Tuesday, 26th May
A gray morning at 4am on the 26th May saw a party of twenty seven checking in at Prestwick Airport for Flight FR7852 to Krakow Balice airport. Kenneth distributed our group flight reference numbers and an effortless check in and prompt departure at 6.20am meant that we were now soon on our way with high expectations of an interesting and enjoyable trip to Poland.
On arrival at 10.05am- Poland is 1 hour ahead of the U.K.- with very little fuss at the airport (a small custom built modern building), our coach with guide Ewa Zych and driver Wiesiu awaited us. Ewa, pronounced Eva, introduced herself and as we drove towards our hotel we quickly realised that we had found a real treasure of a guide. A young attractive Krakowian, Ewa’s enthusiasm and love of her native country shone through her descriptive information as we traveled the half hour drive across the city to the Hotel Wyspianski.
The hotel was excellent with clean modern bedrooms. Nothing was lacking and although the balconies to the front overlooked a busy street with much traffic and an electric tram system, some shrubs and trees between the hotel and the street softened the outlook.
At 3p.m. Ewa greeted our party in the foyer. The weather on our arrival was hot and sunny which meant that some of us had changed into lighter clothing for our first venture into the centre of Krakow. Ewa was taking us via the Planty Gardens – a tree lined pathway which replaced the city walls about two hundred years ago – to Wawel Hill, nowadays this green ring of trees encompasses the medieval centre of Krakow, and on that hot afternoon we were glad of the shade of the trees lining the path.
Wawel Castle was home to the Polish Kings until the 17th century. The adjacent Cathedral was their coronation place. The patron saints of the Cathedral are St Wenceslas and St Stanislavs. There was so much to absorb in both buildings you could have spent a day there at least. Some of us climbed the narrow stair-way of the Sigismund Tower to see the huge bell rung during important events since 1521. The view from the bell tower over the city was well worth the steep climb. Cameras were in overdrive as we tried to absorb so much around us. Krakow has so much of historical interest that, in 1978, the city was included in the UNESCO list of World’s Cultural Heritage as one of the 12 most precious places in the world.
From Wawel Hill we walked down to the Main Market Square. I think we were all astonished by its size, the largest medieval square in Europe. The beautiful buildings, museums, art galleries, churches are thronged with tourists- particularly parties of young school children led by a harassed teacher. As is the case in this country, this is the time of the year for school trips. The atmosphere was buzzing – open air cafes, buskers, flower and craft stalls all adding to the entertainment.
St Mary’s Church dominates the Market Square. On this whistle stop afternoon tour Ewa suggested that we should go inside on another day, but we did wait to hear the bugle call being played from one of the church towers. This is played at hourly intervals from the four different sides of the tower and is broadcast at noon on Polish radio. Legend has it that it is played in memory of a guard struck by an arrow when warning the people of Krakow of an approaching enemy.
Three hours of sight-seeing in the heat had left most of us ready for a rest. A quick five minute walk back to our hotel, a refreshing glass of a soft drink for some of us, feet up for a quarter of an hour and we all gathered for dinner in the hotel restaurant at 7.30pm. The fixed menu was usually soup, a main course like chicken or pork, and a dessert. On our first evening the dessert was the traditional cake – a cream slice - in Cumnock Bakers it is known as ‘a match’. There was no lingering after our meal. I, for one, had been up at 2.30am, and it was off to bed.
Wednesday, 27th May
A wet drizzly morning greeted us, but after a very satisfying breakfast we were again ready to meet Ewa to leave the hotel by coach at 9am. (The dining-room chatter was like being truly a part of an international conference with all nationalities in evidence). For breakfast, apart from the usual juice and cereal, the continental cheeses and cold meats, there were some Polish dishes- for example, hard boiled eggs with various dressings and sauces. I just didn’t fancy the little sausages with strong spicy pickle but the buffet selection was very attractive.
The Jewish Quarter- Kazimierz- was a short distance by coach. Before World War II, 65,000 Jews lived there, now there are approximately 100. Many of the unique buildings can still be seen and are gradually being restored. The Old Synagogue contained much of interest. Now a museum with objects connected to the Jewish religion and culture, old photographs of a way of life long gone are very emotive. I noticed a faded photo of women in black clothing carrying dishes of food. The picture was labeled – “Carrying cholent for the Sabbath”. The Sabbath was strictly observed, all work had to be done on a Friday. I asked Ewa what cholent was. Ewa, as always, was ready with the answer on the following day. Cholent was a type of beef stew which contained all sorts of herbs, prepared on the Friday night and kept closely sealed to be eaten on the Sabbath. A nearby synagogue is still in use. It is the Remuh Synagogue called after a 16th century rabbi. We visited this Synagogue also and behind the Synagogue is a Jewish cemetery. All the headstones face east, - towards Jerusalem - some with little roofs placed on top and some with stones almost like a remembrance cairn.
