Sunday, June 18, 2017

Old Krakow: Old Town Center and Wawel Castle. And a dragon.

Y'all. Krakow is so interesting. 

Our hotel, the Blue Aparthotel, had a really great continental breakfast each morning, which got me started off right after a fitful night of jetlaggy sleep. WHY is that a thing? You're so tired from travel that sleeping should just happen. I'm a little bitter about it. Quick aside: before we left on our trip, I had not seen the name of our hotel written down, so the first time I heard Brad say it out loud to someone else, I heard, “Blew-apart hotel.” WHOA. What a frightening name! I learned once we got to Poland that “aparthotel” seems to be the Polish word for this style of hotel. But wow. 

You can't unsee it now, right?

We headed out on Friday morning with Piotr as guide (with Jared supplementing) for a morning of walking around Old Krakow’s town center. A helpful element of Krakow’s layout is the Greenbelt, which is a grassy ring that surrounds the Old Town, giving visitors an extremely handy reference point when wandering about. Piotr made sure we knew about this at the very outset of our stay; I’m assuming he foresaw losing a few of us otherwise. He’s a smart guy. We had incredible weather for our first day of sightseeing, and Old Town Krakow is so beautiful and quaint. Part of the original city wall still stands (although most of it was taken down in the 1800’s (? That might not be quite right. I was still tired.). Jared, Brad’s cohort friend studying Polish history, told us that the local legend about the remaining section of the wall is that one of the town aldermen insisted this particular part stay so that the wind wouldn’t cut down the alley and blow up the skirts of the women going into St. Mary’s. I definitely wouldn’t have thought of that, but kudos to him for protecting the honor of the women of Krakow.

Old Town Krakow is lovely. It’s obviously very touristy- but with good reason. It’s bursting with history and is a beautiful walk. The walkways are paved with cobblestones, and the buildings are so quintessentially European. We walked through and around it many times during our stay, and I never got tired of it.

First views of the old Town Center.

Part of the old city wall.

The main attraction in the middle of the square is St. Mary’s Basilica. It’s enormous and quite unique. There are two grand steeples, but they are not identical. The story of the steeples is that they were constructed by a pair of brothers, one of whom killed the other before the steeples were finished so that his would be the tallest. Yikes! We were able to visit the inside of the church, and it was beautiful. There was so much to see (including a relic that was unidentifiable to those of us who don’t read Polish), and it was fascinating. Another interesting part of the St. Mary’s experience is that a trumpeter plays a partial anthem from one of the steeples every day at noon. Piotr explained that it’s a memorial to the man who warned Krakow residents of an impending invasion by the Mongols in the 13th century. The messenger was in the midst of his warning when a Mongol arrow took him down. The trumpeter only plays part of his song to mirror the incomplete warning of this Polish hero. So interesting.

St. Mary's (photo taken by Erin with bleh angles and lighting)

St. Mary's (photo taken by Brad with awesome angles and lighting)

The alterpiece in St. Mary's
(photo credit: Piotr)

(photo credit: Piotr)

Right as we were leaving the church, they opened the alterpiece.
(photo credit: Piotr)

Piotr took the best pictures of the trip.

We took in the beautiful architecture, including the clock tower and cloth hall (which is now full of souvenir stalls), wending our way toward Jagiellonion University, which was perfect for a group of scholars. This was the university where Pope John Paul II (a native of Krakow) studied for a year. He only studied there for a year because after his first year, the Nazis moved in, and scholars had to take their studies underground, as the Intelligentsia was being ousted. Continuing studies in secret was a way of resisting the Nazis, which I find quite admirable.

Clock tower

Courtyard in the oldest part of the university.

A drain shaped like a dragon. Perfect.

Our Friday lunch was at a traditional Polish restaurant and was goooooood. Guys. I love central/eastern European food so much. I think it’s due to my Slovak heritage (did you know my dad is half Slovak? My grammy was full-blooded Slovak. #funfacts). And then I lived in Ukraine. Basically, it’s my destiny. Give me all the beets and goulash and cabbage and borsch and pan-fried meat. LOVE IT. There was also a great apple pie/cake and ice cream at this particular lunch. I scarfed it all (minus the potatoes).

