Poland, our third country on the trip. I absolutely loved it here! We stayed with Maciej's mother at their place in Krakow, so we had excellent tour guides (which is important since Krakow is chock full of amazing stories and history, some of which I will try to share with you here) and excellent food. I think I loved it here so much because it reminded me a lot of Welland...just much more old and beautiful. The food was so similar to the food I loved when I visited Welland, with pierogies, cabbage rolls, and lots of kielbasa. I spent 6 days here and would have loved much more time to explore this amazing country.
Krakow is famous for it's market square, the largest in Europe! It is huge too...in the center is the Cloth (or Gypsy) Market, which is the large building in the center going off to the right in this picture. On either side of the Cloth Market are two massive open areas, one with the old city hall tower and the other with St. Mary's Basilica (seen here). I don't know why it is called "cloth" since it is obviously a huge stone building, but it is definitely a market. Inside you will find tons of stalls with various Polish goods and traditional works of Polish folk art. However, the buyer beware: the space inside is tight and packed with people...so watch for pickpockets, and the Gypsy sellers are excellent hagglers. Most of the goods are overpriced in this market and can be purchased just as easily (and at much less cost) from sellers in shops dotted about the rest of the old city! Plus, finding these other shops requires a bit of exploring...never a bad thing! Oh yea, and you can see the lineup of horse drawn carriages here as well. Carriage drivers charge an arm and a leg for a carriage tour around old Krakow. I would highly recommend NOT taking this type of tour. The old city is so easy to walk around, which is much more rewarding for a slew of reasons, and a lot of the carriages are white, which may look pretty to tourists. However, these white ones are traditionally those used for funerals in Poland, and the use of these is highly controversial amongst some of Krakow's natives.
So Krakow's famous landmark seen here in the center background is St. Mary's Basilica. It has stood here in Krakow since the 1300's...that is a really, really, REALLY long time! And it still looks new! The church seen here in the foreground on the right is even older! So about the Basilica, legend has it that it was built by two brothers. Each brother was responsible for one of the towers on the basilica, but during construction one of the brothers killed the other, finishing his tower and ensuring that it was taller than that of his late brother! This is the explanation about the non-symmetric design (highly unusual for such structures)! Now, a trumpeter sounds out a song on the hour from the taller tower, however, the song is cut short to remember a trumpeter that sounded out the city alarm in the 1300's when the Mongols threatened Krakow. He was shot by a Mongol arrow in the throat part way through his alarm.
The old city hall tower. This is all that remains of Krakow's city hall, which was built (incl. tower) in the 1200's!!! 2007 is actually Krakow's 750th year as an established city!
Krakow's old city wall and tower gate. This was once the main entrance into the city. Now it lies well in the middle of the city. However, within the old city walls, which are denoted by a ring of gardens around their old boundary, is Krakow's old town...a beautifully well preserved section of city with old buildings, old streets, incredible little shops, tons of bars and restaurants, and of course, the Rynek!
Wawel castle, the old residence of the Polish monarchy when Poland was still run by a king. Now the castle and grounds are open for visitors to tour. Awesome place really...if there, don't forget to take the system of tunnels and caves down to the river to see the fire-breathing dragon! I kid you not...check out the dragon!
The Cathedral at Wawel. Notice how only one of the domes is covered in gold. We can thank the Nazi's for this. When they invaded Poland, the people working here only had time to paint one of the domes green before the Nazi blitz arrived and took the city. The Nazi's, of course, took the gold from the remaining domes to melt down and add to their coffers back in Germany. However, they left the green dome untouched thinking it was made of Copper that had oxidized! Thanks to those crafty painters, we can now imagine how magnificent the cathedral must have looked when all of the domes were gold plated!
I touched the bell in the cathedral tower...that means I will return to Krakow sometime in my life. I certainly hope this is true!
View out over Krakow from the Wawel cathedral tower. Notice the basilica and town hall tower from the Rynek in the center and the ring of trees in the foreground (part of the gardens around the old city wall). Definitely gives you a sense for just how large the Rynek Glowny is!
An awesome tomb inside of the cathedral at Wawel. Note the black hand gripping a sword thrusting out of the tomb and the angels trying to force the lid back down on it! How crazy is that?!?! There are many, many important Krakowians entombed in the cathedral here...including some of Poland's most famous kings and generals. Definitely worth checking out...especially if you have a native or someone familiar with Polish history to enlighten you of each person's contribution to Poland. Fortunately, I was with Maciej, Matt, and Mrs. Stachura!
Part of Wawel and the Cathedral from within the main courtyard. You can see the stone foundations from one of the earlier editions of the castle in the grass. As with most old places in Europe, Wawel was continually rebuilt on the ruins of itself!
The courtyard in the interior of Wawel. From here one can access the Royal Armory, the Royal Apartments, and the Staterooms. The Apartments and Staterooms have been preserved and opened to the public. The Armory is like a museum of medieval and imperial weaponry! We went through the Armory, and it was well worth it. I have heard that the Apartments and Staterooms are equally awesome. Just get to Wawel early, as these attractions do sell out often! Cool part too is that the parts of Wawel that are open to the public are less than 1% of the entire complex...this place is massive!