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Entries about krakow

Old School and the Salt of the Earth

by Ben

29 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Jagiellonian Univeristy

Jagiellonian Univeristy

We are only a ten minute walk away from one of the world’s oldest institutions of higher learning, Jagiellonian University, which first opened its doors in 1364. Muriel and I visited the Collegium Maius which is its oldest building. A clock above the old library door chimes the hours and several times a day plays the University’s anthem while a procession of figurines marches out of two doors below the clock. We took a brief but fascinating tour of the library, professors' common room, treasury, assembly hall and a few other chambers in between. The entire building just breathed history and learning. It was more like a temple than a school.

Jagiellonian counts among its alumni the mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. A famous Polish saying is that Copernicus is the astronomer who stopped the sun and moved the earth. In tribute to Copernicus, the roof of the library is painted like the heavens. Among the many treasures housed in the building are the actual instruments this famous astronomer used to arrive at his conclusions. The fact that the university has this equipment is astounding considering that Copernicus did his advanced studies and research in Italy. Already in the 1500s, some Italian academics understood the historical significance of Copernicus’ tools and sent them back to Krakow as a gift. It was a tremendous event and just as we would in our day, the university held an exhibition featuring these artifacts so all could see.

Besides having Pope John Paul II among its more recent alumni, the university has at least one very accomplished film maker and one Nobel laureate in literature on its list of graduates. It happened that a Finnish man on the tour was familiar with Poland’s award winning poet, Wisława Szymborska. He apologized to the guide that he had not read her poetry in its original Polish. Our guide shared an interesting tidbit about literature translation as a result. She said people who translate prose are considered slaves of the original author while those who translate verse are considered competitors. It is because of interesting tidbits like these that I still enjoy taking museum tours even after 8 months of visiting cultural and historical institutions.

Salt Cathedral

Salt Cathedral

After our tour of academia, Muriel and I rejoined the kids and changed focus to take in the accomplishments of industrious and skilled labourers. Wieliczka Salt Mine lies just within the Krakow metropolitan area and is the world’s oldest salt mine, having produced table salt continuously from 13th century until 2007. It still produces salt today but no longer on a commercial scale. Its age and mammoth size (287 kilometers long) and depth (327 meters deep) are enough to make it noteworthy, but it is what the miners did with some of their working space that makes this salt works so famous. The mine consists of hundreds of chambers of which 40 have been transformed into chapels and many others into settings for carvings on mythical or historical themes. The rock salt is not white like you would expect but, rather, a shade of gray that is much like granite in appearance. It is the impurities in the salt that give it this colour. Despite the grayness the rock is still translucent. Our nearly three hour tour took us through some spectacular spaces and a couple of saltwater lakes. Perhaps the most stunning room is the Cathedral which took over 70 years to carve into its present form. As with all but the most recent carvings, all the work has been done by the miners themselves. As with everywhere else in the mine, the Cathedral has been constructed entirely of rock salt including the tiling on the floor. It has many complex scenes that tell Christ’s entire life story. Even the chandeliers in this space consist of salt, with all the crystals having been manufactured from salt that was dissolved out of the rock and then reconstituted and polished into crystalline masterpieces. In addition to the Cathedral, where mass is held every Sunday and weddings performed on a regular basis, there is a meeting hall that can sit 400 people for dinner as well as a large ballroom.

Pine Timber Support Work in the Mine

Pine Timber Support Work in the Mine

Not only were the rooms that were carved and decorated to be admired, so too were some of the rustic chambers whose cribbing and supports were painted in a white salt based paint to make them fire retardant and reflective of light. The timbers in the taller rooms knit together to resemble the interior of some sort of gothic church. Just as we found the Collegium Maius to be more than just a school the Wieliczka Salt Mine is more than a just a feat of ingenuity and sweat but a work in homage to these miner’s homeland and God.

Our glimpse of Poland has been wonderful. We will leave Krakow tomorrow wishing we had more time and thinking about how we can return someday. In the meantime we hope to shed some of the weight we gained from eating Polish style pizza, perogies, cabbage rolls and sausage.

