Grand Explorer Blog: 2014

05 Nov 14 - Krakow




This morning after another great breakfast at the hotel I was off to explore Krakow. My first stop was Wavel Castle. The Gothic Wawel Castle in Kraków in Poland was built at the behest of Casimir III the Great, who reigned from 1333 to 1370, and consists of a number of structures situated around the central courtyard. The Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill constitute the most historically and culturally important site in Po­land. For centuries the residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood, the Castle is now one of the country’s premier art museums. 


Established in 1930, the museum encompasses ten curatorial departments responsible for collections of paintings, including an important collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, among them the Sigismund II Augustus tapestry collection, goldsmith’s work, arms and armor, ceramics, Meissen porcelain, and period furniture. The museum’s holdings in oriental art include the largest collection of Ottoman tents in Europe. With seven specialized conservation studios, the museum is also an important center for the conservation of works of art.

People have lived on Wawel Hill at the site of the Castle as early as fifty thousand years ago, in the Paleolithic Age. The settlement was apparently bustling with trade, assorted crafts and local farming. When more people began to settle down on the Wawel Hill and when trade became more efficient, the rulers of Poland took up their residence at the Hill as well. During the early 16th century King Sigismund I the Old and his wife brought in the best native and foreign artists including Italian architects, sculptors, and German decorators, to refurbish the castle into a splendid Renaissance palace. It soon became a paragon of stately residence in Central and Eastern Europe and served widely as a model throughout the region.


I have always loved all things DaVinci so when I heard that his painting "Lady with an Ermine" was on temporary exhibition at the castle I just had to see it.

"Lady with an Ermine" is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci from around 1489–1490. The subject of the portrait is Cecilia Gallerani, and painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the service of the Duke. The painting is one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, and La belle ferronnière. 




After my tour of the castle I wanted to continue my journey to the other parts of Krakow which I had not seen yet. I had walked so much in the past two weeks that I was happy to find one of the familiar small sightseeing carts parked outside the castle as if miraculously waiting for me. 

I struck a deal for him to take me to all the sights I wanted to see at a really low price so I was thrilled to have this cart to myself again to have a private tour based on my interests and timing.  



The first area I wanted to visit was Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. Kazimierz – the district south of the Old Town was the centre of Jewish life in Kraków for over 500 years, before it was systematically destroyed during World War II. In the communist era it became one of Kraków’s dodgiest districts while gradually falling into disrepair. 

The history of Kazimierz can be traced back to 1335 when it was officially founded on an island outside of Kraków by King Kazimierz the Great. It was not until 1495 when Jews began to be expelled from Kraków that they started to move over the river to Kazimierz en masse. By the 17th century Jewish life was flourishing and numerous synagogues had been constructed when the plague hit in 1651. Four years later Kazimierz was ransacked by Swedish invaders, famine, floods and anti-Jewish riots followed in quick succession, and a mass migration to Warsaw began, leaving the once vibrant Kazimierz a shadow of its former self.

In 1796 Kraków came under Austrian control, and four years later Kazimierz was incorporated into its neighbouring city. Ironically this would bring about the area's rebirth as the Austrians worked hard to redevelop the city: the streets were cobbled, the crumbling defensive walls were torn down, the first gas lamps were illuminated in 1857, and the suburb had a power station by 1905. The governing Austrians also ordered all of Kraków’s Jews to resettle in Kazimierz, and a rich cultural life arose around them. By 1910 the Jewish population stood at 32,000, a figure that was to nearly double during the inter-war years. This, as we know, would come to a dramatic end with the Nazi occupation of Kraków and Hitler’s systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe. Herded across the river to a ghetto in Podgórze, Kraków’s Jews met their end there, in Płaszów, or Bełżec (primarily). A mere 3-5,000 survived the Holocaust, a large proportion of them saved by Oskar Schindler.

In 1993 Steven Spieiberg released the movie "Schindler's List" and it put Kazimierz on the world map and irrevocably changed its fortunes. Through the lens of Steven Spielberg, Kazimierz has since been on the rebound and is today Kraków’s most exciting district–a bustling, bohemian neighbourhood packed with historical sites, atmospheric cafes and art galleries. 

Well-known for its associations with Schindler and Spielberg, traces of Kazimierz’s Jewish history have not only survived, but literally abound in the form of the district’s numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. In fact, no other place in Europe conveys a sense of pre-war Jewish culture on the continent better than Kazimierz. As a result, the district has become a major tourist draw and could almost be considered a pilgrimage site for Jews, which has led to the return of contemporary Jewish culture in the area in recent decades. 

