Treasures in the Rubble

Today we leave Krakow for Warsaw.

We are supposed to arrive at 1.20pm, but our train is over an hour late.  No idea why, the Poles don’t seem to think it is important to let passengers on their express intercity trains know in English what is going on.  Even the Polish announcement is almost inaudible.  It’s a very long and boring ride, especially because I can’t see out the window.

When we arrive in Warsaw, I am anxious that our hotel transfer may have given up waiting.  But there he is, angry face on, with a barrage of complaints about us being late (not our fault) and not waiting in the right spot (not our fault either – we can’t be expected to wait somewhere when we are not told where to wait).  I try to explain, but he keeps going on and on and on and finally I can’t take it anymore and burst into tears.  He can’t understand why and when we get to the hotel, he asks if we need a lift to the airport when we leave.  Ah, yes we do.  But not with you.

Not a good start to our time in Warsaw.

Warsaw.  This is where my father’s family hails from.  I already mentioned earlier that Dad wasn’t born here, so here’s what I do know.  There’s more to World War II in Poland than the mass extermination of Jews.  Our family were not of Jewish Faith, and yet were still persecuted due to Hitler’s hatred of the Poles and forced from to run from place to place to seek safety, food and shelter.  When the war broke out in Poland, my grandmother, who lived in Warsaw, was visiting her family in the country side.  She never made it back to Warsaw, instead beginning a long and arduous journey to safety, which ended with settlement in Australia.

So what happened and why?

The Third Reich had singled out the Poles for special punishment.  As Germans systematically reclaimed Polish towns and streets, even speaking Polish in public became forbidden; in Gdansk it was punishable by death.  The Nazi goal of more ‘living space’ or “Lebensraum” applied pointedly to Poland, where Hitler had ordered his troops to “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language”.

Dad still has family here in Warsaw, which I will meet for the first time.

I don’t know what to expect of this city which was raised to the ground under the instructions of a man named Hitler, but I’m certain I am about to embark on a journey of a lifetime.

There’s a shot in Roman Polanski’s film, when its main character Wladyslaw Szpilman emerges from hiding and walks out into the streets of Warsaw.  Everything is decimated, shells of buildings scream against the skyline, everything blanketed with ash.  I’ve never identified as strongly with the history of Poland as I did in that moment.  My heart ached at the thought of the decimation that Hitler incurred on this city.

“This is really an incredible city and I want to give you an idea of it, and don’et know how I can do it. It’s a big city, see. Over one million pre war. Big as Detroit. Now it is 90 per cent all destroyed…Wherever you walk here it is hunks of buildings standing up without roofs or much sides, and people living in them. Except the Ghetto, where it is just a great plain of bricks, with twisted beds and bath tubs and sofas, pictures in frames, trunks, millions of things sticking out among the bricks. I can’t understand how it could have been done…It’s something that’s so vicious I can’t believe it”.

John Vachon, Photographer in a letter to his wife Penny in January 1946

Needless to say, the Warsaw you see today is a rebuilt version.  Some buildings show recycled rubble from the bombed city embedded in their facades.  City planners used as many original stones in rebuilding the city as possible.  Lonely Planet describes Warsaw as having ‘so many booms, cranes and construction sites, you’d think you’d landed in Beijing’ – and they weren’t joking.  Especially in our area, near the Hilton Hotel, buildings are going up everywhere.  There’s even a subway on its way.

DSC00167

Warsaw also gets a bit of a bad rap from tourists as being grey and rather, well, ‘Soviet’.  After the defeat of Communism in 1989, the Poles with their characteristic humour turned the former Gestapo Headquarters into the Ministry of Education, the former KGB Headquarters into the Ministry of Justice and the Communist Party Headquarters into the Stock Exchange.