A late night addition:

I now have more reason to put a return visit back to Poland farther in the future. I have more weight to shed. For a late dinner we went to a sidewalk kebab place just down the street. These kinds of eateries are all over Krakow. The easiest way to find one is to know the location of an open air fruit and vegetable market. It seems that just after the market closes these eateries open up and people stand around on the sidewalk or among the abandoned stalls and eat their meals.

Kebab Polish Style

Kebab Polish Style

The kebabs we ordered were adapted, much like their version of pizza (see Politics to Pizza post), to suit the local palette. In this case it was the use of cabbage and the addition of copious amounts of sauce that looks and tastes like a cross between Thousand Island’s Dressing and chipotle mayo that made our kebabs very much a local dish. It was fortunate that Abby couldn’t get her food order filled as the kebabs the rest of ordered were far more than the four of us could hope to consume. Gargantuan portions seem to be another Polish specialty. We are happy to report the food was delicious and this time came with napkins—all of which were sorely needed.

Posted by KZFamily 12:57 Archived in Poland Tagged poland krakow wieliczka_salt_mine copernicus jagiellonian_university Comments (1)

Walking in Krakow

By Hannah

sunny 28 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Walking up Wawel Hill

Walking up Wawel Hill

Krakow has proved to be a wonderful city so far. It's great for wandering, has lots of little shops and cafes lining the streets, and has plenty of green spaces and squares to relax in the shade. Our time here has felt like a sort of vacation from our trip.

We spent the day walking the town and visiting the Wawel Royal Castle. There we found a large statue of Pope John Paul II, looking as jovial and good-natured as ever. Maybe we've been watching too much West Wing, but his face reminded us strongly of John Spencer. A gold dome, gleaming in the sunlight, marks Sigismund's Chapel. Royalty, immortalised in stone, are decorated with gold embellishments and crowns. We soaked up the heat and busy atmosphere. Then it was time for lunch.

Milk bars were popular during the Soviet era, as they were places for labourers to get cheap, if not tasty, meals. They've evolved since then, and are now places where people can get meals that are both cheap and tasty. The bars still look quite utilitarian, but they are packed full of patrons. We had handmade perogies, cabbage rolls and cold borscht for lunch. The first two were delicious, but our Western palettes couldn't quite handle the cold beet soup with a hard boiled egg floating the centre.

Later that afternoon, Mom spotted an eye-catching dress in the window of a shop we walked by. We popped in, and spent the next hour picking out dresses and sorting through sizes. Eventually, she decided on a pretty green one. I have to say that I picked out, and I think she looks great in it. I'll try to convince her to model it and take a picture for the blog.

We meandered back to the main square and took a last look around at the amber bazaar, where I bought a couple pieces of jewellery, and then strolled around a bit more, looking at the flower stalls and quirky performance artists. I don't want to say goodbye to Krakow anytime soon, but I'm still excited for our last brand new country, the Czech Republic. The last new country! I can hardly believe it either.

Posted by KZFamily 11:25 Archived in Poland Tagged poland krakow Comments (1)

First Day in Krakow

BY ABBY

sunny 25 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Polish Bazaar

Polish Bazaar

We started off our day with some technical difficulties, our shower was not able to produce hot water. At first my dad inspected it; pocket knife at the ready, but was unable to fix it, which obviously took my mother by surprise. In the end we e-mailed our host and her husband came over to assess the damage. It turned out that the batteries for the water tank had gone out, so he replaced them (we think that it may have been from their own water heater) and promised to come back later in the day to replace them again with brand new ones. We thanked him and assured him that it really was not a problem, and that we were just happy to have it fixed.

But as we tried it out for a second time, we were, again, unsuccessful. I had a short, cold shower and decided that it was the best I was going to get. My parents figured out a little trick to keeping the hot water as long as possible but we are all looking forward to the new batteries.

When we were all dressed, not necessarily clean, we walked out to go to a nearby square. When we arrived we saw many food and craft stalls, as well as a large, old building in the middle of the square. This building was kind of like an ancient mall and reminded me of a very small Turkish Bazaar. We split up into pairs and walked around the building, looking at the stalls. About 80 percent of them were selling amber, and the other 20 percent were selling stuffed dragons. My dad and I weren't very interested in either so we ended up wandering around outside in the square around the building. We saw about six "living statues", all of them with quite odd costumes. Among them were the Grim Reaper, and Lady with an Ermine.

