A Polish Holiday 1

The following morning brought a fresher feel, but the clouds had still stayed away enough for some pleasant sun as the city started to stir.

The plan was that we would make our way to the Oskar Schindler museum on the other side of the city, and looking at our handy guide map, we could get there by skirting along the imposing Vistula River that cuts through the south just outside the old town, including a visit to Wawel Castle on the way.
Perched on top of Wawel Hill, the entrance route spirals slowly upwards passing a strange sculpture of a dragon, which every five minutes or so (making us jump) spits out a gobful of flames.  Only when you look closer do you realise several of it's 'arms' have heads on them.

As the street-sellers unpacked the wares onto their trollys we carried on upwards until reaching the main castle grounds.  We must have missed out a bit of the tourist trail as we found ourselves in an open area looking at Wawel Cathedral, which shared equal billing, vying for attention from the tourists walking around the primly kept gardens that took up most of the open area inside the battlement walls.

It was a strange concoction of buildings of different styles, seemingly added to down the ages at the behest of several of the castle owners, none of whom seemed to agree with the others on what was a good choice of brick.

Given our time constraints and the rapidly ascending sun, we decided that only one of the two could be given any decent attention before we could go, and so we chose the cathedral as it looked the most interesting of the two.  Certainly the crowds were flocking, encouraged probably by the fact that this was once where the future pope, John Paul II gave mass.

'No entry without ticket' said the sign, alongside some others with a camera inside a crossed red triangle, meant that we had to put up with looking at things with the naked eye rather than through a viewfinder.  After getting the tickets in a clashingly modern building alongside we filed in between guided crowds.

The inside decor was as you might expect for such a prominent religious building.  High ceilings held up by arches decorated with dusty saints of old; a central area for worshiping lined by black wooden pews, pointing at a huge, lavishly draped altar, gilded gold with shiny-worn brass ornamentation and trim, surrounded with heavily trodden stone and marble flooring, large painted frescoes depicting romanticised battle scenes and a general intention of telling whatever god-fearing visitor might enter that the people who preach at these places should be treated with respect and awe.

The little wooden poles connected by ropes were in force, turning what was once (and is presumably still, on Sundays) a quiet place of worship, into a linear maze of shuffling feet and whispering crowds.  After cooing at the opulence on display on the ground floor, the route went up into one of the cathedral towers, where visitors were treated to a succession of increasingly large metal hats suspended from the ceiling on wooden joists.  Far too heavy for everyday usage, at one time only royalty were privileged enough to wear them.  In these austere days however, they allow you to be photographed wearing the largest one, for a small fee.

Once down from the tower, and beyond some of the small chapels that lined the outer walls of the main cathedral, we headed down into St. Leonards' Crypt where several high-ranking Polish nobles are buried.  It was quite a serene place, reminding me of the Egyptian tombs at the Valley of Kings, except these rooms were modern and mood-lighted by subtle spot-lighting.  From the earliest burials the passageways edged slowly outwards, the styling of the caskets became more modern, you could tell from their styling and whether they were plain stone or marble, how much money and influence was behind the pile of bones inside.  The last crypt room before the iron gated exit was the most modern.  The body of respected Polish general Wladyslaw Sikorski laid inside a creepy looking bronze metal box in the shape of a coffin, decorated with large domed rivets but seemingly without any seams to be held by them.  The place was decorated with a dour and unnerving set of WWII-era tributes - crossed gun motifs, staring portraits.  It seemed to represent a final goodbye of the cultural influences on Poland of the era.  As we adjusted our eyes to the early afternoon sun, we felt as if we had come back from the darkened past.

On our way out to rejoin the river, we came upon the 'Dragons' Den'.  At the sheer edge of the rock on which we were standing, a thin and slender tower extended downwards.  For a meager fee the bored-looking teenaged ticket attendant opened the gates for us, and we descended the spiral staircase downwards to ground level - except that it kept going some more after that.

We stepped out into an underground cave complex, lit as these things often are by hidden spotlights in little alcoves.  The floor seemed to have a path lifted out of the ground at us.  The air was dank and cool, so we followed the cave through to its' end where we emerged out at the dragon statue, who guffed out a snort of flame to greet us.  It seems that Wawel has an oft-exercised Dragon myth of it's own, making several appearances in various forms in every gift shop in town and even gracing the awards of the Krakow film festival.

