On Tuesday, I flew through Prague to Krakow. I had a pretty long layover in Prague, which was frustrating, because it wasn’t a long enough time to actually leave the airport and see any of the city, but it was way too long to sit in the airport without getting bored. I settled for having lunch at one of the restaurants in the terminal and window shopping.
Upon my arrival at the tiny Krakow airport, I was greeted by Niki, and we both chilled in the terminal for about an hour while we waited for her mom’s flight to come in. Her aunt picked us all up and took us to Niki’s family’s house, and I was met with my first true language barrier of my trip, because everyone but me spoke Polish! I knew about 3 words. (I did double my vocabulary this trip though, and now know about 6.)
That evening, even though several of our party were suffering from jetlag, Karolina, one of Niki’s cousins, took us on a tour of Nowa Huta, the section of Krakow nearest to the house. This is a neighborhood that was “created” by the communist regime as the “model community.” It’s impeccably organized into blocks of identical apartment complexes, each of which had their own school and all the other amenities needed for a living community. Perhaps because the communist lifestyle and oppression were so apparent here, it was also a place of great unrest during those days: it saw many protests and marches, some of them violent. Now, one of the main streets there is named after the Solidarity movement, which helped to break the iron grip of communism, and another is named after John Paul II, who as archbishop of Krakow was instrumental in the movement.
One of the coolest parts of Nowa Huta is the Catholic church there, which looks like Noah’s Ark from the outside and was built as a joint effort of the universal Church. Since there was such resistance from the regime against the idea of any church being built within the “model” atheistic neighborhood, even after permission to build the church was granted, no materials were supplied by the government. Since the government was really the only source of such materials, Catholics from around the world sent stones and other building supplies to help the Catholics of Nowa Huta build their church.
After a good night’s sleep to kick jetlag and sickness, Niki and I headed to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of Krakow’s biggest tourist destinations and historical sites. A tour of the mine takes you to 3 different levels of the mine, up to 100 meters underground, and is about 2 hours long, but the really crazy thing is that the amount of the mine we saw during those 2 hours was only 1% of the mine’s total area. It’s absolutely insane how big it is!
We got to see a lot of art that miners have made out of salt over the years (read: centuries): models of famous visitors to the mine, reflections of miner folklore, chapels… it’s pretty incredible what amazing pieces these amateur artists created in their spare time. Adding to the intrigue was our hilarious tour guide. Here are some direct quotes (all said without cracking a smile):
“Photography is only allowed if you have paid the extra zloty for camera privileges. If you have paid, you may photograph anything on this tour… except the tour guide.”
“If you look around, you will notice that the walls, ceiling, and floor are not white like table salt. That is because the salt contains impurities. But everything you see here is salt. If you don’t believe me, lick it. You may lick anything on this tour… except the tour guide.”
We wrapped up our tour with a Polish lunch (food was a recurring theme of this trip) and then headed into downtown Krakow to meet up with two of Niki’s cousins. We saw all the sights in old town… well, most of them, and kind of from a distance because of a weird bike race that was going on in the square. But still, I saw Florian’s Gate (one of the old city gates), the Basilica (whose spires don’t match at all), Jagellonian University (where Nicolaus Copernicus studied), St. Ann’s church (where Niki’s parents were married, all her siblings were baptized, and her sister got engaged. Oh and it’s named after a pretty baller saint too), the cloth hall (where all kind of vendors sell their wares daily), and a bunch of other sights on the Main Market Square, the biggest of its kind in Europe! On our way back to the train station, we stopped at this fancy little chocolate store and treated ourselves to drinking chocolate, which I’d never tried before but enjoyed immensely! I had white chocolate with strawberries. Mmmmm.
Back at the house, we enjoyed a Polish dinner with the rest of the family, including some more aunts and cousins I hadn’t met yet. Afterwards, we all headed out to the backyard (thanks to the prompting of Dr. Demkowicz) to pick some ripe cherries from the cherry trees. This ended up being a pretty hilarious (and delicious) undertaking. It’s kind of funny to watch how different people pick fruit. Some like to get as many as possible into the basket, without stopping to eat any, while others adopt a “one for the basket, two for me” approach. Either way, the cherries were delicious.
We ended our day appreciating the comedic talents of Amanda Bynes in She’s The Man (which reminded me how much I freaking love that movie), drinking tea, and eating chocolate. Little did we know what the next day had in store for us…