Polish Food Extravaganza

Polish Food Extravaganza

When we joined up with the other two my mom told us that she had found a few pieces of jewelry that she'd liked. In the end, she didn't just get the bracelet, but my dad bought a matching necklace and set of earrings as well. I'm just glad my dad took a little extra cash with him today so that we were able to eat. Speaking of food, our lunch was amazing. We shared some perogies (one set spinach and the other cheese and potato), sausage, pork, and fried vegetables among the four of us. My dad was able to have a beer because we weren't doing any driving, and this made him quite happy after he had spent a fortune on my mom.

After lunch we looked around the stalls again and I bought myself yet another pair of cat earrings (remember the pewter shop back in Holland?), while Hannah bought a bracelet and a pair of purple pencil earrings as well. From here Hannah and I walked home as my parents went to check out another church. In the evening I opted to stay home as the other three went to a Jewish concert. I spent my hours of isolation feasting on yogurt, chicken and pretzels while watching Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol for the third time (It's really good.. you should go see it if you haven't).

Posted by KZFamily 13:18 Archived in Poland Tagged square poland concert lunch krakow Comments (3)

Politics to Pizza: Moving from Slovakia to Poland

by Ben

sunny 24 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

The Slovakian Apartment

The Slovakian Apartment

Before we left our Slovakian home we spent an hour talking over coffee with our host, Peter. I think if we did not have a meeting time already set in Poland and Peter didn’t have to get rooms ready for guests coming in the afternoon we would have talked for several hours. Peter works as an independent contractor for companies that install chairlift systems. He currently does work for a French company whose fortunes seem to be falling. His wife, Veronika, is an instructor in Spanish and business at a university satellite campus in Popard. They have a young son who is six years old. Veronika always wanted to work in the hotel industry and it has been her dream to run some sort of hospitality business. As a result, Peter worked with a relative and over a four year period built a house with two apartments upstairs and three rooms with a communal kitchen downstairs. To finance the enterprise they sold their apartment in nearby Popard for 50 000 euros, just before housing prices spiked to triple their value. It was a move that was unfortunate but they seem to be taking it in stride. They live with Veronika’s parents, which makes it easier for them to manage the rental business alongside their day jobs. Working more than one job is a Slovakian necessity according to Peter, who said “it is the Slovak way of life.”

As we have heard so many times during our trip, everyone has a story of migration. Peter’s brother lives in Mexico City of all places, and Peter and Veronika lived and worked there for a year. The movement of people around the globe is amazing and often defies what I would expect in terms of migration direction. In our travels we have met a Scot who immigrated to Hungary, a Belgian who immigrated to Turkey, a Canadian who immigrated to Italy, and an Italian who immigrated to Greece. It was a reminder that migration is not always about moving from an economically poor region to an economically rich one.

I was fascinated to hear how Peter viewed his country in relation to its neighbours and how he viewed North America. It was a challenge to my preconceptions about Poland, which we have yet to visit, that amongst all his neighbours Peter admired the Poles the most. He stated that they have a real head for business and economic development. In general, he felt his fellow Slovaks had little business sense (a view a bit at odds with current economic data) and tended to see their neighbouring countries too much like enemies.

In regards to North America, Peter feels the United States gets a bad rap for intervening around the world. Why shouldn't they act if there are problems they can do something about? In terms of the economic crisis, Peter believes it is the fault of the US Democratic Party and that only more right wing free enterprise economic policy will bring prosperity to the world. He pointed to the European economic crisis as an illustration of what is wrong with government intervention and regulation. This is interesting view considering it is Slovakia’s entry into the European Union that has seems to have grown its economy and made it possible to survive its separation from the Czech Republic.

In regards to Canada, Peter sees Canada as being an exception in the world. It is economically successful even with a more left wing approach to government. He feels that we are out of step with the world trend. He says it may work for Canadians to put their trust in government to accomplish good on behalf of the people but he can’t see how it can work elsewhere, as his experience is that governments are corrupt and dysfunctional. It is difficult to see how Peter could believe otherwise having grown up under a communist regime, and then seeing corruption continue among his country’s democratically elected officials.

