Krakow, Poland: Careful, You May Get Some Knowledge Dropped On You

The plan was to see Wawel Castle, which stood atop a hill overlooking the city, and then make my way around the museum circuit, including some of the ones the receptionist had recommended. But when I made my way onto the castle grounds, I discovered the exhibits — the armory and treasury, the state rooms, the royal chambers — didn’t open until 11. Even the cathedral didn’t open until 12:30 PM, which I realized still functioned as a church when the parishioners for whom it was closed filed past, dressed in their Sunday best.

And on top of all that the exhibits which I wanted to see, the only ones that really exemplified the uniqueness of the Castle itself — the State Rooms — were free on Mondays. I snapped a couple pics and then walked back into town.

On the opposite side of the sqare from my hostel was the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. Sounds great, right? Like really informative and knowledgeable? Like you’d find out alot about the history of the city, the people, the wars and the culture? Right? No. Wrong. It was awful. there was one room of swords, armor and guns, then one room of some models of what ‘Old Krakow’ looked like, one room of very ambiguous portraits of people about whom you know nothing (and they ain’t telling you anything either), and a room full of something ridiculous like coins. Granted, it was only 4 zlotys (about 1 euro and change), but that was about 2 zlotys more than I was willing to pay (hey, someone’s gotta pay for all them coins).

From there I navigated the narrow maze of streets around Krakow’s Old Town Square and found the Princes Czartoryski Museum. It seems it’s the oldest museum in Poland, established in the mid 1800’s, and most importantly, it’s FREE ON SUNDAYS!

And you know what, I would’ve gladly paid money for it. It was fantastic. A maze of rooms itself, each one was a further glimpse into the art, culture and beyond of the Middle Ages and Early Millenium years. I traveled from relics of the monarchs such as sceptres, jewels and pottery to tapestries, to armor and weaponry, to classic art (including a Da Vinci and two Rembrandts), to a vast selection of ancient Egyptian relics (stone tablet writing and mummified hand as a part of the package).

I walked back to the square and picked up one of these braided, bagel-like bread things that vendors were selling out of carts all around the city. And the Czechs themselves couldn’t get enough of them, I’d see people walking away from the carts with bags of 5 to 10. I walked south, past the old location of the Stranger Hostel, and into the Kazimierz district of Krakow.

Kazimierz is the old Jewish town in Krakow and has had a pretty interesting life in the last hundred years. It was established as the Jewish quarter in the late 15th century and remained a lively, culture-centric area until World War II, when more than two-thirds of its inhabitants died in either the Krakow ghetto, set up just outside Kazimierz, or in the concentration camps. Many of the Polish survivors who returned soon moved themselves to places like the USA and Israel. During the communist regime, no care was taken to revive the town and it languished until the 80s, when the regime changed and brought with it new focus and vision in transforming Krakow. Now, just as it had been in the past, Kazimierz is known for a lively nightlife and charming, narrow, cobblestone streets. Many call it Krakow’s best-kept secret, although I don’t think the receptionist was aware of that, since she volunteered the informatino quite freely.

The Jewish history museum was set up inside the Old Synagogue, a 15th century building which itself had gone through several periods of being destroyed, rebuilt and then destroyed again. It housed a nice exhibit of early 20th century Jewish artists, as well as antiques of Jewish faith, such as Torah paraphenalia.

From there I simply wandered around the streets and tried to take in as much as possible. Each small street contained at least 3 or 4 cafes or restaurants, so it was easy to see how it could become a popular nighttime destination. Unfortunately, however, one of the downsides of traveling alone is that it’s difficult — and by difficult I mean sad — to dine out or go to bars and clubs.

I stumbled upon a flea market in one of the central squares, which sold everything from leather jackets to colognes to these french-bread pizza type things called zapiekankas. Having had my museum fill for the day, I left Kazimierz by walking towards the water, as the day had turned out to be quite sunny and pleasant, and walked along the river back into the center of town.

Along the western side of the town centre, in Planty Park, the Krakow civic committee had set up a photographic exhibition of large posterboards, detailing the renovation work that has been going on in the city for the last 30 years.

You see I thought that the buildings in Krakow had been damaged by the war, and was surprised to see so many of them in good condition. But it seems that apart from the inhabitants, the city itself wasn’t affected by the war. The real damage came after the war, when the communists moved in. Eager to start pumping out some worker efficiency, they set up large factories and plants right near the city. The acid rain and smog that followed destroyed the facades of many buildings. If that wasn’t enough, the neglect in caring for the look and feel of the town finished the job. It wasn’t until the 70s and 80s, right before and after the regime change, that a committee was established, with government funding, to begin the restoration and revitilization of Krakow. The placards were quite fascinating and really helped you understand how the city has grown and changed over the past several decades.

I was starving so I grabbed a kebab before heading back to the hostel. Suddenly realizing what such nice a day would be good for, I grabbed my camera and rushed over to the waterfront to snap some sunset pics.

I turned around and saw that the Castle had turned its lights on.

Then I felt inspired to wander around the streets for a while and grab some night shots of the city before heading to bed.

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