Moscow II: The Quickening

At the end of our last Russian vacation, we ended up back in the same place as our first- Moscow, of course.  The idea was to catch as many of the highlights we missed last time as possible… and we pretty much nailed it.

The first stop, closed during out last visit on the May 9th holiday, was Lenin’s Mausoleum, situated next to the red walls of the Kremlin in Red Square.  Here Lenin’s body has been on display since his death in 1924.  The unique preservation techniques give him a waxy pallor, but it’s incredible seeing history literally on display, meticulously groomed facial hair and all.  It’s macabre, but powerful.  Around the tomb are plaques and monuments for other Soviet dignitaries, including Stalin’s head-scratchingly flower-strewn grave and John Reed, the American immortalized in Warren Beatty’s Reds who is the only foreigner interred there.

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moscow_lenin_tombNot my photo, of course.

After that we surprisingly found the Kremlin’s Armoury Museum open (it’s usually closed on Thursdays).  Since we also had missed that, we headed in, and were treated by the sight of a vast variety of Russian treasures, domestic and gifted from foreign lands, as well as priceless historical artifacts like crowns, thrones, and ceremonial dress from monarchs spanning Ivan the Terrible to Catherine the Great.

kremlin-armory-musuemAgain, not mine.

We’d heard a lot about the legendary Arbat Street, but walking down it revealed a tourist trap and coffee shop gauntlet not too different from the street I work on in Kazan, Bauman.  Our next stop was a quick detour, hopping off the subway on an island in the Moskva River and taking in the ultramodern Moscow-City development skyline.  Nonexistent 20 years ago, it now boasts three of the four tallest buildings in Europe and a stunning array of architecture, particularly at night.

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That night we wrapped up with a kilometer hike through driving snow to Jeonghee’s Shangri-La, the Jasmin Korean restaurant and grocery store.  There we sated ourselves on Korean culinary delights, and bought some precious kimchi to take home.

The next day, our vacation’s last, we headed for our Great White Whale, the Tretyakov Gallery.  Twice before we’d come all the way over there only to find it closed due to the atypical hours it keeps.  We nailed it this time, though, although when we get inside it was beyond packed.  This museum was a totally new art experience for us- wholly devoted to Russian painters spanning from the 1100s up to the eve of the 20th Century.  It’s laid out chronologically, and provides a fascinating journey from singular religious iconography to European imitation in the 17th and 18th century to the development of intriguingly original voices like Kramskoy, Kuindji, Vereschagin, and Serebryakova.

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As night was falling we made our way through the lightly falling snow to Novodevichy Convent, which we somehow missed walking around to the lake on the other side… the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and a beautiful vantage point for the monastery.  Of course, now iced-over and dusted with snow, it presented an even more fitting tableau.

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There was only ever one candidate for our final stop in Moscow, and by extension our Russian travels- Red Square.  Lit up, half covered by a garish temporary skating rink, and packed with people, it was still a magical sight.  The snow flurrying around the brightly colored, one of a kind domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral ended our trip on a pitch perfect note.

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Vladimir and Suzdal

The next step in our small Russian tour, after a couple day detour in Kazan (practically the midpoint of Yekaterinburg and Moscow) during which we went to a show of purportedly the world’s only cat trainer, which ended up leaning more on borrowed slapstick than cat feats but was still a good enough time, was the old Imperial city of Vladimir and nearby Suzdal.

Vladimir is the old capital of the Rus, essentially where Russia began.  Today only three predominant attractions from those times remain, but all are Wold Heritage sites.  Our first step was The Golden Gate, all that remains of Vladimir’s old city wall from the 1100s, now with a small museum of military history with interesting dioramas, propaganda posters and even a 1970s spacesuit with an American mission cooperation patch.

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The other two are both churches.  St. Demetrius is the smaller one, now unsanctified, but covered in carvings dating back to 1194 which depict scenes from King David’s life and local myths.  The Cathedral of the Assumption, on the other hand, consists of a large Moscow Kremlin- inspiring main church from the 1100s with an attached Bell Tower from 1810.  Inside are frescoes and paintings from a range of time periods, including 600 year old ceilings by the master Andrei Rublev, but differs from other Russian Orthodox Cathedrals we’ve seen by featuring a large Baroque centerpiece like you’d see in Bavaria.