I told Peter about an observation shared with me while visiting a family of one of our International students in Brazil. The father, who is a wealthy and successful businessman, said he has no problem with paying taxes to see services equally available to all people. In Brazil he pays the same amount of taxes as in Canada but gets very little for it in terms of infrastructure and services, thus requiring him to spend money again to buy these services privately. He believed if people could see and experience what happens in Canada with taxes, they would be much more likely to adopt a Canadian style social policy and not aspire to the American religion of letting the market entirely decide how a country’s services and wealth are divided. He felt his fellow citizens needed to expect and demand more of their governments.

Our topic of conversation was not extraordinary, as it is something we argue in Canada at every election and we hear it argued constantly in the US electoral politics. What made it unique and new was discussing the same issues with someone from an Eastern European background and having Hannah engaging in the concepts and trying to make sense of it all for herself. A person’s political view is shaped so much by their personal experiences, so much so that it often trumps what one might reason to be best just based on wider information and considerations. The more we talked the more we all found a simplified left-right, government-no-government approach to the world fell well short of an adequate solution. It helps to dialogue with people from all walks of life and backgrounds and countries. It really tempers your views and widens your appreciation of the complexity of economic development and caring for your fellow man.

It was with great reluctance that we left our host, but we knew we were going to be in the same situation as when we left Hungary if we stayed any longer. The kids had enough of their dad driving like a maniac to make a pre-arranged meeting time for our next accommodation. As it was, we were going to arrive in Krakow with no time to spare if we left immediately.

Our arrival in Poland was quite a contrast with our arrival in Slovakia. Admittedly, we seemed to have entered Slovakia by the back door and travelled a lot of sketchy roads, perhaps through the most impoverished areas of the country. We did find the Popard area of Slovakia to be comparatively affluent and have read that the Bratislava area is even more so. Despite this, on our last stretch through Slovakia we again saw many, many people (we suspect that a good percentage may have been Roma—often called Gypsies) standing alongside the road in the middle of nowhere with just one bucket of berries to sell. I am not sure how long some would need to stand there before selling their one container of freshly picked wild berries, especially when there was a half dozen standing several meters apart each vying for the next car. Traffic was not particularly heavy. When we crossed the border into Poland we saw an immediate uptick in traffic, a disturbing abundance of billboards, and sprawling communities with many small businesses haphazardly peppered among family homes. There was definitely a sense of greater economic activity.

The Polish road system as we have experienced it thus far is plagued by an almost insane fluctuation in posted speed limits. Within a kilometer you can go from 70 km/h to 140 km/h and then down to 50 km/h with little seeming to justify the required change in speed. Since there is radar and photo radar everywhere most cars tend to comply with the fluxuations. This generates a dangerous nervous energy among drivers, of whom half are chafing to see the next rise in speed and will slam their feet down on their accelerators as soon as sign indicating a speed change appears. The other half suffer from a paranoia that they may have missed a speed reduction sign and unexpectedly brake to observe what they imagine the slower posted speed limit might be.

The road layout in Krakow proper is also a sight to behold. The tram system runs down the center of some streets with just enough room on either side of the tracks for one lane of car traffic. As a result, tram loading platforms connecting to the sidewalk are placed literally on the car traffic lane. Driving down the street you will suddenly find yourself driving on an elevated platform with a brick surface for a hundred meters and then return to a normal asphalt surface, giving the uninitiated driver the alarming feeling that they have somehow driven off the road and are driving on the sidewalk, about to mow down hundreds of people. It seems to be a very unsettling set up for both foreign drivers and first time tram passengers.

Our apartment is a mere 15 minute walk from Krakow’s magnificent central square and less than ten from the beautiful architecture of the old city. That small expanse marks an extraordinary transition in the character of the city. Our neighbourhood consists mostly of sooty gray apartment buildings, which remind one of all the bleak camera footage on North American television whenever there was coverage of the political situation in Poland during the 1980s. The streets are in pretty rough condition and cars are parked bumper to bumper along the streets. Our building is a bit of an exception having been painted a reddish brown, with a great deal of it flaking off. The hallways are very dark and worn, and look a bit like a correctional institution. The very fast moving elevator in this ten story building is a bit off putting since there is no interior door. If you are not alert the first time you use it, you could scrape off a limb by standing too close to the elevator shaft as you hurtle upwards to your chosen floor. The fact that the door to our apartment has a huge deadbolt at both the top and bottom and requires a key the size of which a medieval jailor might use seemed to confirm the idea that we may have inadvertently booked ourselves into a Soviet era prison.

