Budapest – The Journey (3)

After all the walking around in Pest and then in Buda and getting some context and orientation, I wanted to go back to all the places to see them in more detail and to some others which I hadn’t even had a glimpse of. Also, I wanted to eat something. So decided to go back to the Pest side. One of the tips given by the guide was to take the Tram no. 2 – which runs between the stops Közvágóhíd and Jászai Mari tér along the river Danube. After some confusion with choosing between two trams (at that time, I didn’t know that Jászai Mari tér was the final stop of the oncoming one and though there were two lines, the trams on both sides would be going in the same direction after some minutes and so I missed the one that was starting earlier), I was on my way. Got down at the Szalay Utca stop which was close to the Parliament. Walked around a bit soaking in some sun and taking beautiful pics of the parliament and also some other beautiful buildings in the center of Kossuth Square.


Tram no. 2 passing in front of Museum of Ethnography

Then instead of boarding the tram again, I walked around a bit and found the memorial for the holocaust victims along the river side. It was really heart breaking to see those metal shoes placed along the river bank with some people having left flowers in those shoes. It is in memory of the Jewish people of Budapest who were made to stand on the river bank after having made them take off their shoes and then shot into the river.


It was a really bright sunny day but the breeze was quite cold and I had to keep my woolen cap on. I boarded the tram again, only to get down at the next stop. I walked around and reached the statue of Charlie, the policeman.


Tradition is to rub the belly of Charlie – that would explain the bright shiny belly – to guarantee a good meal in Budapest :-). Might have worked because some time later, while I was searching for food, I reached a lovely restaurant that offered awesome pad-thai!

But before that lovely meal, I also went inside the imposing St. Stephan’s Basilica. It’s interesting to know that the church was actually not too old. It was completed in 1905, after 54 long years of construction and is named after the first king of Hungary. There was a collapse of the dome in 1868, which might explain the delay! It is 96 meters high and the second building of the same height is the Parliament. No building in Budapest can be made taller than 96 meters as per the current regulations.


St. Stephan’s Basilica

I was quite impressed with the decoration inside – it was very elaborate and golden color was quite dominant. The architecture style is Neo-Classical.


Inside the St. Stephen’s Basilica

After coming out, it was around quarter to five and I was starving! So I searched and searched and couldn’t find anything that I could eat. And then, I found this superb mix and match place called Padthai Wokbar – which lets you select your noodles, sauce, toppings and so on, so you get exactly what you would like to have! And I thanked Charlie.

Satiated, I decided to complete the rest of the journey of the tram no. 2. Reached the end where there was a theater and some other things but nothing too spectacular except one glass building which is called Bálna, meaning “whale”. It has some shops, cafés and restaurants and also gallery for contemporary art.


Started back, then got down near the Liberty Bridge and walked a bit to find myself in front of the Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. It was evening and the market had already closed. So I had to be content with just taking the photos from outside.


Walked a bit further and found some souvenir shops and decided to buy something for the fridge door. The old lady at the shop was very friendly and helped me choose the magnets, one of which which doubled as wine bottle cork and another doubled as a bottle opener – that’s called value for money :). Decoration and Function in one!

Walked further and google maps told me that there should be a Great Synagogue somewhere nearby. I went there and it was supposed to be open till 8 PM that day but I missed that by some minutes. Anyway, it was a beautiful building from the mid 19th century, with Oriental architecture (see the Moorish style domes on top of the towers) and it was nice to see it in the remnants of the evening light. It was damaged during the world war but now it is back in good shape, thanks to renovation work done from 1991 to 1998.


Dohany Street Great Synagogue

I found a cute little cafe on the street and sat down to check-off from the list the activity of having a glass of Hungarian wine anywhere in Budapest as suggested by the walking tour guide. It was a really quite nice.

By then, the Pad Thai had become a distant memory. So I went in search of something else, found a very cool falafel (and more) place after wandering around a bit which had very interesting options. That was my dinner and after that I decided to head back and get some sleep on the last night of my stay in Budapest. Of course, I hadn’t had enough pictures of the beautiful Chain Bridge and the Parliament, so that was done on the way again. Then finally I reached the apartments and called it a day. It was a day well spent!


Budapest – The Journey (2)

After braving the cold winds, seeing some historical stuff, enjoying a marionette show and a street program with lovely music on day 1, I was curious to learn more about this beautiful city. So I went to the location where the walking tour was supposed to start.

But I also needed some cash first and found that the exchange shop that I’d found the previous day was closed. I needn’t have worried because there were many others close to the Lion Fountain. Found one which offered a good rate and proceeded with the tour.


It was a bit difficult to locate the fountain due to the street market that was getting set up in the morning hours. I don’t know if it was a regular one or special because of Easter.


There at the Lion Fountain I saw a huge crowd – of course the people interested in the tour. There were so many that the tour guides had to divide it into four or five groups with one guide assigned to each. I got into the group with a nice guide named Barbara with the nickname Barbie (and she indeed looked like a doll :-)).