There’s more to Kazimierz than sepia photographs and old synagogues, here you’ll find the heart of Krakow’s artistic, bohemian character behind the wooden shutters of dozens of antique shops and art galleries. Peeling façades and obscure courtyards hide dozens of bars and cafes, many affecting an air of pre-war timelessness. Centred around the former Jewish square now known as Plac Nowy, Kazimierz has emerged as the city’s best destination for café culture and nightlife. Alternative, edgy and packed with oddities, Kazimierz is an essential point of interest to any visitor.

After this I went to tour the Krakow Ghetto . . . . . . . . . . . . .

German authorities created the Jewish ghetto in Krakow under the Nazi occupation on March 3, 1941 as a compulsory dwelling place for the city's Jews. On the order of Dr Otto Wachter, the district gubernator, the central part of Podgorze borough was closed off and all its gentile residents expelled to make room for some 17,000 Jews. The rest of the 65,000-strong prewar Jewish population of Krakow had been relocated earlier to Poland's lesser cities, towns, and villages.

It was strategically situated next to the Zablocie industrial district with many plants, including now famous 'Schindler's factory', that could utilize the cheap forced labor of the ghetto inhabitants. Also the Plaszow concentration camp was near by. And the adjoining Zablocie train station facilitated future deportations. 


                                     SCHINDLER'S FACTORY


























Oskar Schindler was an ethnic German industrialist, German spy, and member of the Nazi Party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factory.

In 1939 Schindler obtained an enamelware factory in Kraków, Poland, which employed around 1,750 workers, of whom a thousand were Jews at the factory's peak in 1944. His connections helped Schindler to protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in the Nazi concentration camps. Initially Schindler was interested in the money-making potential of the business. Later he began shielding his workers without regard for the cost. As time went on, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and gifts of luxury items obtainable only on the black market to keep his workers safe. 

As Germany began losing the war in July 1944, the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and evacuating the remaining prisoners westward. Many were killed in Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Schindler convinced SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth, commandant of the nearby Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, to allow him to move his factory to Brünnlitz in the Sudetenland, thus sparing his workers from certain death in the gas chambers. Using names provided by Jewish Ghetto Police officer Marcel Goldberg, Göth's secretary Mietek Pemper compiled and typed "the list" of 1,200 Jews who traveled to Brünnlitz in October 1944. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the execution of his workers until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945, by which time he had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers.


The Krakow ghetto consisted of fifteen different streets or parts of them and contained 320 buildings comprising some 3,200 rooms. The ghetto in Krakow was sealed off, with a high wall erected round it, and only four gates guarded by German solders linked it with the outside world. The main gate was situated on the ghetto's western edge, at Limanowskiego street near Rynek Podgorski square, two other at Lwowska street (east) and at Zgoda square (south), while another entrance at Limanowskiego street was meant solely for German military vehicles.

The German authorities rigorously rationed food in Poland and they decreed that the ghetto Jews might survive on as little as one hundred grams of bread per day and two hundred grams of sugar or fat per month. No wonder both starvation and black market were rampant. Potatoes smuggled from the Polish peasants became the everyday sustenance for families which could afford them.
The Krakow ghetto was overcrowded as its Nazi overseers decided that at least four Jewish families should share every flat. Most apartment houses and other buildings were in bad repair.

The Germans made all Polish Jews to wear armbands with the Star of David. Soon the access of ghetto inhabitants to the rest of Krakow was restricted to an absolute minimum. Even windows looking outwards were bricked up. The rationale for letting Jews stay in Krakow was their contribution to the German war effort so the ghetto residents had to work in German factories. The workers were issued identity cards that provided some protection from persecution, for the time being.

Over two years of its existence several thousand residents of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow were either killed or died of hunger. Then the Nazis emptied Krakow's ghetto systematically in three waves. On May 30, 1942 the ghetto dwellers without identity cards were rounded up on Plac Zgody square (today's Plac Bohaterow Getta square) and roughly 4,000 of them left for the Belzec death camp to perish there. SS storm troopers killed some 600 Jews on the streets of the ghetto on June 4. By the end of June the Nazis formally decreased the area of the Krakow ghetto. On October 28, 1942 such 'excessive' ghetto residents as the sick, the old, the handicapped, and little children became the target. Some 600 were murdered outright and about 4,500 shipped by train to Belzec concentration camp. The ransacking of the Krakow ghetto continued till December 1943.



The Pharmacy "Under an Eagle" at 18 Plac Bohaterow Getta square, former Plac Zgody square, was run by a Pole during World War II and provided a cover for the Polish resistance that tried to help Jews in ghetto. 


The former drugstore has been turned into a tiny museum of the holocaust in Krakow






During the Second World War, Plac Bohaterow Getta square was the point of departure for thousands of Jews from the Krakow ghetto to various camps. It was a silent witness to the extermination of Jews and now constitutes a memorial, a work of art and a living public space.

Today's design of the Ghetto Heroes Square has been created by Krakow architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak. Central to the square's new look are the 70 empty chairs made of bronze. They represent possesions discarded by the deportees and remind today's passers-by of he displacement of Jews which took place in 1943. In the south of the square at Lwowska Street there is a fragment of the ghetto wall with a commemorating plaque. 




I asked the driver to leave me in the Old Town Square once again to do some last minute shopping in cloth Hall and to stop for a treat in a cafe.























The world's arguably oldest shopping mall has been in business in the middle of Krakow's central Grand Square for 700 years. Circa 1300 a roof was put over two rows of stalls to form the first Sukiennice building – Cloth Hall – where the textile trade used to go on. It was extended into an imposing Gothic structure 108 meter long and eight meter wide in the second half of the 14th century. 

After the 1555 fire the Cloth Hall was rebuilt as a splendid Renaissance edifice with an ornate roof adorned with grotesque masks by Santi Gucci. Also the picturesque stairs and galleries on both ends of the building date from the 16th century. During the 1875-1879 refurbishment the outside arcades and central transepts were added.  

Nowadays stalls on the ground floor and shops in the arcades mostly sell assorted souvenirs. Upstairs, since the 1880s the Krakow National Museum has exhibited its unparalleled collection of the 19-century Polish art, including Jan Matejko's famous movie-like giant paintings.   


One of two Cloth Hall's spacious cafes, the Noworolski’s on the east side, has been opened since 1910 when it got its present elegant Art Nouveau decor. 

When it opened it became popular among the elite of Kraków and with artists and professors.




During the Nazi occupation the cafe was requisitioned and access allowed only to Germans.  The family Noworolski again lost the place in 1949, when the cafe was nationalized by the communists and renamed. After the fall of communism, the café was restituted to the family in 1992.


The menu is filled with dozens of ice-cream confections as well as many varieties of coffee. Since it was a warm day I thought I would indulge in an ice-cream treat. 

I had no idea however it would be so big!!! I swear there was 4 scoops in this thing.... yummy!





I took one last look around the Old Town Square and walked back to my hotel. I had a few hours before dinner so I sadly started to get my luggage ready for my departure in the morning, this was my last night in Krakow and Europe.

I was fortunate to have been invited to dinner by a Krakow small hotel owner who also has a gourmet French restaurant on the premises. She was called away to Paris for a medical procedure but insisted I should go to the restaurant without her. I am so glad I did because it was incredible! The Cyrano De Bergerac restaurant is one of the best dining establishments in Krakow and it certainly deserved it's reputation. It only has room for about 30 guests and the walls are all stone and the candles give the room a castle-like ambiance.

She felt guilty that she was called away so she must have told the staff to treat me royally because I was treated like a queen which was a nice way to end my stay in Krakow.

I had champagne and French pate with hot crusty bread, then I had Coquille Saint Jacques which was prepared very differently from what I was used to. They serve each large scallop on a square noodle filled with different fillings, it was delicious. I then had a specialty, deer which was so tender you could cut it with a fork. This was served with some great French red wine. The dessert was an individual chocolate souffle. Needless to say this was a gastronomical delight!





























To end the night I went to the Krakow Arena to see Elton John.....




This was a great show and a fantastic end to a very event filled two weeks. I've seen so many amazing things, met so many interesting people, savored the customs and cuisine of several countries and have created some great memories. I've traveled on airplanes, buses, horse-drawn carriages, limousines, vans, taxis, tour buses, railway cars, sightseeing carts, a riverboat, plus an aerial tram and I can happily say in the words of Elton John . . . . . .

                                        I'M STILL STANDING!



4 Nov14 - Krakow, Poland

This morning I had a great breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I love the fact that breakfast is included since European breakfasts are quite large and can keep you going til dinner if need be. There were four kinds of cereal, three kinds of juices plus pate, smoked salmon, several kinds of cold cuts as well as danish, croissants and sweet rolls. You can also get made-to-order eggs as well. 

After this feast I went off to meet my driver for a tour to Czestochowa to the Jasna Gora Monastery to see the famous "Black Madonna" painting. I was happy that I had a private tour with a private driver all to myself in a large Mercedes Benz with no other tourists which meant I could enjoy this day based on my personal timeline and likes. 


























The "Black Madonna" painting has quite a history and is enveloped in legends and miracles. The icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa has been intimately associated with Poland for the past six hundred years. Its history prior to its arrival in Poland is shrouded in numerous legends which trace the icon's origin to St. Luke who painted it on a cedar table top from the house of the Holy Family.  It was while Luke was painting Mary that she told him about the events in the life of Jesus that he eventually used in his gospel. 



This same legend states that that when St. Helen went to Jerusalem to search for the true cross in 326 AD, she happened upon this portrait of Our Lady. She gave it to her son, Constantine, who had a shrine built to house it. In a critical battle with the Saracens, the portrait was displayed from the walls of Constantinople and the Saracens were subsequently routed. The portrait was credited with saving the city. The painting was eventually owned by Charlemagne who subsequently presented the painting to Prince Leo of Ruthenia (northwest Hungary). It remained at the royal palace in Ruthenia until an invasion occurred in the eleventh century. The king prayed to Our Lady to aid his small army and as a result of this prayer a darkness overcame the enemy troops who, in their confusion, began attacking one another. Ruthenia was saved as a result of this intervention by Our Lady. In the fourteenth century, it was transferred to the Mount of Light (Jasna Gora) in Poland in response to a request made in a dream of Prince Ladislaus of Opola.

In 1382 invading Tartars attacked the Prince's fortress at Belz. In this attack one of the Tartar arrows hit the painting and lodged in the throat of the Madonna. The Prince, fearing that he and the famous painting might fall to the Tartars, fled in the night finally stopping in the town of Czestochowa, where the painting was installed in a small church. The Prince subsequently had a Pauline monastery and church built to ensure the painting's safety. In 1430, the Hussites overran the monastery and attempted to take the portrait. One of the looters twice struck the painting with his sword but before he could strike another blow he fell to the floor writhing in agony and died. Both the sword cuts and the arrow wound are still visible in the painting.

Later, in 1655, Poland was almost entirely overrun by the forces of Sweden's King Charles X. Only the area around the monastery remained unconquered. Somehow, the monks of the monastery successfully defended the portrait against a forty day siege and eventually all of Poland was able to drive out the invaders.

After this remarkable turn of events, the Lady of Czestochowa became the symbol of Polish national unity and was crowned Queen of Poland. The King of Poland placed the country under the protection of the Blessed Mother. A more recent legend surrounding the painting involves the Russian invasion of Poland in 1920. Legend holds that the Russian army was massing on the banks of the Vistula river, threatening Warsaw, when an image of the Virgin was seen in the clouds over the city. The troops withdrew on seeing the image.

There have been reports for centuries of miraculous events such as spontaneous healings occurring to those who made a pilgrimage to the portrait. It gets its name "Black Madonna" from the soot residue that discolors the painting. The soot is the result of centuries of votive lights and candles burning in front of the painting. With the fall of communism in Poland, pilgrimages to the Black Madonna have increased dramatically.


Legends about the Madonna's appearance:

The legend concerning the two scars on the Black Madonna's right cheek is that the Hussites stormed the Pauline monastery in 1430, plundering the sanctuary. Among the items stolen was the icon. After putting it in their wagon, the Hussites tried to get away but their horses refused to move. They threw the portrait down to the ground and one of the plunderers drew his sword upon the image and inflicted two deep strikes. When the robber tried to inflict a third strike, he fell to the ground and writhed in agony until his death. Despite past attempts to repair these scars, they had difficulty in covering up those slashes as they always resurface.

Another legend states that, as the robber struck the painting twice, the face of the Virgin Mary started to bleed; in a panic, the scared Hussites retreated and left the painting.

The miracles worked by Our Lady of Czestochowa seem to occur mainly on a public scale.  During her stay in Constantinople, she is reported to have frightened the besieging Saracens away from the city.  Similarly, in 1655 a small group of Polish defenders was able to drive off a much larger army of Swedish invaders from the sanctuary. It is also recorded that Our Lady dispersed an army of Russian invaders by an apparition at the River Vistula on September 15, 1920.  In more recent times, the Czestochowa Madonna has also been acknowledged for her protection of and cooperation with the Polish nation.  

Beyond these public prodigies:

The miracles attributed to Our Lady of Czestochowa are numerous and spectacular. The original accounts of these cures and miracles are preserved in the archives of the Pauline Fathers at Jasna Gora.

The image is not only well-known on account of its history of miracles, it's international reputation has been considerably enhanced because of the personal devotion of Blessed John Paul II:

In modern times, Karol Wojtyla, a native son of Poland, prayed before the Madonna during his historic visit in 1979, several months after his election to the Chair of Peter as John Paul II.  He made another visit to Our Lady of Czestochowa in 1983 and again in 1991.


The large baroque monastery of Jasna Góra dominates a hilltop in Częstochowa and is always bustling with pilgrims and worshippers. As pilgrims approach the monastery, the most striking sight is the 106-meter belltower, reconstructed in 1906 (the bottom part dates from 1714).

The second level contains four clocks, one on each side, that mark the passage of each 15 minutes with Marian melodies. Inside the third level are statues of St. Paul the Hermit, St. Florian, St. Casimir and the Saint-Queen Hedvig; the fifth level has statues of the church fathers St. Leo the Great, St. Gregory, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose.

The focus of pilgrims to Jasna Góra is not the monastery, but the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa, which is displayed in a altar in the Chapel of the Black Madonna. The icon shows a serious Mary holding the infant Jesus on her left arm and gesturing towards him with her right hand. The Virgin's gaze is intense —pilgrims are moved by the way she seems to look right at them.

The Virgin's robe and mantle are decorated with lilies, the symbol of the Hungarian royal family. The infant Jesus is dressed in a red tunic and holds a Bible in his left hand and makes a gesture of blessing with his right. The Virgin and Child are dressed in bejeweled velvet robes and gold crowns for special occasions.

The image has been placed in a gold frame decorated with hundreds of precious jewels, and stands on an altar of ebony and silver donated by the Grand Chancellor George Ossoliński in 1650.


The altar with the icon is separated from the rest of the Chapel of the Black Madonna with a floor-to-ceiling iron screen. The large Gothic chapel includes five other altars, the most notable of which is the Altar of the Crucifix, to the right of the icon. Its cross dates from 1400. The walls of the chapel are full of ex-votos left by grateful pilgrims.

Attached to the Chapel of the Black Madonna is the baroque basilica, named the Church of the Holy Cross and Nativity of Mary. Rebuilt between 1692 and 1695, it has three aisles and ceilings decorated with accounts of the miracles of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The main altar was designed by the Italian artist Giacomo Antonio Buzzini between 1725 and 1728.

Kings, queens and popes have donated a vast array of precious objects, such as King Michael Korybut Wiśniowiecki and the Archduchess Eleanor of Austria on the occasion of their wedding in Jasna Góra in 1670. 

Also donated to this chapel is the Nobel Peace Prize won by Lech Walesa in 1983.
































Driving back to Krakow...................

It was a leisurely drive back to Krakow and we drove back via the "Eagle's Nest Trail". The Trail of the Eagles' Nests is one of the most beautiful tourist trails in Poland. There are breathtaking landscapes and castles along the way. You can also see charming country houses and cows grazing in the fields. One of the most popular and interesting tourist trails in Poland, the route follows a stretch of forested countryside in the Krakow-Czestochowa Upland and is lined by castles and fortresses that were constructed atop the steep hills of the region. 
In the heart of Ocjow National Park, there is Ojcow Castle – the ruins of a Gothic fortress built by Casimir III the Great, the last Polish king of the Piast dynasty. We can see pretty wooden houses lining the slopes around the castle. A short distance north is Pieskowa Skala Castle, -- often said to be the jewel of the Trail of the Eagles’ Nest. Built as a royal castle in the 16th century, Pieskowa Skala was restored to its full former glory after WWII, and the castle as you see it is one of the best preserved in Poland.






It was mid-afternoon when we returned to Krakow and I asked the driver to leave me in the Old Town. It was a warm beautiful day and the square is just magical with the medieval architecture, the church  and the horses carrying antique carriages.





Of course I had to take a carriage ride, I mean it's just impossible to resist taking one of these to tour the Old Town. It was really fabulous, a 45 minute ride which covered small nooks and crannies and cobbled-stoned narrow streets which I was happy not to do on foot.

















































The entire medieval old town is among the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's original World Heritage List, inscribed as Kracow's Historic Centre. The old town is also one of Poland's official national Historic Monuments tracked by the National Heritage Board of Poland.

The historic centre of Kracow, the former capital of Poland, is situated at the foot of the Royal Wawel Castle. The 13th-century merchants' town has Europe's largest market square and numerous historical houses, palaces and churches with their magnificent interiors. Further evidence of the town's fascinating history is provided by the remnants of the 14th-century fortifications and the medieval site of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues in the southern part of town, Jagellonian University and the Gothic cathedral where the kings of Poland were buried.

In the 19th century most of the Old Town fortifications were demolished. The moat encircling the walls was filled in and turned into a green belt known as Planty Park.

























Once I was done with my ride, I leisurely walked back to my hotel since it was only a 7 minute walk away. It was nice to see the sun starting to go down on the buildings with such beautiful architecture. One of these fabulous buildings is the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre.






























I made it an early night since I wanted to be well rested for my last day in Krakow tomorrow.