Upon entering the main square in Krakow, you feel kind of in awe at its sheer size and beauty. St. Mary’s church towering before your eyes, Cloth Hall-a beautiful building in the Italian renaissance style, in the center of a bustling tourist plaza and all the glorious sounds of pigeons, people and pushy salesmen. The beauty of the square could almost be ruined by the annoying sales people trying to get tourists to buy a tour on their golf carts. These guys are everywhere! You literally can’t walk through the square without being approached at least ten times. One lady followed us for quite awhile trying to entice us with her “tour for kids!” It all gets to be a bit much and it’s the only sour spot in my love for Krakow.
This beautiful square is filled with a long history. Built in the 13th century after the Taters destroyed the city, it was the biggest square in Europe. This square has seen many moments in history,from its Golden Age of the 14th century with King Kazimierz, to the Nazi’s invasion of the area-changing all the Polish names to German names (including calling the square Adolf Hitler Platz), to the communist era where the square was covered in soot and no businesses were allowed. The communist government didn’t want people to congregate here so it was left in a polluted mess.
Pope John Paul II is from Krakow and he is memorialized in many locations in Krakow. Religion plays an important role in the lives of the Polish (especially Catholicism) and there are 142 churches in Krakow’s city limits alone! Our first morning was a Sunday and every church we walked by was teeming with people deep in their prayers. St Francis basilica, just down the street from the square, was Pope John Paul II’s home church and we snuck a peek inside while services were taking place. Across the street was the Archbishop’s palace, the Pope’s residence when he was Archbishop of Krakow. Apparently, he would come to Krakow while he was Pope and he would stand in the window and talk to people for hours after a visit. Dan and I have a connection to the Pope, because he died on the day we were married (April 2, 2005) and we always recall seeing the news that day and it was the only story during our honeymoon. (Every time we turned on our only English channel in Tahiti they were talking about the White Smoke and the conclave to pick a new Pope). On the night he died, thousands of people were standing on the street by his house and they all fell to their knees when the news was announced that he had died.
Back at the square, Cloth Hall was definitely my favorite place. During the middle ages, this is where cloth sellers had their stalls. Now it’s a place to sell tourists Krakow trinkets (yes I bought some). It’s a stunning building that looks more Italian than polish. A few days later while Dan was visiting Auschwitz and Nathan was napping in his stroller, I sat under the gables of Cloth Hall, had a beer and a view of St. Mary’s church. I was able to relax and enjoy Krakow for almost an hour in complete beautiful, restful silence.
Speaking of St. Mary’s Church, we were only able to sneak a quick glance at the inside of this stunning church. It was Sunday and we didn’t want to interrupt the service with an excited Nathan (“Look momma! Church bells!!”) Legend has it that the Town Watchman saw the enemy approaching during the Tater invasion and sounded the alarm but before he could finish, an arrow pierced his throat (Thanks Rick Steves for the history). So to this day there are 12 buglers-each working 24 hour shifts, that play the bugle once an hour-but only partially.
We made our way to Grodzka Street, a lively street leading to Wawel Castle. There are two beautiful churches here and more importantly to us, lunch! We were desperate to redeem Krakow’s food after dinner the night before-and breakfast was a couple of small pastries from a bakery (they weren’t that great). So we were basically starving and we wanted to eat at a typical Milk Bar. A Milk Bar is basically polish comfort food-cafeteria style-super cheap and fast. One was recommended to us by a friend, called Bar Mleczny, and we were both excited and nervous about the experience. Would it be hard to choose food in polish? Would the food be good? We decided to split up our duties-Dan took Nathan and I got to order and pay for the food. (In the end, I had the better job!!). I stood in line while at least three people jumped the line in front of me, so I needed to be more aggressive. I ordered cheese and meat periogis, a salad plate and borscht (growing up in my house, beet soup was a staple so I was extremely excited to try something other than bottled Manischewitz borscht). The menu was in English on the wall but not at the counter, so I had taken a picture of the English menu, opened it up on my phone and pointed to what I wanted (tried saying it in polish but it was hard). I kept hearing loud cries from Nathan in another room but I had no idea that Nathan was in the midst of his most epic meltdown ever. (Worse than Amboise). I brought the food over and Nathan was in his stroller, shade down covering his face, screaming at the top of his lungs. Dan looked dejected and was just sitting there like a lost puppy.
This was a meltdown where nothing could be done but ignore (unfortunate for the customers around us). I told Dan to eat and I would try to handle Nathan and then I could eat and he could handle Nathan. I was able to get Nathan out of the stroller, only to note that he upset himself so much that he had wet himself more than I had ever seen-his pants were soaked!!! I took him to the bathroom, which required paying two cents and I only had one cent in my hand and a screaming child. A wonderfully nice man gave me money and opened the door. I let Nathan flip his lid in the bathroom (sorry to the three people waiting behind me!) and I ended up letting him wander out with only a diaper and a t shirt and his socks. He somewhat happily walked back to Dan, who had shoveled his food in so I could take my turn. He told Nathan he would take him outside to see the horses (on carriages) while I ate. Nathan was not interested in anything Daddy had to offer and after two minutes they were back inside with Nathan crying again. I shoveled in my food-by the way-the best periogis I’ve ever tasted, and delicious cold borscht and off we went, back to the hotel. Nathan clearly needed a break. He happily skipped through Krakow in his diaper and shoes…not a care in the world. Not sure what the lesson on this one was-maybe he didn’t get enough sleep and had not had enough food.
