Tuesday, November 07, 2006


How do you keep a Polak in suspense?

Krakow came and went awhile ago, but I’m only posting on it now. It was my first foray into a former Communist state. I imagined a heavy atmosphere still dripping with the effects of the now-thawed Cold War (smelted iron curtain?). In some ways, I was right – they’re still working on this whole “capitalism” thing – but in other ways I was pleasantly surprised.

After arriving on a Friday afternoon, we went out that night in Kazimierz, an ethnically Jewish quarter near the main Old Town center. The “night life” there, or its equivalent, was A LOT different from anything I’d seen before. Most every bar was a quiet, dim, candle-lit enclave. Everyone sat close in hushed conversation while classical or traditional Jewish music played overhead. There were probably 15 bars like this in the center of the neighborhood. It was kinda cool, actually, and maybe if I was there with a girlfriend it would have been great. As it was, I wasn’t, so it wasn’t the most exciting night of my trip. But it was also low-key and laid back and provided a nice closure to a travel day.

Saturday morning came, and our first stop was Wawel (pronounced “Vavel”) Castle. At this point, the layout of all these European cities should be clear – big castle somewhere near a big center square, usually with an old church somewhere nearby. Krakow is no different. The castle is impressive. Inside, there are ruins of older buildings at the foot of a massive cathedral and state rooms.

Wawel Castle

Inside Wawel Castle - ruins in the foreground, cathedral in the center

View of Krakow from Wawel Castle

For the hell of it, we strolled through the state rooms which are only about as interesting as they sound. Poland was once a super rich nation in Europe (who knew?), and at the time they built and fitted these apartments with all the finest meats and cheeses in ALL the land furniture and whatnot. Everything’s Italian, which is ironic I think, but ultimately not that interesting.

On to the main square and, shockingly, the requisite old church. The center is actually dominated by an old cloth hall which has now been converted to a large market for all things amber. Krakow (and the Baltic region generally) is the main source of amber in the world, and you can find all sorts of jewelry and other crap made from it. Personally, I don’t much care for it (tacky), so if you were hoping I bought you something, too bad.

Old cloth hall on the right, clock tower on the left

Next to the cloth hall is the clock tower you see on the left in the photo above. The 70 meter tall Town Hall Tower was originally constructed in the late 13th century. It currently leans 55 cm to one side due to a very strong wind in 1703.

For its part, the unremarkable exterior of the aforementioned old church (St. Mary’s Basilica, below) belies its ornate interior. This is not, however, Pope John Paul II’s old stomping grounds. We unfortunately didn’t make there. The Basilica is Poland’s most famous church and has been around for 1.8 million years I think. Every hour on the hour (even in the middle of the night), a trumpeter plays a truncated tune broken off mid-bar in remembrance of his 13th century counterpart who was shot in the throat while sounding an alarm to warn of a Mongol invasion. Rumor has it this guy sits around and watches TV for the other 59 minutes every hour. Great job.

St. Mary’s Basilica

Overall, the Old Town’s main square is both vibrant and beautiful. There are lots of cafes and shops and street performers, including a group of hilarious young break-dancers no older than 12 who plied and perfected their trade to the tune of their buddies’ crazy beat box skills. Awesome.

The second night we were there, we ditched the scene in Kazimierz for something more lively. After pregaming at the hostel bar with a bunch of Aussies, New Zealanders, and Irishmen, we all headed out to the bars. On our way, we came across a tiny, rusted-out, purple, Communist-era “car” that seriously looked almost exactly like the one below parked along the side of the road.

Not the actual car, but damn close to it

The obvious question all popped into our heads at the same time: how many Polaks does it take to lift and carry a Communist-era go-kart? (Trust me - you’d ask the same if you were wandering wasted through the streets of Old Krakow) Well, I can’t say exactly, but I can tell you that it takes three Aussies, an Irishman, and a Lithuanian to lift and rotate the car 90 degrees. Good fun. We all laughed and they went into another bar across the street while some new friends and I stood outside a little longer.

Trouble was, while we were still standing outside, the cops came by and accused us of moving the car. To make a long story short, it took about ten minutes and a clutch knowledge of French by Danielle, one of my new friends, to get us out of the situation. We quickly left the area and headed to a club called Prozac which was way too much fun.

Later that night we learned the cops pulled the other Aussies out of the bar and interrogated them for about twenty minutes outside. Eventually, they fined one guy 200 Zlotys (about $60), which he paid in cash, before letting everyone go. Crazy Aussies. Crazy times in Krakow.

So why do I say they’re still working on the whole “capitalism” thing? There aren’t too many specific instances I can tell you about, but it’s clear that some things are grossly over-priced, and many more things are just the opposite. Also, entrance to many sites such as Wawel Castle is free, despite the fact that a fee-based system would surely be successful given its popularity. In another case, two street vendors stood selling the same pretzels not more than 30 meters apart, yet one guy was charging twice what the other one was. And both were selling out!! Maybe the lower priced guy didn’t like money, or maybe the customers of the higher priced guy were feeling rather charitable that day. I don't even know. There were seriously no differences in product. How this happened is beyond me.

All in all, Krakow was fantastic, and like pretty much every other place I’ve been, I highly recommend it. It’s a great destination for someone looking to ease into Eastern Europe. As one of the “new Pragues”, it’s still very cheap and still has a “charming” touch of Communist influence, but it’s probably a bit more developed than some other places further to the south.

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