So, we are staying at the Hilton, which is about a 20 minute walk from the old town.  When we booked the hotel, I thought I had made a bit of a mistake by being located away from all the action.  BUT it was a Hilton and it is supposed to be one of Europe’s best.  And it had its own casino – not just any casino – the largest in Poland.  However, the more I researched Warsaw, I learnt we are actually in quite an interesting location – the outskirts of the former Jewish Ghetto where ghosts and memories line the streets, even though the landscape has changed.

We have a couple of hours before the family dinner tonight, so it’s the perfect time to make a trip to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is conveniently located about a 5 minute walk away from the hotel.  Housed in a beautifully restored former trams power station, it lays on the edge of the former ghetto. It includes a brick wall with reverse views; holes through which visitors can glimpse daily life inside the Ghetto thanks to archival footage.  Opened in 2004, this is one of Poland’s best museums. It also features a short documentary entitled “City of Ruins”.  When news of the uprising reached Hitler, he ordered Himmler to send in his harshest troops, kill every Pole, and pulverise the whole city block by block, bomb, torch, and bulldoze it beyond repair as a warning to the rest of occupied Europe. “City of Ruins” shows you the result.

DSC00137
“The Little Insurgent” – commemorates the children who served as messengers and frontline troops.

DSC00152 DSC00148

On the third floor a B24 allied bomber plane replica lunges at you from the ceiling.

DSC00159

The museum is brilliantly put together.  One of the best museums I’ve visited in the world.  We spent a couple of hours here and still didn’t see everything.  My only comment would be that it was a shame that all the books in the gift shop were in Polish because I would loved to have bought some, but obviously there’s no point as I don’t speak Polish.

Tonight, I get to meet some of Dad’s family at dinner.  I’m actually really nervous, not knowing what to expect and how much of the conversation I will actually be able to understand. I may find myself getting drunk – very drunk.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We are dining at Folk Gospoda (Folks Inn) which is conveniently only a block or so away from our hotel.  It is believed to be the oldest restaurant in Warsaw, although it burnt down in the 1831 Uprising and wasn’t rebuilt til 2004.  However, just months before our visit, another reason to visit occurred – Gok Wan visited Folk Gospoda.  And raved about it and well, if Gok recommends it…

Legends of the Wawel Dragon and Nowa Huta

In a cave at the bottom of Wawel Hill there once lived a terrible fire-belching dragon. This dragon roamed around the countryside and did whatever he wanted to. He ate sheep and cattle and scared the farmers so much that they didn’t let their animals graze in the field near the Vistula River. Many brave knights had tried to kill the monster, but before they could close enough to him, he blew fire on them and they were burned to death.

The king wanted this dragon destroyed. He invited knights and noblemen to come and slay the dragon, promising that whichever one killed the dragon could marry his beautiful daughter and become king when he died. Many tried to slay the dragon so that they could marry the princess, but the dragon killed them. The people became even more frightened; they were afraid to leave their homes and the country became poorer.

One day, a young, handsome but poor shoemaker’s apprentice named Krak asked the king if he could try to slay the dragon. The king said he could try, but noted that he had no armour, no horse and no sword. The apprentice had only his shoemaker tools and a plan. He didn’t need armour, a horse, or a sword.

Krak bought a deed sheep from the butcher and some sulphur (a powder that is used in making matches) from a miner. Then he cut the sheep open with his sharp shoemaker’s knife, stuffed it with the powdered sulphur and then sewed the sheep up with the shoemaker’s thread. He put the sheep by the dragon’s cave and waited behind a rock for the dragon to come out.

After a while, the greedy dragon came out from his cave. He saw the dead animal and greedily ate it. The sulphur caught fire, like a match, and the dragon felt his stomach burning. He ran to the river to quench the fire in his stomach, but drank so much water that he filled up like a balloon. He kneeled down and was very sick.

Krak came out from behind the rock, and began to throw stones at the dragon. The monster tried to blow fire at him but because of all the water he drank, all that came out from his mouth was steam. The dragon kept trying to breathe fire, but because he was so swollen, he exploded and died. At last the people were free of him.