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The next morning we took the bus about 45 minutes to Suzdal, the jewel of the Golden Ring of old imperial cities around Moscow.  This is one of the premiere tourist attractions within Russia, although it’s not nearly as well known outside of the country.  We stepped off the bus to be greeted by a biting -29 degree cold, but thankfully this small town packed with churches, convents, and monasteries was easily walkable.

Our first stop was the city’s Kremlin- another structure from the 1200s which consists of the small but beautiful Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral and a detached Bell Tower and hall which houses a few small museums with dioramas and church artifacts.  The highlight, though, has to be the iconic blue onion domes of the church, featured on many a postcard and even a few films.

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Across the now frozen solid river from the Kremlin is the Museum of Wooden Architecture, housing several different types of traditional wooden architecture, most impressively a pair of wooden churches in the same incredibly distinct Russian style that almost convinced me to take a much farther trip to see up north.

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While there we grabbed a hot cup of the local honey beer medovnik, which we’d tried before at Sviyavsk, and listened to some incredibly tough traditional singers fill the frozen air with propulsive, exotic music.  After that we took our last long walk to the St. Euthymius Monastery, pausing on a nearby bluff for a beautiful view of the snowbound Pokrovsky Convent, where royalty sent their unwanted or insane wives and daughters for generations.

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St. Euthymius also hosts a small cathedral, its onion domes an even more alluring shade of green and gold, but the highlight is the unique rectangular bell tower, which looks almost Roman with its arches and columns, and from which we saw a man play out a tune entirely by hand-pulling a complicated series of ropes.

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Also inside the grounds are several small museums, where we saw letters written by gulag prisoners (for a time this was a prominent Soviet prison waystation on the way to Siberia) and the workshops where historical artifacts and paintings are restored.  After that, the day was drawing to a close, so we got one more view of the white-walled Kremlin backlit by the setting sun and headed for the bus station.

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Yekaterinburg

My wife and I will be leaving Russia in a matter of weeks, which is incredible to me.  As is ever the case, time flies, so I’m particularly glad of the timing of Russian holidays.  The big celebration here for people of all faiths is New Years, but Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, the result being a solid 11 day holiday at the beginning of the year.  We’d originally planned getting out of the country to somewhere warm, but with the plunging ruble we decided to stick around Russia, and as a result got to see several beautiful, frigid cities we never would have here.

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– 25 C/ – 13 F, folks

We spent New Year’s Eve in a nearly empty train, drinking it up and headed east to Yekaterinburg, at the foot of the Urals.  This was originally a mining town founded in the 1700s around a dammed river and lake, which now lies in the heart of the city, surrounded by old mansions and modern office towers.

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We arrived to find that it was two hours later than we expected.  All train tickets in the country are expressed in Moscow time, regardless of the time zone the train arrives in (or more dangerously, departs from).  At this altitude, it meant that we had about three hours of daylight to work with, but we took advantage by heading straight for the Church-on-the-Blood, a modern cathedral built as a sort of national apology to the Romanov family, slain here in 1918 at the end of the October Revolution.

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That a place like this even exists speaks to the singular psychology of the Russian people and the way history and religion are all wrapped up together to a bizarre degree in many Russians’ minds.  There’s an iconography in the church where the family, from Nicholas II on down to Anastasia, are literally situated right next to Jesus and Mary.  This is a collective guilt I can’t imagine anywhere else- how many Mary Antoinette memorials do you think you’ll find in France, much less people no-shit praying to her like a saint?  All this in some country where Stalin’s grave at the Kremlin is inundated by flowers while the graves of non-monstrous despots around him lay bare.  We saw another example of this historical cognitive dissonance the next day at the Volga Urals Military District building, an impressive example of “Stalin’s Empire Architecture” still in use today, but surrounded by a wrought iron fence emblazoned with Russian Imperial Eagles.

