Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wawel Hill, a Communist Cafeteria & Roger

As The Schedule told us, Monday should be a “Wawel Hill day”. When I was here seven years ago I had inexplicably not managed to go to Krakow’s main attraction, Wawel Castle. Agnes was pretty appalled when she heard that but luckily, today I got a chance to atone for my past omission.

Wawel Castle sits proudly and imposingly at the top of Wawel Hill on the bank of the River Wisla: it dominates Krakow’s skyline and it’s impossible to miss. Unless you’re me, one might say. For over thousand years the whole country was ruled from Wawel Hill: it was the site of The Royal Castle and the Cathedral, where Polish kings were crowned and buried. This practice continued even after the Polish capital was shifted north to Warsaw. Not only Kings were buried there but also the most cherished poets, writers and national heroes. It’s the Westminster Abbey of Poland.

To get there we took a leisurely walk from our apartment, through the Rynek and down along Grodzka Street to the cobbled uphill path to the ticket office and Outer Courtyard of the castle.

We first strolled around, to stop at one particular wall of the Inner Courtyard. Apparently, Wawel Hill is one of seven of the World’s energy points, so called “chakra” and this wall is supposed to be its epicentre. Hindus believe that the chakra is part of a powerful energy field which connects all living things. But Wawel’s chakra isn’t advertised by the local authorities - they grew tired of New Age tourists coming to Wawel to recharge their spiritual batteries by hugging the wall. They've done what they can to discourage this ritual, but believers still gravitate from far and wide. We were lucky to identify the right spot - a kind security guard pointed it out. Now, I can’t say I felt anything when I leant against it. But I have to say that immediately after making an ironic comment doubting the recharging theory, my new fancy camera phone somehow jumped out of my hand onto the concrete floor, nearly breaking. Agnes was quick to point the possible bad karma I may have created by laughing at its mystical powers, so we both offered our humble apologies to the wall. You never know….

After visiting the impressive armoury with weapons dating back centuries, we went to the Cathedral, the very heart of Polish history. All but four of Poland’s monarchs are buried here. As we entered the Cathedral our sight was drawn to the dominating Tomb of St Stanislaw, which is a grand silver sarcophagus surrounded by a splendid wrought ironworks. We walked around, admiring the ornate architecture and many impressive sculptures that adorned the passageways. I sneaked a few photos of a particularly nice chapel and we made our way out into the sunlight and onto the Crypts, a scene of recent controversy.

As previously mentioned, you have to be a pretty special individual to even be considered for burial in Wawel Cathedral. So when it was certain that the failing President Lech Kaczynski, who died tragically in a plane crash, was to be buried there it provoked immense public outcry. He probably would’ve lost the upcoming election and become a forgotten man but the shock and high emotion of losing so many national figures meant it happened. But disagreement continues to this day. To put it into some kind of perspective it would be like burying Gordon Brown had he died, in Westminster Abbey, alongside Edward the Confessor, Elisabeth I and Charles Dickens. It was worth observing how most of the Poles appeared to shun Kaczynski’s tomb and quickly precede downstairs, onto Marshal Pilsudski crypt, the WWI hero. His tomb was once moved there, so his soldiers who came to party on his grave wouldn't disturb the others. It's interesting to know that Pilsudski encouraged Britain and France to pre-emptively attack Hitler in 1933. He was ignored and Europe was devastated a decade later.

Finally, we decided to climb to the top of the Cathedral’s Tower. And again I couldn’t help but wonder how The Health and Safety department would react had they seen the unsecured stairs we had to walk! The panorama from the top of the Tower was wonderful and well worth our asthmatic breathing. The Tower also contains the bronze heart of Poland – the giant Sigismund Bell, cast in 1520. Apart from major religious and national holidays, the bell was rung only on some of the most significant moments in the history of Poland, including the German invasion of Poland, on the eve of Poland's entry into the European Union, etc. It is believed that if you touch its clapper and whisper a wish, it will come true. As you can imagine, we both stood there for quite some time, mumbling and trying to conjure up some luck...

We left Wawel Hill soon after, stopping for some very touristy photos with a guy dressed up as a Knight. Had to give him his dues, he was enthusiastic and posed for several pictures without charging an extortionate amount.

We were both quite hungry now so headed down Grodzka Street looking for lunch options. We stopped in the student orientated Bar Mleczny (Milk Bar) for lunch. Milk Bars were invented by the communist authorities of Poland in the mid-1960s as a means of offering cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. Its name originates from the fact that until the late 1980s the meals served there were mostly dairy-based and vegetarian. If anyone judges a place from a quick glance inside then they would miss out on this place. The interior was really basic and plain but the food was delightful! I had pork which melted in the mouth, lovely soft dumplings, a cake and a smoothie for less than 20zl, about £4. It’s always satisfying to find places like this as its authentic and pleasingly free of other tourists. Look for Bar Mleczny signs when in Poland, you won’t regret it!

We had decided that we would eat out twice during our seven night stay in Krakow and tonight would be one of those nights. We went to the Klezmer Hois restaurant in the Kazimierz District, otherwise known as The Jewish Quarter. In the 14th century Polish King, Kazimierz the Great, encouraged Jews to come to Poland and they settled here comfortably. A legend says that Kazimierz (the king) established Kazimierz (the village) for his favourite girlfriend — a Jewish woman named Esther — just outside the city walls. It was an autonomous community with its own Town Hall, market square, and city walls. This area of Krakow has a deep interest to me and I was very happy to be going there. Agnes did her best to put my high expectations into some kind of perspective - after the Jewish community was virtually exterminated during the Holocaust and the surviving Jews mainly choosing to move away, this area fell into a long period of deprivation and is only quite recently beginning to awaken from its slumber. So if you are looking for a “fiddler on the roof” kind of an atmosphere there, well, you’ll be disappointed. Apart from a few old shops with old traditional Jewish names on them the area isn’t overly Jewish looking and is indeed still looking quite rundown. It was still good to be there though.

Our dinner included a live concert of a Klezmer band. Klezmer is a musical tradition of the Jews of Eastern Europe; the genre consists largely of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations. The female singer had a very deep and haunting voice and the music was really lovely. Unfortunately, Jewish cuisine was a little disappointing; I had a spicy bean starter soup and a stew for main which tasted quite similar to the starter. Ah, well…

On the table next to us, was a lonely man sat on his own, a position I have been in many times during my travels. He seemed quite keen in striking up a conversation with us, probably after overhearing us speaking English. He was a nice friendly man who didn’t need much of an invitation to place his wine glass on our table and gently shift his chair to face us. He was an Englishman from Kent, his name was Roger and he was an English teacher living in Switzerland. He was an interesting character to say the least, probably the first Judeo - Christian Fundamentalist I have ever met. Being in the Jewish quarter of a city with a significant Jewish heritage this is where the conversation inevitably drifted, along with an in-depth discussion of the Israeli Palestinian problem. I felt myself becoming increasingly marginalised in the conversation as my knowledge of the subject matter was very limited when compare to Agnes and Roger. I became an interested spectator, chipping in with the odd comment when I felt comfortable and sat back and watched with interest Agnes destroying his extremist sounding argument that Palestinians have no right to be in Israel. It never became confrontational or argumentative but his views were fixed and not much was going to shift them. After our meal we left, Roger walked with us back to the Rynek and we went our separate ways.

So another full and interesting but relaxing day, we’ve both enjoyed. The Schedule for tomorrow would be very different though…


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