Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Skiing in Krakow?

This title is rather misleading. No, you can't ski in Krakow. However, just a two to three hour bus ride from the city are the Tatra Mountains and the Polish winter resort of Zakopane. Here you most definitely can ski.

Visitors to Zakopane for skiing should probably be warned, this is NOT a ski resort in the same sense as those one might venture to in the Alps. It is a town that has some areas for skiing. These areas are located separately and your choice of location must very much be governed by your ability and experience. It is probably not somewhere to select for a week of skiing. Rather, it is somewhere you can go and include skiing in other outdoor pursuits.
The skiing recommendations listed here starts with the biggest, most alpine area but then goes on to review some of the other complexes the town has to offer for all abilities.


Kasprowy Wierch Ski Website
This is the absolute BEST place to ski in Zakopane. It is alpine, located in two valleys fanning out from Kasprowy Wierch mountain which reaches an elevation of 1,987 metres. Since it is national park area, no snow cannons are allowed as they would disturb wildlife, so skiers must accept the snow conditions nature flings at them. This ski area, in lot of ways, is wonderfully undeveloped. I read somewhere that is is reminiscent of Austria at the end of the 19th century. However, that is not to say that it lacks the necessary uplift and infrastructure. Indeed, recent changes to how day passes operate has made this a super day out in some stunning scenery.
However, Kasprowy is only for intermediate and advanced skiers. Beginners, do not go here!

Friday, 18 November 2016

The Lost Mezuzahs of Kazimierz, Krakow

Whilst walking around the vibrant, Bohemian Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz in Krakow keep an eye out for marks on the right doorposts of the main entrances into buildings. You will notice that many have strange diagonal dents or scars on them. These mark where mezuzah boxes were affixed in the past, and signify that previous tenants were Jewish.
Mezuzah literally is the Hebrew word for “doorpost” since this – funnily enough – is where it is placed. It is not a good luck charm, but serves the important purpose of reminding the inhabitants of God’s presence and his commandments.
The instruction to place a mezuzah in this position comes from the Book of Deuteronomy in the bible in a passage commonly known as the Shema. In this passage the Jewish people are commanded to keep God’s words constantly in their minds and hearts - and the mezuzah box assists with this.
“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart…You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
The words of the Shema are written by hand by an expert calligrapher on a tiny piece of parchment paper with God’s name written on the back. It is then rolled up and placed in the mezuzah box, but care must be taken to ensure that the first letter of God’s name is visible.
The box is then affixed at an angle on the right doorpost of the house.
Every time a Jew passes the box or enters the building they should kiss their fingers and touch the box as a reminder of the commandments within.
What is significant with the indents on Kazimierz’s doorposts are that they symbolise the extermination of what was once the thriving, rich cultural Jewish life of 60,000 Krakow Jews. Perhaps they were removed as soon as the Nazis invaded to try and cover up the Jewish presence within the building. Perhaps they simply are a sad, poignant reminder of the Holocaust. Are they all that remains of the lost souls that once inhabited these buildings who never returned as their existence was to be lost up the crematorium chimneys of Auschwitz/Birkenau? What is also sad is that with Krakow and Kazimierz now enjoying the prosperity that mass tourism brings, the renovation of these buildings means that these marks are gradually being plastered over and lost forever.

The image below brings home the harsh reality of the fate of many Krakow's Jewish residents. Remember this when you spot mezuzah marks on Krakow's doorposts.
Forced deportation of Krakow's Jews
 Image courtesy of the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Przegorzały Castle - History, Food, Fresh Air with a Fabulous View

Przegorzały Castle - Willa Tower to the left and Schloss Wartenberg on the right situated on Skałki (crag) Przegorzalskie. Viewed from the cycle path on the south of the Vistula River