Krak and the princess married. After her father, the King, died, Krak became King, as promised. He built a castle on top of Wawel Hill and for hundreds of years it was where the Kings of Poland lived. Around the hill, the people built a city which they named Krakow, after their new king.

This fire-breathing dragon lives below the walls of Wawel Castle, overlooking the banks of the Wisla River, and despite having a pair of black bras slung over one of his claws, is a prickly creature to behold.  You can take a lift down from the grounds of Wawel Castle or follow the footpath outside the Caste around to the river, past vendors selling plush or metal dragons, plastic knight masks, wooden swords and Polish bread snacks.

The castle grounds themselves are quite lovely with colourful flower beds adorning them, shady trees and cobblestoned pathways.  It’s nice to be here early before too many tourists arrive.

DSC00033 DSC00035 DSC00005 DSC00024 DSC00025 DSC00028

For the remainder of the day, we had wanted to visit the Jewish Quarter, most notably Oskar Schindler’s Factory, but here’s where we discover that there’s not really any Wow factor in the Hop On bus.  The bridge to the area is closed for repairs to the large sightseeing bus, but they didn’t tell us.  When we pulled up outside one of the sights in the Jewish quarter, the small sightseeing bus was in front of us (they didn’t explain there were two busses and that only the small one would be going to the Jewish quarter).  Instead of saying “Hey, we aren’t going to the Jewish Quarter today but you can transfer to the small bus in front of us right now and it will take you there”, they said nothing.  It was only when we arrived back near our hotel that we realised what was happening and by that point, we would have had to repeat the route to get there.  So we had a quiet afternoon, and I was able to buy a suitcase to replace my backpack, so I could start buying a few souvenirs and bits and pieces.

After a bit of a rest, it was now time for some fun.  This evening we are catching up with Crazy Guides to do a Communism Tour with dinner followed by an 80’s style disco!  Our crazy guide is Cornelia and she speaks really good English, which she says she learnt from watching ‘Friends’.

Stalin apparently said “imposing communism on Roman Catholic Poland was as absurd as putting a saddle on a cow”.  But he went ahead and imposed it anyway, where it lasted from 1945 until 1989.  Crazy Guides have built up quite a reputation for their communism tours, and have even been recommended even by Michael Palin.  Their website is a crack up showing the crazy guides pulling crazy Russian style faces – check it out at www.crazyguides.com.

Picking us up in one of their vintage trabants which are renowned for constantly breaking down, our tour starts with a visit to the main square of Nowa Huta.  Driving in the trabant is like sightseeing on the back of a giant lawnmower, as we ‘over’rev our way through the streets to Nowa Huta.  We are told about some of the ‘gifts’ that Uncle Stalin gave to Poland, one of which was Nowa Huta.  It was meant to be a showcase of the communist regime.  A perfectly symmetrical community situated near a large scale steelworks, built in the 1950’s.  The steelworks accounted for nearly half the national iron and steel output and the suburb became an urban sprawl occupied by over 200,000 people.  It was an experiment, more or less, to inject industrial workers as an antidote to the strong aristocratic, cultural and religious traditions of Krakow, and it was of no interest to the planners that all of the raw materials would have to be transported from great distances in order to be produced.  On top of that, the steelworks caused catastrophic pollution.  Operations at the steelworks have been scaled down since communism topped (and in a more environmentally friendly way) and they can’t be visited, but you can still see the bland streetscapes.

DSC00049

Outside the steelworks, I was given the opportunity to drive the trabant and I soon realised why Cornelia drove it the way she did – it’s nearly impossible to brake without the car stalling!

Next up, we visited an authentic communist apartment, where we were plied with cherry and lemon flavoured vodka and ‘forced’ to watch a propaganda movie about how wonderful life was in Nowa Huta and what a great city was being built for the people.  Over zealous smiles and everything just A-OK.