The tour started with a brief history of Hungary. It is about 1000 years old. It is widely accepted that the people were non-Europeans – most probably from Asia. In 896 AD, 7 tribes decided to make one nation under Prince Arpad. In around 1000 AD, the king Stephen converted to Christianity and was canonized (granted the title of Saint) posthumously. There were 2 mongol invasions – one in 1241 and another in 1541. The second one established the rule of the Ottoman Empire for 150 years over central part of Hungary. The Habsburgs (Austria) who ruled the Western part of Hungary, finally liberated central Hungary from the Turks in 1686 AD. The Hungarians were not really happy under the Habsburgs and there were 12 uprisings, each of which was squashed. In 1867 there was a compromise between Austria and Hungary, with double centred monarchy – in Vienna and in Pest-Buda. In 1873, Pest, Buda and Obuda were unified and thus came into being the metropolis – Budapest. After the WWI, 77% of the territory was lost to 7 countries! The nationalist sentiment grew and Hitler took advantage of that in WWII by giving back 40% of the territory to make Hungary its ally. However, in 1944, they occupied Hungary to prevent them from switching sides. In that period of war, 450K people were sent to Auschwitz and 150K were killed. Around 700K people were killed in a period of 7 months. Finally the Soviet Red Army arrived and liberated Hungary in 1945 and then occupied it. In 1956, there was an uprising against Stanilism but it failed. Finally in 1988, the transition began. In 1990, the Soviet army left Hungary and the democratic system began.

After the tour was over, I went to see this memorial for the Jewish people who were shot dead into the Danube during the German occupation. The victims were made to take off their shoes and other belongings before being shot. The memories from my trip to Krakow came back on seeing this.


Memorial for the Jews on the banks of the Danube

Walking and talking, we reached the Elisabeth (Sisi) Square, which is the main square of Pest. Sisi was the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire by her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I. She spent more time in Budapest than in Vienna.


Giant Wheel at the Elisabeth Square

But the more interesting thing here is the Michael Jackson tree!


Michael Jackson Tree

This tree is opposite to the hotel where Michael Jackson once stayed and the fans have made this tree a kind of shrine after his demise.

We also got to know about two national drinks of Hungary which contain 40-70% alcohol by volume! They are Unicum and Palinka. The first one is made of 40 herbs and the second one is made with fruits. I didn’t get a chance to taste them but then, there is always the possibility of a next time! Another tidbit we got to know was that the name Buda comes from the Slavic word for water and Pest comes from the slavic word for Oven.

We reached the Basilica of St. Stephen. Interesting thing is that it is not that old! It’s only about a 100 years old. It is quite impressive and is 96 m high (same as the Parliament). It was completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction. The delay is because first of all the original architect died, and then later, the dome collapsed in 1868, which led to the complete demolition and reconstruction from scratch.


St. Stephen’s Basilica


It is very impressive from inside as well. I went to see it later after the tour.


Inside the basilica

An important photo-op was with Charlie – the policeman. The legend is that if you rub his belly, you are guaranteed a very good meal in Budapest :-).



Barbara also informed us that there was a major flood (5 m high) in the Danube in 1838, destroying almost all the buildings in the St. Stephen’s square. So the reconstructed buildings are of course not very old.

Then we walked towards the Chain Bridge and cross it to reach the Buda side of Budapest. On the way, we also learnt that the Hungarian language does not bear similarity to Slavic or Latin or any Indo-European languages. It is closer to Finnish but still different. The Hungarian word for Hungarian is Magyar.

The Chain Bridge or the Szechenyi Bridge was the first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest, opened in 1849. The story goes that Szechenyi who was an influential politician in the 1800s, personally paid for the construction when he faced a personal tragedy. His dad died on the Buda side and there was no bridge to easily go from one side to the other!

It was so windy crossing the bridge that it was very difficult to walk and to have a conversation!


The view of the Buda Castle from the Chain Bridge

We then stopped for a break at the end of the bridge – at the Clark Adam square – named after the Scottish engineer who built the bridge (Adam Clark). There is a funicular that can be taken to go up from there, or a bus (like I did the previous day). But it was not so difficult to climb either, which is what we did! On the way we saw an old musician and Barbara told me that he plays the same tune everyday, to which I said “but, to several new people each day” :-). Now, the Royal Palace has been there since 1200s but it was let to fall into ruins in the 17th century by the Ottomans. Then the Habsburgs reconstructed it which is the Baroque structure we see today. It was destroyed in WWII but reconstructed in 1976. Barbara drew our attention to the plastic sheets covering the windows in the communist times – functionality over beauty.


Windows with plastic overlooking the fountain

Then we walked towards the Matthias Church and the Fishermen’s Bastion before ending the tour. Passing by the President’s house, we also heard a bit about the current Hungarian politics which didn’t sound good. At the end, we received lot of good advice from our guide on how to explore the city for the rest of our visit, tipped her for the lovely tour she gave us and went in pursuit of our interests.

Phew! I finally managed to complete this post. Will be back soon with the final post.