We relaxed in the room until we were brave enough to venture out and try to see Wawel Castle. Nathan fell asleep on the way there so we enjoyed the grounds while Nathan slept, since most of the castle was closed for the day (and we weren’t willing to wake Nathan). Once Nathan woke up, we let him run around the Square and chase pigeons before we made him sit for a meal (lessons learned!!). We found a place called Chimera (RS recommended), an eclectic little vegetarian cafeteria. I had a really good broccoli quiche and some kind of carrot cinnamon raisin side dish. My cucumber mint milkshake was not so great. Nathan watched his ipad while we ate-the glorious sound of silence. We stopped at a chocolate shop on the way back home and then just relaxed for the evening.
We had a big decision to make about the next day. Auschwitz was very high on our list of important places to visit and its only an hour from Krakow. We had originally planned to all go together first thing Monday morning. In the summer if you get there between 10-3 you have to go on an organized tour and we didn’t think that was wise with Nathan. We wanted to go at our own pace. However, after Nathan’s epic meltdown, we didn’t want to ruin anyone’s experience at such an important place because we decided to take a 2 year old to a concentration camp. We went to bed with no decision on the matter (typical).
A car honking its horn woke us all up at 7AM. I had an immediate thought of “I should just take the car and go be back by 1PM and Dan can turn around go by himself for the afternoon shift.” So I literally threw on my clothes grabbed food at the grocery store and drove by myself to Auschwitz.
I’m going to save my trip there for the next blog because there is too much to say about my experience and it’s too heavy a topic for this blog. So, I know Dan took Nathan to a playground while I was gone and he wore him out pretty good for me. So while I was with Nathan he napped in the stroller for over two hours! I enjoyed a lovely quiet afternoon alone, wandering Krakow deep in thought after my somber morning.
I took Nathan to a café (Café Mamy) that came with a playroom for kids and snacks. We hung out there for an hour until Dan texted he was on his way back and we grabbed pizza to go and made our way home for dinner.
The next morning we packed up to head out to our next destination. But first we wanted to see the Jewish Quarter of Krakow. Before WWII, Krakow was 10% Jewish, now only 200 Jews live here. Schindler’s List was filmed mostly in Krakow and the Jewish Quarter, so we were eager to have a look. There are 6 synagogues, a small square (the fence looks like a menorah and I noticed it in schindler’s List when we watched it after we came home), and two cemeteries. We went into the Old cemetery first, the wall surrounding it is built with the shattered gravestones that the Nazis decimated. Attached to the cemetery is the Old Synagogue (oldest surviving Jewish building in Poland). We took turns going in, Dan went first. Inside there were about 12 hasidic Jews touring the place alongside Dan. He came out and it was my turn to go in….
I walked in to 12 hasidic Jews literally climbing all over the old synagogue, being obnoxious. One man came over to me and asked me to leave. I thought maybe I had entered the wrong place, but since Dan had just told me that the men in there were climbing the walls like monkeys, I knew this was the place and he was asking me to leave because I was a woman. To say I was not pleased would be an understatement. My grandmother was raised in an orthodox home, but her father broke barriers and took her into the Men Only portion of the synagogue for services and she was one of the first females to have a Bat Mitzvah in a time when women were not, so I wasn’t going to let some sexist guy send ME out of a synagogue that I paid for and had every right to be in. I firmly said NO, multiple times and told him I had paid to be here just like he did. He kept repeating the same thing and pointing to the door. I was livid and stood my ground. Dan had been in there with them two minutes before me, and they did not ask him to leave. Rant over. Thank you. Anyway, we visited another synagogue (Tempel Synagogue), which had a stunning grand interior, whose style reminded me of some mosques in Istanbul.
Our final stop in Krakow was Oskar Schindler’s factory. We were nervous about taking Nathan through here because we weren’t sure what to expect. I wish we could have spent more time and been able to read more but Nathan would not allow it. He spent most of the visit on Dan’s shoulders while I maneuvered my way with a large stroller through tight passageways (for a factory, they sure built it into a small museum). Once Nathan got restless, we had to chase him through the rest of the museum, but we were able to see the famous staircase and Oskar Schindler’s office (the real one and the one used for the movie). The museum focuses on what life was like in the Ghetto and a timeline of events that took place in Krakow during the war. It was a good final stop on our way out of town.
The next two days were spent in a town called Rzezsow, this stop was the work portion of our trip, so Nathan and I spent time exploring the town square and the nearby parks while Dan worked. We also experienced room service in an effort to avoid any midday meltdowns. This town was 50% Jewish before the war and now its Jewish population is nonexistent. It’s also 50 kilometers from the Ukraine border-which is where both my family and Dan’s are from-we felt very close to our past on this trip.
We made one final stop in Krakow on our drive back towards Germany, to have lunch at another Milk Bar. We wanted one more taste of Polish comfort food and we were really hoping Nathan would cooperate. We had a lovely lunch at Polski Smaki-hot delicious borscht for me and more perogis, and Dan had cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, and Nathan had apple blintzes covered in cream. It was all absolutely delicious and extremely cheap. I think our meal costs $12 for the three of us!! A great final sendoff before heading back to Germany! Final thoughts-if you have the opportunity, go visit Krakow!!!!
Stay tuned for my next blog about my experience at Auschwitz followed by my final blog about this trip about Gorlitz and Leipzig.