Krakov

We had to rush Boris out of Berlin as he got involved with a crowd of football supporters and was soon to be seen waving scarves and beer bottles around without thought any thought for decorum or personal grooming in the run up to a general election. His usual behaviour really. The 1853h direct train to Krakow actually took a little longer than the other options which had interchanges but we figured we’d be able to get more sleep on the overnighter. Well, yes and no. The earlier part of the trip seemed to be forever stopping and starting in small villages where the people who got on and off remonstrated with us for taking up more than what they thought was our allotted space or with the guard for trying to check their tickets. Notwithstanding the fact that he was nearly seven foot tall, police officers had to come aboard to assist him on more than one occasion.

Fortunately we were able to get a bit of sleep because we got into Krakow Glowny at 0528h, a bit early to go straight to our next night’s hostel. Even for us. As I noted the last time I came through, this station does at least have all the necessary facilities so we whiled away a couple of hours with our onward travel arrangements and arrive at the nearby Submarine Hostel at a more respectable time to deposit our luggage and have a quick freshen up before heading out for the city walking tour. Despite the cold and damp there were about a hundred people waiting beside the old Barbican for the “Free Walking Tour” and my spirits fell. The quality of a tour can make or break a short city stop-over and a good one can turn yet another Central European capital into a memorable experience that makes you want to return at a later date. Under the circumstances, this needed to be one of the best ones yet.

I wasn’t so much concerned for myself as for Isobel as we were coming to the end of a fairly arduous trek across Europe and I thought it might be a bit of a challenge to keep up her enthusiasm for historical sights. I needn’t have worried: at the appointed hour the “Yellow Umbrella” company sent out a cohort of well informed and enthusiastic guides to accompany the various language groups across town. We were efficiently divided into manageable sized groups and set off to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the old city in its pre-Christmas apparel. In fact, so efficient were they that the only time we crossed paths with another group was at 11am when we all stood in the main square to look up at the magnificent, asymmetrical towers of the St Mary’s Basilica and try to make out the tiny window through which the bugler played his regular melancholy lament.

Our guide didn’t spend too much time in the Middle Ages (thankfully, as it’s not the easiest period to understand when you’ve been as steeped in British and Western European history as I have) and concentrated more on the Second World War and the significant influence of Pope John Paul II in the fall of Communism. An intelligent question about “holocaust denial” brought up the sensitivity of the Polish people to any revisionist charge of “collaboration” with the Nazis. No, it has not been made a crime to say such things, free speech is respected here but President Obama’s remarks in 2012 about “Polish Death Camps” were insensitive and ill-informed. The concentration camps of WW2 weren’t Polish; Poland only existed as a country in exile but nearly a fifth of all Polish people in Europe, both Jew and Gentile, were exterminated in the camps or killed on the battlefield fighting fascism.

We finished up at the Wawel Castle a couple of hours later but unfortunately its much celebrated chocolate shop was too crowded for the hot drink we had been promising ourselves so we wandered down to the equally famous dragon and found a suitably warm cafe to rest up and discuss our impressions. I was delighted to find that Izzy had really taken to Krakov and, far from being fed up with her “cultural vulture” aunty’s travel selections, she was extremely keen to return to this lovely city at a later date. Wandering back to the hostel we visited a couple of amber shops but admitted that we were just too tired for the Czartoryskich Museum and a visit to the famous Leonardo painting of the Lady with the Ermine.

This morning being Sunday, I worked out that I wouldn’t be able to across town get to see the picture and be back at the station in time for the final Interrail journey of our voyage, the 1051h to Lublin. However, I was able to pop into the Basilica first thing to light a candle and remind myself why this exquisitely decorated Gothic masterpiece is regarded as one of the country’s greatest treasures. Street cleaners were running their little vacuum trucks back and forth though the mist and cleaning up after yesterday’s horse drawn carriage rides while stall holders set out their seasonal decorations. The smell of fresh baking wafted across the square and I knew that I too had found a special place in my heart for this place.

Postscript: We stayed for a couple of nights with my family friends in Lublin, where we were welcomed with nearly as much food as we had been in Nyiregyhaza. I was quite delighted to find that the little boy Cuba was now over six foot tall and had been working so hard at his English he was able to designate himself our special guide. Of course, as well as the cultural and architectural highlights of a city that has transformed itself in the last seven years, we had to visit the Wedell Chocolate emporium. I think he may have been a little embarrassed when “Aunty Nicola” secreted the elegant 20 page menu in her bag but frankly, neither Fortnum & Mason not Harrods come anywhere close. In the centuries old Weddel/Wawel chocolate rivalry, we know which gets our vote.

Before leaving I took Isobel to Majdanek, the best preserved of all WW2 concentration camps. Its silent dignity undiminished by the installation of an interactive museum in one of the larger huts. I think I felt more impact from seeing the inmates’ personal effects in a less organised setting but was grateful for the additional information now available. We met up with a group of Israeli prison officers, posing for selfies in front of the huge monumental statue, the Gates of Hell, but otherwise we were able to roam the 5 kilometre, watchtower-enclosed circuit in chilly solitude.

In a puzzling aside, the short documentary film “Buried Prayers” made in 2005 when some former inmates returned to find the personal possessions that some of them had secreted underground is absolutely nowhere to be found. No, it’s untraceable, even for a woman like me whose son works in the film industry. This is something of a mystery but may have something to do with a statement by the film-maker that the camp custodians had had very little to do with actual survivors up until that date. Pardon? Could this be another example of revisionism, more disrespect of the non-Jewish population on the subject of the holocaust?. I will probably never know quite what went on with this film but such claims of Polish indifference don’t sit well with me while I so vividly recall my mother-in-law’s account of the extraordinary heroism of the Polish airmen who were billeted in East Anglia where she was growing up during the war.

We used up some of my remaining zloties on the purchase of an afternoon train back to Krakow (we certainly didn’t need more food for the journey) and spent another night back at the Submarine in anticipation of our flight home on the following day. By getting up early in the morning I was able to get across the city to see the da Vinci masterpiece after all and, yes, she is far more beautiful than the Mona Lisa!

Categories: Europe

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