Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Krakow: White Spirits and a Wander through Polska...


And a good evening to you from across the Pond after another GREAT DAY in the Mother Country. First off - I KNOW THE IDENTITY OF THE "12TH FOLLOWER" OF THE BLOG - STEVE MARKHAM!!!! It has to be you, dude - Alvin the Alligator was the tipping point. Full marks for such a spectacular cloak & dagger display.

Secondly, as promised - here's the recap of the Taylor visit to the country of the Warsaw pact and, more specifically, the home of Europe's 4th largest central square - ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: 60 hours in Krakow (I know, I know - I can't help but think it as well: "Where do I buy the Nike shoes?").

Friday: En route to the Eastern Bloc

So this day was a busy one at work, but the highlight was on the treadmill in the AM - I LOGGED 5 MILES, BABY!!!!!! That's right, after a hiatus of more than a year, Sammy FINALLY logged an 8K - talk about a good feeling! Granted, the feeling of my fat rolls shaking for 40+ minutes was less than pleasant, but hey, as Dickens once said: "A man must take the fat with the lean." Of course, in my case it's more fat than lean, but details...

So the trip to the airport was easy, and we cleared security with plenty of time to spare. Given that, we wanted to sit down for a proper meal (translation: we needed grease since we were still HURTING from Thursday night). Lucky for us, there was a "Giraffe" (a "world burger joint for happy life and love" - yeah, I can't make this shit up) in Terminal 1. 20 minutes later, JT and I were drinking South African wine and eating lamb burgers the size of our heads - AWESOME. I can't WAIT to hit another one of these restaurants somewhere in the city.

The flight to Warsaw was easy, and I tried my first Polish beer on the flight: Zwytiec. Now is a good time to bring up what, I expect, is an obvious point: POLISH IS A GYPSY LANGUAGE. Do NOT try to comprehend, listen to, or speak this language, as it will leave your voice box on the floor bleeding. All I could think the entire time I was there was "I will look upon your treasures, gypsy - do not hex me." I know, I know...all class.

We had to connect in Warsaw, which is, quite possibly, the single most STERILE AIRPORT ON EARTH. Miller - I know that the "Sing is clean," but this place was a scene from "1984." Let's just hope the city has a little more pep. That being said, it was better than the domestic terminal of Krakow, which is A CORRUGATED STEEL WAREHOUSE WITH A SINGLE CONVEYOR BELT AND PICTURES ON THE WALL OLDER THAN TOP GUN. Seriously - I could have been in a bar in Mongolia in 1970 - it was that out of date.

Fortunes turned quickly, however, as 10 minutes later we had a private driver (in a Mercedes, no less) ferrying us to our hotel (the 5-star Sheraton, for the record...which I got practically for free due to the package...I mean - were you expecting anything else?), which was in the shadow of Krakow's most famous monument - Wawel Hill. This spot (where they just buried the Polish President) is a MASSIVE complex of castles, squares, embattlements, and towers - it is, quite possibly, the most impressive castle complex I've ever seen.

We passed out that night and slept LIKE THE DEAD. With first pay out the door, I could feel the relaxation seeping into my bones.

Saturday: The Word of the Day was weddings...and vodka
We woke at 9 AM, thanks to the alarm. Honestly, we could have slept until Tuesday, but we knew this was our 1 day to journey forth into the old town. Consequently we showered, drank some coffee (courtesy of Muffin!), and headed out the door.

Saturday was GREAT for so many reasons. For starters, after having such a stressful month, it was GREAT to just wander around with no schedule, looking at AMAZING architecture and just being with JT. We hadn't really had much alone time over the past month, so it was great simply being together and taking in this new experience.

Our day started walking down some old, cobblestone streets, which took us past the home of Pope John Paul II (there were monuments and statues to this cat EVERYWHERE). Then, starving, we rolled into a place called City Lunch Cafe (original name, I know), where we had THE BEST GNOCCHI IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND. I mean, seriously, there is NO BETTER MUSTARD CREAM SAUCE ON EARTH. I also tried an Ojocim beer, which wasn't bad.

We then rolled up to Wawel Hill, the castle complex above our hotel. We didn't go in any of the exhibits (and not because I'm cheap, damn it!), but we did wander around the complex, taking photos and doing some GREAT people watching. We then embarked on the key event of any Polish vacation - visiting churches.

