Wednesday, 5 September 2007

We are in Krakow, Poland, and I love this city. We took a small propeller plane to get here from Warsaw, and sat on the rows right next to the propellers which was very cool. We exited down some stairs after landing and into a bus that took us to the terminal. It was pretty cold, and standing room only (to the kid’s delight, they love to stand on public transportation), so we grabbed onto the cold metal poles to steady ourselves. We had to “Hold the cold pole in Poland”. Say that five times fast. We did.

I love this hotel. I love the Laundromat around the corner. We met Clay’s parents here yesterday evening, and it was a sweet reunion. It is good to see family after more than a month on the road, we had lots of stories to share. So far I have eaten more food than I care to mention. I just have to say the dumplings are excellent, so is the gnocchi, the cheese and jam and bread for breakfast, and. . . Polish food is very good. I need to find a gym.

We woke up to rain tapping the window and the roof, so we all pulled on the rain jackets and headed out to Wawel Castle (pronounced Vavel). We admired the huge bones that hang from a chain outside the front door of the cathedral; legend says if the bones ever fall, the world ends. People once thought the bones were from giants, but today they say they are from prehistoric animals. Benji asked me which dinosaur they came from, and when I said they didn’t know he looked at the bones, decided they must be from a seismosaurus, and asked if he could tell the people who owned the cathedral so they’d know.

The cathedral is actually one central church, and then a bunch of tiny chapels that are attached on all the sides, all done in different styles. The kids learned a lot about Baroque versus Classical versus Gothic during all those visits to palaces and churches in Russia. They also had their eyes out for columns they could identify, Doric or Ionic or Corinthian. We also kept our eyes peeled for any animal statues, and decided which was our favorite little chapel, “the pink room” or the “bright room”, etc.

After a quick walk around the castle grounds (we didn’t go inside the castle or the museums), we descended to an underground grotto. We were all by ourselves, an oddity after encountering tour group after tour group. We must have gone down at least a hundred steps, and stepped out into a rocky cave illuminated with motion sensor lights that dimmed if you stood still to give a nice, creepy effect.

There’s a legend about a dragon, Krak, that once terrorized the city, so a brave knight filled a dead sheep carcass with sulfur and threw it to the dragon who ate it. The sulfur made the dragon so thirsty he began to drink from the river, and he drank so much he exploded. A great story to hear under the ground, Clay’s voice bouncing off those stone walls. We came out to find a metal statue of the dragon, and it you texted certain numbers on your cell phone, the dragon even breathed fire. It was pretty cool, even in the rain.

Next we escaped the rain and chilly weather inside a lovely, warm restaurant, where we feasted on dumplings and gnocchi (see note above). Then we were off to locate a bus that could take us to the Wieliczka Salt Mine just outside the city. We walked down more than 800 steps, descending 135 meters underground. This was an amazing place. The salt miners carved rooms, and then statues, out of the enormous mine. The salt was not white because it had not yet been refined. It was gray because it was mixed with clay and other minerals. In some places along the halls we traveled the walls were shiny from so many hands running along them. Anyone familiar with Patricia Polacco’s book Pink and Say will understand when I say, “I touched the wall that touched the hand that touched the hand of a salt miner.”

The statues were of saints and gnomes and salt miners, but the most impressive were in a huge, underground cathedral. The statues and bas reliefs were all carved by three men, two of them brothers, scenes from the New Testament stories when twelve-year-old Jesus taught in the temple, when Jesus turned the water to wine, the Last Supper, etc. All of it carved in salt. The floor was carved in salt tiles, the chandeliers were hung with salt crystals.

We learned that the salt mine was first discovered many centuries ago by people who obtained their salt from a briny river. When the river went dry, they tried digging a well to find more briny water, and found the salt mine instead. A legend tells of a Hungarian princess who the prince of Poland was trying to woo. She wouldn’t marry him because there wasn’t enough salt in the country, and she threw his ring on the Hungarian soil in refusal. She was convinced to visit the country, and when she did he again begged her hand, and the ring appeared on the ground, traveling through a huge salt mine all the way from Hungary.  The Polish love their legends.

It was interesting to compare the salt mine tour with the coal mine tour we took in Wales. Both mines were very dangerous and miners died because of trapped gasses and collapsing timbers that were the supports for the mine. But a real coal miner took us down into “the pit”, which was dirty and black and still looked a lot like it must have when the real miners were working it. The heavily Welsh-accented English-speaking miner wore an orange suit, and we all wore hats with lights on them and heavy belts. We felt like coal miners.

The salt mine was very clean, with nice paths and an English-speaking Polish guide in a spiffy uniform and a crisp Polish accent, and we didn’t wear heavy belts or hats. We could see traces of where the miners had once walked; skinny, dark passages and crude steps cut into the salt where they carried the salt back up on their backs, but our experience was very different. There were audio-visual displays, wax people to represent miners, and one room where they dimmed the lights and played beautiful classical music while they shone lights on different parts of the large, underground salt cavern.

The salt mine workers were treated very well, there were never any slaves, women or children who worked in the mines, and they were paid every week. It was a hereditary job that could be passed on to their children, and they never worked more than eight hours a day. Most miners actually spent ten hours in the mine, praying for safety in an underground chapel an hour before and after their shift. This is all very different from some of the tragic circumstances that surrounded early working conditions in the coal mines.

To exit the mine we took a small, dark, fast, rickety elevator back to the surface, check the video to see what we all thought of this. When we came back outside it was still drizzling, so we grabbed another bus, and headed back to the city. The busses we took had very bouncy back seats and the boys enjoyed their rides to and from the mine. This time the men and boys headed out to get our dinner (the hunters) while the women picked up the clean laundry (gatherers). We had gyros and pizza for dinner and woke this morning to more rain on the window. We can’t complain much, we’ve had such perfect weather so far this trip, so we will once again don the rain jackets and head out into the city. Hi-ho-Silver!


