Kraków, Last Day in Poland

Our final day in Poland had finally arrived. We woke up quite early as we are supposed to have breakfast at Bonia’s house before heading out from there to Krakow. It was another beautiful morning and this morning more than any other this trip it would have been nice to sleep in and laze around in bed until midday. That is not to be for the next few days however. We fly out of Kraków on Sunday at 0645 and then the following day Chrl flies out of London back to Vancouver at 1010. A months worth of journeys will come to an end.

We quickly finished packing talking about how nice and quiet it was as well as how dark it got at night. We have been city hopping this whole time and this village life has been a nice change from the hectic city life we have endured. Having said that we have had our quiet moments.  This time in our journey calls for action and to dig deep in order to carry forward. We wearily but joyfully carried all of our stuff down and made the rounds to say goodbye. It was a short yet impactful stay for both of us. Chrl has made a good impression on everyone here. We moved our luggage into the trunk and off we go.

The drive to Oświeńcim was relatively quick this early in the morning. We got there by about eight-thirty a bit late but within reason. We were welcomed with open arms by Krzysztof who was waiting outside for us fiddling and faffing with things in anticipation of our arrival. We were ushered in to the dining room after our final goodbyes with Joasia and Konrad. The table was set with various cold cuts and various vegetables that ciocia received from her patients at her surgery. Nice organically grown vegetables tended to by caring hands. We are heartily as we knew that we were going to have a long day out in the city.

Chrl was asked about her impression of Poland so far. She responded that she liked how colorful everything is. The whole country doesn’t share in the same prosperity as Małopolska enjoys. There are areas that still haven’t recovered economically in the same way. We walked around the garden that Bonia has been tending to as part of her relaxation technique. This labor has been fun for her and the garden itself has many little fruit trees as well as a variety of flowers. We didn’t stay here long as we needed to get on the road to Kraków.

On our way we drove past Aushwitz again. This time with running historical commentary from Bronia regarding how it grew from its first political Polish prisoners and later with the huge influx of Jews. Up the road is Birkenau where the holocaust became industrial scale. We didn’t have time to go and visit it. I did want Chrl to see it in order that she could say that this place exists as she saw it with her own eyes.

The rest of the drive went fairly quickly. This road is now a familiar one for me. The back road snakes through all the little villages and towns. Sometimes it seems like the road should become a bypass since it passes through some growing towns. It seems too busy to be safe. As we got closer to Kraków Bronia pointed out some of the monasteries that house monks who are secluded from the world. They live cloistered away up in the hills praying and maintaining the grounds. They receive visitors twice a year only.

In Kraków we parked in a secure parking lot and entered the city through the Barbican that still stands after rejuvenation. This used to be the point where in medieval times goods were brought into the city for trade. This is where they passed through the wall that used to surround the whole city. As we admired this building a couple were walking out followed by their photographer. As we panned the other way a procession of actors dressed in medieval costumes walked in and began to re-enact some sort of offering to the king or high official. The costumes represented all the various different types of people that would have been present as one time or another maybe not all together as now. Instantly there was a group of people that gathered to observe these actors playing out these scenes in a theatrical manner. I acted quickly to move around the group gathered trying to pick out the right shots and capture the scene. Ania, Bronia and Chrl watched from the sidelines observing what was going on. This could go on all day and knowing how much we had to see we walked further after a short while of watching this spectacle.

We walked down Ulica Florianska that lead us to Rynek Glowny the Main Market Square in the old part of town. It is the largest one of it’s type at the time of its inception back in the thirteenth century in Europe. It has slowly been restored to it’s former glory. In the middle of the square are the Sukiennice or the Cloth Call. Back in the day fabrics used to be traded here. Underneath the square they performed an archeological dig to see what they could find.