Budapest – The Journey (1)

This year for the long weekend at Easter, I decided that I should stop postponing and go to Budapest – a city I had been wanting to visit since 2014, when a fellow tourist in Berlin, recommended me to go there when I told her that I love Prague. Last year on Easter, I was actually closeby (Vienna and Bratislava) but then felt that I won’t be able to do full justice to any of the cities I was visiting if I try to squeeze everything in the short time that I had. And am I glad that I didn’t do that – Budapest is so big and charming that you can easily spend 4 days and in that time, you would be so caught up in its spell that you’d start feeling like staying just a little bit more and then a  bit more…..

I reached there on a pouring evening (the airport was a bit strange – might be under construction, I don’t know) and after taking a bus and then two metros, I reached where I was supposed to reach. And from behind the curtain of raindrops, I had my first glimpse of the Parliament across the river – all lit up and beautiful. I was going to see it everyday for the next few days as it was bang opposite the metro stop near my accommodation.

Anyway, I reached the apartment and struggled a bit with the doors but then found myself in a very nice room, had something to eat that I had brought with me and retired for the night.

The next morning looked a bit drizzly and windy and I was getting disappointed with the weather. So I decided not to take the walking tour – which I usually like to take as the first thing in any new city (tourist city) to get myself oriented. Went ahead then to  explore the city a bit on my own and may be go to a museum. I found a good public transport connection towards the castle, which was very much appreciated with the weather. It took me till the top and then I walked around and had some nice views over the different parts of the city.


The Parliament (left) and the Chain Bridge over river Danube

After walking around for a few minutes, I started feeling very cold. So I wondered which museum to get into. Looked on some website and decided to go to the Budapest History Museum. It was nice to get some warmth once I was inside. But soon realized that it probably wasn’t the best choice for a museum that I could have made. It wasn’t bad but then not so informative that it should be on a “must do” list. May be the National Gallery would have been better with the art collections there. What I liked in the History museum though was – getting to go into the cellars of old times and to listen to some interesting music in the headsets provided, composed by the musicians patronized by the king/queens of Budapest.


Stairs to the cellar

So even though it wasn’t as interesting as I wanted it to be, the warmth inside kept me long enough to see all the exhibits.

Then finally I braced myself to come out into the cold windy castle hill. Saw a beautiful church (Matthias Church) which was originally built in 1015, then destroyed by Mongols in 1241 and then reconstructed later in the same century.

IMG_8236 (2)

Matthias Church (and a helicopter!)

There was a also a beautiful lookout bastion near the church. It is called Fishermen’s Bastion and the story goes that it is because the Buda side castle wall was protected by the Fishermen’s guild in the middle ages. The bastion is relatively new having been built in the 19th century. There are 7 towers in that stretch looking over the different parts of the city. The towers themselves are so pretty and of course, the views over the city are nice!


Fishermen’s Bastion

Then I decided to come down and go towards the Castle Market – I was told that there was some Easter special going on there. And I am glad I did that (even though I was cold and tired). I saw a very entertaining marionnet show, a lovely street concert (with a brief dance performance by the percussionist), traditional egg decoration workshop (open for everyone – but I was lazy) and many beautiful stalls selling knick-knacks and food items. It was Budapest Spring Festival (not just Easter) as per the boards that I could see around.

I was getting hungry and my place of residence was not too far away with the tram, I decided to go in that direction as I’d seen a vegan place closeby on google maps. Found that place and luckily it was open! Had some food and rested my feet. Then went back and decided to find my way to the Gellert Hill as I had read that the views are very nice from there. It was a long hike even after I had taken the buses as suggested by google. But I didn’t give up. And was rewarded with a nice view with the setting sun.


View from the Gellert Hill towards Chain Bridge and Margaret Bridge


Statues on the Gellert Hill


Liberty Bridge as seen from Gellert Hill

Then I decided to climb down the hill following others and found myself in front of the Gellert Hotel which is an old hotel having thermal baths! I went inside and looked around a bit before going towards the Pest side via the Liberty bridge. Bought something to eat on the way and decided to call it a day. Went back to the apartment, had dinner and went to sleep, with the hope of having a better weather on the next day!


Budapest in pictures

As I was getting down from the ferry relatively early on a Tuesday morning, hurriedly -for I had so little time left in the city, I  found this tree that looked like it was just waking up and stretching its arms after the night’s slumber. And that made me stop and take a look around me – to just soak in as much as possible the beauty of this enchanting city for the last time in this trip.

IMG_8833 (2)

The tree waking up and stretching


Liberty Bridge in foreground and White Bridge behind


Castle on the Hill


The Parliament in the early morning

The story of the journey is coming next. Keep an eye on the blog to know more about this magnificent city and my experiences there.

Meanwhile, for some pictures on the interpretations of  “awakening”, you can look here.

Poland – Travel Help

I had been just procrastinating on this topic. But today while waiting for a flight for another journey, I thought that I could put the time to good use.

So here are the tips and some links that helped me.

1. The currency is Polish Zloty. You can take it out from the ATM at the airport or exchange at the currency exchange vendors. But be aware the exchange rates at the airport will be not so good. And in my experience, the ATM was even more expensive in that regard. So my tip – Exchange/Withdraw the minimum amount at the airport you might need to reach the city and a little more. Once in the city, you will find better rates.