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After basking in the warmth and intriguing history, we headed back out into the extreme cold (we could only manage 15 minute or so bursts of walking before ducking into somewhere warm- my mustache even froze… which was a new experience).  Across the street was the 18th century Ascension Church in standard Orthodox style, but with a nice elevated location and evening view.

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Our last stop was the central Square of 1905 and its annual Ice Town, full of colorfully lit ice sculptures, an ice maze, knickknack stalls, and tons of kids with sleds shooting every which way down ice ramps.  After that, it was definitely time for a hot Russian meal of veal stroganoff in its famous creamy mushroom/sour cream sauce (Jeonghee had a delicious mixed grill) accompanied by warm mulled wine.

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We took our time getting out the door the next day with few concrete goals.  First up was the Novo-Tikhvinskiy Monastery with its beautiful white church with a uniquely decorated, almost Asiatic Muslim interior decor.

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A brutal 20 minute walk later we peeked at the zoo just for the hell of it and found to our near disbelief that it was still open.  The polar bears were totally cool with the weather, along with the lynxes and Andean Condor, but a lot of the inside animals weren’t so happy with the status quo, especially the chimp that hurled itself cannonball-style against glass that looked a little flimsy for my taste.  Still, the white tiger and polar bear were cool.

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Close by was the Tinkhoff brewery restaurant, a la carte-style like many Russian fast-ish food, but with solid dark and wheat brews on tap and a store in the same building that actually had Belgian beers at a not completely insane price.  After trekking to the Volga Urals building like I said before, complete with its Marshal Zhukov statue commemorating the time Stalin banished his most successful general to a command 30 hours eastward because he was too popular a figure.

Our last stop was the 52nd floor of the Vysotsky Tower, with its outdoor viewing platform.  We got there right at twilight, and watched the sun dip below the horizon as the city lights rippled out to merge with it.  Gorgeous.

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Istanbul

The last stop on our grand trip was a bit of a bonus.  I noticed pretty much every flight back to Kazan stopped over in Istanbul, for at least 6 + hours, so I figured, why not double that layover and really take in this legendary city?  When we got pretty much no sleep in the Bucharest airport, this plan was looking tenuous, but we made the most of it, pounded the Turkish coffee, and hit up what may be my favorite city of the whole trip.

I knew we were in for something good even before we landed, watching the black, red, and orange sunrise over city and sea from thousands of feet up, buildings and water alike glittering in gradually retreating night.  It was full day when we got through customs and hopped on the train into the city, with one destination in mind- the central, seeped in history and architectural grandeur Sultanahmet Square.

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Sultanahmet is the historical center of the city, around which the biggest sights are clustered.  We grabbed some simit (sesame bagel with soft goat cheese) and took a little break on a grassy berm to eat and a few of the dozens of friendly cats (nearby vendors called many of them by name) that roam it.  We found that the concrete expanse we were seated near was the old Roman Hippodrome, which is now populated with monuments spanning this city’s storied history- a 3500 year old Egyptian Obelisk to a twisted column of brass melted down after a Greek victory over the Persian Empire from the Temple of Delphi to a German pavilion and fountain gifted to the Ottoman Empire.

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Right next to the old Hippodrome area is the Blue Mosque, one of the largest and most beautiful in the world.  We cued up, took off our shoes, and filed into huge-domed, stupendously ornate, and distinctly foot-smelling expanse.  It’s gorgeous, and would have been an interesting comparison with the legendary Hagia Sophia, which it sits across from, but alas, it’s closed on Mondays.  Another reason to go back.

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Behind the Hagia Sophia, on a promontory overlooking the Bosporus, is Topkapi Palace, the incredibly affluent palace of the Ottoman kings.  It’s utterly magnificent, composing four courtyards surrounded by royal chambers and apartments where you can see reception rooms for visiting dignitaries, pools, prayer rooms, courtyard gardens and fountains, and an array of riches of staggering brilliance, including an 86 carat diamond, apparently found in a garbage dump and traded for some silver spoons to the palace.  Topkapi is a jewel of Muslim architecture, encrusted with and housing even more, well, jewels.