Welcome...
Welcome…
...to our warm and friendly apartment!
…to our friendly apartment!

DSC00097 DSC00107

Vacuum cleaner or small rocket?
Vacuum cleaner or small rocket?
You know things are bad when the biggest deal in your life is collecting cans!
You know things are bad when the biggest deal in your life is collecting cans!
Queuing for the basics - in the 1980's!
Queuing for the basics – in the 1980’s!

Fully converted to a wonderful life in Nowa Huta, we return to the city centre to enjoy a VIP reservation at a Nowa Huta restaurant which has remained unchanged since the 1970’s (hey – back in my time!) and get a tasty Polish dinner of pork filet with mashed potato and cabbage – good old fashioned comfort food.  And we don’t have to go far to enjoy our 1980’s style disco because we are sitting right next to the dance floor!  When I booked this tour, I wasn’t quite sure what this part of it would entail, or how I would ever be able to sell it to my father, but with a smirk on his face, he agreed without any argument, so I booked it.  And it turns out the locals like a good disco too because in no time, the dance floor is crowded with couples waltzing around to Polish 80’s synth tunes and we all manage to have a dance (probably helped along by the vodka).

DSC00119

I’m so glad Crazy Guides are making sure we get home alright…well, at least as far as the petrol station down the road, because this is where the trabant breaks down and we have to hail a taxi.  Hilarious!  We really, really enjoyed this tour.  It was eye opening to say the least and our guide was great.  It’s always great to see another side to the way things are or were.

By the way, if you are wondering what life was like under Communist rule – how about a game of Kolejka? Kolejka, which means ‘queue’ or ‘line’ was created by Karol Madaj who works in the Bureau of Education at Warsaw’s Institute of National Remembrance and aims to recreate communist shopping hell. Sold out on its first day of sale, this a monopoly like game where players have to line up to purchase a shopping list of items such as ham, bread and toilet paper.

Show Me Your Krak!

The word Krakow originates from ‘Krak’ or ‘Krakus’, and he, Krak, was the fabled ruler of the Vistulan tribes.  According to legend, he founded the city some time around 700AD, built Wawel Castle, slayed the Wavel Dragon (more about him a bit later) and beat back the armies of the Roman Empire.  Quite a busy guy.

Like many cities the world over, Krakow hosts its own Hop On Hop Off Bus.  Wow!  You may be thinking.  Well that’s what Krakow thought too, because that’s exactly what they named the bus route – Wow Krakow – and that’s what we are going to use today to get around.  It costs around $30 for two days of sightseeing, a load cheaper than the little electric carts you can rent and it seems to go to a few places off the beaten path, which I always enjoy.

But first up, there are a couple of things close to our hotel to check out – The Barbican and Rynek Undergound.

The Barbican was once a fortified outpost connected to the city walls.  Now it remains as a tourist attraction and as a marker to the entrance of the old town.  It was built in around 1498 and is one of only three surviving fortified outposts in the world Europe and this one’s the best preserved.

DSC09720

Rynek Underground is a 4,000m2 exploration of medieval Krakow, where you can walk along authentic age old streets, 5m under the Main Square.  The museum combines modern technology with original world class artefacts.  The tour starts with a fog screen that allows you to walk through a thin wall and participate in the life of a medieval Krakow market.  You can hear all the sounds of market trade around you and see layers of actual cobble-stoned ground from the 13th and 14th centuries.  There are all sorts of audio visual and interactive guides to lead you on your journey and it’s really quite a brilliant trip to take.

DSC09859

DSC09791

There was all sorts of interesting facts and information, like – do you know why medieval folk carried little pouches for their money?  That would be because medieval robes had no pockets!  And at one point Krakow’s dandy’s wore shoes so pointy that it was actually impractical to walk in them.

