Castles, Towers and a Dragon

After a sound night’s sleep we were up at 7.15am and got ourselves ready for the day. We had booked our breakfast for eight o’clock and, donning our masks we made our way to the dining room and stood in the socially-distanced queue outside. After sanitising our hands we entered the restaurant and were shown to our table for two.

Breakfast was in the form of a hot and cold buffet, which we were quite surprised at, but customers were invited, one table at a time, to select their meals. Tea and coffee were delivered to our table. I enjoyed some yogurt and cereal, followed by bacon, sausage and scrambled eggs, washed down with two cups of coffee.

Our group then assembled outside the hotel to await Mike and our tour bus; today we were going on a half-day exploratory walking tour of the city. The bus soon appeared in the back street and once again we had to put on our masks before boarding.

Off we went through the streets for the short journey to the main square, at which we met up with our local guide, Barbara. The sun was shining and there were hardly any clouds in the clear blue sky as we started our tour.

Our first visit was to the park at Wawel (pronounced Vavel) Hill to see the legendary Wawel Dragon statue. The statue was designed by Polish sculptor Bronisław Chromy and completed in 1969; it was installed in its present location in 1972. It contains a natural gas supply and is set to ignite roughly every five minutes, leading to its fiery breath! We had noticed, in souvenir shops, there were lots of dragon ornaments and plush dragon soft toys, and now we knew why. 🙂

We continued our walk up to Wawel Castle, which we had seen perched on the hill last night as we walked along the river. The castle looked as if it had been an old structure with other extensions added later, giving a sort of “house that Jack built” appearance, and indeed this was the case. The current castle was built in the 14th-century, and expanded over the next hundreds of years. In 1978 Wawel was declared the first World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Centre of Kraków.

We had a good look at the distinctive buildings, including Wawel Cathedral where Polish monarchs were crowned and buried. The cathedral contained twin domes, one of which was golden. We also walked around in the impressive 15th-century Renaissance courtyard, the corners of which contained gargoyles at the top.

In the castle grounds was an outdoor refreshment stand with tables and chairs set up nearby, and Barbara said we could have a 15 minute break. We therefore took a seat in the sunshine and Trevor had a coffee while I settled for a cold soft drink, and we each had a slice of Polish cake; I found mine a bit over-the-top sweet and sticky. We then had some free time to walk around and use the restrooms, which I did.

After Barbara rounded us all up, we continued on our way until we came to another statue, this time of Karol Józef Wojtyła, otherwise known as Pope John Paul II, who was the Archbishop of Kraków from 1964-1978.

As we were walking down the steps leading from the castle grounds we heard some music and came across a pair of musicians in traditional Polish dress; one playing an accordian and one the tambourine. We stopped and took some photos but we didn’t stay long enough to hear them play.

We soon arrived at the famous main city square, known as Rynek Główny, which dates back to the 13th century and is the largest medieval square in Europe. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) lists the square as the best public space in Europe due to its lively street life, and it was a major factor in the inclusion of Kraków as one of the top off-the-beaten-path destinations in the world in 2016. It certainly did look impressive, and contained many historic buildings and churches, and was dominated by the famous Cloth Hall (Sukiennice).

Round the edges we also saw many charming restaurants, shops and pavement cafés, and we looked forward to exploring more later on.

The time was now about 11.45am and our guide, Barbara, told us to watch out for the clock on the Town Hall Tower chiming the hour at 12 noon, and to listen for what happens next…

We heard the clock strike 12 and then, from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica, a window opened and a trumpet appeared. The musician then started to play a signal – called the called the Hejnał mariacki, which came to an abrupt end half-way through. The trumpeter then waved to everyone watching below, withdrew his trumpet and the window slammed shut. This tradition occurs on the hour, every hour (24 hours a day) and is (so legend has it) to commemorate a famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. The noon-time hejnał is heard across Poland and abroad broadcast live by the Polish national Radio 1 Station.

The sounding of the trumpet, at which we all waved, also heralded the end of our guided tour, and we all thanked Barbara with the traditional round of applause before she left us. Our travel rep Mike then informed us that the rest of the day was ours at leisure, and explained that we could either get the tram back to the hotel, walk back, or continue to explore on our own. He pointed out the various options to us, and recommended things to do, but Trevor and I had already made plans for this afternoon – a visit to Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory, made famous by the film Schindler’s List.

We had already booked the tickets for 4.00pm, so we had a few hours to explore until then. We decided to go and have a drink and some lunch (I wasn’t hungry after the huge breakfast I’d eaten!) so we walked around looking for somewhere which took our fancy.

On our way, we came across a massive flock of pigeons in the square who were attracted by the crumbs of a little boy’s packet of crisps – it looked just like a seething grey carpet at the boy’s feet, while even more pigeons flew in and landed on other pigeons’ backs in their quest for a few crumbs. We saw a lady standing in among the pigeons, and held her arms out at her sides, whereupon two pigeons landed on each arm, and one perched on her head. It was like something out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. 🙂

I decided to have a try and, sure enough, a pigeon landed on my arms and pecked gently at my outstretched fingers. It was quite cute, and I hoped that I wouldn’t receive a “little present” from any of them, ha ha. 🙂

We then decided to go and have some lunch as we had plenty of time before our pre-booked visit to the Schindler factory. The sun was very warm so we looked around for somewhere in the shade and found a pleasant, dimly-lit bar-café; a sign advised that the loos were downstairs so we went down and discovered there was also a bar and restaurant down there. We each ordered a cold pint of Tyskie and Trevor had a cheese and ham panini, but I wasn’t hungry after our substantial breakfast. We stayed long enough for another beer, then went back upstairs and out in the sun again, and started to make our way towards our next destination which, according to Google Maps, was about a 30 minute walk away.