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After leaving the palace, and basically at our 30th hour without sleep, we were pretty beat.  We walked past a Roman pillar that was originally the center of all radiating roads outward, then hunted down some good Turkish food.  We opted for doner, because when in Istanbul, obviously, as well as adana kebab, a very savory minced meat patty.  It was easy to see how this has become the most ubiquitous fast food in the world, or at least Europe, anyway.

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Eat your heart out, McDonald’s.

After grabbing a sticky, thick Turkish ice cream cone, complete with a keepaway show from the dexterous vendor, we headed for our last stop, Chora Church.  To get there we had to wind our way through a slightly sketchy, but vibrant hilltop neighborhood, full of apartments with head scarf-wearing women yelling down into the street and men smoking and having an evening chat on the street corners.  We also passed through a street market full of fresh fish and produce before arriving at Chora just before the last admittance of the day.  This small Byzantine Church is over a millennium old, but its colorfully painted walls and frescoes, preserved because they were plastered over for centuries, are as vibrant as ever.

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Once we finished, it was time to head back to the train, and the airport.  Instead of walking down the same street we came up, we walked up towards a wall I noticed on the map, and found a large stretch of the once-invincible, notorious Roman wall that surrounded old Constantinople.  I clambered up some extremely steep steps to a worn tower and was treated with an expansive twilit view of the city all the way to the sparkling blue Bosporus.  It was the perfect punctuation to a trip of a lifetime… but more of an ellipsis than a period.  I’ll be back.

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Romania- Sighisaora and Brasov

Romania wasn’t high on my to-do list before planning this trip, but once my father learned of my job in Russia, he’s mentioned it in his conversations with customs at his job (his seed company has a surprisingly international and diverse clientele) and he kept hearing one thing- go to Transylvania.  So we did, and in October to boot.

When planning, the two cities I targeted were both in the heart of the rugged, hilly country below the Carpathian Mountains- Sighisaora and Brasov.  Our first stop was the former, a small, relatively out of the way city boasting a 12th century Saxon citadel at its heart.  After grabbing a nice lunch of Romanian schnitzl (chicken cutlet) and an unpronounceable and unfortunately lost -named dish that amounted to savory meat-stuffed cabbage rolls (and some of the local dark brew) we headed to the center of town, passing what looked like a Communist military cemetery and a very pretty, riverside Russian Orthodox church on the way.

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The Sighisaora Citadel is situated on a big hill towering over the city.  Only some walls and towers remain of the original fortifications, but those that do are impressive examples of the medieval, quintessentially Transylvanian architecture that has been inspiring Vampire lore for centuries (in fact, one two-story wooden yellow restaurant claims to be the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, but even if it was a generous three hundred years old that’s not old enough).

Besides the cobble-stoned main square, the main attractions are two churches and a Clock Tower.  The Monastery Church was converted to a Luthern joint when this part of the country did, and was a result has a lot of German gothic touches we didn’t see in nearby countries.  More interesting, though, was The Church on the Hill, accessed by a long covered flight of stairs and presiding over a leaf-strewn cemetery and the town at large.  Inside are tons of medieval statuary and colorful frescoes, hundreds of years-old brightly painted trunks unique to the area and in the process of restoration, and a painted altarpiece by the Polish Veit Stoss’s son.  The least and most impressive building is the Clock Tower, with the exotic, almost Oriental gables and tiled rooftop that makes you think “yeah, I can see Dracula living in that.”

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After hopping a twilit train to Brasov and bedding down in our only private hotel room of the trip, we got an early start to take advantage of this bigger, more spread out city.  We knew Bran Castle was a must, and got talked into just taxiing out there at a bad local price, but an amazing one if we’d been in the U.S.  Bran is popularly held to be Vlad the Impaler’s Castle, and it’s stark, stony hilltop location and exotic look certainly seem like what Bram Stoker would have had in mind when writing his horror masterpiece.