2. Learning a few Polish phrases would be useful and also nice:

3. Do not make the one rookie kind of mistake I made. Check beforehand what is closed on which day so that you can plan your sightseeing accordingly. For example, on Mondays most museums are closed, on National holidays many places (even shops) are closed and so on. So – look up the details of attractions o whichever city you are visiting and make your sightseeing itinerary for a satisfying and “no disappointments later” kind of trip!


1. Airport train: Very convenient. Ticket can be bought either at the station via the machine (cash/card) or in the train via the conductor (cash only).,c70/transport,c313/how-to-get-to-krakow-airport,c314/train,a2727.html

2. Public transport

3. If you want to take the tour of Auschwitz, do make the booking beforehand with a tour because it gets sold out. Tripadvisor will give you the details of the tour operators.


1. The airport bus is 210. You should keep some change with you. The machine at the airport may or may not work. It didn’t when I was there. So change the bills for coins at some shop at the airport. The people are really nice there and will help.

For returning from city to the airport, one helpful soul even made a video to help locate the bus stop as it can be confusing sometimes. Here is the link.

Here is the airport guide:

2. You don’t need transport to move within the city for tourist areas as it’s not so big. I found a hotel close to the waterfront and the city center was also in walking distance.

I hope the information is useful for all those of you who wish to travel to Poland. It’s a lovely country with charming people. Do put it on your travel list it if not already been there.

Check out all my posts about my Poland trip here:

And now it is time to go – the flight is boarding :). Until next..

Poland – End of the Journey

At the end of the evening’s tour, I was tired – both physically and mentally, and very cold. It was interesting to have met some new people who had joined the tour – two from South Africa, a few from India are the ones I can recall. There was a girl from Brazil who walked with me towards the tram station. We were going in the same direction. She told me that the next day she was going to take a trip to the concentration camp. I never wanted to go there – having read about it is shocking enough – and because of the emotional toll that the tour had already taken on me, I am quite sure that my decision was right. So I thought that I would probably go to some museums etc. the next day.

But – as fate would have it – on the 1st of November, All Saint’s Day – almost everything in Poland is closed! I didn’t know that, else I would have planned my days differently. The concentration camp was open though – quite strange – isn’t it? Anyway, so my hopes of being able to go to the salt mines were shattered. Then I thought of climbing the Wawel Hill again because I read somewhere that in November, the castle museum is allowing free entrance. Did that and found that it being the All Saint’s Day – the museum was closed.


The day was getting colder and more difficult to pass. Then I looked up at google for some help. And like a good friend, it did. I found that the city zoo was open. Having nothing else to do, I descended the hill and made my way towards the bus that would take me to the zoo. It was a long journey – had to make a change in between – which was like a rural stop with no shelter but just a stone bench on which I sat. There seemed to be nobody around although there were many houses, the breeze was quite cold, the tree branches swayed and swished and except for the occasional cars passing by, it felt like something has happened and I am the only human being left on earth! Thankfully, a couple arrived and then the bus appeared as well. I reached the zoo and it was such a picturesque route through the hilly forests – all colored by the master strokes of the autumnal brush. I am sure if the sun would have been out, this would have been totally magical – justifying the name of the penultimate bus stop – Baba Jaga (the witch from the East European folk tales)! As probably it was a festival day, there were not too many people there. It is a big lovely zoo but that day the animals seemed to be lethargic with the cold weather in the same way that the people did. I was feeling kind of sorry for them to be trapped there. But probably they would have more survival challenges in the wild than in the zoo. Not justifying the captivity but just contemplating.


Anyway, so after spending the zoo and getting chilled to the bone, I decided to head back. The bus was already there and I went back to the city. Found a nice Indian restaurant to have some warm lunch and tea. Then went back to my room to take some rest. At around 6 pm, there was supposed to be a walking tour of the Macabre Krakow.


I had planned to meet a friend D – who lives in Krakow, but I didn’t know what time he would be back to the city as he had gone to spend the All Saints’ Day with his family. So I went to the tour, thinking that if D comes, then I would leave the tour midway. It was quite good for me that D sent a message just as I was listening to the guide and thinking that I don’t want to go on that tour else I would get nightmares later. So D kind of rescued me :-). Then we went to get a drink in the main square while waiting for his girlfriend A, who joined us in some time. I was curious about the tradition of going to the cemeteries on this day and asked if they could take me to one. They very graciously agreed and in the process, poor D had to let go of his plans for a dinner although he was hungry, for A mentioned that the cemeteries might close if we delayed. There were special tram services that day to take people from one cemetery to the other! Shows how important that festival is for the people there. Basically the day is about remembering the saints, martyrs and deceased members of your family. The cemeteries were lit up with thousands of candles and there were people everywhere, unlike my experience during the day while waiting for the bus.


I was given a candle by A to light as well. That was so kind and thoughtful of her! I really appreciate it when people include me in their traditions. Makes me feel welcome and not an aloof outsider! I lit it up on a grave that seemed like the candles there were about to go out.

Then D and A walked me back to my room while D had to satisfy his hunger with a doner on the way. It was late and super cold but the warm gesture of D and A made the day so much better! I had something to eat in my room and went to sleep.

