April 10-14, 2014
This is out of chronological order but Krakow was our favorite city so will write about it now. Below are the reasons it placed first in our travels:
1) our host via AirBnB, 2) my Polish friend meeting us 3) amazing sights and excursions 4) fantastic Chopin recital
1) AIR BnB, our first experience with it, turned out better than expected. In case you’re not familiar with this company, people advertise rooms in their homes or whole apartments or houses for rent on-line. Jane Sunshine suggested we give it a try—great advice.
We chose our host because she looked our age, we had the entire third floor of her house, and there was a 10 x10′ terrace overlooking a small river. Unfortunately it was too chilly for us to enjoy the terrace. Lucyna, our host, was born in Krakow but lived in South Africa for 30 years. Thus her English was quite good. We had instant chemistry–she loved us and vice versa. Our third floor had a small study area on the landing for our computers, a decent size living room, a big bedroom with queen size bed and a modern bathroom complete with “Beam me up, Scotty” shower. [That’s what Kathy dubbed it. It was a glass enclosed tubular shape with doors that slid open.] The black leather living room couch opened up into a bed for me.
The only down side was that we took taxis to/from Old Town. Kathy didn’t realize that a bus stop was only 7-8 minute walk away. Taxis were inexpensive in theory—about $4-5 one way. But over 60% of the taxi drivers tried to rip us off. On the first morning it cost less than $5 to get to Old Town. The driver on the way back racked up $15. Lucyna shouted at the driver in Polish and told him people like him gave Poland a bad reputation. We comprised and paid $5 less than the meter showed.
The worse one was the following night when I was alone in the taxi. The guy couldn’t find the street, asked about 3 different people, turned off the meter at about $9, refused to let me use his phone to call Lucyna (he’d already spoken to her once), wouldn’t let me stop at a hotel to use a phone there, etc. Very frustrating. We spent about 15-20 minutes lost in her neighborhood. She screamed at him even louder, he waived the fee, and she called the taxi agency the next morning to report him and the other driver who tried to charge us $15. She’s a real spitfire!
2) Zusa, a nearly 25 year old architecture student who will get her masters in a couple of months, met us in Krakow. She, her travel partner Jacek and I met in Nepal last March. We traveled together briefly and really enjoyed each other’s company. It was so great to have a Polish friend guiding us. Her 15 year old sister, Mimi, joined us and she was a wonderful addition.
Our first night in Krakow Kathy stayed home and I went into town to meet them for dinner. Zusa had found a fairly new Polish restaurant, known for its pierogis, and we enjoyed a luscious, inexpensive meal. Before and after the dinner we walked through the Market in Old Town and wandered around a bit.
She helped plan our itinerary, suggesting we meet on Friday morning in Old Town. By chance we visited St. Mary’s (can’t remember the Polish name) Cathedral during the 30 minutes that its amazing sacristy doors/panels are open daily. They depict scenes from the Bible–reminded me of the Baptistry doors in Florence but at least 10 times as large. Kathy & I decided to go there for Palm Sunday services so we had an additional hour to admire the intricate artwork up close a few days later.
We had lunch at the special Easter Market in Old Town and visited some other sights. The next day we met at the huge castle where we spent nearly 3 hours on guided and self-directed tours. From there, we walked to the Jewish Quarter and had a wonderful lunch at a Sephardic restaurant. (A bit odd since the Polish Jews were Ashkenazi, not Sephardic.) After some shopping we all went back to Lucyna’s for tea and pastries that we purchased.
3) Our two excursions topped the list of our activities. The first took us to the famous Salt Mines about 1 1/4 hour outside of Krakow. We had a marvelous guide on the big tour bus and a good guide in the mines. Until a few decades ago, this salt mine operated for more than four centuries. We learned a lot about the process, walked through endless tunnels and stood in awe while viewing the many life-size salt sculptures, “Last Supper” recreation and phenomenal grand ballroom with patterned floor, chandelier and decorations all made from salt.
As we expected, the second trip turned out sad and depressing–Auschwitz and Birkenau in a light rain. I’d been to Dachau in ’71 but didn’t remember a lot. Auschwitz came first and Birkenau came later with row after row of of barracks that housed up to 1,000 per building, 8 people in each bunk.
Among the things that surprised me: 6 million Poles died during WW2, half of them Jews, in addition to the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising there was a big Polish Uprising by non-Jews. The Soviets completely erased the history of the Polish Uprising and with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the truth started to emerge. An elaborate and informative Polish Uprising Museum opened a few years ago. Zusa said not to miss it. It was very worthwhile but my big disappointment was that there wasn’t time to go to the Jewish Museum in Krakow which is supposed to be excellent.
4) A Chopin Recital in the Bonerowski Palace capped our 4 nights in Krakow. A gifted young pianist, Witold Wilczek, played about 15 preludes, etudes and ballades as we enjoyed a glass of wine in a beautiful salon room of an early 19th century restored palace.