Rynek Underground runs from the corner of the cloth hall towards St Mary’s Basillica.  From one point within the room, if you look up to the ceiling, through the splashes of water spouts from the waterfall in the main square, you can see the spires of St Mary’s.  The market remains were excavated from 2005 through to 2010 and you would never know this museum was there unless you read about it.  A very informative and clever exhibition.  If you are in Krakow, make sure you go!

So now to the Wow Krakow bus and our first stop is Kosciuszko Mound located in Salwator.  It was constructed between 1820 and 1823 using soil from the battlefields where Tadeusz Kościuszko, the national hero of Poland, fought – the costs covered with donations from all over the country.  It was initially called Kościuszko’s Tomb.  Seen from just about anywhere in the city, it’s one of those places that most tourists consider to be unimportant, but let me tell – the effort is worth it.

DSC09909

DSC09902

Top of Kosciusko

From the mound you can see the city.  I mean the WHOLE city.  At 333m above sea level, it’s the symbolic burial place of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, General, Polish & American national hero, freedom fighter and leader of the Polish Uprising.  The Mound itself is 34.1m high – hence the view.  It offers beautiful vistas of the entire Krakow and – in bright weather – also of the Beskids and the Tatra Mountains 100 kilometres away, which we could see today – if we knew which way they were!

And if you’re wondering why the name sounds familiar Aussies, it’s because the highest mountain in Australia was named in 1840 by Polish explorer Paul Edmund Strzeleck as Mt Kosciuszko, because of its resemblance to the Kosciuszko Mound.

I’m glad we made the effort!

After the climb, we ascend the Wow bus and drive through the streets of Kazimierz, full of interesting architecture.  Kazimierz is a historical district of Krakow which is home to the city’s Jewish quarter.   Named after King Kazimierz the Great in the 14th century, it’s world came tumbling down in September 1939 when Hitler made his mark on it.  As late as the year 2000, much of Kazimierz was still in ruins.  But it is undergoing a bit of a facelift at the moment and is fast becoming one of the hippest places to visit.

DSC09924

DSC09935

DSC09928

When we arrive back in the old town, there’s a classic car display.  Engines are revving, cameras are going off and people are showing off.  There are some beautiful cars and the smell of fuel is intoxicating.   One by one they pull out on the road surrounding the square and do an honorary lap, before driving off into the sunset.

DSC09961

From Zakopane With Love

The name ‘Poland’ originates from the tribal name ‘Polanie’ meaning ‘people living in open fields’.  And today, that’s where we are heading – to the fields.  Well, kinda.

A private tour to Zakopane and the Dunajec River Gorge awaits us today.  Zakopane is the most famous Polish mountain resort (it was even Pope John Paul’s favourite recreation spot!), located in the south of Poland, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains – the most beautiful and the only Alpine-like mountain range in the country.  While being the most popular winter sports destination, for the rest of the year Zakopane attracts tourists with its stunning take on nature, rich folklore and original culture.  Dad has been particularly interested in visiting Zakopane, having heard his mother talk about it lovingly. And I do have fleeting visions of gaudy embroidered cloths and engraved flutes adoring my Babcia’s house, which apparently came from Zakopane with love.

Only two hours drive from Krakow, and you arrive in the south of Poland where the Pieniny and the Tatra Mountains are situated.  We are on a private tour today with Janusz from Prime Tours so we can enjoy Zakopane in the comfort of our own company.

Along the way there’s a quick stop at the Chocholowska Valley with time to admire the wooden houses which are specific for the region and striking landscapes.  The main street of this 16th century village showcases traditional wooden cottages which are the best examples of highland architecture in the whole Podwhale region. Chocholow has a curious local custom that involves cleaning the walls of the building once a year until they are white.

DSC09524

DSC09525

DSC09530

There’s a funicular between Gubalowka Mount  and Zakopane with breathtaking views of the Tatra Mountains from the top, though it’s a little foggy today.  It’s said to be the finest panorama of the Tatra Mountains from the northern Polish side of the range. The Tatras, the highest mountains in Central Europe, with alpine landscapes, lie within Polish and Slovak national park.  After a beer at the top of the mountain, we jump in the chair and down we go.