The next day I had my flight back. The morning was a bit hectic as I couldn’t find the key of my suitcase anymore – but that’s another story. I managed to get out in time for my flight and all was fine. I went for my customary Indian food at the restaurant I like very much but it wasn’t up to the expectations that day. Then as the bus I had to take still had time, I went to a nearby mall and then some time later, was on my way home. That was the end of my first trip to Poland. Hope to be there once again, albeit in less cold weather :-).

Poland – Another History

It took long for me to come from the previous post to this one. But let me pick up the thread from where I stopped.

So in the evening, despite the freezing cold, I braced myself and went towards the Old Synagogue. It was getting dark already at 5 PM as it was the end of October. When I reached there, I was not sure if that was the right place as I saw 3 people. Getting closer, I found one of them was the guide and the other two wanted to take the tour just like me. We waited for some more time and more people arrived albeit late. Then the tour started.

DSC09982 (2)

The Old Synagogue

The area – Kazimierz was set up as a separate city by Kassimir in the beginning of the 14th century with its own city gates and walls. The history of Jews in Krakow is quite old. They arrived here and settled between 11th and 13th century as the tolerance for them was higher than in the rest of, especially Western, Europe. Kazimierz became a major Jewish settlement by the end of 14th century. The Jews who arrived here from Prague in 1389, made this first synagogue as a replica of the one in Prague. It had separate parts for women and men, as is the traditional way. This is known as the Old Synagogue now. Part of it was the townhall, part of it was used for trading. Today it is a museum.

Side-note: The rulers of Poland didn’t participate in the crusades for various reasons but the “official” one given to the Pope (Henry II) was that there is no beer in Jerusalem!

The 2nd synagogue was made by another set of Jews who lived near the present University area and were moved here when there was a fire there. They made their own synagogue as they didn’t want to pray with the ones from Prague.

Then there is another one – Remah/Remu Synagogue – Rabbi Moshe Isserles fame. It could have been built by his father Israel ben Josef in honor of his illustrious son or by the Rabbi himself to in memory of his first wife. It is not clearly known.  Our guide told us this little story. In the 16th century, Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote a book which contained code of Jewish law. He sent it to Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Krakow for review – who was also in the process of writing such a book. He got disheartened that someone else had written something before him. But then, he concluded that the book was for Sephardi (settlers in North Africa) Jews and he could add his work to it as the guidelines for the Ashkenazi Jews (settlers along Rhine)!

Another synagogue made in 1620. I don’t know what was the reason for this one.

During the tour, we got to get inside one – the Izaak/Isaac Synagogue – which was made in 1644.  It was made with the donation from banker to the King Wladyslav IV – Isaac Jakubowicz or Isaac the Rich. There is a legend associated with this synagogue. Isaac Jakubowicz (another spelling Ayzik) was a poor pious Jew. One night he dreamt of a big city and a bridge and was instructed to go to Prague and look for treasure under the Charles Bridge. He got this dream several times. So he decided to go. On reaching there, he found the bridge being guarded by a squad of soldiers. He talked to them about his dream asking for permission to dig. They laughed at him and shooed him away. Some time later,  one of the soldiers came to him and told him that he had been dreaming that he would find treasure in the oven at the home of someone named Izaak, the son of Jacob, who lives in Krakow, but he wasn’t stupid to go searching for treasure based on dreams. Izaak immediately returned home and found the treasure in the oven of his own home. In gratitude, he constructed this synagogue. Out of the 7 surviving synagogues in Krakow today, four are still active and this is one of them.

DSC09989 (2)

Inside the Izaak synagogue

We took a small break at a place called Okraglak with a circular  building – a relic of the communist times of Poland – which has kiosks selling Zapiekanki – baguettes with mushrooms, cheese and other toppings. Even today, the prices have been kept very low just like in the communist times.

Fast forward to the 20th century and crossing the river from Kazimierz. One of the darkest periods and a dark place for humanity. It was at Podgorze where the Jewish ghetto was established across the river Vistula. About 20000 people were made to live in a place with a capacity of 3500. The food ration assigned to the victims was 350 calories/day while the perpetrators had 3000 calories/day. We were standing on that cold Halloween night at the Zgody square of the ghetto listening to our guide tell us about the horrific segregating process that began at the end of May 1942. Those considered being able to work were sent to labor camps and the others straightaway to their deaths. Initially the perpetrators pretended that the victims were going to a better place where there would be work and food and the people felt hopeful and fell for that lie – even carrying their suitcases with things they considered important for them! I think that dying itself wouldn’t be as excruciating as the loss of the hope on getting to know what really awaited them at those death camps..We saw an exhibit of 68 chairs in that square as a memorial to the 68000 Jews of Poland who were the victims. Our guide interpreted the empty chairs as the city waiting for those people to come back and take their place. It was quite heart-breaking – a sight that won’t leave the thoughts of the observer who understands the meaning, for a very long time.

