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Written by: Danny Spitler

10 October 2002

I awoke in my Katowice hotel room just before my small travel alarm clock went off, and I showered quickly. I pulled on a white tee shirt, blue jeans, and walking shoes. Inside the pocket of a lightweight jacket I made sure that I had my folded one-sheet map of downtown Krakow, a sufficient number of Polish zolatas, and my round trip train ticket. I draped my sunglasses around my neck, slid my camera case onto my belt, and declared myself ready explore.

At the hotel breakfast buffet I slammed down a glass of grape juice and a bowl of granola in five minutes flat. I grabbed an apple from the fruit basket, stuffed it in my jacket pocket, and started the seven-minute walk to the train station. When the correct train arrived I leaped through the door of the first class club car and settled into a compartment with three unoccupied seats and plenty of room to stretch out and relax. The train pulled away from Katowice, and soon I was gazing out the window at the green Polish countryside.

It was 8:45 AM when we arrived at the Krakow train station. My light jacket was just enough to offset the mild morning chill as I walked through the streets to the Florianska Gate, built in the 15th century. This was the ceremonial gate through which royalty always entered into the city. I strolled past the huge brick walls, which were blackened by hundreds of centuries of exposure to the elements, and I stepped through the entrance into old town Krakow.

Like most European cities Krakow doesn’t start its day very early. Most shops and restaurants do not open until at least ten o’clock and I was arriving at just after nine, so I got to watch the city come alive. I walked past a McDonalds without the slightest temptation to go in. I hurried down the street until the huge downtown square opened before me. It is the kind of place that you would imagine if you heard the words, “European charm.”

The square itself takes up a huge city block. In the center of the square is a very pretty structure called Rynek Glowny, or Market Square. It is not architecturally distinctive, but it has an arched portico, it is painted a mild yellow color, and it fits perfectly into the surroundings. The middle section of the building is completely open with small souvenir stands lining both walls. Other items in the square include an old bell tower, a small museum, and a large statue, where scores of young people gather and sit.

I spotted an old gentleman rolling a small food cart into the square. The contents looked like a cross between a pretzel and a bagel. I approached and pointed to one of the rolls. He handed me the roll and told me the price. Not understanding what he said I held out a palm full of change and he picked out the equivalent of about a quarter. I sat on a bench, munched on my obwarzanki, and watched the early activity on the square.

I watched two horse drawn carriages pull into place alongside the square preparing to offer romantic carriage rides. I watched as waiters wearing crisp white aprons began opening the umbrellas over several sidewalk tables. Artists began arriving and setting up stands where they would display their watercolors and pencil sketches. Next came the flowers. Soon several flower stands began to appear with a dazzling array of roses, daisies, tulips, sunflowers, and numerous other varieties. Even a few pigeons began to appear, arriving from wherever it is that pigeons spend the night.

After an hour of simply sitting and watching the scene I decided it was time to begin my sight seeing and I headed for Waled Castle. The castle dates back to the 10th century and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, so there are parts of it from many different centuries. I purchased tickets for two different tours. The first took me through the treasury and the armory. The armory, which was a large display of weapons, was the most impressive. It is amazing to see that, throughout the ages, there has never been any shortage of creative ways for us to kill one another.

My second tour consisted of an hour of wandering through various rooms of the palace while viewing centuries old furniture, utensils, tapestries, and paintings. I also visited the cathedral, which holds the tombs of numerous Polish kings and bishops, and I wandered through the cathedral museum. So, if asked how I spent my morning, I would have to say that I spent it looking at “old stuff.”

On my walk back to the city I wandered slowly through the narrow streets just enjoying the ambiance of this old section of Krakow. I had begun to have thoughts of lunch when I spotted a line of people in front of a street vendor. On an impulse I jumped in line. As I looked over the shoulders of the others in line I saw a sign advertising Keebabs. I watched one of the concoctions being thrown together and decided “what the heck.” When I reached the front of the line I held up one finger and pointed at the sign. I handed over the correct change and watched the guy behind the counter grab a potato pancake off of a toaster and split it sort of like a pita pocket. He tossed in some green cabbage and a spatula full of beef. He then tossed on a big spoonful of what looked like a creamy salad dressing. He looked at me and said something that sounded like a question. When he saw my blank expression he switched to English and asked, “you want spice?” I nodded “yes” and he slathered something red over the top and thrust the finished product into my hands. I carried my Keebab to the square where I bought a Pepsi and found a shaded stair step to sit on while I enjoyed my Polish fast food.

My map indicated a museum a couple of blocks off the square, and since I still had several hours before the last train back to Katowice I decided to check it out. I located the discreet museum entrance and once inside I climbed the stairs to the second story, paid the small entrance fee and started through. I passed through several rooms full of “old stuff” and I found that, despite its modest exterior the museum was very extensive with a number of galleries. I stepped into one room that featured only one painting. I thought to myself, “Hmmm, I wonder why this one has a room to itself?” I sat on the bench in front of the painting and stared at it for a moment. It was a portrait of a young woman holding a white ermine, and it appeared to be quite an old painting. Then I noticed a small brass stand with the painter’s name. I slipped on my reading glasses and read the name Leonardo da Vinci. Question asked, question answered.

In 1994 I managed to stand on tiptoes and got a glimpse of the Mona Lisa in a crushing crowd at the Louve in Paris, so it felt strange to be standing alone in front of an original painting by the great master. It was certainly an event that I never expected to occur in an obscure museum in Krakow, Poland. I finally moved into the next room where another painting was prominently featured. I immediately looked for the artist name and discovered that I was now standing in front of an original landscape by a guy named Rembrant. I made a point of walking slowly through the rest of the gallery.

I spent my last hour in Krakow gravitating back to the City Square with its artists, flowers, restaurants, carriages, food stands, pigeons, and people. With great reluctance I finally started my walk back to the train station. It was only when I was seated on the train moving away from the city did it occur to me that within a few miles of this beautiful peaceful city was a place I visited three years earlier: the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. The contrast was almost too much to comprehend.