Wawel Castle was our afternoon, which was excellent, since we needed to walk a LOT following all the eating we did at lunch. By the way, Wawel is pronounced “VAH-vel.” It’s situated up on a hill and is beautifully grand. We did a 2-hour guided tour, and I’m pretty sure we actually did walk off all of the effects of lunch. We saw and heard a lot, but here were the highlights for me:
      1. The castle is centuries old and hearkens back to when Krakow was the capital of Poland. Our tour guide told us that the castle burned down several centuries ago (in the 1500’s), and the capital was moved to Warsaw, where it has remained. Jared supplemented the fire story with this little tidbit which I loved with all my heart: apparently, the king of Poland at the time of the fire was an alchemist. Just not a very good one. Thus, the fire.  


photo credit: Piotr

photo credit: Brad

Chapels of the castle cathedral

photo credit: Piotr

photo credit: Piotr

In the main courtyard. 
photo credit Brittani. I told her on day one that I needed to make sure I got pictures of Brad and me, and she was stellar about making it happen. Thanks, Brittani!
      2. The castle treasury included all kinds of beautiful jewelry. The most interesting one was a fancy-pants toothpick that was bedazzled and would be worn as jewelry. You know, so you were never without the ability to clean your teeth. Dental hygiene is important.
      3. There is a room referred to as “the room under the heads.” When you look up, the ceiling is divided into a grid, and in the squares of the grid, there are a couple dozen ceramic heads (a little bit creepy, I gotta say). One of the legends is that the heads represent all the different types and classes of the Polish people and that they hung over the king’s head to remind him of his duties. There is also a “room under the zodiac” and a “room under the gods.” Obviously, the signs of the zodiac are above one room and paintings of the Roman gods are above the other. Lots of things hanging over heads.

Piotr got this incredible nighttime shot. Clearly, I did not capture this fabulous-ness.

      4. There were MASSIVE tapestries in many of the rooms, and they are absolutely gorgeous. It’s overwhelming to think of the work that went into creating them. They are changed out every 5 years so they can be kept in good condition/restored. One of the throne rooms is covered in floor to ceiling tapestries with scenes of Noah and the flood. They’re so ornate (and also include unicorns and dragons amidst the animals, just to keep things whimsical, I guess), and the tour guide likened a series of tapestries that tell a story to the way we today go to the movies. It was fascinating to think of it in those terms.

A scene from the Noah sequence. Photo credit: Piotr
      5. One famous monarchs of Poland was Queen Jadwiga (Hedwig in English, apparently). The interesting thing about Jadwiga is that she, being a woman, caused a bit of a confusion for the kingdom. They had no structure in place for a female monarch, so she was actually crowned King of Poland. Bless it. When she died, she left all of her jewels to the university, so, you know, girl power.

Jadwiga's crucifix in the castle cathedral
     (photo credit: Piotr)

         6. In the room full of suits of armor, I about died when I saw the suit of chain mail…that had enormous, feathered wings coming out the back. What??
      7. And my favorite: the legend of the Krakow dragon. According to (one) legend, there was a dragon that lived beneath Krakow and wreaked havoc on the citizens. In order to rid the people of this menace, a cobbler (according to one version) stuffed a sheep full of salt and left the sheep to tempt the hungry dragon. The dragon ate the salty sheep and became so thirsty that he drank from the Vistula River until he exploded. Voila! No more dragon. I definitely bought the girls a tiny stuffed dragon in honor of this hilarious legend. Had to. (Incidentally, Claire named him Buddy and loves him. I won't tell her of his end for a few more years.)

      At the end of our castle tour, we walked through the castle cathedral, and most of the group climbed to the top of the bell tower (I didn't). Piotr took the pictures of the bell and the group, and Brad grabbed the shots of the city. 

For dinner, we went to a restaurant whose Polish name means “under the angels,” and it was delightful. We had a prix fixe menu chosen by Piotr, and it was a scrummy (any “Great British Baking Show” fans out there?) Polish dinner, including a beet soup that everyone raved about. At this dinner, those sitting at table 2 (ours) really enjoyed Griffin’s conversation promoter of Top 5 Lists. We started with music, movies, books…but also discussed top poets, philosophers, and theologians (obviously). At our table, we had 2 philosophers, a poet, a novelist, and a historical theologian (that’s Brad). And Brittani and me (the tagalong wives). Although, I should mention that Brittani has started a catering company that employs Syrian refugees, and she is an amazing person.

First full day in Krakow was quite full and absolutely delightful.

Also, anyone want to share your top 5 poets, philosophers, or theologians? Go for it in the comments, guys.

Group shot at Wawel (photo credit: Piotr)!

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