Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kraków: The Wawel and Wieliczka

We began the day with a bus tour through Kraków. In Warsaw, Kuba told me it's one of the bigger tourist attractions, while a Polish friend in New York tells me "it's just a bunch of old bricks", so I wasn't sure what to expect. It felt a bit like Warsaw, but older — the streets were more narrow, the architecture more traditional.

After driving around a bit, we went to the Wawel, Royal castle in Kraków (which was the capital of Poland until 1596, when King Sigismud III moved it to Warsaw). Supposedly, this castle was built on top of a dragon's lair. The legend goes that, early in Kraków's history, this dragon would regularly torment the countryside, killing farmers and eating young girls (which he especially liked). To appease the dragon, young girls were sacrificed at the mouth of the cave every so often. Eventually, there weren't any more girls left except one — the king's daughter, so the king decided to give his daughter as a wife to whomever might slay the dragon. Of course, many tried and failed, until one poor apprentice had a bright idea: he stuffed a lamb with sulfur... the dragon ate it, and could not satisfy his thirst — drinking half the Wisła! Promptly exploding, the dragon was defeated, and the apprentice was married to the king's daughter.

The castle itself is like a small town, there is "Sigismund's chapel", the main residence, and plenty of other little shops and homes within the walls. The main residence, which is now a museum of sorts, is incredible — there are so many paintings, tapestries, sculptures, pieces of furniture... everything. The final room we visited was the largest, with patterned marble floors, leather walls, chandeliers, candelabras by some thrones at one end, tapestries on the walls, engraved ceilings. The acoustics were to die for. If I was a poor peasant a few centuries ago, I might have aspired towards a more affluent position simply to attend the dances and concerts held there.

The cathedral holds the tombs of many members of the Jagiellon family, Polish royalty. One particularly interesting tomb was that of Jadwiga, a saint and monarch who was known for her charity (she donated her dresses, jewelry and various other items to help restore the Academy in Kraków, she founded hospitals etc.) She was very young when she died, maybe 25 years old, and was said to have had blue eyes and blonde hair — a beauty frozen in time above her coffin.

From the Wawel we headed to the market square to see St. Mary's Basilica, a 1,000 year old cathedral. Every hour a trumpeter plays the hejnał from the top of the basilica, stopping mid-note about 30 seconds into the tune. This is based on a children's story by J.P. Kelly where he tells of a trumpeter being shot through the throat by invading Tatars in 1241 — a story with no historic support, but it's a wonderful tradition.

The market square in Kraków is one of the most lively in all of Poland. I counted at least 6 street musicians (and a few groups of them), crowds of people, smartly dressed students, the long "cloth hall" in the center, filled with merchants with local goods and items imported from the mountains nearby, as well as a plethora of restaurants. For lunch I went with Jane to a Georgian restaurant. She's great, every day (sometimes twice) we'll have the same conversation:

Jane: So, is this your first time to Poland?
Me: Yes.
Jane: Do you like it so far?
Me: Yeah, there's so much beauty and tradition here — and a different kind than what I'm used to in America.
Jane: I love it here. This is my tenth visit.
Me: Wow.
Jane: When I tell my friends I'm going to Poland, they always ask me "What are you going there for?" But I just look at them and laugh.

Anyway, I don't think she realized it was a Georgian restaurant, and was just assuming that every ethnic-looking restaurant must be Polish. I have a soft spot for their alphabet and figured I'd take a break from all the Polish food for a moment. It wasn't bad at all; I'm no food expert but from my meal and the others I saw nearby, I'd say it's distinctly Eastern European, but reminiscent of popular Greek cuisine.

After meandering around the square for a while, we left for the Wieliczka salt mines. A few hundred feet below the surface, they have thousands of kilometers of man-made caves, many of them filled with salt-sculptures, salt-chandeliers, salt-everything. It's one of the quietest places I've ever been. It would be amazing to hear someone record an album in the largest room, St. Kinga's Chapel. They should really invite Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor on down.

Tomorrow we leave for Zakopane, in the mountains of Southern Poland.

Poor translation of the day (from the sign outside our dinner restaurant):

  • "You are hungry and thirsty, our business is to find remedy."

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