Dave the motorhome’s rocking! Love, love will tear us apart, again! The massive stage nearby is blasting the entire town with tunes, it’s a party atmosphere in Wieliczka on a sunny July Sunday afternoon and we’re still in the block-paved, cut grass and guarded official car park at the Salt Mine. When I went to pay the chap this morning he looked over at Dave and said “huh, you’ve already paid for yesterday, just 20 today”. Huzzah! He’d dropped the price to £4 for 24 hours, and he’d pocketed the cash without handing over a ticket… No-one’s shouted at us or clamped us though, and we’ve still got free municipal WiFi so all’s good!
As we wanted to visit Kraków we had a few options today: (1) park in the city centre at a guarded parking – we emailed the ones we know of (website here) and they were full (2) use a campsite outside the city and walk or get the bus in – there are a fair few options and none are realistically close enough to walk, the closest is maybe 4km out. As Ju’s bike and Charlie’s chariot are now being ridden about the deserts of Morocco, we’d have to get the bus or (3) we could just stay here – bus 304 runs from a stop a few minutes walk away and for 80p and half an hour of our lives drops us in the city centre. Dogs allowed on the bus, no charge, and parking here’s a bit cheaper than the campsites. Option 3 it is.
Last night Charlie did a rather passable impression of a panicking mole. A combination of Your Sex is On Fire blasting out of the house-sized speakers at the concert, a fun fair and a whacking great firework display were too much for his finely tune sense of self preservation. In a flurry of fur he dug a hole in the pile of shoes and bottled water beneath the table. We popped a pillow on top of him, stroked him to calm him as much as we could, and watched the Zloty go up in smoke. We appreciated it, even if Charlie didn’t.
Earlier on I’d watched the rozzers with interest. A police car had pulled into the parking area here, lights flashing, out leapt a policeman with a shout and a chap was flung against the side of the car. It all looked rather US Highway Patrol as the uniformed chap had the guys hands on the side of his motor and started rummaging through his pockets, throwing the contents onto the roof. We’ve no idea what offence had been committed, but given the fact public drinking’s officially illegal here and we’d already witnessed the mob of folks half hidden behind buildings supping vast quantities of ‘Coca Cola’, it’s a fair guess he was being done for being beered up. Either that or he’d Jay-walked (for us non-residents, being nabbed for this means an on-the-spot £20 fine – I must be more careful…). Sat in Dave I hid my pint of Bulgarian lager behind something as the officer finished up and the car drifted in our direction. Uninterested in us, the pint made a re-appearance, if only for a short while…
The music finished at 11:30pm and Ju woke up before dawn, stomach in knots. We’d eaten and drunk the same all day, so our half-joke guess is that the bit of Salt Mine wall she’d licked didn’t agree with her. She slowly recovered and we headed for the city after mid-day, the bus arriving about 2 minutes after we arrived at the stop. And what a bus. The aviator-sun-glassed driver employed the slightest of cool gestures to indicate yes, Charlie is allowed on the bus (tiny flick back of head) and no, muppets, you don’t buy tickets from me, you get them back there (tiny flick of head towards rear of bus). Yep, there’s a ticket machine on the bus.
Once again I’m taken aback, my expectations of a country have proved that yes, I am indeed a muppet. The bus was seriously first world, brand new, flashing LED sign telling you the next stop with a disembodied bilingual voice advising the same. The road was equally brand new, peppered with speed cameras and enormous gantries advising of pedestrian crossing points. A huge Tesco smoothly rode past us, a colourful block-built monument to capitalism. The only obvious indication of the communist past of the place: pastel painted apartment blocks, which looked much like those of 1970’s Britain and which still stand tall across our homeland’s cityscapes.
Climbing off the bus we pulled out a map to get our bearings and a smiling lady started to chat with his, the conversation going something a long the lines of: In Polish: “ah, you’re not Polish?” Us: “No, we’re English”, In broken English: “Hello!
Our intention today was just to get a look at Krakow, there’s lots to see. It’s an old city with a mind boggling history, long and complicated, much like the nation it resides within. It confounds me, my own nation’s border’s being set by the sea (I often peer at the English channel in thanks for the security it’s given us, and in frustration at the isolation it also brings). What’s left of Krakow these days is a mish mash of all this, and much of the good stuff in terms of architecture has survived, remarkable given the fact the last century’s mechanised destruction rolled over the place twice – Nazis first, the Soviets second.