DSC00008 (2)

The empty chairs at the Zgody Square

From there we moved towards Schindler’s factory – which we know from the famous movie Schindler’s List. Now Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party and spied for the German army. He was captured in Czech but was released when the Germans occupied Czech. Thereafter, he came to Krakow to make money like many others. The Jewish shops and factories were snatched and given over to the Nazi supporters. That’s how Schindler came into the possession of this factory. The Poles and Jews were hired/forced to work in those occupied businesses. The Jews were not paid. But Schindler made the conditions comparatively much better for the Jews working in his factory. And as we know from the movie, he saved the lives of so many of them. Makes one wonder about the machinations of destiny. The story of how this movie came about is also equally arduous. One of the survivors of the holocaust Poldek Pfefferberg worked with Schindler at his factory. He tried to persuade many writers to write the book about this story and ultimately succeeded in 1980, six years after Schindler had passed away, to make the Australian author Thomas Keneally take the project. Thereafter,  he persevered to persuade Steven Spielberg – for 11 long years after the book was published – to make a movie about the remarkable story. My thought about it is that he must have felt that it is important that the world also gets to know about not only the horrors of that war about which a plenty is written down, but about those who brought hope and saved lives in their own ways.

This is where I would end my post about this part of the Krakowian history. In the next one, I would write about my last day of stay in Krakow which started quite disappointingly but ended much better. Until then..

Polish Dancing – Krakowiak (contd..)

I wrote down a few stories of Krakow in the previous post. It’s a wonderful city and I wanted to see every bit of it despite the painfully cold weather. The Tuesday that was my first day of sightseeing there, was a bit windy and therefore, felt much more colder than it actually was. So, the best thing to do – keep walking and added bonus – learning more stories of the city.


A horse carriage waiting for riders at the market square, Cloth Hall building behind the P sign

Continuing from the last set of stories.

Fifth Story

The main market square – Rynek Glowny has retained its shape since the medieval ages. However, the level has grown by 6 meters! Why? That’s because of – guess what? Garbage disposal. In the houses, what would now be the cellar, would have been the ground floor in the 13th century. In 2005, an excavation led to the discovery of the settlement that must have been destroyed by the Tatars in the 13th century. There is an underground museum today there called the Rynek Underground which was opened in 2010 and has a great multimedia system to explain everything about that settlement. How the people lived in those days, what they wore, their tools, the toys, the clothes – every big and small detail is displayed and explained.

A terrible and yet, fascinating piece of the exhibition is getting to see how suspected vampires were buried in those days! If you are curious, then I must tell you – it was not a comfortable position as can be seen in the open graves displayed there with the bones of the legs and hands arranged at unnatural angles. (Thinking back, I realized that I was there on Halloween day, so I guess it’s not by chance that I was getting the dose of spooky!).

A tip – the museum is open for free entry on Tuesdays!


A man in the multimedia clip telling you to move on and not stare at him (after you watch an argument between him and a woman in the street)

Sixth Story

How can one leave the market square without the story of the Brave Trumpeter of Krakow? So, there I was – listening to the Hejnal (Hymn for Mary) being played on the trumpet by someone from a window at the top of the St. Mary’s Cathedral. It is played every hour in all four directions but it stops abruptly.  Now there was once a trumpeter who played his trumpet for the hejnal as well as important announcements for the city in the 13th century. One day, as he looked out of his window on the top of the cathedral, he saw a big cloud of dust coming closer and closer to the city. And then on looking carefully, he could see the invading Tatars. What could he do to save his city? It would be a waste of the precious time to climb down and alert someone. So he thought may be if he started played the Hejnal over and over, people would surely take notice. And he did that. First nobody understood but slowly it dawned that it was a warning and the people prepared themselves and defended the city. But also, the Hejnal stopped as suddenly as it had started because alas, the Tatars saw the Trumpeter and shot an arrow to his throat! After the battle, one of the friends of the trumpeter went looking for him and found him dead with the throat pierced by the Tatar arrow but still holding his trumpet as if ready to play more!

The story of the brave trumpeter is commemorated till today with the ritual of playing the trumpet and stopping abruptly by the people of Krakow. There are three conditions for becoming the trumpeter of the tower today:

  1. You should be a man (yeah, yeah, I know)
  2. You should be a member of the fire-brigade
  3. Most importantly, you should know how to play a trumpet.
IMG_6908 (2)

St. Mary’s Basilica from where the Trumpeter plays the Hejnal (top of the left tower)


See the window that’s opening for the trumpeter?

Side note: The trumpeters have to stay at the top of the tower for a few days at a time. So it has all the facilities that one might need to live like in one’s home. I don’t know about the internet connection though.

Seventh Story

Now since I started writing about the cathedral, it is important to know that the entrance for tourists is different from the entrance of the worshippers – makes sense so as not to disturb the ones who are going to pray for that is the main purpose of a place of worship. One can go inside for free and admire the magnificence. But for going up to the tower and to get close to the most famous piece of work there – the altarpiece by Wit Swotsz (German name – Veit Stoss), there is a small fee.

