Krakow and Warsaw, Poland

Did you know that it’s really, really far from Brasov to Krakow? Turns out it is. Whaddya know. Most people stop in Budapest or Bratislava or Cluj-Napoca or somewhere on the way, but not me. I’m all about 20 hour train rides with 3 border crossings. I’ve kind of entered an emergency travelling mode now to make sure I get to most of the remaining places I really want to see. Krakow was one of them, and I’ve already been to Budapest, so I went straight from Romania to Poland. But it was worth it cause Krakow was really nice.

The city is beautiful, with a great old town surrounded by the Planty Park, which was really very planty. Polish is funny because a lot of words seem to be just adjectivised versions of English words, like planty. Or I got a sandwich at the delikatesy. There’s a big central square with a big cathedral where every hour, all day long, a trumpeter plays part of a song and then cuts it off sharply to commemorate a trumpter who was killed by an arrow in 1241 as he tried to warn the city about invading Tatars. And it’s a real trumpeter too — I was up in the bell tower one time when he played his little song. I just barely scratched the surface of Krakow, and there’s a lot I skipped. I’ll definitely have to come back sometime, because it seems like a really cool city. Very relaxed, sophisticated vibe. And it was founded by a guy named Prince Krak, which is great.

I took a day trip from Krakow to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, which apparently UNESCO declared one of the 12 most priceless monuments in the world. I searched around on the web for what the other 11 are, but couldn’t find anything. They’re 700 year-old salt mines spanning 300km on 9 levels, that were still actively being mined until 8 years ago (the mining stopped for fear of the town above collapsing if they mined any more). They still produce 20,000 tons of salt every year through groundwater runoff. The really cool thing about them though is that over the centuries miners have carved all kinds of sculptures out of the salt, so there are these figures of dwarves and angels and stuff all over. There’s a sculpture of Goethe, who was one of the first tourists to visit. Also a salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II, in the worlds largest underground chapel, which was enormous, complete with fancy salt chandeliers. It was a really cool place. I had imagined it to be all white salt crystals, but most of the salt had impurities, so really it moslty looked like gray rock, with some veins of pure white salt running through it. The tourguide proved to us that it’s salt by shining a flashlight through the rock — its still very transparent even with the impurities. There were salt stalactites hanging from the ceiling, which grow like a few feet a year, much faster than normal rock stalactites. I learned all about all the various forms salt can take, and about mining practices in the middle ages. Really interesting place.

I also took a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau, which as you might expect is not a super uplifting place. There was no Auschwitz Ride or Family Fun Center or anything. It was pretty much just what you would expect Auschwitz to be — we’ve all seen the pictures of the location and the atrocities tons of times before. Actually, Birkenau was just what I expected Auschwitz to be — bleak and deserted and terrible. Auschwitz itself had a lot of pretty trees and birds chirping and stuff that I hadnt counted on. I felt like a totally insensitive jerk walking around taking stupid tourist pictures of myself in front of various awful things. But I worry I wont remember things if I dont take pictures of them, so I do. There were lots of exhibits on the experience of the Holocaust for different groups of people, which were very good, if a bit artsy. There was an interesting one about Germany’s systematic distruction of the Polish people, and the Polish nation. I didn’t know Poles were considered an inferior race as well. Honestly, my experience of Europe is that I’m terrible at telling the difference between the different european ethnicities. I couldnt tell you if a person was from Croatia or Lithuania — they seem to only differ by language, so how anyone can tell a german apart from a pole, I have no idea. Another good exhibit was about the Sinti and Roma in the the holocaust, which is particularly interesting given how much anti-gypsy sentiment you still encounter everywhere in Europe. The Roma are an incredibly poorly understood people. I’d like to learn more about their history sometime. Everything there just makes you amazed at and terrified of what people are capable of, and amazed that the Darfurs and Congos of today are still so ignored.

From Krakow I went to Warsaw. I only had one evening and a morning there, so I just barely got a sense of what the city’s like. I saw the Old Town, which is very pretty, and amazing because it was all reconstructed after world war II exactly how it had been before the germans razed it. There’s a the famous warsaw Mermaid statue in the main square, in the middle of a pool which periodically fills up with water — it kinda sounds like she’s farting. I saw parts of the old Ghetto. And I spent some time in a nice park, hanging out with a flock of peacocks, who kept telling me how unhappy they were with my presence. Peacocks are loud. There were like 15 of them. I think that’s the most peacocks I’ve ever hung out with at one time before. Warsaw has tons of parks, and seems like a really cool city. Another place I’ll have to come back to.

For dinner that night I had a roast stuffed pheasant with bacon roulades and baked potatoes, just like a regular old Polish king. Call me Zygmunt. To my famously delicate palette, finely honed on a month of pizza and ice cream, it was quite good. Interestingly, pheasant meat is kind of pinkish. And it doesn’t really have too much taste to it, but the bacon made up for that. And it only cost about $20. Poland is super cheap. I almost had the quail, but that would have cost me an extra dollar.

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  1. dad
    May 22nd, 2005at8:02 am

    Hi – I really liked your description of the salt caves – I had never heard of them before. I hope you were able to take a lot of pictures. Oh – by the way, we’ve been contacted by the International Division of the Audobon Society about alleged incidents on your part of Large Bird Abuse across Eastern Europe; I pray there’s no truth to this…Dad

  2. May 22nd, 2005at8:51 am

    what? did you try to club an ostrich or something?

    dad is weird.


  3. May 22nd, 2005at8:52 am

    oh, he meant the peacocks. now i feel stupid. but dad is still weird.


  4. lauren p.
    May 24th, 2005at4:26 am


    the UNESCO priceless monuments are:

    1. krakow
    2. wieliczka salt mine
    3. auschwitz
    4. bialowieza national park
    5. warsaw
    6. zamosc
    7. torun
    8. malbork
    9. kalwaria zebrzydowska
    10. churches of peace in jawor and swidnica
    11. wooden churches of southern little poland
    12. muskauer park

    but that’s just in poland. there are seven hundred and fifty-four sites around the world.

    this message was brought to you by UNESCO’s official web site and lauren’s lack of discipline, which allows her to slack on the job at all times.

    happy travels.

  5. taylor
    May 24th, 2005at8:22 am

    Oh the 12 most priceless places in Poland. That’s not nearly as cool as the whole world. It was misadvertised. I want my money back.

    And yes, Cameron, Dad is weird. Though, actually, now I have eaten ostrich as well as pheasant, so you’re more right than you might have known. Ostrich is tough meat. Like a jerky. And it came with noodles.


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