I have read ‘Schindler’s List’ by Thomas Keneally, but I haven’t seen the film. The area around the streets and synagogues was used by Steven Spielberg for the film’s locations. The Schindler factory is nearby and is now being made into a museum which will open in September 2009.
By this time, we had not had lunch, nor morning coffee, so before the tour of the castle museum, the inner man/women had to be fed. The castle restaurant proved very satisfying and chips were served with scrambled egg, for some of us. The chief guide took us on a fascinating tour of an exhibition illustrating European art and furniture from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century. The artifacts in the museum were clearly priceless, and it certainly opened my ideas and mind to a different Poland than that which I had previously envisaged. Again as the old cliché says, tired but happy, we reached our hotel just in time for our evening meal at 7pm.
Thursday 28th May
Early breakfast 7.45am. Off we set at 8.30am to the salt mines - not as a punishment as in olden times - but to visit Wieliczka to tour one of Poland’s oldest salt mines, dating back to the 12th Century. It was a better day after a wet night. There was still the threat of showers so our group were like girl guides- always prepared!
This World Heritage Site is incredible. You begin the tour by walking down approximately 370 steps (two of our party stayed behind). This complex of underground excavations consists of 3000 chambers at levels from 64 to 327 metres deep. The tour lasts almost 3 hours and with a guide you can see exceptional salt sculptures , chandeliers, chapels and religious figures carved by the miners. If you touch the walls with a wet finger, then lick it, you can taste the salt.
In the beautiful Chapel of St Kinga, religious services are held, wedding ceremonies and other celebrations are performed 101 metres underground. After the tour, there is an area with souvenir shops, a restaurant and a post office still underground, before you are whisked in a very fast lift to the surface.
This was a truly amazing experience. Again school parties of excited children accompanied us as they toured the mine with their guides and teachers.
Back in Krakow we were free to find lunch. Ewa had recommended a place- V Stasi - to us which provided Polish food at a reasonable cost. It was almost like a utilitarian canteen and apparently only closed when they ran out of food. Frances and I decided to try it.
Ewa had recommended Pierogi Russki which really means suet dumplings with a filling. We joined a packed restaurant and as we squeezed ourselves into a seat, fortunately Ewa arrived to eat also and joined us. She ordered for us and we had a plateful of these dumplings with a cream cheese and onion stuffing. No wine was available but we had cups of compote- a drink made from straining crushed fruit. Ewa herself had a cup of buttermilk which she loves and finds very satisfying. The cost was very cheap and the dumplings very filling. We soon got used to using the Polish Zloty and divided the Polish price by 5 to get the approximate British price.
After lunch, Frances and I returned to the Main Square and visited the Gothic Cloth Hall with its many stalls of Polish crafts and Baltic amber. Much of the amber jewellery is made in Gdansk. The Cloth Hall, 108 metres long, houses the vendors’ stalls, art galleries and many cafes, and has a history going back to the 14th Century.
Coffee at one of the outdoor cafes, amid the bustle of the busy Main Square, completed the afternoon before we returned to the hotel for dinner at 7pm. And yes! we did buy some souvenirs to take home.
Friday, 29th May
It is difficult to find words to describe the Visit to Auschwitz- Birkenau. After an hour’s journey from Krakow we approached the town of Oswiecim, the name of the area, changed by the Nazis to Auschwitz, which also became the name of the concentration camp. Rail lines parallel to the approach road was evidence that good rail access was the main reason for Auschwitz being established there.
I thought as we approached Auschwitz 1 with our Guide that the buildings just looked like reddish- brick army barracks. The main gate bore the words in large letters ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’- ‘Work Makes You Free’- a rather ironic statement in this place.
We were guided through some of the barracks. It was heartening to see many, many groups of teenagers in school parties from all over Europe, also touring the camp. The Museum contained many exhibits which sent shivers through your spine- thousands of shoes, including young children’s little boots, 2 tons of shaven human hair, rows of suitcases with the owners names and personal details on the lids. The empty canisters of cyclone B, the chemical that was used in the gas chambers and the displays of 40 kg of metal rimmed spectacles and kitchen pots and spoons were all intimate evidence of the evil which had been perpetrated on over 1 million people.
