Curiosity has not yet killed this particular Kat (my nickname in highschool) but it has brought me great satisfaction, I have to admit. I've been curious about the countries and cultures wedged between Russia and Europe since childhood, and recent visits to Talinn Estonia and Warsaw only heightened that curiosity. So it was with great delight that I accepted an invitation to speak at .. and even more delight when my hosts offered to arrange a side trip to Krakow before the congress began. Which is why I found myself here last week
That's the central square in Krakow. And I just spent three magical days touring this fascinating and historical city.
My introduction to Poland was a bit rocky. I was lugging a suitcase full of my books for the congress, as well as my usually overstuffed suitcase, and made the terrible decision to travel by train from Warsaw to Krakow on a Sunday. First I boarded (which makes it sound much easier than it was to get my three heavy bags up onto the train) the 14:50 train, only to be told that it was the wrong train. Off went the luggage and then me. The 14:56 train was the right one, and after much heavy lifting, I managed to get my self and my bags onto the train. Only no one had explained to me that in Poland you have assigned seating on trains, which meant having to find the right coach, the right compartment AND the right seat. And then I had to figure out how to squeeze my three bags and me into this compartment already filled with 5 other people and their bags. A terribly nice young man who will forever be a hero to me, cheerfully rearranged all the luggage so most of it would fit in the shelves above our heads, but my largest suitcase had to make the three hour trip in the corridor. That meant that any time anyone tried to get past it, we had to open up the door and squeeze it inside while they squeezed past.
The train passed thru miles and miles of incredibly flat land – making it very clear why Poland had seen so many armies over the years – talk about easy to invade! But the forests and fields were lovely and as we approached Krakow the flat was replaced by gently rolling farm lands. Around 5 we arrived in Krakow and now I had to figure out how to get my bags not just off the train, but up a stair case I was calling the stairway to hell. Fortunately, the poles are nothing if not helpful, and a delightful man grabbed my bags and helped me up to the top and helped me find a taxi.
An hour later, having settled into my hotel room I decided to go out and find dinner. The nice people at the front desk gave me a map and pointed me in what I thought was the direction of the square. Unfortunately I missed the first part where I was supposed to go right out the doorway, and instead I went left then right. I walked thru a lovely garden area, along the giant wall that surrounds the old city and not finding anything that looked like a main square, followed my curiosity passed gorgeous churches, night clubs, shops, and boutiques. My favorite indication that I wasn't in Kansas (or NH) anymore, the sign over the bank that said "Friendly Credyt" – sure as heck won't find any of that in the US these days. Finally hunger got the best of me and I gave up on finding the square and instead found a wonderful restaurant where I sat down to my first real Polish meal – duck with fritke – yummy little fried potato and herb balls.
Next day my friend and tour guide Merf Owen helped me finally find the square and we had a day devoted to some serious sightseeing.
One of Merf's many talents is that he knows more history than most of my college professors, so you don't just get a tour, you get the whole history of how the building or the city or whatever it is we were looking at came to be. We toured the square and the shops and then found this church with legendary acoustics where we later caught an amazing magical performance of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Somehow the accoustics can make a harpischord, 2 violins, a viola, a cello and a bass sound like a full symphony orchestra. When we walked into this incredibly beautiful 300 year old church and I heard a harpsichord being tuned up I had to wonder whether I'd been traveling in a time machine.
Another intriguing miystery about Krakow is the curious nature of Krakow walls which all seem to tilt inward. It it to better carry the weight of the snow?
I apparently left my sense of direction behind, because without him, I never would have found my way around. But after a great lunch and better coffee than I've had in a long time, we made our way over to the Castle;
For anyone like me who loves historical romance novels and who frequently has fantasies about being a princess on horseback, the Castle in Krakow is clearly the backdrop for most of my fantasies. Can't you just see the knights and ladies on horseback galloping into this courtyard?
The gardens were also a delight, even in the cold September drizzle
As a photographer, there's something abou the light and structures of Krakow that makes it very hard not to want to snap away. This lovely shot iis actually of the rest rooms at the castle, but who knew? (more importantly, who cares?)
And of course I couldn't not shoot my favorites, the canna lilies:
And of course, there are the anachronisms to bring one back to reality. The knights of yore clearly didn't have television or satellite dishes J
We wandered thru the Jewish neighborhood and explored back alleys and I realized that this was where I'd wandered on Sunday night. Krakow does live up to its reputation as a party town, more nightclubs and bars per capita than Freemantle or Portsmouth. We found a cozy one and I discovered the joys of "hot wine" which is Polish wine with oranges, cloves and spices served at the temperature of tea. Talk about a quick way to warm up. Merf tried the local "delicacy" of "hot beer" and found it to be a very accurate description, if not particularly appetizing. We finally restored enough feeling to our frozen extremities to face the long walk home. Got back in time to dry out a bit and made our way over to the concert.
We dined at an appropriately chic hour after the concert on great Polish food and then checked out the pub scene for ourselves, stopping first at a classic English pub and then at the Oldsmobile Pub which featured countless pictures of great cars, and a lot of American music from the 80s. Krakow's club scene is nothing if not eclectic – everything from Buddha bars to car bars.
Tuesday morning started with a very long, wet cold run down to the castle and up and down the river. I'm sure in better weather it would have been spectacular, but I don't have pictures because it was raining too hard to even risk using the camera. A very long hot shower revived me and we went out for lunch and ended up in a wonderful old café tucked back in behind the main square that served fabulous coffee, and had three solid signature books full of comments and notes from prior visitors. I spent the rest of the afternoon doing my Christmas shopping at the bazaar, restricted by lack of space in my suitcase to buying lovely amber jewelry and other things that weighed next to nothing.
Dined that night on perhaps the most traditional Polish meal yet, borscht with cabbage latkes, pork wrapped in bacon with cabbage and the ultimate sign that you're not in New England, fabulous bread served with lard mixed with bacon bits. Oh that I could have share that meal with my uncle John Michael White – the ultimate bacon lover – but for someone used to mostly eating salads, it was a bit frightening to think about the number of calories I'd just consumed.
Wandered back to the Oldmobile pub and struck up a conversation with a fellow road warrior from Texas about travel and work and giving speeches – amazing how you can find connections anywhere. And of course, throughout the evening I was also keeping up conversations with my Twittermates and trying to explain that to the folks at the bar was another adventure.
Wednesday morning I ran around the entire perimeter of the old city – an incredible journey filled with fabulous outdoor art, gardens, lintriguing landscape designs, and of course gorgeous old buildings The best part, though, were two outdoor mural exhibits. The first was a photo exhibit on Polish mining that featured some of the most beautiful, yes beautiful pictures of coal mines and coal miners you could possibly imagine. Local well-known photographers had taken the shots for some big upcoming meeting of the mining industry and they were just riveting.
The next best part of the run was a wonderful outdoor exhibit of the work of Krakow's historical rehabilitation committee showing lots of before and after shots of Krakow's architectural treasures. If you ever want to restore old building, hire these guys, the work they've done is nothing short of miraculous.
So that was my three magical days in Krakow. I'm now on the train to Warsaw for the Polish PR Congress. Got my work clothes and thinking cap back on, so stay tuned for upcoming observations on the state of PR in Poland – which come to think of it is just about 10 years old. Prior to its liberation from communism, Poland's press was anyting but free, so there was really no role for PR, but in the last decade a surprising number of shops have sprung up and a surprising number of PR professionals have graduated into the p rofession. And, not surprisingly, after 10 years, ,they're wondering just how to measure their effectiveness.
Rest of the photos can be found here