Sunday, 18 July 2010

Hotels - Europe V, Krakow

Rezydent Hotel, Krakow ($72.06, including breakfast and wifi)

From Wrocław we continued on the highway across a region of flat farmland to Krakow, where we the Rezydent Hotel is on a one way street leading out from the main square in which traffic is strictly prohibited. There was no way to get to the hotel by car, so we finally parked in a small lot down a narrow alley and walked to it. We had fortuitously parked in the hotel’s designated lot. Parking in that lot cost 80 zlotys (about $27) a day, increasing the daily cost to $99. We brought our bags up from the car. Up two flights of stairs, out a door and across a balcony and in through another door, our room was small and plain but clean and modern, with an excellent new bathroom and a flat screen tv. The only soap was in those wall dispensers that are ecologically correct, but I prefer bar soap and shampoo. The only window opened onto the walkway, so there was no privacy when we opened the curtains. With only a fan, this made it a bit stuffy on warm nights. The front desk staff seemed sullen and not particularly helpful until our third day, when a very helpful woman appeared. Breakfast is two doors down the street, the usual meat cheese, hard boiled and scrambled eggs, sausage, bread, condiments, and juice. In the warm weather walking outside to get to the room and to breakfast was pleasant, but in winter or in rainstorms it might not be very appealing. The hotel has many rooms, some served by an elevator. We were unable to see other rooms, but were informed that we had been upgraded to a superior double. The hotel is very close to the main square and lots of good restaurants and cafes.

Our first evening we found a lovely restaurant on the square with a fine view of St. Mary's church. A few minutes after we sat down, the hour struck and the bugler who plays his plaintive melody every hour opened his window and played. It's the upper window in the left tower; I took the photograph from my seat in the restaurant. We heard the bugle several more times during our stay

The art museum in Krakow is closed for renovation. Looking for a museum, we decided to check out the one devoted to the Krakow playwright, stage designer, poet and artist Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907). The museum displayed several drawings and paintings of Wyspianski, as well as designs for stained glass windows and wall decorations for the renovation of St. Mary’s church in Krakow. Upon leaving the museum, we happened on St. Francis church, whose walls are covered with Wyspianski’s floral designs and angels and which has amazing stained-glass windows by Wyspianski. These all-encompassing designs reflect both the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the decorative style of art nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement. Both St. Mary’s and this church are amazing in their rich, darkly colored overall patterned decoration.

We visited Wawel Castle and toured one section of rooms.If you’ve never seen a castle before, it’s probably great. We had. The nearby cathedral houses the tombs of the kings of Poland, and some of them are major monuments, particularly Veit Stoss's red stone tomb of Casimir IV Jagiello.

We also walked around the area of Kazimierz, the former Jewish ghetto, visited the High Synagogue, displaying photographs of pre-World War II Jewish life in Krakow, had a glass of wine on the square there and had dinner at a peculiar little Jewish restaurant, Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz (Szeroka 1), that occupies three shops whose walls have been removed but the spaces still display items that relate to the previous businesses – woodworking tools, sewing machines and clothing.. The name of the place is so obscure that the people in the restaurant next door did not know where it was.

Our second day in Krakow we spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau, not something one can just write about here. Appropriately, it was the only day we had clouds and rain.
Afterwards, we went to a concert of Bach and Chopin in a palace, then had an extravagant dinner at Restaurant Wierzynek. We ate in one of their beautiful interior rooms, where a monumental painting depicts the historic 1364 banquet the owner served to celebrate the marriage between Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and the granddaughter of Polish King Casimir the Great.

Everywhere in the country we saw evidence of the strong commitment to Catholicism in Poland, from the many mentions of, and monuments to, the Polish Pope John Paul II to the enormous attendance at church services and the numerous extravagantly decorated medieval, baroque, and nineteenth-century churches. One reason I decided to go to Krakow was to see the Veit Stosz altarpiece of the Life of the Virgin in St. Mary’s church there. We tried a couple of times to go in, but they were always in the middle of services, so finally on the day we were leaving we paid admission to see the altarpiece closed, and then opened. A nun comes out, takes a pole with a hook on the end, and drags each wing opn. The change from exterior to interior is striking, since the huge twice life-size inside figures of the death and Assumption of the Virgin are brightly gilt. It, and the elaborately decorated church (by Wyspianski, among others) were worth the wait.

While we waited for the St. Mary's Church to open, we stopped by the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, which sounded idly interesting in the guidebook. There was a special exhibition of the history of Poland from 1768 to 1815, a time during which Poland was divided among Russia, Germany and Austria. The exhibition made a  very complex subject engaging by using the metaphor of a football game, starting with a locker room with cabinets displaying important tools and historical objects, then identifying the players, the teams, and the coaches and providing a historical score chart. Of course, the exhibition was especially effective since we saw it at the time of some of the important games of the World Cup. Everywhere we went, people gathered in plazas, cafes, and restaurants to watch the games and after each game the winners' constituents would parade through the streets cheering and singing patriotic songs. On our last day, in Prague, Germans wrapped in their flag were everywhere, only to disappear after Spain defeated Germany.

Krakow is more than six hours driving from Prague. The guidebooks say to stick to the highways wherever possible because the smaller roads are full of slow traffic and congestion in the multiple towns and villages along the way. This is completely true and the scenery on the smaller roads is not interesting enough to make up for the frustrating delays. Nonetheless, we got to Prague in about 8 hours despite frequent driving rain.

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