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!

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