We saw the ‘Wall of Death’ an area between Block 10 and 11, where punishment and execution were carried out by a firing squad. People continue to leave flowers in memory beside the wall.
The cells in Block 11 were dreadful. In these cells prisoners were starved to death, or forced to stand – 4 standing together in a small space without ever being able to sit or lie down, and then being put out to work the next day. Maximilian Kolbe, the priest who sacrificed himself for another prisoner, died in one of the cells in Block 11.
Our visit took place again on a gray drizzly day, with puddles and mud on the paths, and as we were guided to the Gas Chambers and Crematorium it seemed that the pervading atmosphere was one of extreme sadness and despair that human beings could act like they did towards fellow human beings.
Birkenan is Auschwitz II. We drove in the coach the short distance to this camp. In contrast this was a much more open area extending over a very large part of the flat countryside. The notorious entrance gate ‘Hells Gate’ is an ominous sight. Trains on the lines which passed under the gate deposited thousands of victims on a siding from where their future was decided on the spot.
The rows of wooden barracks were no more than basic rough stables- wooden planks for beds and rows of holes cut into planks of wood with buckets underneath as toilets. These were emptied by selected prisoners. Can you imagine the horror, the loss of dignity and self respect, the smell and the accompanying disease in these conditions?
I had heard or read sometime ago that no birds can be heard singing in the area of the concentration camps. However, that afternoon near the Memorial to the Holocaust victims (nearly 1 and a half million), I heard a blackbird sing loud and clear. I also heard smaller birds twitter in the trees behind the memorial area. As we walked back to our coach with our own thoughts, I also saw a butterfly. To me these are symbols of hope and life as it was meant to be.
Saturday, 30th May
In contrast to Friday, Saturday was a very happy day. We set off at 9am to the Dunajec River Gorge in the Pieniny National Park- the first ever national park in Poland- created in 1932, an extremely beautiful and scenic area with forests and jagged limestone peaks. We knew we were off on a raft trip, but what did that involve? We soon found out! These rafts are like pontoons bolted together with plank seating, navigated downstream for 2 ½ hours by local men in traditional costume.
In the raft I was in were Kenneth, Margaret and Murray Bingham, Frances Corbett (my friend), Hugh and Elizabeth Stevenson, Bobby McPike, Ann Wilson, Martha Thorburn and Ewa our guide. Truly, it was a wonderful experience. Two men with long poles steered the raft skillfully downstream through fast flowing water and rapids- the scenery on either side consisting of forest, rocks and patches of wild flowers, all having a calming, tranquil effect. In some of the crevices in the rocks little shrines had been placed - a reminder that this earth has a generous Creator. The guide informed us that Poland was on our left and Slovakia on our right. I thought several times during our trip that the laughter aboard our raft was going to rock the boat. Hugh, Murray and Kenneth were splashed with water occasionally, but who cared?
At Szczawnica we rejoined the coach to go into the hilly area of the foothills of the Jatra Mountains. Here we were in an area which reminded me of Switzerland or Austria- with wooden chalet houses, the roofs of which stretched nearly to the ground, so that the heavy snow would slide off. Indeed as we approached Zakopane, snow was lying at the roadside. This is a lovely town now geared for winter sports and tourism.
From the town we looked up to the snow covered peaks of Tatra Mountains. For a better view we took the funicular train up Gubalowka Hill where there were some stalls and eating places, Frances and I found a stall where a young man- Gregorska- barbecued a black pudding for Frances and a long Polish sausage for me. He did not have much on offer to drink but we sat outdoors at a picnic bench, gazing at the magnificent mountains, eating our food which cooled very quickly in temperature of 9 degrees C, and drinking bottled water. As we returned to the coach some of us took the opportunity of buying some good value craft goods as gifts to take home.
A long journey, a long day- 11 hours in length and after a quick meal at 8.30pm, in the hotel, it was off to bed.
Sunday, 31st May
Kenneth had organised through Alba Tours a communion service at 8.45am in St Martins Lutheran church near the market square in Krakow. As we were leaving the hotel early at 8.10am, some of our party decided not to have an early breakfast but to enjoy it at leisure afterwards (breakfast was served until 11am). It was pouring as we set off to walk to the church. The streets were deserted. An important football match had taken place on the Saturday between two local football teams- Krakowia and Krakowia Wistula (the winners) and as a result there had been almost a riot in the Main Square- broken glass everywhere, riot police, water cannons had been used (nothing to do with Prestwick South at all).