Once the excavations were finished they built a museum underneath the square that contains and preserves the structures that were burried over time. The excavations showed evidence of fires that destroyed the original square probably as a result of a raid by the Mongols. In here one can get an idea of the trade that used to go on in these parts. Many things from the east passed through on their way west and vice versa. This is during the time when sailing wast as advanced as it became. These were still the dark ages in Europe Poland was a country still relatively young and asserting itself as a player in the region. It began to prosper from trade in metals and salt as well as skilled craftsmanship of jewellery and weapons. Evidence of all these things were unearthed in the excavations that took place here. It was cool to see it. The last few times that I have been here I missed out on coming down here.  It was nice to see and learn something new about this city and to see structures which were laid down all those centuries ago. I’ve seen old things on my travels and it’s nice to see something historic like this in the region where my family hails from.

The museum isn’t that big and we went up to explore the Sukiennince. This hall is long and today it is a market for finely made Polish souvenirs. It is quite a long hall and thus there are quite a few things to choose from. I walked in search of something to buy for my friends but nothing really spoke to me and the things that did were either too big or too expensive for what it was. It made me think about my friends and what they were up to. All the ladies were busy picking something out for my little nephew and Chrl. There is a large amber market in Poland. It is one of those semi precious stones that is abundant in the northern sections of the country and it inevitably makes it’s way south to here. It is one of those stones that was heavily traded in medieval times.

Our next stop was the Bazylika Mariacka that lies at the edge of the square. It is a gothic church that was rebuilt in the fourteenth century after the original was destroyed by the Mongols. There is a large wooden altarpiece that was carved in the fifteenth by Wit Stwosz a German sculptor. It is a triptych carved entirely of wood and is the largest such sculpture in the world. During the war it was dismantled and moved to Germany. Following the war it was recovered and returned to its place where we saw it today. What is noticeable inside this church or basilica is the different colors that are used to accentuate the interior. It wasn’t like this originally but over time as successive monarchs left their mark it evolved into this. We have been to many churches and places of worship during our trip. These buildings have tended to be the most architecturally advanced buildings in their time. Palaces and castles some of the other such constructions but those tended to be dismissed and destroyed as fashion and wealth ebbs and flows over time. It is much harder to destroy and eliminate a place of worship like that. It holds more meaning and value within people plus the works that were created to enhance places of worship were the avant garde works of their day. The only place where such artistic expression was available to the public was within the confines of the church. Hence, these places are the best preserved and the most fascinating historical structures we have. Works contained within these buildings as well as the buildings themselves say something about the people of the time.

Outside the church as we were leaving a wedding was taking place with participants dressed up in traditional Polish attire. We came out at the right time to see them line up and pose for the post wedding picture. We were moving on towards Wawel Castle. This castle was the original residence of the Polish Kings. It has evolved over time into it’s present form. Each successive period of Poland’s existence is reflected in the structures that stand here today. Since it was such a hot day we decided to stop for a bit and rest our weary bones before getting to the castle. We grabbed some coffee and dessert and made supper plans. There is a restaurant nearby where we made some reservations and moved on. We walked along Grodzka street which had it’s own share of historic buildings and churches on it. Some of them were being restored while others already have been and still others are awaiting their turn at some TLC. This old historical area will become a great looking place eventually. This whole area around here has some nice architecture that has a different flavor from other parts of Europe. This is important to maintain and since Poland’s reinstatement as a country following the First World War much has been done to preserve and expand on this character. Europe in general has this strong national identity that each one of the nations in Europe try to preserve and promote. That’s why there are all these little countries that try to maintain their identity within their borders. When one studies the history of how all of this developed through history it is quite fascinating. It is no wonder that there are such strong feelings when one looks at what has happened on these lands.