DSC09560

We also have time for shopping at the traditional highlander market and shopping street.  Krupowki is the finest street in Zakopane. It’s lined with cafes, restaurants, exclusive souvenirs and art galleries and it’s impossible to avoid the market near the funicular railway station – on sale are kerpce (traditional moccasins), woollen pullovers, wooden ciupagi (sticks with decorative handles) and bryndza and oscypek (regional cheeses made from sheeps milk).

DSC09571

DSC09589

DSC09591

Along the way, we stop at several historical wooden churches in the area.  Five of these wooden churches in the area are currently listed with UNESCO and some date back to the 15th century.  They were largely built with larchwood without the use of nails.

DSC09544

DSC09546

DSC09545

DSC09575

DSC09576

DSC09577

DSC09579

DSC09600

DSC09603

The Dunajec River is a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. The river changes continuously from quiet to the bubbling of shallow mountain rapids and the highlight is taking an unforgettable leisure rafting trip on traditional, wooden rafts among the towering cliffs and the limestone rock formations of the breathtaking Pieniny Mountains. Depending on the level of the water, the trip takes between two and three hours.  The Dunajec is the only river that takes waters from the Slovak territory to the Baltic Sea.

Boarding  the raft in Sromowce, we set off rafting the route of 23km down the Dunajec River. The boat is led by experienced raftsmen, so its absolutely safe (and remarkably remaniscant of the raft trip Mum and I took in Arashiyama, Kyoto), with views of cliffs, trees and mountains.  We just sit back and relax.

DSC09633

DSC09705

The view changes along the way and is really quite stunning.  The boat ride itself was a little long, probably given the chill in the air, and sitting on a wooden bench for two hours, but I can imagine it would be glorious if the weather was bright and sunny.

This is out last stop for the day, so we are back in the car and on the road home.  When we finally arrive back in Krakow it is lovely to see it lit up like a Christmas tree from afar.  It’s been a very long but interesting day and it’s always nice to get out and see the countryside.

Get that Knife away from my Sister’s Head!

Growing up I didn’t really know much about Poland.  I knew we had funny little folk costumes of garish red and green stripes, with peasant shirts and felt vests and ribbons and garlands of flowers for our heads, that there was different food at my Babcia’s (grandmother’s) house, and that my Babcia spoke a funny language – in fact even when she spoke English it still sounded funny: ‘please put in the light’ and ‘you have somesing on your mouse’ (translated to something on your mouth) always sent us into hysterics.

20131023_191104

So I can honestly say it’s been an absolutely fascinating experience researching this trip. I have devoured movies, documentaries, magazines and book after book, coming across amazing and unbelievable pieces of information day by day – these blog posts will probably be long because there’s just so much to say about this country. But I hope you will find it as fascinating as I do.

We were never taught to speak the Polish language apart from the odd word here and there and I don’t recall hearing stories about family. The contradictions of another language and strange customs were fraught with misunderstanding and, to a degree, fear of the different and unknown.

To be honest, as a young child, I mostly looked forward to visiting Babcia’s house because we were able to swing off the clothesline in the backyard and, if we were lucky, which was most of the time – there were lollies, especially the little fruit shaped jubes, all nicely boxed with a thin layer of paper covering the crystallised treasures from prying hands, awaiting us in the ‘sitting room’.

All my research, quite unexpectedly, made me pine for things lost and I began to feel as though a part of me had been missing all these years.  And slowly, as I read on, the pieces started forming a recognisable shape of my family before me and how I might have become who I am.