Friday, 7 September 2007

We spent our last day in Krakow yesterday, before boarding a night train that deposited us in Budapest, Hungary this morning. We started off the morning in our rain coats again, but by afternoon the rain had stopped and we could let the hoods on our rain coats hang down our backs. We explored the city, walking through the Old Town, and eating lunch at a milk bar. These are small cafes that are subsidized by the government, and once offered communist workers a very inexpensive lunch. They are still subsidized by the government, and the bill for all seven of us came to the equivalent of less than $20.

Ordering at the milk bar was no easy thing. The two women behind the counter spoke no English and there weren’t many food items we could point to. We hung back, carefully watching what other people ordered and pointing to plates that looked appetizing. By the time we ordered for all seven of us, the line behind us was out the door. We may have been inefficient, but we ordered well and all plates were clean by the time we finished. Dumplings, peas and carrots, pork cutlet, buckwheat, ham soup, broccoli and cauliflower casserole, and gnocchi were just a few of the things that filled our table and bellies.

After lunch we walked by a square with a multitude of pigeons. This called for an extended stay to make friends with each and every one of them. Clay was kind enough to buy a humongous pretzel, and these pigeons weren’t shy. They sat on the kid’s heads, their arms, their backs. Several times the kids would walk across the square with a pigeon sitting complacently on their arm, eating from their hand. I thought Peggy looked like she wanted in on the fun so I made sure to sprinkle some crumbs near her as well.

In the afternoon Clay took a detour to visit a church and pray for a sick friend while the rest of us went on a golf cart tour of the Old Town and Jewish Quarter of the city. The Jewish Quarter was amazing, to think that 180,000 Jews once lived in Krakow, and now only a few thousand remain. So many were killed during WWII, squeezed into this section of town where they either died or were sent on to concentration camps. I was trying to tell this to the kids, and Nate said, “But I didn’t think they were killed in the concentration camps. I thought they just worked hard. Why did they kill them?” He just couldn’t understand. Neither can I.

Today the Jewish Quarter has several synagogues, and apartments that are picturesque. I kept looking at the windows, trying to picture four or five families, their frightened faces pressed against the glass, maybe a wistful child who wished she could go out and play.

Our driver was a kind man, who apologized that his English was not very good. He spoke Italian, German and Polish, and I told him I was impressed since all I speak is English. I am constantly humbled by my lack of knowledge of any foreign language, maybe I’ll take some classes when I get back home. So far our vocabulary for each location doesn’t go much further than “thank you” and “yes”. This driver took us past a stone the city put up to memorialize the Jews who were killed, saying they should never be forgotten. He explained that just as Catholics lights candles to remember people, Jews put up stones. It was neat to remember how even in the Old Testament we could remember instances of Jews putting up stones, at the Red Sea or when God appeared to Abraham. And here we were in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, seeing these stones.

Our driver then took us to “the best ice cream store in Krakow”. He was born not far from the little place, and remembered licking a cone as a boy. On Saturdays he claims the line stretches out the door and down the street, and so even though each of us had three scoops of ice cream earlier in the day, we all had to sample just a little bit more. The kids were overjoyed, and it was very good.

We met back up with Clay and killed several hours at a large shopping mall until our overnight train to Budapest left at 10:30PM. We hunkered down in the food court with our bags piled high on all sides. We were all pretty tired by the time the train got there. Clay had a three-berth cabin with the boys, and Alayna and I shared our three-berth with a backpacking girl from Scotland who was so tired she almost immediately fell asleep. The bunks were stacked three high, with Alayna and Nate getting only about two feet between their bunk and the train’s ceiling. Peggy and Maurice had a cabin in the same car, so we all settled in for a good night’s rest. Rocking to the rhythm of the train with the rain pattering gently on the windowpane.

Until 2AM when the three large,  scary looking men in green army uniforms knocked on everyone’s door, wanting to check our passports as we entered Slovakia. Bleary-eyed, in my jammies, I held mine and Alayna’s out for inspection. It took three men and a little machine to make sure we were safe and gain our coveted stamp. We settled back in until 5AM, when our second round of passport checking occurred as we entered Hungary. These men were much nicer. They didn’t flip on the light, and they didn’t use their little machine. The backpacking girl barely merited a glance at her EU passport. She called it her golden ticket, saying she had been in six countries so far and never even got a stamp!

Alayna and the Scottish girl fell back asleep for a few more hours, but before I joined them I watched the sun rise over some hills in the distance. “I am on a train in Hungary,” I said to myself. It was a weird feeling, just me in the tiny hall outside the cabins, watching the world fly by. There were two small clouds that were bright pink from the rising sun, and the sun finally popped over the top of a distant hill, making it look like a volcano. We passed fields of dead sunflowers, their heads all hanging the same direction, bowing to the rising sun as if they took one last, final breath the morning before, then hung their heads in resignation that their season was over. We passed tiny railway stations (we made over thirty stops in the course of the night), houses with small gardens and laundry hanging outside, a woman riding her bike and smoking a morning cigarette.

I went back to bed and managed to sleep a little longer before we got up for real. We even squeaked out a little home school before we arrived at the station. Clay is kicking himself because we forgot to take pictures of the train, and how small the cabins were. We didn’t remember until we were standing outside the train station, everyone hanging onto their backpack and the duffels and Peggy and Maurice’s two suitcases, trying to figure out how to make a call to a cab company in Hungary with our cell phone, and keep the boys from being run over while they scampered around, fresh as a daisy after their night spent on the train.