of everything was a manger with live sheep and donkeys. My favorite part though, was Der Veganer, where I was able to have a bratwurst just like a local!

We've done a lot since we arrived, but my laptop is still broken and instagram is making it easy to be lazy about blogging, but I should have more regular updates soon.