Saturday, April 28, 2012

To the East!

In February, my colleagues and friends, Joy and Sean, and I decided that we needed to get going on this whole travel Europe thing while we were in Italy for our spring semester. We shot around a few ideas of places we wanted to go to including Barcelona, Brussels, Istanbul, Switzerland, Austria, and Greece, and decided that we would make the most of the one weekend off I have a month by going to one of these places. So, when it came time to decide where to go in February we thought it might be nice to go to Switzerland, but little did we know how expensive it was to get there and stay there until we began to look into it. That's when Joy suggested Poland--home to her ancestors. Poland? Yes, Krakow. It's home to interesting architecture and has a long, sad Jewish history. Well, tickets were cheap and so was the hotel. Poland here we come!

My first thought as I stepped off the plane at 7:30 a.m. on February 17 was: why on Earth did we come to Eastern Europe in February!? This question was prompted by the ice cold wind that struck my cheeks as my feet came in contact with the gray slush that lined the tarmac. Man it was cold! What had I gotten into?

Cloth Hall 
We made our way into the city, dropped off our luggage at our cute hotel, and went in search of adventure and something to warm our systems. After a quick breakfast and a hot coffee, we set out to explore the city. I'd read somewhere that Krakow has one of the best preserved and beautiful medieval squares in all of Europe and I'm here to say: so true! The shops and apartments that line the square are lovely, but it's the Cloth Hall in the center that's really something. The world's oldest shopping center, Cloth Hall is a place for tourists and locals alike to score authentic Polish trinkets. There is booth after booth inside the building that sells everything from wood work to pottery to the famous Polish eggs.

We bypassed much of the square as we wanted to make our way to the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter and to the Oskar Schindler museum. We began our time in the Jewish Quarter at the Remuh Synagogue and its cemetery. It seemed that everywhere you turned you were faced with reminders of what happened in that part of the world some 70+ years ago to people who were victims of senseless hate. The Jews' plight and the Nazis' evil is still evident today in the many synagogues and museums in this area. Personally, I found the Empty Chairs Memorial and the Schindler museum---one of the best museums I've ever been to---to be particularly haunting and reflective.

Above left to right: Empty Chairs Memorial, Oskar Schindler's desk, and a replica of the barbed wire that surrounded the ghetto.

After the Schindler Museum, we headed back in to the heart of the Kazimierz area in search of a traditional Jewish dinner with live Klezmer music. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a restaurant that had live music early enough---after a long day on our feet and a before-dawn flight, we wanted to turn in early. Instead, we ate a dinner of traditional Jewish food and enjoyed good company before trekking back to our hotel.

The next day, we arose and made our way through town towards Wawel Castle. First, we stopped in at the Pope John Paul II museum. Surprisingly, it was very interesting. The former Pope's life was on display from his days before he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church until his death. From there, we went to the castle that once housed the ruler of the area. On our way, though, we encountered two street performers clothed in traditional garb who ended up serenading Joy!

  The sun finally began to peek through the gray clouds while we were at the castle and I imagine that in the spring and summer the grounds and the view are gorgeous! Again, why Eastern Europe in the winter!? From the castle, we took our time exploring the city--and it's food offerings--at a leisurely pace. We wandered inside churches, shops, ate kielbasa, drank vodka, and soaked in all that Krakow had to offer.

From top left to bottom right: One of Krakow's lovely churches, delicious lunch of kielbasa, main square, outside the city's old walls, managed to track down a Starbucks!, and the nativity contest.

Krakow pleasantly surprised me. It was a lovely city with a lot to offer. I'd like to get back there one day--in the spring or summer!!--so that I can see more of what makes it unique and to go to Auschwitz. I highly recommend Krakow to anyone who is considering it and to those who've never considered it: you should! 

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