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The design, like Sighisaora, is actually Saxon, and was even inhabited (much later) by the Anglo-Saxon (British) Princess Maria, who married into the Hungarian Hohenzollern royal dynasty and made this castle her primary home.  So, the inside decor is much more turn of the century opulence than cobwebs and dimming candlesticks, but the picturesque location in the Carpathian foothills and tangle of wooden hallways, pretty courtyard views and interesting nooks and crannies made it well worth the visit.  More disappointing was Brasov’s Old Town, which really is only a small section of town swallowed up by modernization.  We had an excellent lunch, though, of a thick meat stew and polenta cooked with goat cheese (and some complimentary pork sweetmeats which went great with our dark beer).  The main square and nearby Black Church are nice enough, but after a trip full of them, nothing particularly memorable.  Likewise, the “Narrowest Street in Europe” near the Church isn’t terribly narrow, but is painted prettily in different pastels.

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Our evening train trip to Bucharest, and our flight home, was actually the point that really sold the beauty of Transylvania that so many people told my father about.  Watching the forested hills and small, craggy mountains hiding dark glens and dilapidated wooden buildings, hovels, and even tents glide by felt like traveling through time, right up to Bucharest’s featureless concrete jungle.

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Budapest

Our train trip from Krakow to Budapest was the best yet- a first-class, two-bed compartment on a nearly empty train we scored by greasing the palm of our attendant with seven dollars worth of leftover zlotys.  No, I don’t think there really was an “optional” upgrade fee.  When we arrived, though, it was raining for the first time on our trip- a light but persistent drizzle.  Despite the slow soaking of our clothes, we hit the wide boulevards (you can see how the city was often compared to Paris in its heyday), buzzing by the Great Synagogue and ornate State Opera House, with its Moorish staircases, as well as the Neo-Gothic, spire-happy beauty of the Parliament Building.

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The first place we entered was St. Stephen’s Basilica, impressive and ostentatious like most national cathedrals that aren’t terribly old, but featuring one particularly odd memento- the shriveled, centuries-old severed hand of St. Stephen himself, the first King of Hungary.  If you put in some coins, it even lights up for you!

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Definitely… unique.

After that, logically, it was time to eat, and we knew exactly where to head- the Central Market Hall.  Above the various stalls selling ingredients, clothing, accessories, and what have you is a crowded catwalk lined with amazing Hungarian street food.  It reminded me very much of a Peruvian market, which is where the really great local food is at.  We had a breaded stuffed chicken and gulyas leves, which has me salivating just writing about it.  The original Hungarian cowboy goulash, it’s quite unlike most dishes in the West bearing its name.  Here it’s a greasy meat, potato, and carrot soup spiced with that universal Hungarian ingredient- red paprika.  Dessert was somloi galuska, a chocolate cake and pudding hybrid that topped off an amazing meal.

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After lunch the rain slacked off thankfully, so we crossed the Danube River to the Gellert Hill Cave, which houses a Pauline Order church that was literally carved into it.  This church’s history mirrors Hungary’s- old and storied, but cast aside and neglected during Communist times only to be immediately embraced and restored after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  It’s quite unlike any chapel I’ve seen elsewhere, more like Buddhist cave temples in execution, although smaller than most of those I’ve seen.

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Our next stop after a long commute was Aquincum (which turned out to be a long walk from the same-named train stop).  This former Roman resort constitutes the largest Roman site in Hungary, a very pretty assemblage of old foundations and columns that give you an idea of the scope of the place, along with literal tons of statuary and carvings dug up there, a replica Roman villa, a friendly evil-eyed cat, and a small but very modern and interactive museum, all well worth the visit.  The best sight, though, was the twilight sun lazily illuminating the wet, red fall leaves, iridescent green grass, and centuries-old stonework… simply beautiful.

