Krakow's old town has a similar feel to Prague. Winding streets open up to well preserved historic buildings, a mix of Baroque, Renaissance, churches and halls. Unlike Warsaw, the old structures in Krakow were not destroyed during the war, all were authentic although, like Prague, many were in various states of restoration. Rynek Glowney or Market Square, the large center, was ringed with outdoor cafes. Horses clopped by pulling carriages of tourists. A series of booths in one area housed a medical festival - I might have gotten a check up of sorts if I could have understood the services offered, posted in Polish. Inside Cloth Hall, positioned in the middle of the square, were souvenir booths with carved wooden art, amber jewelry. At another end of the square were outdoor flower stands, sunflowers and roses most prominent. The brick red St. Mary's church sits in a corner of the square. Its two towers are uneven, reportedly erected by rival brothers, one died during the construction. A bugle call sounds the hour, but the song is cut short, in honor of a bugler who was killed by an arrow to the throat. I climbed the narrow stone steps of the old Town Hall, with chains mounted as handholds, to see the view from above.
I stayed in Kazimierz, once the Jewish quarter and now a quaint yet lively nightlife hub. My little bed and breakfast was the nicest two star hotel I've found, decorated with colorful folk art. An outdoor market across the street offered vegetables and art on Saturday, clothing in piles to be picked through on Sunday. Like other new entries to the EU, Poland is still using their own currency, the zloty. On a hunch, I brought along some rubles I wasn't able to change on the way out of Russia and was able to cash them here. Da! (or Tak! in Polish.) I compared languages with a woodcarver at the market, laughing about similarities between Czech and Polish, but alas, my Czech was so handicapped, the conversation didn't get very far.
I was deeply moved beyond all anticipation by the museums and feel of Kazimierz. The Old Synagogue, now a museum, was similar to Prague's many synagogue museums - a mix of artifacts and exhibits. The old cemetery was closed on weekends. But the most powerful was the Galacia Jewish museum: beautifully presented photography exhibits of images old and new telling the story of the Jewish resistance in Poland, many personal stories, and pictures of restoration projects that keep Jewish culture alive. There was one section of photos of forests and fields that had been sites of massacres of people that were never even taken to concentration camps; at times I had trouble reading the accompanying text because my eyes kept filling with tears. As I walked back to my hotel, I passed several buildings with chalk outlines of people drawn on the wall. Perhaps it was just graffiti art, but they seemed like shadows of people who had disappeared from this neighborhood in the tens of thousands not so long ago.
The square in Kazimierz has a community feel, ringed with restaurants and old synagogues. It's a vibrant place at night pulsing with young people. I picked a traditional looking Jewish restaurant that I could picture my grandparents being comfortable sitting in. The dark green walls were totally covered with framed prints and paintings; there was a real lace tablecloth and a fresh white rose on my table. You could hardly move without touching someone at the next table. I was delighted to find charoset for desert, an apple and walnut dish I remember from the Passover seders of my childhood, served in a tall sundae glass. Music from Klezmer bands drifted out into the streets as I strolled around the square, feeling some connection to ancestors in another city in Central Europe that might have been much like this one.
If you plan to visit Wawel castle, go early and get your tickets immediately because they are time restricted. There will be plenty of time to wander around while you wait for your entry time. The residence and state rooms were worth the wait. Although the original furnishings were destroyed by fire during its turbulent past, it's tastefully decorated with period pieces and many original tapestries are still hanging. I met an unusual tourist there who rents a car and sleeps in it as he travels, thereby avoiding hotel costs (definitely not my style!). A walk across the bridges brought me to the up and coming Podgorze neighborhood, where parts of Shindler's List were filmed, feeling like I'd stepped back in time into the thirties or forties. Everything was within walking distance, so I made one last visit to Market Square to see some street performers at night on my way back to the catch the night train.
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