Photo Tour: Kraków, Poland

I've wanted to visit Kraków for a long time. It's one of the few major cities in Europe that, like Prague, wasn't bombed during World War II. Kraków has been an historic, cultural, and spiritual center for hundreds of years. My guidebooks raved about the city... which, I knew from experience, didn't mean I'd be as thrilled as the authors were. Would I be??

I was. (Should go as far as saying that I was enchanted with Kraków?) Whatever, it's quite a place... especially after coming from Košice, which, although interesting, wasn't as, well, charming. Hmmm, I'm getting carried away. Let's cut that and just see some photos, eh!?

For a larger version of any picture, click on it; a new window should open. When you close that window, this window should still be here.

Horse-drawn wagon at a train crossing
Welcome to Poland! This was my first time in the country, and I wouldn't see much more than Kraków. One thing I noticed from my train window, though (and maybe just a coincidence?), was rural scenes that looked like they came from the past. It was the end of March, and spring was just starting... I spotted one man, in his freshly-plowed field, spreading seeds by hand: scooping them from a bucket and tossing them across the furrows. There were four or five horse-driven carts, too... I caught one of them as we pulled out of a train station.
Wawel cathedral hill at sunset
Kraków -- the city center, at least, which is basically all I saw -- felt elegant, energetic, and alive. (Oops, there I go again with the hyperbole. ;-)) A lot of it was cheap, too. At 4 Polish złoty to a US dollar, my pretty room at the three-star Hotel Polonia -- in a great location, one street away from the central train station -- cost $25 per night. Internet access, 3 złoty per hour -- with free coffee and tea (which would turn out to be a good thing on my last day, as I'll explain...). A huge sampler plate of six different salads and quiche, plus a glass of yoghurt drink, for 14 złoty at Chimera, a popular and fun basement restaurant that made a great alternative to all the meat-and-potatoes you could find at a "milk bar" (bar mleczny, a traditional way to eat hearty food on a low budget). Kraków also obviously had plenty of ways to spend much more and live in style: the streets were lined with nice restaurants and shops, and people were well-dressed.

And the architecture... well, I don't need to mention that. This picture, of the Wawel castle area at sunset, says enough.
Wieliczka salt mine
After an overnight rain, Saturday morning turned out sunny: another beautiful day to go... underground? Yup. The Wieliczka salt mine -- 100 meters below the town of Wieliczka, on the outskirts of Kraków -- isn't just about mining. The engineer-type man who gave a tour in Polish, which I didn't understand a word of, did seem to be talking some about mining techniques and the history of this 1000-year-old series of chambers. But I was too busy looking at all the sculpture that miners had carved from the salt. The most spectacular had to be the King's Chapel, this huge room with elegant chandeliers, religious scenes carved into the walls, and an altar.

One warning: if you're way overweight, or are uncomfortable feeling like you're really underground, you may want to skip the mine. You'll start by walking into the depths on endless flights of stairs. And you leave (after possibly waiting quite a while) packed into a tiny, rattling mining elevator with five or six other people, while the elevator jerks and the mine guides ring a series of signal bells between the mine and the surface. But I'd suggest going on a diet ;-), or just taking a few deep breaths, and doing it anyway: UNESCO declared the Wieliczka mine one of the 12 most precious monuments in the world. Same as Kraków: I recommend not missing this place.
Building decorations
It's Sunday now, and I'm taking the advice my guidebook gave for Vienna: the best way to see the city is to get lost. Because the streets in Kraków's Stare Miasto (Old Town) are straight, it's not so easy to get lost here... but I did my best, wandering around to nowhere in particular, checking out everything I found.

"Look up, Jerry," my architect friend Tom has kept telling this (former) country boy... "look up!" Okay, Tom, I think I've learned! It was fun to look at all of the decoration on the buildings. (So, Tom, what's the architectural term for this sort of ornamentation?) Actually, some of this decoration is natural (if you'd call a pigeon "natural," anyway... fans of Tom Lehrer will remember his song about pigeons in a park...). Birds of a feather -- not?
Speaking of architecture, though, Kraków has plenty of it. I didn't see as much new and interesting on my ramble through town as I did in, say, Trier-- but there was plenty old and interesting! One of the many older buildings is the Barbakan, a circular part of the city's original fortifications.
Barbakan tower residents
Even pigeons like the Barbakan. (Okay, enough with the pigeon pictures already!)

Part of the reason I'm including this shot is encouragement for you to -- if you don't have a digital camera yet -- think about getting one with high resolution and a good "digital zoom" feature. (I still haven't taken the leap. I'm hanging onto my old Nikon film camera for now, but I borrowed my dad's nice Canon digital for this trip.) See those three towers at the top of the first shot of the Barbakan? Digital zoom let me zoom into just one of them. The picture won't be as sharp or detailed as an "un-zoomed" shot... but, with some good sharpening help from a photo editing program, you can get almost as close as you want to our feathered, um, friends.
Planty gardens
The Barbakan is on the edge of the Planty gardens, where (as elsewhere around this part of the world) spring was starting to show its stuff -- and people (like me!) were enjoying it.
Across from a church
Though a woman I've known from Warsaw might disagree, my guidebook said that Poland is a devout country. I saw lots of signs of that on this afternoon -- like the small groups of Sunday-dressed people on the narrow street between a church and this little yard...
Joining the parade
...and the nuns I saw, dressed in their habits, all over the city...and these young men who, like a parade of other men, marched out of the door of some sort of religious institution of learning near the Wawel Cathedral and headed up the hill...
Headed up Wawel hill
...along with a parade of what must have been half of Kraków's residents, and probably most of the tourists, too! You see, it was a beautiful early spring day... and, oh, entrance to the buildings in the Wawel Cathedral and Castle complex is free on Sundays.
Wawel Cathedral
The Wawel grounds, as well as the views over the city, are knockouts! I was tempted to join the group of people on an outdoor terrace on the grounds, eating cafe food and sipping tall beers, but I decided to wander quietly down the hill and head for my hotel. My camera battery was running low (digital cameras can't work without 'em) -- and, after a day of walking, I was looking for a bit of a (ahem...) recharge myself.

I also wanted to rest up because I'd be working on Monday. I'd been planning to go to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the infamous Nazi death camps an hour or so west of Kraków at Oświęcim... one of those things you have to do, I think, to try to come to grips with humanity's inhumanity. But, thanks to the Internet, I'd also been negotiating by email with my editor, back in the US, for a new book I'd start to write when I got home to Tucson in a couple of weeks. So I decided to spend Monday in that cybercafe I mentioned, sipping the free tea, logged on to a computer in California. (The day turned out to be cold and windy, anyway: not a good time to be at a gloomy place like Auschwitz.) As I reminded myself while I tapped away on the keyboard, life could definitely be worse.

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[Tour start: Central Europe, 2003] [Tours]

(These photographs are Copyright © 2003 by Jerry Peek. Much higher-resolution versions of most images, and many other images too, are available at Jerry Peek Photography. Photos are available at reduced prices, or free, for non-commercial use.)

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