Our Home in Krakow

Our Home in Krakow

The contrast that awaited us on the other side of the door was remarkable. A very neat, comfortable and well appointed apartment awaited. It has a balcony overflowing with flowering plants. The only institutional motif that persisted was the wire mesh covering the whole face of the balcony. Apparently birds are a real problem, so nearly all the balconies in the neighbourhood have gone with the caged in look. Our hostess was extremely earnest and helpful. She assured us the neighbourhood was very safe and that they also lived just two blocks away in the same neighbourhood. We all breathed a lot easier.

We walked the neighbourhood to do some banking and then grocery shopping. The currency is zloty, which are roughly three to every Canadian dollar. As always, grocery shopping is a bit of challenge the first time round in a new country. We needed to go to two supermarkets to get just the basics and visited a nearby farmer’s market for fresh produce, but were unable to get to the bakery before it closed at 4:00 pm. The two supermarkets we visited were claustrophobic affairs with too much stock, too many customers and too little aisle space. Along with low quality of produce the meat and baked goods were also poor. On the plus side there are dozens of bakeries and delicatessens around to supplement, just not on a Saturday afternoon after 4:00 pm.

Jewish Music Festival in Krakow

Jewish Music Festival in Krakow

The kids settled in for a relaxing evening in the apartment while Muriel and I walked to the Jewish quarter of Krakow to catch the last night of the Jewish music festival. The festival is the largest of its kind in the world. The closer we got to the venue the thicker the crowds became. The free open-air concerts are held in a large square where people jostle for the best position in which to stand. The band we heard came from the United States, and played music inspired by ZZ Top with lyrics sung in Yiddish. The group’s rather staid image seemed at odds with their music, which made the whole concert look like people trying to imitate something rather than expressing who they really were. The concert goers also seemed like they were not quite sure how to act or respond to the music. A few were dancing or swaying with the music but most people seemed more intent on watching what everyone else was doing, hoping to pick up some sort of clue on what they should be doing. We listened for about half an hour, then started wandering and engaging in some people watching of our own.

We stumbled across Plac Nowy, a collection of unkempt buildings surrounding a concrete square filled with chipped green market stalls and numerous pigeons. At its center is a rotunda, which served as a ritual slaughterhouse for chickens for the Jewish community until World War II. Today the square is a hugely busy marketplace with a few hundred stalls operating from early morning to early afternoon selling all and sundry. After the market winds down, the rotunda at the center is what draws locals by the hundreds. The rotunda has at least 15 hatch like openings through which Krakow’s most famous fast food is sold. Zapiekanka is a halved Polish baguette that is loaded with cheese and mushrooms and all manner of other toppings to make a pizza-like snack. The name of this snack comes from a word meaning to roast or scorch. It seems unimaginable that you can have 15 separate businesses selling the exact same kind of food from the same location. But it definitely works, as there are lines fifteen people deep waiting to place their orders. The price is right, with the most expensive form of the zapiekanka going for about 3 dollars Canadian. It is the night food of the area and a favourite pit stop for people on a pubcrawl. The size of the snack is huge, yet you see small slim well dressed young women ready for a night on the town somehow downing them with little trouble and managing to keep themselves clean in the process (napkins are not provided).

After stuffing ourselves, we meandered back to our apartment. Krakow looks like an incredible city with a lot of character and a big food culture. In addition to food, the Poles also love their alcohol. It seems like on every other block there is a 24 hour “alkohole” store. I did a little research to see if the stereotype of hard drinking Poles is true. I am glad I checked so I can put another myth to rest. Apparently Poles only consume alcohol slightly above the European average. What skews people’s perception is that 7 percent of the population drinks half of the country’s alcohol, a problem that we have witnessed in the streets and parks. I still crave a cold beer when I get home but promise to keep myself to one; they are, after all, a half litre each.

Posted by KZFamily 12:58 Archived in Poland Tagged poland slovakia krakow Comments (1)

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