We walked up the rampart along a cobbled path wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic. People were streaming in both directions. The castle is now a museum that houses many historically important works of art as well as historically important artefacts that have survived war and plunder. We didn’t have time to go in and see the collection contained within but we did go inside the cathedral that is the burial location of many Polish Kings as well as other important people. The Polish President that died in the plane crash six years ago is buried there in the crypt downstairs. There were no pictures allowed inside of it. There were many guards watching the tourists as they walked inside. It has to do with the sanctity of the place as it is an active place of worship. Outside the church we finally passed the square and then the Wisla river was below us. The heat of the sun was quite palpable. It drained us a bit of our energy. Standing there at this high spot the city beyond the river was visible. There were buildings erected during the communist times that Bronia reminisced about being there. One in particular stood out as it used to be the top shopping mall where goods from the west were available for purchase. Before the fall of communism products from the west were not as easily available to purchase. That place there had them. Now it was some kind of a hotel.

We decided to walk back along a garden route. The shade from the trees cooled us down a bit and we sat on an empty bench discussing health issues and how they get passed along generationally. What part of it is innate and what part of it is acquired learned behavior. At what point is it safe to say that people should know better? These topics are not going to be solved in a day or even when we are sitting here. The discussion was brought on by the observations Ania and Bronia have made regarding the amount of people jogging and cycling everywhere. It never used to be this way. People are starting to take better care of themselves. We were just idly killing time and observing the people that passed in front of us.

We decided that getting to the restaurant fifteen minutes early would be acceptable at the restaurant. We sat outside but within a courtyard flanked by all sides by the building. It created a nice atmosphere especially with all the plants all around us. Madzia joined us for dinner and we were all hungry and chowed down on the delicious food. Chrl and I had to leave and meet up with an uncle that lives not too far from the castle. I made a phone call to him earlier as I wanted to at least drop in for tea or coffee. Now with an impending wedding to go to I need a way to get to and from the wedding. I need a favor in order to make it. My uncle Jozek is my mom’s older brother and I am sure that he will be attending the wedding. I was going to try to stop in for a quick coffee or something regardless of the invitation but this news makes it more important for us to meet.

Chrl and I found his place alright. Having been in Krakòw a few times already I am kind of familiar with this area of the city. It was a short fifteen minute walk over to my uncles house. He lives in what is termed a kamienica or roughly translated as a “stone place” a flat essentially. It is a huge apartment with multiple bedrooms on the top floor of the building. It still looks exactly the same as it used to back when I was here for the first time. He called us up as we couldn’t find the number written legibly for his flat on the buzzer station. He welcomed us and apologized for being late. We had discussed to meet up earlier in the day but he was delayed for some reason. I didn’t get to the bottom of it.

I introduced Chrl to him and we sat down in the kitchen talking about a variety of topics. We exchanged many pleasantries and somehow as I was talking about visiting his sisters we got to the topic of the Second World War. Józek remembers the time. He was young but the trauma of those times stayed with him. He described how the family was kicked out of the family home and moved to a different area. There wasn’t much food so they had to scrounge around the fields to try to find anything that wasn’t harvested. There was always something to find. He relayed the sounds of bombs and machine fire related to the fighting that happened near where they lived and cowering as that happened. He was really young at that time it’s remarkable that he remembers anything at all. It was quite traumatic to grow up in that kind of environment so it is no surprise that those memories persist to this day. I told him that I have learned the most about our family history from him. We had about forty-five minutes before we got the call that Bronia et all were on their way to pick us up.

We were headed off to Ola’s house. Ola is another cousin and she lives in Kraków. She is ciocia Bronia’s daughter. Ola and Kacper volunteered to drive us to the airport in the morning at five am so that we could catch our plane back. She also speaks english and that allowed us all to have a more fluid conversation. The rest of the evening was spent having a few drinks and talking about a variety of topics. I wish I was in Canada next week to show Bronia, Ania and Madzia around. They will have to make do with my sister, brother and parents doing that. I just feel that knowing more about the city would make me a better candidate for this task. Time flew by and we parted ways saying our long goodbyes. Chrl and I lay down on the fold out couch for essentially a nap. In the morning the alarm sounded and we got up bleary eyed and drove to the airport. It was a solemn wait as we enjoyed the beginning of our last day together.











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