Okay, so there is no other way to say this - the Poles are the SINGLE MOST RELIGIOUS NATION WE'VE EVER BEEN TO. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it sure makes it difficult if you want to visit a church. Case in point - we went to EIGHT (that's right, count 'em - EIGHT) different churches on Saturday, and here's how it went down:
1. 6 were having weddings
2. 1 was having a Baptism

3. 1 was having a service (at 3 in the afternoon?)

4. We went back to two of the churches that were having weddings, only to find THEY WERE HAVING A SERVICE (I mean, are they ever free to just wander around?"

5. We walked into one via the wrong entrance, and I literally walked right into a guy at confession in the front of the church whilst the service was going on - yes, I am that guy

The low point of our church visitation was when I was admiring the architecture and looking around whilst failing to notice the poles on the sidewalk set up to keep cars away. Consequently, the twig and giggleberries went FULL STEAM into a steel rod. Let's just say I wasn't a big fan of Polish civil engineering at that moment.

We did rebound, however, and rolled into the MASSIVE central square (100m x 100m apparently), where we sat down on a GORGEOUS sunny day at a bar with Tyskie umbrellas (indicative of the type of beer on draft). However, when the waiter came by, the conversation was something like this:
Waiter: "AFGDAEWGREAGRAHYREGR." (While I have no proof, I'm pretty sure that's Polish for hello)

Sammy: "Divab Tyskie prosta." (That's Polish - no really it is - for 2 Tyskie beers, please)

Waiter: "English?" (clearly he didn't like my accent)
Sammy: "2 Tyskie, please"

Waiter: "We ran out of Tyskie Yesterday." (Sammy is not pleased. After all, this is a BAR, and they only have ONE BEER ON DRAFT).

Sammy: "Do you have more beer?"
Waiter: "Yes. It is a local beer. It is cloudy and fuzzy. It is good." (I'm pretty sure I'm about to drink Winnie the Pooh at this point.)

Sammy: "We'll take 2."

I am happy to report that, in the shadow of the Town Hall tower, sipping those beers (which were good, for the record), life was guuuuuuuuuuuuuud. In fact, I was as relaxed as I'd been in months.

We then walked around for a bit longer before having dinner at Wesele, a traditional Polish restaurant. We started with the (less than traditional) bottle of Malbec (Puma - another one proved itself), but I immediately jumped into the most tradtional of Polish liquids - vodka. So backstory: Owain had told me that Poles were reknown for their "white spirits," and so I figured I'd try a shot. However, given that they were only a quid a shot, I soon developed a love affair with the "essence of the potato."

Whilst having some AMAZING dumplings (JT with Bigos, which were GUUUUUUUUUD), I polished off 4 shots of vodka and half a bottle of wine. When I went to order the 4th shot, the waitress actually said, "Are you planning on trying all of them?" I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure she was saying, "You are an alcoholic and disgust me - please quit wasting my country's finest export." All I can say is: "That stuff was guuuuuuuuuuuuud." And Carter, so you know - I tried the "exhaling" trick. I think it worked, as I never had a hangover. Then again, eating 14,000 calories and sleeping 12 hours at a clip probably helped.
We went home that night and were passed out around 10:30. Again - NO complaints.
Sunday: The word of the day was somber...and vodka
We popped up early, as we had a tour scheduled for 9:15. The tour of the day was a definite departure from the normal foolish antics of Sam and Jenny, as we were bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have no lie to tell and I have no desire to sugar coat this one - it was a SOBERING experience.
As most of you know, I am an (admittedly amateur) 20th century historian, with a focus on World War II. Consequently, there are some places that I attach particular signifcance to from a historical perspective - KL Auschwitz has always been on of those places. Therefore, going there has always been a desire of mine, even knowing that it would leave me floored, depressed, and shocked in ways hard to imagine. I can tell you now that the reality of it is more than I had expected, and the memory will haunt me a long time.
The piles of shoes. The electric fences. The pictures. The selection ground of Birkenau. The canisters of Cyclon-B. The sheer magnitude of hearing your guide say: "1.1 million people were killed here." I don't know that anyone can ever appreciate hearing a number like that, but I do know that, seeing that place in the damp gray of a Polish morning, you realize mankind's capacity for evil, and you realize a) how blessed you are to live when and where you do, and b) that you have a responsibility to fight tyranny and leave this world (at least) a little better than you found it. I could talk for days about my experience in KL A-B, but, as I told Jenny - I'm not sure my heart could take much more of it. I feel it should be a place every human is required to visit - but it's a place anyone should only ever have to go once.
As you can imagine, I was less than bubbly and boisterous when I arrived back in Krakow. I'd like to lie to you and tell you we went to a CRAZY party in the center of town, but instead we continued down the World War II path - we entered the neighborhood that used to be the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow.
The good news is that now it's a vey vibrant part of the city, and we were soon wandering toward my newest goal - The Mound of Krak (NO JOKE, CAMPERS - THERE REALLY IS A "MOUND OF KRAK."). Apparently, this big ass mound in the middle of the city is the tomb of the founder of Krakow, and I was determined to stand on top of it. That was, of course, until my ass got lost in some random park of Krakow.
So you guys know how this goes:
1. Jenny can read maps.
2. I can't navigate my way out of the bathroom.
3. Jenny politely tries to explain that we are going the wrong way.
4. I, being major Selwyn, explain that she's wrong and that I am the master of the Universe.
5. We find out Jenny is right and I go kick a tree.
6. Rinse. Repeat.

