Sometimes when I travel, the egocentric me appears. I want other tourists to just go away and leave the place so I can enjoy the place all to myself, savouring the atmosphere and imagining how the place was like in the past. This is how I felt when I arrived in the old town of Kraków.
This year I explored a Polish city to which I haven’t been before, Kraków. The former capital city is charming with an old city you would find hard to leave, a castle full of interesting stories and a trumpet call from its basilica. It’s no wonder that I wanted to be selfish and have the place all to myself, if only I could. The place is popular with tourists in the summer, but the more I hung around in the old town, the more I loved the place and didn’t mind the crowd, in fact I started loving the visitors passing by the streets – they are like the salt and pepper in a dish.
Whenever I’m in Poland, I feel strangely at home and smugly think myself as a local though my face features says I’m certainly not Polish and the only words I know are basic hello (Cześć or Dzień dobry or Witam – the Polish has so many ways to say hello!) and thank you (Dziękuję) and several swearing words thanks to my wonderful Polish friends! Visiting Poland, I know for sure that I will leave the place with a wide grin and a warm feeling at heart.
My journey through Kraków, started with a walk through Planty park from my hostel to the old town. The smell of pierogi filled my nose, people passing me by with lody (ice cream) in their hands – oh temptations! The main square is quite big, with a group of children playing around near the fountain, trying to cool themselves down. Their scream and laughter filled the area, creating a playful atmosphere.
I could see a long building in the centre, Sukiennice or the Cloth Hall, this used to be a cloth market where people could buy goods, mostly expensive imports goods. Nowadays it is filled with souvenir sellers. I walked inside, charmed by the building and the decorations inside it. I wondered how this placed looked like in the past, what did people wear while selling and buying? What did they buy? Did they used to bargain? I could hear Polish being spoken – after listening to so much Polish due to having some Polish friends, I started to enjoy the language with its intriguing pronunciation.
Every hour I could hear a trumpet playing near by. I didn’t know where it was coming from or what it was. Turned out it was the trumpeter of Kościół Mariacki or St. Mary’s Basilica where every hour a trumpet player from the local fire fighter would play a portion of a certain melody and they would end the melody midway. Hejnał mariacki is how the Polish call this trumpet call, a five note anthem which ends abruptly. Each player had their own style. It was so interesting seeing each player coming, once I saw the player waving his hands to his fans down at the square. The song coming from the trumpeter made time stopped for a while in the square, people looked up, concentrated on the player’s shining moment, playing a song on his trumpet. Never have I seen time stopped in such an elegant way before.
Not far from the square, the Wawel Castle stood in its glory facing the Vistula river. Its cathedral has what some locals called the bigos architecture since it was a mixed of architecture styles put together, just like the dish bigos which was a mixed of different kinds of meat put in a stew. Legend has it there was a dragon who once lived in the Wawel hill facing the Vistula river. The dragon had a habit of eating the young virgins of Kraków. The King feared the dragon, Smok Wawelski, would take his daughter so initiatively he offered his daughter’s hand in marriage for any man who could defeat the dragon. Surprise surprise a young man named Skuba defeated the fierce Smok Wawelski. Truly a fairy tale story in this amazing Polish city, don’t you think?
Putting aside the Wawel Palace, The Vistula river itself has its own charm, reflecting a certain calmness. Its stream relaxing, people walked along the riverside enjoying the trickle of the water. Boy, this castle was so strategically put. I wouldn’t mind having this river as my morning view everyday either.
After the castle, I walked a little further to find a church with a space of green grass in front of it as if asking me to soak the sun and enjoy the beautiful carvings of the church. This open space was the place where hundreds of people stood and waited for their beloved Pope to show up from his room overlooking ul. Franciszkańska. I closed my eyes, imagining the crowd, imagining the Pope graciously coming out of his room to say hello to his friends, the Krakovians. If there was one person the Polish people highly respected was the Pope. Pope John Paul II came from this very city, when he died in 2005, a large crowd gathered in this same spot to commemorate his life by putting candles and flowers all over the place. This ritual still happens every year on the date of his death.
When in Poland, I always make time for a sweet and savoury encounter with pierogi. This dumplings stole my heart from the first time I was introduced by it, which was back in Nantes, cooked by a Polish friend of mine. I was told by my friend Sara Kate that there was going to be a Pierogi Festival in Kraków. It was like Poland gets me, it was as if we were soul mates – that was the only conclusion I could think of! I didn’t hesitate, to be in a pierogi heaven for one night is a dream come true for me. A lot of new pierogi flavours were introduced to me that night. Some I didn’t like so much, but some left good memories on my tongue. The pierogi ruskie with cheese and potato, is a traditional one and one of my favourites while the sweet apple and cinnamon flavour pierogi was exquisite, a beautiful combination which made me tingled. How can one city spoil me so much?
For sure Kraków has left marks in my heart. Maybe it was the hejnał mariacki from St. Mary’s Basilica or maybe it was the dragon fairy tale story or maybe I was just in love with the whole package that makes Kraków what it is. Either way, Kraków charmed me, and I didn’t mind at all.
Have you ever been to Poland? Would you visit Kraków?