do Polska: Day I

After Krista, Kristi, and I roused ourselves the next morning and sucked down some apple sauce out of pouches that resemble capri-suns and aptly named ‘Pom-Potes’ (a curious invention but handy when traveling), it was already close to noon. We decided to do our own exploring of the city before the next walking tour at 3pm.

When we stepped out of the hostel’s building, we realized we were stepping smack dab into a market place. The hostel is in a building one block down from a covered, communal market place, but the market seemed to have sort of spilled down the rest of the street as well, in the form of little old men and women hunched over piles of stuff on the sidewalk to sell. We actually had to step around a rack of clothes when we were walking out of the hostel doors itself. This was our first initial culture shock I think. It was a sad sight. Unlike other market places I’ve seen, these sellers and vendors were not spritely, vibrant solicitors of their wares. They just stood their, looking at you or the sidewalk, but less enthused than anything. When I looked at their wares, I could see why. Their products seemed to be anything they could get their hands on, the type of bras and undergarments you could find at Walmart, old bottles of lotion, trinkets that looked like left overs of western culture from the 90’s.

We decided to check out the market place itself. Walking up a block brought us to this scene: all sorts of goods in cramped, tightly quartered stalls. We were constantly tripping over pigeons that flew down from the low rafters and onto the narrow walkways. Then they would shoot up in a startled explosion of feathers over all of the goods being sold. Vegetables, prepackaged foods, mushrooms, sweets, nylons, hats… it was all being sold in the chaotic atmosphere of crowded junk. But the sellers themselves were not chaotic. Again, most of them were older individuals, though not as elderly as those standing outside our hostel. They stood there stolidly, or with a grimace, and waited from someone to show interest. It’s not like the stalls in France where if you make eye contact with the seller they start a conversation and aggressively suggest you buy their wares. The atmosphere was, again, sad to me.  Even though there appeared to be plenty of locals walking through and purchasing their daily needs with pleasant-faces, the cold, in addition to the dinginess of the market atmosphere, made me remember that we were not visiting a rich country. It wasn’t a bad marketplace, just different than what I’m used to seeing. I’m sure us American girls stood out like an unwelcome hurricane in their midst, all bright faced and speaking English, startling pigeons into flight and not purchasing anything.

After this market, we decided to walk in the opposite direction, towards the Main Market Square. We were immediately greeted by pieces of old fortifications and beautiful old walls that screamed of the middle ages. After we ventured through the gate of the city walls and passed a few musicians, we were on the main street that led directly to the main market square. Modern shops and stores, restaurants, fast food stalls, and solitary vendors selling their wares in empty doorways, lined the street. The street itself was filled with pedestrians, and sometimes a slow driving car trying to get through. Because the buildings are so tall and level on this particular street, it appears to be bathed in perpetual shadow, and so it was extra chilly. Overall, we were extremely lucky with the weather in Krakow for October. It was freezing, 5-10 degrees Celsius most days, but the sun was usually out and the sky mostly blue.

Photo courtesy of Krista Schilling (

We explored the surrounding streets, looked at old buildings that had no name or history for us yet. The square itself, with varied architecture, is beautiful and grand, apparently the largest and oldest open market square in Europe. There is a cavalry of horse drawn carriages waiting on the edges of the square to pluck up any willing riders. Little stalls crammed full of bright souvenirs fought for attention. But what I noticed most of all was the color of the buildings. Pale yellows, creme oranges, blues, and white trim, all gorgeously re-finished. Definitely the tourist section.


Market Square

We decided to venture into St. Mary’s Basilica Cathedral, on the edge of the main square, and probably the most iconic building in Krakow. This was my first moment of ‘awe’ in Poland.

I’ve visited cathedrals in Paris and Nantes so far. They are awe-inspiring in size and glory, ornately carved and decorated with breath-taking stained glass. But they also seem relatively austere on the inside, endless stories of vast cold stone that disappear into high dark corners, like the recesses of a cave. It’s as if their constructors spent too much time trying to command Heaven’s attention to earth rather than opening the buildings up to receive anything back.

By comparison, this cathedral in Krakow is warm and beautiful and reverential, a cacophony of color and worship. The ceilings are high and the detail ornate, made even more overwhelming than their French counterparts by the use of so much color. The combination of design and color make for an atmosphere of celebration. The color combination isn’t garish like a circus, but lovely in the way of jewel toned bible pages inked by monks hundreds of years ago. Blue, red, orange, white cover the walls and ceilings in intricate, detailed designs. An alter at the back of the church, Altar of Veit Stoss, fills up the entire back wall with beautifully painted statues and carved biblical scenes. You are surrounded by inspiration on every square inch of wall space.