We skipped down onto the waterfront and carried on.  The Vistula is wide and winds through the south of the city in a gradual arc, occasionally crossed by industrial-looking bridges and decorated with all sorts of interesting looking graffiti.  On the other side of the river sat a large grey sphere, innocuous aside from it's oddity.  We assumed it was some sort of gas container.

Glancing back as we carried on, it was surprising to see the sphere now fully a hundred feet into the air, tethered only by a single rope.  We resolved to return on the other side, and ride the delicate little basket suspended below.

Some walking later we crossed over on a busy road bridge, and followed our city map into a semi-constructed commercial area.  Fresh new tarmac flanked by half finished pavements, 'business as usual' signs, and lots of wire fencing separating us from yet more building projects suggested we were going in wholly the wrong direction.  Suddenly the evidence of the new dropped away and a far older style of factory building - many of which looked in a poor state of repair became the dominant sight.  We had arrived in the small part of Krakow that had been kept anything like it was during the most violent political upheavals of a city in modern history, and the epicentre was the Oskar Schindler Museum.
From the grey, unassuming frontage - little changed except maybe a little better maintained than it's pre-war self - didn't overtly advertise it's intentions, except as you got closer and studied the windows - full of the pictures of the factory staff who helped keep the factory keep running in the face of intense pressures during the war years.

Though there were no explicit signs inside to ban picture taking, the winding passages told a mesmerising story, starting in the pre-war years where the population - healthily populated by Jews at the time - saw the impending years as possibility for growth and change for the better, but the growing realisation that those entering into power had much darker intentions, began to split and break the community, even before the war had begun.  The most gut-wrenching moments depicted was the room dressed full of posters with the festivities marking the end of summer 1939, just before the Nazis gained power.  Much like the Nagasaki and Hiroshima museums managed, I left feeling emotionally drained, but if you have the chance to go, it is highly recommended.

Needing some air, we headed outside, and, since there was a tourist golf buggy heading round the corner with nobody inside, we took the opportunity to get around a few other sights in double-quick time, since the sun was beginning to get lower in the sky.

The driver had barely given us time to climb aboard before setting off, and we scooted across the busy intersections towards the closest sight.  At one point - apparently - we passed near the site of one of the few preserved remnants of the old wall that was erected around the Jewish quarters of Krakow old town - one of five Ghettos used by the Nazi's to further emasculate it's citizens, but unfortunately we were gone in a blink and I didn't see it. 

What we did manage to see was a monument to the Ghetto Jews.  In the middle of a square was a well-maintained, cobbled square containing evenly-placed chairs.  All around the buildings were modified or replaced entirely with modernity, but the chairs had significance.  Created in 2005, each of the chairs - and there are many situated in the square, including some at the bus stops - represent a thousand Jewish victims of the exterminations in the Old Town alone.  People are encouraged to sit on them, reminding them that anyone is capable of being one of the victims.

The disappearing light told us that it was time to give up on the sightseeing, and so we asked to go back to the city centre, close enough to the hotel but on the other side of the town square so we could pass through.  After seeing the sights for today it was refreshing to return to the crowded and pleasant market square where people were happy and carefree, although we looked with new eyes on the architecture thanks to our history lesson; particularly the central clock, the historical place of hangings and beheadings, and the restored statue of Jewish poet Adam Mickiewicz, destroyed by the Nazis at the start of the war.  The square itself was briefly renamed Adolf Hitler Platz - something the overtly modest dictator had a penchant for doing.

Our day was nearing it's end, but we were not quite done yet.  Our hotel only had it's room available for today, and so we needed to lug our things across from the south to the north side of the town centre, where a swanky new hotel would provide quite a contrast to our delapidated (but more interesting) current one.

Ms. Plants insisted she knew the best route and a tram/taxi was unnecessary.  I was quizzical - and increasingly so as we lugged our heavy belongings through the darkening and busying streets.  Eventually, we found the hotel - an impressive but rather featureless structure no more than a year or so old - and checked ourselves in.  We rested our bones for a while, went out for a meal, and looked around the evening markets in the cool night air.