If you are tired of trudging the cobbled streets in the city,and are desperate for some fresh air and a wonderful view, then you could do worse than take a trip to Przegorzały Castle (zamek). Access is easy, take the number 134 (destination the Zoo) from the Blonia. Alternatively, walk along to the Cracovia football stadium and take the 409 bus. This will whisk you to an area which reads on the map as Las Wolski. Although this sounds like a dodgy salsa dance that people would do in the 1980s at weddings, this is in fact a large area of deciduous woodland still within the urban confines of Krakow. As mentioned already, the zoo is housed here, but there are other sights of note for the intrepid visitor and Przegorzały Castle is most definitely one of these. To be perfectly honest, the castle itself is better viewed not in the woods at all, but from the cycle/walking trails along the Vistula River. However, you will not be disappointed by the views from its terraces with panoramic vistas to the river below, the south-western part of Krakow, the undulating forested lumps of the Beskidy mountains, and – if it is a clear day - to the jagged peaks of the Tatra Mountains beyond. Coupled with this you have a lovely café/restaurant to dine in or simply have a cuppa and admire the views. To be clear though – this is not a castle in the sense of most because there are no rooms, dungeons, thrones or torture chambers to visit. In fact, you can’t access most of the building as it now houses the Jagiellonian University's Institute of European Studies, and also the Centre for Holocaust Studies.

Las Wolski in autumn

What is truly fascinating is the history of castle. There are essentially two parts to it. Firstly there is the sightly older Willa Tower constructed in the 1920s by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz who had been director of renovation crew of the Wawel Castle, went on to be director of the Department of Antique Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow (subsequently its rector), and then Director of the Architecture Department at the Warsaw University of Technology. A renowned architect, he named Willa Tower his "Belvedere" due to its superb views - it was also his family home. 

However, things take a more sinister turn after the Nazi invasion of 1939. The evil Baron Otto von Wächter arrived on the scene. As a reward for participation in the Nazi coup in Austria he was given the title of Governor of the District of Krakow and subsequently the District of Galicia. He was an Austrian lawyer, member of the SS and this role as an Alderman entitled him to a town house. He chose a pretty stunning building called the Palace Under the Rams on the Old Town square (which now houses the famous Piwnica pod Baranami). For Otto though, this was not enough. Like Hitler himself, he obviously fancied his very own "Eagles Nest" rural retreat and had his eye firmly on the Willa Tower with its prominent position on Skałki (crag) Przegorzalskie. Szyszko-Bohusz obviously had no intentions of giving up his family home, so the Nazis confiscated it and had him arrested on a trumped up charge. Otto then decided this tower was not grand enough to suit his needs and proceeded to have an entire castle constructed next to it in 1941. It was called Schloss Wartenberg and was modelled on the castles of the German Rhineland. Clearly no expense was spared on its construction with its elegant facades and terraces. 

Baron Otto von Wächter was less admirable unfortunately. His signature is on decrees ordering the expulsion of the 68,000 Krakow Jews, the formation of the ghetto and the death of over 100,000 Polish civilians under his rule as Governor of the District of Galicia. In addition, he oversaw the slaughter of 1000 Polish resistance fighters who lie buried close to the castle in a mass grave known locally as Glinik. Despite a request being sent to the Military Governor of the United States Zone after the war that Wachter be returned to Poland for trial for his part in deportations, executions and mass murder, he managed to slip away. 

It is documented that he actually was given refuge in 1949 in the Vatican by a pro-Nazi Austrian bishop named Alois Hudal. However, in that same year he died from kidney disease, allegedly poisoned by jaundice picked up when swimming, or - perhaps it was karma. 

In the days after the liberation of Krakow by the Red Army, the castle became a hospital, research institute for the Ministry of Forestry and then finally allocated to the Jagiellonian University by the communist authorities. Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz attempted to reclaim the castle but failed.

Las Wolski and the Camaldolese Monastery
A visit to this area could include a yomp around the marked trails in the Las Wolski forest or a visit the Pilsudski Mound or Camaldolese Monastery. I am not a fan of zoos so I am not going to recommend it despite it being in a lovely location.

For the restaurant, visit:- U ZIYADA although at present the English part of this site appears not to be working. However, the gallery pictures will give you a good impression of the interiors and exteriors of the castle.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Chasing the Ghosts of World War Two in Krakow

