A short break in Krakow

Visit to Krakow

I had wrapped up warm for the trip: fur coat and hat, thermals, three layers of clothing, gloves and boots. So I looked like the Michelin man when I emerged from the Irish cattle truck , oh I mean the plane – at Krakow airport.

But I was ill prepared, nevertheless, for the sub zero temperature as the icy wind blasted me half off my feet outside the arrivals hall. This was a rather quaint affair, reminding me of third-world-like airports in places like Libya and remote parts of China, or stations along the route of the Trans-Siberian Express. There was very little in the arrivals hall but the people were quite charming. I felt, not for the last time in Poland, as if I were on the set of The Third Man; everything out of date and slightly dream-like. Needless to say the ATM didn’t work, but my Visa card was readily accepted elsewhere.

Whilst waiting for my companion’s flight to arrive I settled into the bar and savoured a blueberry flavoured yogurt drink, a delicious blend of sweet and sour. It cost 9.50 zloty (there are 42 zloty to one euro)

After a brief hour’s wait we were two. At the exit we met our driver who chatted amiably as we passed detached homes with high roofs and neat gardens, until we reached our hotel. The countryside reminded me of northern Germany.

A comforting warm blast of air welcomed us into the foyer of our hotel – the Franczsuskiy – situated one hundred metres from the main square. Now I could hardly contain my excitement; we were surely on the set of an Agatha Christie tale. Real wooden heavy tables, highly polished, sepia framed photographs of famous guests, the faintly musty smell of old upholstery mixed with beautifully preserved quality wallpaper. The armchairs were low, and deep enough to sink into, crystal chandeliers adorned the ceilings, and there was even a double staircase to sweep down in an elegant dress (shame I only had jumpers, trousers and thick socks to practise in). There was even a dour barman who managed to appear bored and lifeless throughout our stay: we had to shout to get his attention away from staring at some invisible object in space.

We ventured outside into the literally breathtaking minus sixteen and headed for the main square. This was by far the prettiest square I have seen, wide and spacious like Red Square, with quaint churches and in the centre, a truly medieval-looking market complete with arches galore and lined with colourful stalls. We were looking for a cosy bar – as you do – and discovered that they were all underground, hidden from view. It’s too cold to sit at ground level – a shame, as it makes everywhere feel gloomy.

We enjoyed delicious prirogy (I was delighted to find that my very rusty Russian was of use deciphering menus) – little dumplings filled with meat and cheese, and set out for a stroll. Bad idea. Throughout our four day stay it was too cold to stroll, and weighed down by my heavy fur coat newly acquired in the street market at home especially for this journey, we couldn’t move very quickly, so we had to head back to the hotel. We didn’t go out again this first day, preferring the quaint but chilly hotel dining room, where the piano keys were tinkling in competition with the guest’s cutlery. The food was delicious though. I had roast duck with bulgur wheat, apple and mushrooms, a new combination for me that I will definitely try to recreate at home.

Our receptionist told us cheerfully it was minus twenty outside next morning. We tucked into a warming buffet of all the usual plus hazlet and brawn. I now found out that they don’t do decaf coffee in the hotel so made do with hot chocolate (I don’t drink tea). We walked briskly past the castle – another movie set vision, straight out of Dracula – to Schindler’s Factory museum, where we whiled away a couple of fascinating hours. It was grim, but the three floors were packed full of photos, newspaper cuttings, clothing, and the harrowing sight of Nazi victims’ false teeth, hair and shoes. The worst were the children’s shoes: I had to gulp away welling tears at the sight of neatly tied laces on a pair girls’ leather shoes, taken away when she arrived at the nearby death camp. Another moving display was a pile of box-type faded brown suitcases, daubed with victims’ names carefully inscribed when they were told they would need to be able to identify them after their ‘showers’.

An icy wind burned our faces as we crossed the famous Vistula, frozen over (I had never before seen a frozen river so wanted pictures, which turned out to be utterly boring). Knowing that this river contained the ashes of thousands made it seem even more sorrowful in its motionless melancholy.

We tried to warm up with a lunch of Polish zurek soup and shashlik, a toothsome combination which fortified us right through to the next day. Our evening was spent in a typical bar – yes, you’ve guessed -Irish, where we watched Premiership football and drank hot, spiced red wine.

I woke feeling slightly nervous about today: Auschwitz Birkenau. At the Florian Gate we found a coffee bar ( hooray! decaf available) and watched as the snow fluttered gently to the ground, both quietly steeling ourselves for what was to come.

The original infamous wrought iron ‘Arbeit macht Frei’ over the entrance had been stolen, our energetic guide told us, and this was a replica. In and out of the brick buildings we stomped, informed at every turn by this highly professional and knowledgeable, fit-as-a-fiddle little lady, an ex-teacher. Lucky pupils – I wonder if they appreciated her. We all know the story, and somehow that made it more bearable. But by the time we got to Birkenau I had succumbed to a chest infection and the next part of the visit was for me an endurance test. I figured that if those prisoners could survive these temperatures in their pyjama-weight striped outfits, I just had to get through it and try not to breathe in too often. The air felt like razor blades slicing into my lungs.

Yes, we did go into a gas chamber and yes, I mentally prepared myself to let the feelings go when we exited: I didn’t want to carry that immense horror and sadness with me any longer. But I’m glad I have paid my respects to the victims, to have honoured their memory, and not for the first time I asked myself why it is that mankind hasn’t learned anything after all our centuries of cruelty.

No prize for guessing where we ended up that night – in the Irish bar, but this time I was so sick I could only enjoy the warmth, not the football, and every time anyone opened the door I felt like hitting them.

We visited the Wieliczka salt mine in the morning – oh joy! It was warm down there, plus 20 in fact. Nobody wanted to leave after the four kilometre walk thorough huge underground chambers, including a cathedral-sized church, passing salt-laden underground lakes in which, like the Dead Sea, they say you can’t drown. We passed numerous elaborate sculptures and carvings. We looked up at the elaborate world famous chandelier made out of salt crystals and stood in one of the many lake caverns, where Chopin’s haunting music silenced us as we took in deep breaths of the healthy air and contemplated the still waters. Without thinking I sent a text to my daughter who couldn’t believe I had a signal 135 metres below ground. We had descended 600 steps down to the mine on foot, but were hugely relieved to find a lift waiting to take us back up – even if it was a rattly old cage.

Our driver took us next to the Jewish ghetto,which was a disappointment – there is only a 30 metre length of the original wall left, otherwise nothing to see. Which I suppose is a good thing? After collecting a parking fine for stopping ‘where he didn’t oughta’ to get our tram tickets, he left us to travel back to the town centre, rounding off the day at 4.00pm..

There is nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread coupled with a hearty mushroom soup. But here there is a bonus surprise: the soup is served in the bread which has been baked into a bowl shape, and is another Polish classic. This meal marked the end of my outings – from now on I would be confined to the hotel room in order to get better enough to travel home next afternoon.

It was not the best time to visit, nevertheless I will remember Krakow more for its delightful architecture and the fascinating salt mine than for the horrors of the Holocaust and the Arctic temperatures.

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