Wednesday, December 19, 2007

momentous bones

Krakow has the distinction of having been spared any destruction in WWII, and is thus one of Europe's unspoiled cities. Sort of. Europe's old towns, being big tourist draws, also draw the commercialism that seeks to take advantage of tourists, and the beautiful buildings are best admired from the first floor up. The ground floors have invariably been taken over by eating establishments and boutiques of one nature or another. I was looking forward to Krakow, but was a a little sad to see the old town streets bathed in neon. Guess I'm just old-fashioned. But don't get me wrong, it's still stunning, and the hot chocolate at Nowy Prowincia café is almost as good as Ukraine's. I could definitely live there for a while. I certainly need to go back, especially because I just found out that Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine lives there, and I missed it. Dang! The same sluggishness that infused my legs and feet in Lviv also applies to doing research. These cities have rich histories, and it can take days just to properly read up on them. I spend my time bubbling in a cocktail of travel research, writing, walking, eating, sleeping, socializing, and taking care of annoying yet necessary tasks. Priorities change daily, even hourly. And to think that before I left home I was worried about being bored. I have nothing to do but travel, and I still don't have enough time in the day. I packed a small set of watercolors pencils and some card stock to dabble about with during the slow times, and the only time I've taken them out is when I tossed my pack looking for a lost adapter.

I may have missed Krakow's fine art offerings, but I made sure to track down the weird. The Wawel Castle and cathedral are full of treasures, but the most intriguing objects are outside in plain sight for free. Hanging to the left of the cathedral doors are three mighty prehistoric bones that were unearthed on the hill. I think dinosaur bones hanging in front of a church are kind of funny. Where exactly do the dinos fit into the whole creationism scheme? And, dare I speculate that it's a giant rib bone? Even if it isn't, I like to think that it is.

Having scuppered my plans to visit New Zealand on this jaunt, and thereby missing a chance to visit an old college chum, I told her to pick an eastern European destination that I had to visit, and so found myself down underground again, in the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Centuries of mining has depleted all the salt, so it's no longer active. Displays include recreations of mining operations (horses were brought underground, and once there, stayed put), and lots of salt sculptures carved by miners who really had quite some artistic flair. The are mostly religious in nature, including several chapels, since mining is an inherently dangerous profession, and they needed all the protection they could get. The Chapel of St. Kinga includes a few noteworthies – a Baby Jesus carved from pink salt, a rather graphic relief of the Slaughter of the Innocents (not sure why this particular episode was chosen for depiction), another relief of The Last Supper which takes on bizarre three dimensional qualities when viewed from across the room, and Pope John Paul II. JPII is big in Poland. It's like he was Polish or something. Statues everywhere, and I'll take a wild guess that at least one street in each major town is named after him. Overall, the mine's presentation was a bit cheesy, but it has been the only museum that invites visitors to lick the walls. I took at least two tongue swipes. Salty. The air is reputed to be very healthy, and our guide kept reminding us to breathe deeply to attain long, preserved life.

Mostly I just spent my time in Krakow guzzling hot beverages in cafés and walking around absorbing the ambience. I ate some pierogi filled with "groad." Trying to establish what "groad" was before placing my order, the waitress with a 85% grasp on English hunted around for a word. "It's like rice, but brown." "Brown" sounded like it could be "vegetarian" so I took a gamble. It was, mostly, except for a few nuggets of something meaty that managed to sneak in, and it was also devoid of any taste. They could have done with a good rub along the walls of the salt mine, or at least some sort of sauce. The menu had promised cheese in there as well, but I couldn't discern any. My companions had plates filled with lovely looking fried things, and I had a bad case of dinner envy. Krakow proved to be a bit of a dumpling washout in general. Getting dinner at a recommended vegetarian restaurant, I ordered a plate of Tibetan dumplings, which were really quite tasty, except there should have be at least three times as many to qualify for a meal. Iain gave my plate a hard look. "I'm pretty sure you ordered an entrée." I'm pretty sure I had, too, and ate a bag of potato chips back at the hostel. The only decent plate of pierogi I got was at a milk bar establishment, which are the cheapo worker cafeterias that were subsidized by the government back in the communist days. The food can be a little hit or miss, but when you're only spending few złoty for a full meal, who cares. On Sunday I prowled through the flea market, which sold everything from puppies out a box to porn out of a suitcase. I was tempted by the old stainless steel surgical tools, but not knowing where they had been, settled instead for a paperback translation of Hound of the Baskervilles, simply because the standout word on the cover is "Pies." I'm planning on putting it in my kitchen for baking inspiration.

There's a town called Katowice about an hour away, and it's worth at least day trip to wander the streets and parks, admiring the mishmosh of different styles. Be careful if you park anywhere, because I've never seen so many meter maids in my life, and all of them were taking their jobs very seriously.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a short bus ride away from Krakow, and winter is an appropriately bleak time to visit. With the intention of exposing what happened, and hoping that humanity will learn from history and not allow it to happen again, almost everything is open. Many of the barracks at Auschwitz house exhibitions, and several displays are designed to impart a sense of scale of how many people were murdered. One room has close to 2000 kilograms of human hair that was intended for use in the textile industry, literally to be fashioned into haircloth for tailoring. Birkenau is bigger than I expected it to be, and is more an open air museum – visitors are free to wander throughout most of the grounds, and several of the barracks are open. The gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau were blown up by the retreating SS, and are left in their ruined state, but the one at Auschwitz is still intact. The orderly appearance of each camp, barracks all in a tidy row, belies the tragic horrible mess it was during its operation.

This blog is a bit short, but I'm way behind. Writing is hard.

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