The weather turned colder and rainier on our way to Krakow, but the road was not nearly as bad as we had expected, until we got off the highway and drove into Krakow.  We had the normal issues of driving in a European city and trying to find the hotel; the biggest issue was nowhere to park in the square outside the hotel.  We found a spot so Roy could go check in; then the hotel people told us to park in a made-up spot (Roy moved the car later when we spotted a real parking place–and no one bothered the car, despite his worries about someone stealing it!)

Hotel Rubinstein is in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter (who would have guessed?)  It was okay, a bit dated but I think it’s supposed to be charming.  The only real complaint we had was the drain had a problem, so there was a weird smell in the room.  The breakfast was good, though (and free).  It was in reasonable walking distance from the Old Town district, so we walked there looking for a place to eat on the way.springbreak2010_krakow001

springbreak2010_krakow004We walked to Rynek Główny square, the main square in the historic district.  It’s really a pretty square, but of course we could tell we were in the right place for our vacation due to the scaffolding on the National Museum (closed for renovation).  We walked around the historic district for a little while–the Krakow historic center is a World Heritage Site, and it has some gorgeous architecture.  The Barbican, over 500 years old, is supposed to be one of the best preserved medieval military fortifications in Europe.

springbreak2010_krakow007We had spotted a restaurant toward the beginning of our walk – the Restaurant Galicja, which offered traditional Polish cuisine, including venison.  Rebecca really wanted the venison, so we decided to eat there.  It was a nice little restaurant; we made the mistake of eating in the basement (Rebecca wanted to eat downstairs) and it was freezing, but the food was really good and the waiter was great.  Before our meal, he brought us some venison pâté (on the house).  It sounds odd, but it was actually pretty good.  Rebecca thought it was great, along with her venison steak.  We ended up with a Polish apple pastry thingy which looked funny, but tasted delicious.

springbreak2010_100The next morning, we headed back to Rynek Główny square; our plan was to join the Free Walking Tour of Krakow which meets outside St Mary’s Church every day at 1100.  This is an outstanding tour, by the way–a tour guide walks the group of whoever shows up around several of the sights in Krakow, and the tour is free.  They ask for donations at the end, and it’s well worth donating a few zloty for the tour.  Note:  the tour lasts 3-4 hours, and the end point is not at the same place where you start–it worked out for us as the end point was right around the corner from our hotel in the old Jewish Quarter, but it was the one thing we thought was a little odd about the tour.  The guide does give out maps so people can get back where they started.

springbreak2010_krakow021We walked around the square while waiting for the tour time.  Despite the scaffolding on the National Museum, the square is beautiful; at 10 acres, it’s the largest medieval town square in Europe.  Just a few days earlier, the Polish President, his wife, the Polish Army chief of staff, and a number of other high Polish government officials had died in a plane crash, so there were Polish flags with black banners everywhere.  There was a memorial area outside St Mary’s Church; we saw what looked like a little school group march up to the memorial and pray.

Right about 1100, a young man walked by with a sign, Free Walking Tour Krakow.  A group of several people converged on him, ready for the tour.  springbreak2010_krakow027Peter, the guide, gave us all a short history of Krakow and information about the tour.  We really enjoyed the tour, even though it was cold and rained most of the time.  Peter was funny and informative, and answered any questions about things we passed.  There were even a few stories he told about things that tour guides say about Krakow that aren’t true (tour guides are great liars, he claimed!).  For example, every hour, a bugler plays from the tower of St Mary’s Church, and the tune is cut off midway.  The legend is that this commemorates the Trumpeter of Krakow, who raised the alarm in 1241 when the Mongols attacked the city; the bugler was shot in the throat by an arrow and the notes are cut off at that point.  Apparently, this legend is even included in tourist guides for Krakow; it’s a good story, but it’s not true.  Peter also showed us the “joke” with the Adam Mickiewicz Monument in the square (it’s a prurient joke, so I won’t go into it, but if you must know, it has to do with the stature symbolizing bravery–the one holding a sword).  Funnier for me was when Peter jumped up onto the monument to talk about it–I couldn’t help thinking about the scene in Hans Christian Andersen where he climbs up on the statue and the guards arrest him!

springbreak2010_krakow012Peter stopped at various spots around the historic area of Krakow to give a little spiel.  The tour didn’t seem to be springbreak2010_krakow020organized in any particular way other than this walk through the city and talks about the places we stopped, but it was still interesting.  Besides the main square, with the Town Hall Tower and a piece of really ugly “modern art” (a large sideways head called Eros Bendato), we saw the Princes Czartoryski Museum (the outside–unfortunately it’s closed to the public right now), the Barbican, the Florian Gate (the start of Krakow’s “Royal Road”), ruins of some of the old guard towers, lots of springbreak2010_krakow019churches…our guide stopped at one small square where you can see seven churches from one point.  He also pointed out the school attended by Joseph Conrad (author of Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness), and mentioned that he went to the same school.  We also saw the “Pope’s Window” in the building where Pope John Paul II used to stay in Krakow.  Evidently masses of people used to stand outside the window and holler for the Pope to come out and talk to them (and it seems he often did).  It seems a lot of people in Krakow practically worship Pope John Paul II (the “real” Pope).  I think there were more candles outside the Pope’s Window than at the memorial to the Polish President.

The tour moved toward Kazimierz, the Old Jewish Quarter, where Peter pointed out several areas where parts of the movie Schindler’s List were filmed.  We also saw Remu’h Synagogue (established in 1553 and still actively used for worship today–it was right across from our hotel), and Hotel Rubinstein (the hotel where we were staying) was actually a point in the tour!  Seems a famous cosmetics mogul named Helena Rubinstein was born on that street and the hotel is named for her.

springbreak2010_krakow035The tour ended close to our hotel, so we took a short rest and then went back out to the city center to see Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral, and the Dragon Cave under Wawel Hill.  Wawel Cathedral was the traditional site for coronation of Polish monarchs, and is also the traditional burial site.  The Polish President (Lech Kaczynski) and his wife were to be buried there the coming weekend (we were just as glad we were going to be gone by then!)  springbreak2010_175There was, of course, some construction going on, but the buildings and the grounds were pretty, even in the rain.  We didn’t go inside, because Rebecca really wanted to go in the Dragon Cave and we wanted to make sure we did that before it closed.  The Dragon Cave wasn’t really worth it–basically some stairs down inside the hill and a small cave area.  The stairs let you out at the statue of the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski), which breathes fire at intervals.  Apparently you can also use your cell phone to text to the Wawel Dragon to make it breathe fire as well (we didn’t try it).  We did try a traditional Krakow bagel from the bagel stand next to Wawel Hill; supposedly Krakow is the birthplace of the bagel, and these little bagel kiosks are everywhere.

springbreak2010_krakow048We finished our day in Krakow by eating at the Restaurant Galicja again (Rebecca really wanted to have venison again).  Unfortunately, they were out of the venison steaks, so Rebecca and I had wild boar instead.  They did give us the venison pâté again, though.  Roy had wild boar soup, plus an enormous plate of food (traditional Polish cuisine!)–oh, and a traditional Polish beer.

Even though the weather wasn’t great, we enjoyed seeing Krakow, especially with the Free Walking Tour.  The food was good, and although there are still signs of the many years of being behind the Iron Curtain, Krakow has a rich history and is a beautiful city to see.

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