One of the astonishing things I found when taking those first few tentative steps beyond the Iron Curtain in 1990 was how much of Eastern Europe was still scarred from World War Two. Remnants were everywhere - from abandoned concentration camps - to buildings in major cities such as Berlin, Warsaw and Budapest still pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel holes.
For visitors to Kraków who are interested in this period of history, there are still some raw remnants you can unearth if you know where to look.
My first recommendation is not far from the Old Town and resides within the Silesian House (Dom Śląski). This building on ulica Pomorska 2 was the headquarters of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation and was where civilians were interrogated and brutally tortured. The building now houses an excellent exhibition entitled "People of Kraków in Times of Terror 1939 - 1945 - 1956" (the later date referring to terror during post war Soviet occupation). It consists of informative archives, photos, evidence and film. However, creepiest and most poignant of all is that in the basement, the visitor can visit the interrogation cells which still bear inscriptions on their walls scratched by the desperate detainees. A visit here is thought provoking journey away from the tourist hordes of the main square.
Inscriptions scratched into the walls of the torture cells
 Remembering the victims of Nazi fascism
Dom Śląski
The Kazimierz Jewish district itself can be viewed as one huge WW2 remnant in that it's inhabitants were all decanted from the area to the ghetto across the river, and then ultimately to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Lots of evidence of the area's former inhabitants can be seen everywhere. Try looking for the marks left by Mezuzah Scroll boxes on the right door post of the buildings in the area.  These indicate that former owners were Jewish and that they never returned to these buildings. These scrolls were housed in a box and consist of the most famous Jewish prayer - the Shema. Usually hand written by an expert scribe, it is a symbol of God watching over the house and it's dwellers. On entering the house, the inhabitants touch it and kiss their fingertips.

Mezuzah Scroll box marks on door frames in Kazimierz

Friday, 26 August 2016

An alternative way to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines

Followers of this blog will know that we like to offer advice on alternative sights away from the crowds. More adventurous tourists therefore maybe more interested in visiting the salt mines in Wieliczka using the Miners' Route. This is accessed at the Regis Shaft (the oldest shaft in the complex) just a stone's throw from the town train station. The idea is that visitors can experience the mines from the viewpoint of what it was like to work in them. This is a wonderful day trip a mere 15 km from the centre of Krakow.
Visit the Salt Mines Page for more information.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Experience Poland under Communism and the Cold War at Nowa Huta

Ever seen a tank on a street before?
Looking for an alternative to the usual tourist sights in Krakow? Look no further than a tour of Nowa Huta. This is easy to do on your own, but organised tours are also available. Find out more about this fascinating district of Krakow by visiting the Nowa Huta Page.
Experience Cold War nuclear bunkers
Amazing Socialist Realist architecture

What to do in the event of a nuclear attack?
See the biggest steelworks in the Soviet Empire

Friday, 17 June 2016

Grunwald Monument

This giant statue is very impressive and worth popping across the road from the Barbican for a closer look. It is found on Pl Matejki and commemorates what is often quoted as being one of the greatest battles to ever rage in medieval Europe - The Battle of Grunwald. It was fought between the combined armies of Polish/Lithuanian Alliance against the Germanic Teutonic Knights on July 15, 1410. This is such an important battle to the Poles that it is actively commemorated to the present day. 

The monument was unveiled in 1910 on the 500th anniversary of the battle and is said that an estimated crowd of 150,000 people gathered to watch this. This is probably because it embodies the romantic belief of the brave Polish/Lithuanian forces ridding the land of the evil invaders. Created by Antoni Wiwulski, the original statue suffered tragically during the Nazi invasion of Kraków in WW2 as the vile heathens could not abide such a period of history glorified and they destroyed it! What you see on this spot today is a copy of it dating to 1976. It is however said to be a faithful reproduction of the original using surviving sketches.

The large figure casts arranged around the monument are grand and realistic, albeit super sized. Sitting on the top is the King of Poland Władysław Jagiełło on his horse with his sword pointing downwards. Adorning the front is his cousin the Lithuanian prince Vytautas (Vitold). He is in turn flanked on either side by victorious soldiers from the joint army. Some of these look more like they are sneaking a peak around the corner at the solemn Lithuanian Prince as if he is a mighty celebrity. The large dead bloke at the front is Urlich von Jungingen, the Teutonic Order’s Grand Master. Apparently he lost his life during the battle and he is now lying prone for eternity at the feet of Vytautas.

Want to find out more about attractions in Krakow? Visit the Attractions page.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Podgórze - Pearl of Crakow

Many people visit Krakow. However, many simply visit the Old Town, Kazimierz, Auschwitz and the Salt Mines. What the vast majority of visitors fail to do is visit the wonderful district of Podgórze.

Okay, some may venture slightly off track and head to the Schindler Factory. BUT - there is so much more to this area than its role as the Ghetto during WW2 and "Schindler's List"!

Find out more on the PodgórzePlaszow Concentration Camp and  Liban Quarry page links.