Besides a few tourists mingling in the public section of the church, in the ‘prayer’ section, little old people filed in and out and kneeled in the pews. I think the silence and praying is what balances the vibrant color of the place and makes it feel sacred. The expressions on their faces were serious and devout, sad or dutiful. I almost felt like I was trespassing on their private time with God.

We had an hour before our walking tour at 3pm so we decided to visit “Coffee Heaven,” a coffee chain started out of Warsaw. The atmosphere was familiar: artificial warmth and comfort coupled by the pragmatic, no-nonsense approach of customer service. Not so exciting, but it reminds me of similar coffee chains in America. Krista and Kristi settled into their comfy chairs with their hot chocolates, and I with my mocha.

Krista lounging in a comfy chair.


Kristi with her hot coco.

Ah, overpriced, so-so coffee in big cups. I’m home!

Our highlight of the day started at 3pm. We met the Free Walking Tour, afternoon edition, at St. Mary’s Cathedral. If any of you readers ever visit Krakow, I’m not recommending that you go on one of these free walking tours, I’m insisting. The guides are English speaking, Polish natives with a deep appreciation of history and a sharp sense of humor. They work completely off of tips so, as they’ll tell you themselves, they have to be good in order to get paid.

Our tour guide, Martin, holding the sign.

I regret to say that I’m not sure of the Polish spelling or pronunciation of our guide’s name, but the English equivalent is Martin, so that’s what we’ll call him here.  He was fantastic. Hilarious and thought-provoking, he took our group of 30 or 40 people on a hurried march through the city and to the Jewish quarter of Krakow, engaging us with the history of the Jewish occupants of Krakow from their arrival in the middle ages, to their horrendous mistreatment in WWII, and after the war.

Street where part of Schindler’s List was filmed.

I had no idea before the tour that Schindler’s List was filmed in Krakow or in front of the same buildings where we lingered, or that all of the horrendous mistreatment displayed on the screen actually happened on these same exact streets where we trod. Martin shared all of this information with us, and dispelled Schindler myths, and also gave a very insightful look into the events that took place during WWII in this neighborhood.

At one point we were standing in a large square filled with a monument of oversized, empty chairs. He explained that this was the entrance to the Krakow ghetto and this is where all of the foot traffic in and out, for the German, Polish, and Jewish, transpired.

Much of this foot traffic resulted in death and an unimaginable, unjustified loss of life. It was eerie to think that here we stood in the place where so much blood was shed and torture inflicted, and now today, people cross it every day on their way to work or home. I have so much respect for this city and this country now that I’ve been given a more intimate look into their history and what they have been put through over the past hundreds of years, especially just in the last 70.

Photo courtesy of Krista Schilling (

The large metal chairs of this particular memorial all point the same direction. They represent what happened towards the end of the war, after most of the murders had taken place in the ghetto, and the Nazis were throwing all of the resident’s furniture into the square to search for hidden jewelry and money. Martin also added that the empty chairs represent all of those people who perished here and will never be able to sit in these chairs again. It was a really somber feeling.

Then, directly after during ‘picture time,’ I noticed one small group of friends posing around the chairs for pictures, doing peace signs and grinning, even attempting to sit in the chairs themselves. I was aghast. I couldn’t help but judge them, as I was still just reeling over the thousands of deaths our guide had just described and the amount of suffering contained within this square.

Had they not just heard of all the atrocities that had happened here? Did they not hear what the empty chairs represented? And now they wanted to sit in them and smile? The only thing I could think of is that maybe they weren’t native English speakers and hadn’t caught on to all that our guide had said. I also thought that, if I hadn’t been on this tour, I might have thought this was just a funny sculpture filled with a bunch of empty chairs, like a modern art exhibition, and maybe I would have taken goofy pictures too.

After the tour of the Jewish Quarter, our guide invited us on the ‘unofficial’ part of the walking tour. It was quite cold out, freezing for me really! and so Martin invited us all back to the part of the old Jewish Quarter which now houses all the best clubs and bars in Krakow. He assured us that hot mulled wine was exactly what we needed after our freezing trek through the Jewish quarter and he was absolutely right.

This is where I wish I could brag and brag about how great the Polish hospitality is or how much fun the locals are (and the other fun tourists who were on our tour), but some things you’ll just have to experience on your own. 😉 We had mulled wine, food, and other Polish specialties that night that left me feeling truly excited to be spending my holiday there in Krakow.

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