Once more we crossed the bridge over the Vistula, past the ferris wheel and the balloon, past parks with many trees, bushes, paths and joggers. One of the things we noticed was very popular here in Kraków was electric scooters; they were everywhere and their riders wove in and out of pedestrians with some speed.

Soon we came to Lipowa Street, number four of which is the famous Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (DEF), where German industrialist and member of the Nazi party Oskar Schindler employed (and ultimately saved) nearly 1200 Jews. The former factory now serves as part of the Museum of Kraków and contains a permanent exhibition depicting Kraków during the occupation of 1939-1945.

We still had some time to kill before our 4.00pm slot, so we went to a pavement café over the road and had a drink each. We then went to the main entrance (avoiding the socially-distanced queue as we were pre-booked) and I showed the bloke on the door the booking number on my phone; we were then taken to the reception desk to pay our 26 Zlotys each (just over a fiver) and collect our tickets, and a brochure describing our self-guided tour.

It was very interesting indeed inside the factory, even if it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. To quote from the official web site:

The exhibition is primarily a story about Kraków and its inhabitants, both Polish and Jewish, during World War Two. It is also a story about Nazi Germans – the occupiers who arrived here on 6 September 1939, brutally disrupting Kraków’s centuries-long history of Polish-Jewish relations. The great history of World War Two intersects here with everyday life, and the personal dramas of individual people overlap with the tragedy which affected the whole world.
The wartime history of Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik – DEF – and its owner Oskar Schindler was brought into the limelight in 1993 by Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. Ever since that time, tourists from all over the world have been coming to Lipowa Street to visit the place where Schindler saved the lives of over a thousand people
.”

We did, however, see Oskar Schindler’s actual office, desk, chair and filing cabinet, as well as a large glass case containing a selection of some of the pots and pans that had been made in the factory. There was also a whole wall full of photographs of some of the people who had worked in the factory, as well as a small cinema running a film interviewing some of the former Schindler workers, who explained how he had saved them from an almost certain fate in the Płaszów concentration camp in Kraków. It was all very moving, and we spent about two hours in the museum before the closing time of 6.00pm.

On our return to the hotel, we determined we would go up in the balloon tonight, and we hurried along to try to get there before sunset; how fantastic it would be to photograph the sun going down from aloft! We walked briskly along the banks of the river and underneath the Pilsudski Bridge (which we’d nicknamed the “Tyne Bridge” due to the similarity in appearance). We could see the balloon up in the sky in the near distance, and with the sun dipping lower in the sky, it made a brilliant photograph.

We arrived a little after sunset (but with plenty of atmospheric light still available) just as the balloon was descending, and bought our tickets. As we joined the socially-distanced, mask-wearing queue, the gondola disgorged its passengers, one of whom was Frank, from our trip. He was lucky enough to have caught the sunset!

We then boarded the gondola, which was a doughnut shape with the cable that controlled the ascent and descent of the balloon running up through the hole in the centre. Usually it would carry up to 30 passengers, but this time it was only taking 12 per load, and the floor was marked into sectors, one for each person, to stand in.

Off we went, gradually rising higher and higher as the cable was paid out. There was only a little wind which did blow the balloon gently, but as was restrained by the tether the wind didn’t affect the movement too much, although the pilot did say that the balloon didn’t go up on very windy days.

We had fantastic views of the winding Vistula and its bridges, as well as the red-roofed buildings of Kraków spread out below us. We could also see the ferris wheel, its lights flashing and changing colour as it slowly revolved. The vehicles speeding by on the roads below looked like Dinky toys. What a great experience! 🙂

After about 15 minutes, the balloon began its controlled descent, landing perfectly over the hole from which the cables emerged, using the castors under the gondola to help it glide into position.

What a lot we had packed into today! We must have walked over 10 miles; in fact my Fitbit was showing well over 20,000 steps, and we were ready for something to eat now. We decided to make our way to our “favourite” restaurant, the Pierwszy Stopien.

When we arrived at the restaurant about 8.00pm, the same friendly waitress greeted us and said it was nice to see us again. She then showed us to a table for two in the warm, welcoming restaurant which was already doing a roaring trade. Trevor ordered his usual pint of Tyskie and I opted for an Aperol Spritz. I enjoyed a nice big main-meal salad consisting of chicken, ham, cheese and lots of fresh salad vegetables in a herby dressing, with a side order of dill pickles; it was delicious. We then finished off with another drink; this time I had a Mojito.

As we had done a lot today and we were quite tired, we decided just to go back to the hotel (I still had some of the wine I’d bought at the Spar yesterday) and read, watch the limited English-language TV and rest.

We had to be up early in the morning and leave the hotel for tomorrow’s excursion around 8.00am, so we settled down around 11 o’clock and slept very well.

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