We arrived approximately 15 minutes early at the church gates to discover they were still padlocked! Across the street from the Church there was scaffolding on a building so there we huddled and sheltered among the drips for 20 minutes. Kenneth assured us that he had been up all night building the scaffolding. Then right on 8.45am the door opened and we got inside. The Church had been a Carmelite building in the 17th century- built in early baroque style. In 1816 it was given to the Cracovian Protestants and has a lovely interior with a stained glass window (1918- 139) depicting the fall into sin (on the left) and sending of the Holy Spirit to the first apostles (on the right). As Sunday, 31st May was Pentecost Sunday it seemed very fitting. Kenneth took the service of Holy Communion and without an organ for music, Margaret Bingham was the cantor.
The rain had eased off as we walked back to the hotel. Those who had not eaten enjoyed a hearty breakfast- feeling smug! At 2pm we met up with Ewa again to set off by coach for Wadowice- the birthplace of John Paul II. This drive took us through most attractive Polish countryside and I am certain that few of Prestwick South parishioners have ever drunk vodka on a bus. Ewa had previously told us about the various kinds of Polish vodka. Ewa, being Ewa, then produced a bag containing some small bottles of cherry vodka and buffalo vodka which she then proceeded to distribute to us in paper cups to give us a small sample of the spirit in thought and kind. Thankfully, Wiesiu, or driver, abstained. This was typical of our happy enthusiastic guide. She did everything she could to enhance our experience of Poland.
In Wadowice, we visited the Basilica where John Paul II was baptised and worshipped. Some of our party visited the small flat nearby where he was born and raised. Wadowice is a small tidy Polish town which reminded me of a Scotland of 50 years ago. From there we drove on to the Polish National Shrine at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska run by the Franciscan order. This building is in a picturesque setting among the hills and is recognised today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Inside the church there was a tremendous sense of reverence and worship, and, as we left the church, we were moved emotionally by a procession of people from nearby villages who entered the building singing beautifully with fervour and conviction:
“Mary we came here to praise you.
Maybe it is the last time we could".
(According to translation).
Back in the coach we returned to our hotel and Krakow. That evening we were off to a Polish Restaurant, just off the main market square – La Bohema Restaurant.
There we enjoyed our meal interspersed with entertainment by a group of six people dressed in traditional Polish costume. Dancing and singing traditional folk songs and dances, they soon encouraged some of the shy gentlemen of our party into joining them. I was told not to mention names but KCE was certainly one of those ‘weeched’ around the floor by a smiling Polish lady. Some of the dances were similar to the ‘Farmers in his den’ played at parties in Scotland, and a little hug and kiss didn't’t come amiss on our Polish night either. A very good evening enjoyed by all.
Monday, 1st June
This was our free day to sight see or shop. However, it turned out again to be a very showery day, even with the odd clap of thunder.
Frances and I walked to the traditional local market and were amazed at the selection of the lovely vegetables and verity of cheeses for sale. We then walked to the main Market Square and the Cloth Hall where we had a coffee. From there we intended returning to the Jewish quarter- Kazimierz, but, as the rain then was so heavy, we decided to try a good restaurant, recommended by Kenneth on Grodsky Street for lunch. It was, indeed, an excellent eating place so we sat for nearly 2 hours enjoying the heat from a log stove, plus some good food and wine.
From there we walked to the large shopping mall which has 270 shops- the Galeria Krokowska-. We didn’t buy anything and returned to our hotel quite late in the afternoon- leg weary!
Our evening meal was the last in our hotel and we were up early on Tuesday, 2nd June, to have breakfast at 6.45am, before leaving at 7.45am for Krakow airport. Our departure at 10.30am was held up for a short time due to slow progress through security, but after an uneventful Ryanair flight we arrived safely in Prestwick at 12.40pm. Home to glorious sunshine of several days we all went our separate ways with our own memory banks full of our Krakowian experiences.
For myself and Frances I would like to thank Kenneth and all our friends in Prestwick South Church for giving us the opportunity to join you on this fantastic holiday to Krakow. I speak for both of us when I say that we had a memorable and happy time. We packed so much into one week, thanks to Kenneth, Anne Marie Cairns of Alba Tours and of course Ewa and Wiesiu. It is good to know we have good friends with whom we have experienced so much and with whom we have shared fun and laughter on our week’s journey in Poland.
With sincere thanks,