Well, this time was no exception, as JT had to navigate us out of this (rather small - it's pathetic how bad I am at directions, really - Chuck - SHUT IT) park and toward the Mound. When we arrived at the base of the mound, however, a few thoughts occurred to us.
1. We want beer.
2. That's a bigger hill than we expected.
3. Climbing that hill means less time for beer.
Consequently, we turned around and headed back into the city. Tell me that we weren't made for each other.
In a side note, whilst walking back through the Jewish quarter and into town, we came upon another sight that left me quite emotional - Oskar Shindler's Factory. That's right, folks - the original building still exists, and JT captured a great photo of the plaque on the outside of the building.
Needing a pick-me-up, Puffin and I found this GREAT little dive bar just outside the main area of town, and we consequently started tearing through new beers: Tyskie (finally), Stretec, and Werka (all tasty). Then, feeling a good buzz, we rolled into the town square, where we wandered into our dinner destination: Moid Molina (Honey Raspberry).
This place was GUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUD, and we KILLED some food. We also killed 5 different kinds of vodka, leaving a) the wait staff again less than pleased and b) me with a new found appreciation for Polish liquor.
And I'm sure it's NO surprise to you, but we were PASSED OUT by 10:30 PM. This sleep was the stuff of legends.
Monday: Where the @#$@ is the dragon?
So 12 hours of sleep later, the Taylors popped up and wandered back to Wawel Hill. The crowds had died down some, but it was still chaos. En route to the Hill, we'd noticed all these stuffed dragons and postcards with dragons on them, and they were always identified as "Stoli Wawelski." Assuming that meant "Wawel dragon," we set out to find this mythical beast.
We didn't have to look long, as the ticket office had tickets to the "Dragon's Den and Grotto" for 3 slotty (about $1 USD). 10 minutes later, we were descending 48,000 steps into the bowels of the castle, where we emerged in the "dragon's grotto," which is really code for a tiny ass cave with some incandescent bulbs (semi) lighting your way.
We walked and walked (and I got dripped on by something...maybe it was dragon pee), and slowly I am to a realization: "We weren't going to see that damn dragon." Accepting the inevitable, we made our way toward the exit.
Only then, however, did we emerge to the sight of a stone dragon, covered in screaming Slavic children and breathing a propane powered flame. VICTORY!!!! We found it!!!! And yes, it was picture worthy.
We then had a final meal BACK at City Lunch Cafe before catching out ride back to the bomb shelter...I mean airport. We then had 2 easy flights home (nothin' direct from Krakow!) before arriving back at the flat ~10. We then had the super nutritious and uber-romantic meal of:
1. 5 day old leftover crab and shrimp pasta
2. Stale Chutney and Vinegar Chips
3. 2 slices of bread covered in peanut butter and marmite
4. Cheese
5. 1/2 gallon of milk
Hey - if you want to be the man, you gotta beat the man - WOOOOOO!!!! That's all I'm sayin'.

All in all, it was a GREAT trip, and I would recommend it to anyone. The food, the architecture, the people, the vodka - it all adds up to a GREAT time.

Okay, that's all the news that's fit to print. Chat tomorrow!

Sam and Jenny

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