My grandmother’s family was from Warsaw.  My grandmother herself was visiting them in the countryside when war broke out, and she never went home.  From Warsaw they moved across Europe as displaced persons.  My father was born in Tehran, and then spent his early years in a migrant camp in Arusha, South Africa.  My Babcia and father boarded the General Langfitt bound for Fremantle and arrived in Cunderdin, to a community of Nissan huts, where they started their Australian life.  Australia was one of the only countries who welcomed single mothers with open arms.

Mum and Dad made their first ever trip to Poland several years back and let’s just say – it wasn’t on Mum’s list of favourite trips ever.  In Warsaw, they stayed with very kind and generous relatives who could speak only limited English (Mum speaks no Polish) and whom seemed to be apprehensive about letting them out of their sight.  Relatives who very kindly showed them the sights of Poland – mostly war memorials and sad relics of Warsaw’s past – but relatives that seemed, to my mother at least, to be fearful of something.  And then an angry little woman attendant in a public toilet shouted at her (in Polish) for not paying when she walked in – and I think that was it.  I can only imagine that the pieces of this puzzle came together to form a bleak picture of Dad’s family homeland.

It did make me recall an incident in my childhood – the inspiration for which became the title of this blog post – which I imagine summed up exactly how she felt.  At the time, my youngest sister would have been about four perhaps and, running around the house with my middle sister, collided with a wall or some other object.  I remember lots of tears and a huge lump starting to form on her forehead.  My Babcia was visiting at the time, and I remember her going into the kitchen in the flurry, searching through the drawers for a knife.  Procured knife in hand, she proceeded towards my sister’s forehead.  Hang on a minute, I thought, my nine year old eyes widening in fear – she’s going to cut the lump off her head. “Get that knife away from my sister’s head!” Panic, tears and screaming ensued as I begged my parents not to let her do this.  Yelling in two different languages filled the room. After several minutes, Dad finally revealed my Babcia’s intentions.  Turns out she only wanted to put the cool edge of the knife against the bump to help soothe it and make the swelling subside!

Unfortunately language and custom difficulties turned an innocent intention to a crazy situation and at our ages, it wasn’t something that we could just laugh off – it was another thing that made being Polish seem strange.

Now, from what I’ve heard, read and seen, I don’t get the picture that Poland is the cheeriest of places to visit – names such as the “Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom” and the “Monument to those Fallen and Murdered in the East” don’t help.  But Poland has had a long history of battle to survive, having been invaded or having to fight for freedom 43 times between 1600 and 1945.  And at one point, Poland didn’t even exist when between 1772 -1795 it was divided up between Russia, Prussia and Austria and erased from the map!

“Cursed by its strategic location in eastern Europe, Poland had been invaded, sacked, and carved up many times, its borders ebbing and flowing; some village children learned five languages just to speak with neighbours.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

In 1807 Poland was reborn as the Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon Bonaparte, but his defeat in 1815 ended with Poland falling under Russian rule.  Not to mention what happened to Poland during World War II, when 85% of Warsaw (it changes depending on what book you are reading, but 85% is the lowest figure I saw) was raised to the ground under Hitler’s orders.

Needless to say, it’s been said that “Poland is a country half submerged in its heavily invaded past, fed by progress, but always partly in mourning.”

But you know I’ve always thought that it’s the things a country goes through that make it what it is.  So my goal for this trip is to take Poland for what she is, given her history (and most importantly my history), and insert some humour for good measure.

I arrive into Krakow from Budapest late, but I can see Mum standing at the arrival gate.  The airport is being remodelled, so it’s a bit of a tin shed, but seeing as I am travelling on the Schengen Visa, it’s awesome, cause I can just chat to Mum over the fence while I wait for my luggage.  I haven’t seen Mum and Dad for about three weeks now, because as I mentioned at the beginning of my trip, they have been making their way around other parts of Europe.