Even better - watch this superb short film about the district with drone footage.
Hopefully, this should inspire you to explore beyond the usual tourist trails of Krakow.
Podgórze summer night

Monday, 28 March 2016

Krakow Easter

There is something very special about visiting Krakow at Easter. The Easter traditions are to be admired and the wonderful Easter Market on the main market square should not be missed.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Easter in Zakopane

If you happen to be in Zakopane on the 28th March, don't miss out on the Easter Monday madness at the Kalatówki  mountain hotel. It is quite a spectacle.
Locals dress up in old fashioned garb, don antiquated ski gear and hurtle down the ski slope fuelled by vodka. Singing, hilarity and craziness guaranteed.

Why not visit:-  for more information on Zakopane?

Friday, 26 February 2016

Plaszow Concentration Camp Ruins

These ruins exist to this day in what remains of Płaszów concentration camp on the outskirts of Kraków. Maps label them as the crematorium. 

Whatever the buildings were, this is undoubtedly a desolate, creepy area, with a sniff of evil in the air. The original concentration camp fence still surrounds the area.
Want to know more about this fascinating, historic area of Krakow? Then visit the Płaszów Concentration Camp Page 

Concentration camp fence still standing at Plaszow
 Crematorium interior? Plaszow
 Crematorium interior? Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium buildings, Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium buildings and camp fence remains, Plaszow

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Meet and Eat with the Locals

What a fantastic idea! Meet local people and share wonderful food with them at the same time.
Follow this link to find out the foodie evenings on offer in Krakow.
Eat With the Locals

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Liban Quarry

The Liban quarry 
The Liban quarry featured prominently in Speilberg's film "Schindler's List". This pre-war limestone quarry was used for the set depicting Płaszów concentration camp. So, to clear up any confusion, this quarry was NOT in real life part of Płaszów. It WAS however a penal camp where 800 young poles were incarcerated from 1942 - 1944, and who suffered at the hands of their cruel Nazi captors. Beatings and death were dealt out liberally. In fact, a small monument,  which is extremely difficult to find, exists at the ul. Za Torem side of the quarry to 21 inmates executed when the camp was liberated. Speilberg used the quarry as he did not want to film on the site of the neighbouring Płaszów out of respect for the camp's victims. To read the full story of the Liban Quarry - visit the Liban Quarry Page.
The quarry, limekilns and double "concentration camp" fence
Old quarry machinery
The Liban quarry itself actually dates back to 1873, and was established by two well known Jewish families from Podgórze for limestone for the production of quicklime. What remains today is an overgrown tangle of remnants of all these activities - working quarry, penal camp and film set! It certainly becomes very confusing when trying to decipher what remnant dates to what activity! What is evident though, is the creepy air that lies trapped within the vertical limestone walls of this ex-camp, a mere walk from the centre of Kraków.
The main way to acceess the quarry is from the Krakus mound. Stroll along the rim of the cliffs, following the fence until you come to a large cemetery. Proceed through a gap between the fences a short way. You will shorty come to a point where the dirt path veers to the right. Follow it and you will immediately find a path following a long angled ramp down to the floor of the quarry. After this, it is a case of foraging your way through the thick tangle of undergrowth to the various remnants that lie hidden within. The most obvious remnants are the large, tall, rusting limekilns which really do date back to the war. If you scramble up to these, lurking in the trees close by, are the remains of the fake camp commandant's house that Speilberg constructed on a terraced perch overlooking the rest of the quarry.
Don't miss the central road running through the floor of the quarry, which appears to be made of smashed up Jewish gravestones. Once again, this is a remnant from the film set mimicking the road of gravestones that really did exist leading into the real Płaszów camp. I am led to believe however, that the road made for the film set was made from casts of real gravestones. That said, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find it, as the quarry is gradually being swallowed up by nature. I have even heard the site is becoming a haven for wild flowers, rare lizards and birds who forage amongst the gallows, barbed wire and wooden fences posts with electric insulators.
Road made from smashed Jewish gravestones lurking under the snow
Speilberg's concentration camp fence

Electric insulators still on Speilberg's fence
What a visit to the quarry undoubtedly gives the visitor, is a chance to wander independently, sometimes filled with apprehension, visiting the darkest recesses of Kraków's history. Since it is such an overgrown forage into confusing aspects of the worst cruelty man can deal out to fellow human beings, a visit to here, and the neighbouring Płaszów camp, can provoke ponderous soul searching which can be more poignant than a trip to Auschwitz.
Message plastered on one of the quarry's ruined buildings - a message for us all!