Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thanksgiving in Krakow

Going to Krakow for three days was certainly veering away from the path I’ve been on lately – backtracking, really. Considering I was in Prague and Bratislava in late July and early August, it is a strange choice to fly all this way from Dublin. But my great network of awesome international people includes an old friend from Duluth named Morley, who is currently teaching in an international school in Krakow. And when you have a friend who’s living somewhere in Europe, you don’t just not go to that place while you are also visiting the continent.

Cathedral in the Market Square

And, oh my god, I’m so glad I didn’t miss Krakow! Not just because it was great to hang out with someone who I know well for the first time since August. But people kept saying to me “Oh Krakow is wonderful! You have to go!” and they were so right. Even if it felt a little like backtracking, it was another side of the region, another way of telling a story I’ve been trying to flesh out, and they have a lot of great craft beer to enjoy.

The old streets of Krakow
It’s easy to see why Krakow is the city that Poles bring their children to learn about Polish culture. My first impressions were that Krakow is a mix between Prague (with similar architecture, culture) and London (filled with parks and green spaces.) The Market Square in the center of the city is one of the biggest I’ve seen since Mexico City, but without the huge, gapping feeling of Plaza Z√≥calo. It is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen yet in Europe, with fantastic architecture, historic buildings everywhere – including a spectacular church and the old town hall’s clock tower – horse-drawn carriages echoing up and down the alleyways and people milling everywhere. They were even setting up the Christmas Market with lots of evergreens and little wooden stalls, but it unfortunately opened the day after I left Poland.

The entire historic city center is everything a European city should be: cobbled streets lined with attractive shops and restaurants, a grand and historic castle upon a hill with a dragon that will spout fire in your direction and churches on every corner, each more beautiful than the last. I saw more nuns walking about Krakow than any other yet in Europe. It's a great city to wander into shops with unique, local made items, eat interesting food and learn about the history of the region.

Not everything is beautiful and wondrous, of course. Most of the city’s inhabitants burn coal to heat their homes in the freezing temperatures, so the pollution sat heavy in my lungs, bringing back a cough I had thought I was just getting over with a vengeance. All of the florescent-lit tourist shops sell the same things as every other city in the world, with a different name printed across each item of course. The twisting streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, reveal hundreds of hip bars and restaurants, a youthful energy and grittier side of the city, but of course a cloud hangs over this part of the city; you can still see hollow synagogues, memorials everywhere, the remains of the walls which were built around the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Krakow, eerily resembling lines of graves. And not far down the road is Auschwitz, the most notorious memorial to the horror humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.

In the Jewish Quarter

More than anything, it was excellent to see my old friend Morley, to make our globe-trotting paths finally cross and to spend a few nights sipping tea in her tiny apartment covered in photos of Duluth, Minnesota and our north woods home. We went out for Indian food, pub quizzes and made Thanksgiving dinner together while swapping traveling and culture shock stories, day dreaming together about the places our lives could bring us. In Krakow, it felt like winter was truly coming to the continent. I bought myself a hat and hurried through brisk streets. It’s strange to acknowledge the coming of Christmas on a whole different continent, but I’m also glad, after so many years of more or less unchanging weather season to season, to enjoy chilly nights and days here, cities filled with Christmas markets and the coming of the holidays.

Old City Hall in the Market Square.