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Night was falling when we got back to the city, and this when Budapest really, and quite literally, shines.  We made our way to Castle Hill, full of palaces and museums and an Cathedral or two, and just took in the beautifully lit up architecture and the view of the black Danube and shimmering buildings lining it, in particular the Parliament building from earlier, now utterly, gorgeously lit up.  The Fisherman’s Bastion, with its 7 towers for 7 Magyar clans, is the best vantage point, and is right next to the quite pretty Matthias Church to boot.

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After soaking up this romantic view, which Jeonghee liked even more than Paris and I would have to say at least gives it a run for its money, we walked back downtown across the Brooklyn-esque Chain Bridge and headed back to the market for dinner, only to find it closed.  We made tracks for the Kelenfold Train Station, figuring we’d find something to eat out there, only to discover a literal wasteland.  Waiting for our second night train in a row proved to be an ordeal, but we scrounged up some cheap pizza bread, cracked open some beers, and made ready for the last leg of our trip.

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Krakow

After spending most of the day at the physically and emotionally exhausting Auschwitz, it was a relief to return to Krakow, settle in to our hostel room, and take it easy.  We did venture out to the nearby Market Square, beautifully lit up at night, and grabbed a quick snack of polish sausage and latkes (potato pancakes) covered in a thick slather of spicy pickled paprika garnish, then nabbed some disappointing street noodles and the ever-present Zapiekanka, a Polish pizza bread topped with cheese, meat, and mushroom sauce, on the way back after walking the Square.

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The next morning we got an early start, grabbed a quick breakfast of delicious obwarzack bagels- savory sesame, cheese, and many other flavored bagels available on every corner all day, and walked straight to the Oskar Schindler Factory, which now houses a large, very modern and interactive museum dedicated to the experiences of Krakow citizens, Polish and Jewish, leading up to and during World War II.  It’s a very informative, impressive museum, although it features surprisingly little information on Oskar Schindler and the historical events dramatized in Schindler’s List.  They did preserve his office, alongside an affecting monument to the List composed of pewter tins manufactured there.

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Also in the factory complex is a modern art gallery, Mocak, featuring everything from an old Polish woman’s labeled drawings of all the everyday items in her house to a large exhibition of sobering Ukrainian revolutionary art.

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After that, we re-crossed the Vistula River and walked through the Jewish Quarter, now a revitalized artistic district with few reminders of its tragic past- primarily some surviving synagogues and a walled cemetery.

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We gathered some lunch at a small local hole in the wall for hostel receptionist recommended, eating as well as we had since Germany – zurek (savory rye and kielbasa, egg, and basil soup), barszcz (beetroot soup), chicken cutlet and potatoes, delicious cheese-filled pierogies, and boiled beef in horseradish sauce.

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We kept the party going after that, walking up the short, steep hill to Wawel Castle, the centerpiece of the Old Town and home of the Polish kings.  On top is a beautiful park ringed with historical buildings including the Royal Palace with its colonnaded courtyard and the intricately decorated Wawel Cathedral, final resting place for a host of kings and queens.

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After that was a whirlwind of churches and monuments we’d spied walking around the Market Square the night before, the small, old baroque-interiored St. Andrews, the very dark, gothic, painted Franciscan Church, and its square companion, the Dominican Church with a copy of the Shroud of Turin as well as a brightly lit up Christmas church model, the extremely old Holy Cross, with a distinctive single Gothic palm column supporting its roof and paintings dating from the 1400s, and the jewel of the bunch, the double mismatched-towered St. Mary’s.

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Besides its unique architecture, St. Mary’s boasts one of the most beautiful interiors we saw on the trip, with every wall and crevice painted in gorgeous fashion, like a Russian Orthodox Church, and a silver-framed altarpiece iconography by the renowned Veit Stoss at its center.  Before our train to Budapest, we took one last walk around the square, with its Medieval Cloth Hall turned tourist trinket market, then up through Old Town to the Florian Gate with its preserved medieval wall, and finally past the Barbican, its intimidating circular defensive fortress and lastly nabbed a bite of fried ocypek (mountain goat cheese) and headed for the train.

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Ah, the beer… it was uniformly good, too, in the Czech style, and better than any other we would have on the rest of the trip.

 

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