Anyway, the unpaid authors of Wikipedia have done a sterling job of describing this city’s legacy; with my 4 hours of experience I can add no more. We walked around the central area of the city, through the square and marvelled at the perfection of the place. Once owned by the Austrian’s, it looks like they never left. Our last experience of Poland was on on the first RyanAir flights in to Wroclaw a few years ago with our friends Claire and Mark. It was cold, the river was frozen. We looked around the city before getting drop-dead drunk on Vodka, devouring a kebab and raiding the hotel mini bar (“look! everything’s 50p!”) before flying out again. It was great fun, if not much of a cultural awakening. I do recall the drive into the city though, it took us on ploughed-up roads and through dirt-poor districts. I wonder whether Wroclaw’s like Krakow these days?
My stomach rumbled and our Milk Bar plan rolled into action. Nope, nope, no Milky Bar Kids involved (more’s the pity), these basic cut-price eateries were introduced by the commies to serve up the surplus of dairy products for next to nothing, basically to feed the poor but also to try and stop these same folks getting blasted on moonshine. Of course communism should have done away with the need for these places; rich and poor should have disappeared as concepts, only none of the so called communist countries actually were communist (if my limited reading’s correct). They only made it part way through the revolution from capitalism to communism, ending up a mid-state of ‘socialism’ which was basically a cocked-up version of the shared ideal. George Orwell wrote Animal Farm to try and get the message across, although I still find the whole ‘collective ownership with no state control’ thing a confusion.
Anyway, back t’Milk Bar. We rolled up, the lady inside nodded a quick, vigorous nod when we pointed at Charlie, and in we went. Being inside a food consumption place with a dog’s unthinkable in Britain, and we’re always taken aback when places let us in with him, as we usually try and sit outside. Inside the joint resembled a cafe, one run with pride, and with a menu a Scottish miser would die for. We went for the menu deal – a bowl of soup plus a main course and side for 18 Zloty – £3.60, plus a glass of milk each of course. The food was delicious, the service graceful, the dog well fed on tit bits. With the tip we paid £10 to stuff the two of us, and judging by the sounds of Polish voices inside this was one of the few places in the city which didn’t feel entirely given over to us tourists.
We have a copy of Krakow In Your Pocket, a wonderful little guidebook and map, scripted in down-to-Earth prose such as “..and reserve the hell to say what the hell we like about the venues listed in this guide, regardless of disagreement from owners, advertisers or the general public”. Yeah baby, that’s what we want to hear! We read about the Milk Bar in here, and will use it tomorrow for a more extensive shufty about the place. On the cover it says it’s £5, but Ju picked it up for free (stole it?) from Tourist Information in Tarnow.
Somewhere in this guide it says how many tourists make it to Krakow each year. It’s something like 10 million. A £60 quid flight gets you here from London, and I guess from the fact the entire centre of the city seemed to be shoulder to shoulder fellow foreigners, these cheap flights are available from plenty other places too. As the afternoon drew on a small horde of folks appeared, attracting a smaller but significant horde of touts after business on beautiful horse drawn carriages and less lofty/less smelly golf buggies nipping you off to the Jewish Ghetto, obviously now home only to non-Jews, and Jewish ghosts.
The hourly bugler’s call from one of the high towers of St. Mary’s Basilica marked our time to head back to the bus. Legend goes a horn was used to awaken the city when under attack, and that the puffed-out player was killed by an arrow during his warbled cry. Today the bugle’s tune halts abruptly, as though the firemen playing it’s been himself shot down with an arrow. He plays the shiny instrument poked out on one of four windows in turn, his hand popping out afterwards to wave to the neck-ache-stricken lot below.
Bus 304 was already sat waiting for us. We’d been unable to track down the bus company’s timetable on their website but it seems there is no need, buses either seek us out or run so frequently we didn’t need to bother worrying! Back at Dave we’ve a couple of motorhome neighbours, which is good as we were starting to wonder why most motorhomes here were in any of the other array of car parks.
The sun shines and the concert calls. Better not see of a skin-full though or Jay Walking might be the least of my worries. A few more picture of Krakow, the good, the bad and the rather ugly: