We had originally planned to go to Bratislova and Budapest from Vienna but two weeks was just not enough time to do that. In fact we’re finding that two weeks is just too fast a pace for us traveling full time. We don’t like to do continuous sightseeing. It’s exhausting and we fail to enjoy it as much as we do when we move at a slower pace. So we opted to spend all of the two weeks in Vienna and then stop and spend the day in Bratislava, Slovakia and then go on to Krakow the next day and save Budapest and Hungary for a different trip. Bratislava is only an hour from Vienna and because it was so foggy we decided to leave a bit later in the morning. I had made reservations at the Ibis right outside the Old City and what a great choice that turned out to be. We had paid extra for parking. When I checked in the clerk explained that the parking was around the corner and under the building and she said our room key would get us through both security gates. When we pulled up to the first machine Bob had quite a reach so I jumped out of the car and popped the card in the machine and then walked ahead. Spaces are small in Europe so when I looked back at the car I realized that Bob had to back up to make the turn and OH MY GOSH, the door was starting to come down. I put my hand under the door and realized that wasn’t going to stop it and it was moving so quickly I didn’t think it was safe to duck under it.. So luckily for once in my life my brain worked and I quickly threw the door key under the door toward the car. Bob then was able to get the key! WHEW! Crisis averted!
We spent the afternoon wandering through the streets of Old Bratislava.We especially enjoyed walking along the wall and the contrast between the medieval Bratislava on one side and the busy boulevard on the other.
They also have fun quirky statues scattered about as well as the ubiquitous souvenir stands.
Slovakia uses euros but once we crossed into the Czech Republic and Poland that changed. Again, just like we had encountered in Switzerland, the Czech Republic requires a vignette, a sticker placed on the windshield, to drive on the motorways. So because we had to drive through the Czech Republic on the way to Krakow and then go on to Prague we decided we’d purchase a 30 day vignette. I had read online that there would be a place just as we crossed into the Czech Republic and just as promised, there it was, a little kiosk with a guy about 25 or so. He spoke a little English (and funny enough he had a tee shirt that said “US Cavalry).” The vignette cost 40 euros and they didn’t take cards! (I don’t remember what it was in Czech krone because obviously never having been in the country we didn’t have any!) The warning on the internet was clear. Don’t try to drive even a few kilometers without a vignette. Electronic surveillance is everywhere and fines are hefty! (Ah, visions of Big Brother return!) So I forked over the 40 euros keeping in mind that this is still considerably cheaper than throwing individual tolls in periodically as we do in France or in the US.
I wasn’t pleased that our drive through the Czech Republic would be duplicated when we left Krakow. But given the dreary rainy day, we realized it would all be new to us next time. When we arrived in Krakow we were thrilled with our apartment.
We’re within a stone’s throw from the Vistula River, in the old Jewish quarter. Conrad, our landlord lives next door. He was out of town so he arranged to have a friend meet us. She not only showed us through the apartment but walked us down to the parking meter to show us how to use it, and then enlisted the help of a parking inspector, acting as the translator as I speak no Polish and he spoke no English. They tried to show me how it would take a card but those were touch credit cards and ours is not so we had to have cash. The guy we rented from turned out to be from Canada originally and a big hockey fan. We asked about seeing a game while in Krakow but he discouraged us saying that Poland’s neighbors, the Czech Republic where we were headed next, really had much better hockey. So we put it on hold for the moment.
We had stopped at a rest area as we entered Poland and used what we thought was an ATM (i.e. cash machine in Europe). TRAVLER ALERT: Never use an ATM that is not connected to a bank. I had read that but I had also forgotten the warning. And I should have been leery when it wouldn’t accept our Fidelity card that we always use to withdraw money. But it accepted a different card and then the message popped up on the screen (in English) “Will you accept the conversion rate?” And it gave me an amount. Turns out it cost us about $30 more than it should have! Ouch! I have learned! As I have mentioned before, we know it is always better to have the charges on the credit card in the local currency instead of having them converted to US dollars. But we really had to be diligent because three times the charges were automatically converted to dollars. I don’t think it was any one’s intent to charge us more but rather that probably most Americans ask locals to convert. But obviously the local merchant isn’t going to give the best rate. After using euros almost everywhere but Switzerland, zlotys took some getting used to. (1 zloty equals about 28 cents. So we would divide prices by 3 and and get a handle on what something cost! (Imagine my favorite Polish beer, Tyskie Gronie. was the equivalent of 80 cents a can!)
One of the first thing I discovered in Krakow is a great app, Jakdojade. It’s a public transport app that allows you to put in the destination and your location and it tells you (in English) how to use public transport to get there. Our apartment was about a 5 minute walk to the tram. And then to make it even better folks 70 and over could use the tram for free! Would our American drivers licenses act as proof should we be asked? Absolutely, we were told. Wow! What a deal!
One of our first destinations was Schindler’s Factory. It was amazing! (I’m glad we were there in October since I can’t even begin to imagine what the lines must be like in the summer!) There are posters, and quotes and pictures and Nazi symbols. Each exhibit seemed more horrific than the last: the pictures of the young children giving the Hitler salute or the hall with the Nazi flags and iconic logos on the floors or the quotes on the walls.
Perhaps the most moving part of the museum/memorial are the interviews with the people who actually worked there. It is really emotional to listen to the victims recall their experiences. Both Bob and I were a bit disappointed in that much of the museum turned out to be more of a general memorial to the Holocaust than Schindler. We’ve been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and so we really were interested in the specifics of Schindler’s efforts and how he managed to pull it off.
On another day we walked to the Remul Cemetery. Not far from our apartment, many of the grave stones of this cemetery were destroyed by the Nazis and used as pavement stones for their camps. Some of the stones that have been retrieved were used to construct a wall surrounding the cemetery.
Again, a very moving experience especially when we read plagues outside the moment remembering family that had been murdered here.
Everywhere we turned in Krakow there were reminders of the atrocities from World War II. The Ghetto Heroes Square consists of empty chairs remembering the thousands of Poles who were imprisoned in the Ghetto during the war. It stands in the middle of a very busy area and serves as a reminder to all who pass.
We encountered much cooler weather than we had had up to this time and it rained most of the time that we were in Krakow but it’s a lovely city even in the rain. Our wardrobes are very limited so we took to layers, wearing turtle necks under sweaters under our jackets. And with the purchase of an umbrella we were all set. We took a tram downtown and walked through the old city and also strolled along the royal route from the Florianska Gate, built in the 14th century and on to the Wawel Castle; it’s hard to imagine that for centuries this is where the kings of Poland lived! In the crypt of the castle are buried Ksoscisco, Chopin and “King” Jadfwiga!
The Main Square is very interesting. As we were sitting in an outside cafe enjoying a cup of mulled wine, next to a heater, suddenly we heard a trumpeter. Legend has it that in the 1200’s the city was being attacked by the Mongols and a trumpeter alerted the town with his horn, but he was shot before he had completed his alert. At the top of each hour a bugler sounds the incomplete alert again from his post on St. Mary’s Church.
The church itself is interesting. St. Mary’s has an historic altar piece that is more than 13 meters high and 11 meters wide and dates from the 1400’s. During World War II it was dismantled and sent to Berlin. And after the War it was retrieved in the basement of a building in Nurenberg and returned to Poland where it underwent a great deal of restoration and was returned to St. Mary’s in 1957. Another piece, Da Vinci’s, Lady with the Ermine, which we saw on display at the National Museum in Krakow, was also retrieved. From what I’ve read much of the artwork was stolen by individual Nazi’s not by the Nazi regime. I also find it particularly sad that during World War II the beautiful square was renamed Hitler Square.
The Cloth Market (also known as Ryek Glowny) in the square of the old town was incredibly interesting. It dates back to the 1500’s when Krakow was the capital of Poland and one of the largest cities in Europe. We could imagine the bartering as we walked among the covered shops. Krakow began to decline after the capital was moved to Warsaw but under Austrian rule in the 1870’s the city began to see architectural restoration. Throughout the city we found interesting streets, and buscars. We even encountered a march protesting the low pay for medical professionals.
On one of our last days in in Krakow we took a morning walk along the river. There was a statue, Dzok Monument built in 2001 as a rembrance to a dog who for more than a year didn’t want to leave the site where he last saw his master who had died of a heart attack. People brought the dog food and after the dog died, the monument was built to honor his loyalty.
Also, on the Main Square is the Church of St. Adelbert that was built in the 1100’s. St. Adelbert lived in the 900’s and was the patron saint of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. As we walked past the tiny church on a cold rainy Monday, a guy asked if we were interested in attending a concert. Every day at 6:00 pm the Royal Quartet made up of talented Krakow musicians play a variety of classical favorites for an hour. There are two programs: one for the even days and one for the odd. After we got back to our apartment and looked over the programs we decided that one looked more appealing to us than the other and we planned to go later in the week. So on a wet Friday we jumped on the tram and headed to the concert. The church is very small…probably seated no more than ninety and that was with extra folding chairs. Everyone was bundled up and the close quarters helped to keep us warm. But the concert was amazing. The quartet played a vaiety of movie themes and short excerpts that were very recognizable. Wherever we’ve been in Europe we’ve found wonderful concerts for very reasonable prices.
We found the people like so many other places incredibly friendly and again we were surprised by how many locals spoke English. It was the norm that cars stop at crosswalks for pedestrians! We took a tram one day to the local mall to pick up a few gifts. Just as in the US, we tend to forget where we are whenever we visit a mall as they look pretty generic everywhere. The food in Poland wonderful! Having grown up in a town that had a large Polish population I was thrilled to find pierogis on nearly every menu! Yummy! We ate out here more than usual because the cost was so reasonable! A nice dinner for two including beer or wine cost approximately the equivalent of $25.00. Some meals for the two of us were as low as $11.00 and I think the most we paid was when we splurged and went out for a special dinner after the concert. That night it cost us $40. Tipping is far more prevalent than we found it on previous trips but it’s really only expected when service is outstanding and then 10 percent is considered a good tip. Wait staff are salaried in Europe which seems far more civilized than the American way but we did find on several occasions wait staff was in no hurry.
Krakow really exceeded our expectations. We fell in love with everything Krakow: the sights, the people and hope one day to return!