Now Veit was a renowned sculptor from Nuremberg, Germany. His fame reached Poland and somewhere in the 15th century he was commissioned to make this altarpiece for the cathedral in Krakow. He moved there with his family and worked on this piece for 12 years! After living in Krakow for 20 years, he decided to leave the family business there to his son Andreas who was also quite skilled and returned back to Nuremberg with the rest of his family. Mmay be he was missing the German Bread – which I have seen people from Germany missing when they are abroad for too long or may be Poland was getting too cold (it was definitely super cold when I was there) – who knows why he went back. But it was not as rosy for him when he went back – got arrested twice, getting branded on the cheeks was prohibited from leaving Nuremberg, getting on the wrong side of the city council but being in the good books of the Emperor Maximilian saved his neck. He did carry out some interesting pieces of work despite all the drama for it was probably difficult to stop a good artist of some international acclaim, from making art.

I didn’t get a picture of the altarpiece from too close but you can see it at the back in the picture below.

IMG_6918 (2)

Inside the St. Mary’s Basilica

What else did I do? Ah yes, I went to see some more churches from inside to both admire them as well as to get some respite from the cold weather, while waiting to go for the next tour that would start at around 6 PM. Despite the freezing cold, I was quite keen on going for that tour, for one never knows what would “tomorrow” bring.  The stories from that tour – in the next post. Until next..”Do widzenia”.

Polish Dancing – Krakowiak

On the evening of an icy, windy Monday, I boarded the flight from Gdansk to reach the next beautiful city of Poland – Krakow. Upon arriving at the airport, it was easy to follow the signs and find the way to the train that runs between the city center and the airport except at the point where a sign was kept on the floor (like a board) and a girl standing in front of it obliterated the view. So in the confusion, I missed the first train by two minutes. The next one was after half an hour, which I then boarded and reached the city center in about 20 minutes. From there, with the help of google maps, I walked to the room I had booked. I had informed the property and the receptionist was waiting for me till that late even though it was not a 24 hour reception kind of place (it was around 11 PM). She handed me the keys, explained everything and then left. I was too cold and tired to go get anything to eat (although a 24 hour supermarket was just round the corner). So I just snacked on something I had in my bag and went to sleep. Had a restful sleep. In the morning, I searched the net and found a restaurant close by that offered gluten-free options for breakfast. So I got ready and reached that restaurant. It was a very modern themed restaurant. I ordered something but it took too long to come. So I had to gobble it up quickly instead of savoring it, as I was getting late for the walking tour that was about to start.


The Fancy Breakfast

And then I sped towards the Florian’s Gate, where the tour was supposed to start. Thankfully, I reached in time and other people were also just getting in. We had a pleasant guide who started with the first story of Krakow.

First Story

In the 10th century, there was a king with 5 sons. Probably he seemed to consider all of them equally worthy of the kingdom, or he couldn’t decide who would take the kingdom after his death. So the kingdom got divided into 5 parts. Thus began the struggle of 200 years when the kingdom kept getting divided over generations. Then in 1320, Wladislav I “Lokietek” (the Elbow High) from Krakow, reunited all these fragments. For 400 years after that, every king of Poland was crowned in Krakow. The coronation route would start from the St. Florian’s church. The church was renovated several times and the current look is from the 18th century.


Street musicians in traditional attire under Florian’s gate

There were 7 gates to the city but the only way to enter was through the Barbican – which was the defense gate since the 15th century. There used to be a huge moat around that which has now been transformed into a beautiful park – the Planty.

DSC00012 (2)

Autumn in the Planty

Today, there still remains a small part of the city wall with St. Florian’s Gate and the Barbican due to the efforts of a Professor named Feliks Radwanski at the beginning of 19th century when the city officials wanted to demolish the city walls. The reasons given for preserving these ranged from logical to hilarious. I don’t know which one finally convinced the authorities. One of the arguments given was that if the wall was broken, then the Northern winds blowing till the Main Market Square will knock people off their feet, while exposing women and children to influenza, rheumatism, and perhaps even to paralysis. However, the funniest one of all was that the wind would blow up women’s skirts and who would want that inappropriate thing to happen :-).


Tourists in front of Florian’s Gate

Second Story

In the photo of Florian’s Gate, do you see the McDonald’s logo? That’s the first McD that opened in Krakow. The guide told us that when it first opened, it was like the symbol of a huge transformation for the country – from communism to capitalism! The queue was legendary – people waited for hours to get the taste of the big mac. The significance was not because of the taste or quality of McD burgers (a controversial topic), but because of the freedom of choice after living in the communist regime for so long.

Third Story

Going back to 14th century, after king Wladyslaw I, his son Cassimir the Great or as he is called in Polish – Kazimierz, became the king. He was a very strong king but the last one of the Piast dynasty as he didn’t have any sons. A huge contribution from him was the founding of the University of Krakow – which he could establish with the blessing of the pope but only on agreeing that there won’t be a theology department in the university! We don’t know the exact reason for that but one reason could be that the king needed lawyers and accountants instead of theologians. Another reason stated is the pressure from the pope to not have that department. Now, after Cassimir’s demise, the kingdom went to his nephew from Hungary – Louis I. He also didn’t have any sons but had a daughter – Hedwig (Jadwiga) who was then crowned king of Poland (yes, you read it right – King). That happened because of the work (read – giving privileges to noblemen) done by Louis during his lifetime to persuade the noblemen to allow his daughters inheriting the throne. The kings of Poland needed to be “elected” by the noblemen of Poland, unlike in other countries where this was a hereditary practice. The kings therefore, granted a lot of privileges to the noblemen in return for their loyalty.