Our home for our stay in Krakow is a little place just off the old square, in the old town of Krakow (Stare Miasto), the Hotel Polski Pod Bialym Orlem, with a bit of character and surrounded by the old town’s defensive walls, next to St Florian’s gate.  The Florian gate is one of the best known Polish gothic towers.  First mentioned in 1307, it was built as part of a protective rampart around Krakow after the Tatar attack of 1241 which destroyed most of the city.  At the height of its existence the wall featured 47 watchtowers and 8 gates.

Opposite the hotel is the enchanting Czartoryski Dukes lane, with a statue of Mercury.  The hotel looks across to the medieval fortified city walls against which the artists of Krakow present their works.

DSC09431

My room – yes we have separate rooms, because I like to sleep at night time and my parents like to snore (plus what if I run into that rich, young handsome Polish prince my Babcia was talking about me marrying!) – is very quaint.  Traditional folk rug on the floor, floral curtains which match my bedspread, carved wooden furniture and big windows you can open up to let in the fresh air.

An interesting fact to note is that the first floor in a building in Poland is regarded as zero.  So you need to press ‘1’ to go the 2nd floor when getting in an elevator.  Somewhat confusing – I hope the streets are easier to navigate!

DSC09437

Our hotel is right in the mix of Krakow’s old town.  There’s so much to see and do here, apart from just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.  So we meander along the streets and make our first stop at the Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice. Originally built in the 13th century, expanded in the 14th century and re-modelled in the 16th century, it features food stalls, small shops, terrace cafes and flower stands – all surrounding a statue of Poland’s beloved writer/poet Adam Mickiewicz. From its very beginning in medieval times, it was a market hall and it is considered to be the world’s oldest shopping mall.

DSC09441

DSC09447

Here you can buy Kracovian folk costumes, jewellery and other crafted objects and it’s apparently one of the places to pick up some amber. Most everyone returning from Poland brings back a piece of amber jewellery because that’s what Poland is, along with vodka and pierogis, known for.  This famous amber, which is fossilized tree resin, has been transported along the amber route from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Coast for over 1,000 years.

Moving along to fit in one last spot of sightseeing before the Polish night sky descends on us, we arrive at St Mary’s Basilica. From the tallest of its two towers, on the hour every hour, the bugle player plays the “Hejnal” (hey now).  According to legend, in 1241 as the Mongol invasion of Poland approached Krakow, a guard on the church tower sounded the alarm by playing the Hejnal and the city gates were closed before the city could be taken.  The bugler however was shot in the throat and did not complete the tune, which is why it now ends abruptly before completion.

We couldn’t actually see the trumpeter, the sound of his tune seemed to change with the wind, and we were running from one side of the church to the other trying to catch a glimpse without fail.  Thankfully we have a few more days to try and track down where the elusive trumpeter is hiding.

The square itself, is a lively place.  Young breakdancers, painted human statues, horse and carriages lining one side of the square and masses of pigeons.  As the sun goes down, hundred of candles illuminate the square, where diners tuck into their mostly oversized meals and relax with a glass of pivo (beer), blankets in lap to keep the cold at bay.

DSC09466

I’m going to let the craziness continue by forcing my parents to dine at the Hard Rock Café tonight, which coincidentally sits right next door to St Mary’s.  This Hard Rock is home to the microphone Robert Plant used during an awards show in 1980, Billy Duffy’s (The Cult) 1960 Supro Val Trol guitar, Brian May’s butterfly shirt and Roy Obison’s blue and grey patent leather shoes.  But tonight I’ve got to say I’m here for the broccoli.  It’s been quite hard to find normal steamed vegetables on this trip and I now that I’ll find it here, accompanied by a good steak.  I know it’s not Polish, but sometimes you just got to do it.

After dinner, we pick ourselves a nicely plumaged horse and jump aboard the beautiful white carriage for a ride around the city.  It’s all very grand, listening to the clip clop of the horses hooves over the cobblestones, looking at the grand architecture of the streets and letting the excitement of being here soak in.

DSC09468

I can’t believe I’ve finally arrived in Poland.  I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the next week.  I hope you enjoy my journey too.