So, Jadwiga became the king and then as a religious-political move, she married the king of Lithuania Jogaila when he pledged to convert to Roman Catholicism, thus making Lithuania a catholic country. The king was baptized as Wladyslaw Jogiello and he became the co-ruler of Poland with Jadwiga.

Jadwiga had a life full of political turmoil but despite that, she did a lot for the University of Krakow which became the Jagiellonian University. She funded it with her own jewellery. The people of Poland venerated her during her lifetime and even after, and in she was canonized in 1997 by the Pope.

Wawel Cathedral where Jadwiga was coronated and buried

Fourth Story

Now that I mentioned the Wawel Cathedral, let me tell you the most iconic legend of Krakow. There was once, a long time ago, a terrible dragon who lived on the Wawel Hill. He had to be appeased with a regular diet of cattle and once a month treat of a young maiden . Then the day came when there were no more maidens left except the king’s daughter Wanda.  The king in desperation, announced that whoever gets rid of the dragon, would get the princess as his bride. Several people tried and of course failed. Then came forth a shoemaker called Skuba. He stuffed a sheep with sulphur and left it outside the cave of the dragon. The dragon ate it and because of the sulphur, became so thirsty that he started drinking the water from the river Vistula. But the thirst just wouldn’t get quenched. When the dragon had drunk almost half of the waters of the river, he could drink no more and exploded! Thus came the end of the terrible dragon, and of course, the princess married the shoemaker and everyone lived happily ever after!


The Story in the Souvenir

There are two huge bones hanging today at the entrance of the Wawel Cathedral, assumed to be the bones of the dragon; the guide told us that they actually belong to a whale and a mammoth.

With this, I can finally bring this post to an end (has been in draft mode for soooo long) and write the remaining memories of Krakow in the next one.

Polish Dancing – Polonaise (contd..)

A nice sunny morning today with a good coffee, is making me feel hopeful for a good day ahead.

But first I should finish the story of Gdansk although I don’t think I can manage it in one post. Let’s see.

So, the city of Gdansk has been around for a very long time but written records are from about 1000 AD onwards. It is on the Baltic coast. Strategically located for trading by the sea and hence, has had the best economy in the whole of Poland.

We started the walking tour from the Golden Gate. It was a chilly, windy day interspersed with sunshine, drizzle and  sometimes the raindrops turning to ice! Opposite to the gate was an imposing tower which is an Amber Museum today but was a prison tower in the past.

The guide showed us the old city gates which had the coat of arms of Poland, Prussia and the city of Gdansk on it. There was something written in Latin below : “justitia et pietate sunt publica rum omnium fundamental” which translates to “Justice and Piety are the foundations of all states”. Locals have their own interpretation “Rum is the foundation” due to the typo ;). That would make sense considering the city is a harbor city with a lot of sailors coming and going out of there.

We moved along the main street which was used also for royal processions in the past. Every new elected (yes, elected – more later) king of Poland had to have a procession here on this street leading from the Golden Gate to the Long Market at the end where the townhall/clock tower is. The wealthiest merchants lived on this street. The ornamentations on the houses were indicative of the wealth – the ones with the stone ornaments being the most wealthy to be able to afford those! In the previous post, I mentioned that the buildings reminded me of Amsterdam and I was not wrong! The guide informed us that the people of Gdansk were not the experts in travelling by ships. So the city had a lot of foreigners working there – Dutch being the most prominent ones. Especially because the river flooded every year and who are the best to claim land from water? You got it right – the Dutch. So naturally, they brought their architecture with them. And just like in Amsterdam, here also the tax was according to the width occupied on the street by the building, hence the houses would grow vertically and deep inside.

Sometimes during the tour we would dive into the sidelanes when the guide wanted to show us some other interesting things like the armoury or the “pukers” (kind of gorgoyles on the sides of staircases leading up to the houses.

The Church of St. Mary on the Main street is supposed to be the biggest gothic church in the world made of bricks. According to some estimates, it has about 5.5 million bricks! I went later inside the church, after the tour, and was kind of surprised that the imposing structure outside houses a very plain interior. I asked my tour guide in Krakow about this contrast and he explained that the church became Lutheran (Protestant) church in around 16th century and hence all ornamentation was probably removed as is the ideology of the Protestant churches.

St. Mary’s basilica

The next imposing building is the city hall which was already there from about 14th century but expanded later. It has a golden idol of the king Sigismund on the top of it – which moves in the direction of the wind. The most interesting thing for me there was to understand the presence of a sundial despite a huge mechanical clock being there. That was there because pendulum was not known at that time.  The mechanical clock though easier to read, lost time over a period of time. So an expert had to correct the time every few months by reading the correct time from the sundial! Seemingly, this was the case everywhere where the mechanical clocks were installed but the other places got rid of sundials when they replaced the machinery of their clocks with the pendulum mechanics.

Town hall

This is all I can write today. Will come back with some more about Gdansk in the next post. Keep an eye on the blog. The next post will have some humor but also some tragedy – going to be very interesting.