Polish Yum Yums, Dragon Bones, and the Filming of Schindler’s List

This morning started off with another fantastic breakfast selection. The curly-looking thing on my plate is eel, which was actually quite good aside from the fact that it was unbearably salty. But the salt reassured me that at least I wasn’t likely to be eating any spoiled fish, as salt is a preservative.

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After breakfast, we piled into the bus for a kind of hop-on hop-off tour, which I greatly appreciated due to the fact that it was about 15 degrees and very windy. Some of the worst fog Europe’s seen for a while blew in during our time in Poland, so we’ve spent our entire trip so far barely being able to see things. For example, last night I took this picture of the church, and you can’t even see to the top of the tower.

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Don’t misunderstand, though — the fog is this dense even during the day. It lifted for a few minutes this morning, allowing us to see more than just a few feet in front of us for a little while.

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We began our tour of Krakow by visiting the Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. We saw the oldest synagogue in Poland, followed by the red house of Helena Rubinstein (maker of cosmetics that spawned a brand still in existence today), and the second oldest synagogue in Poland which was once home to the rabbi Remu.

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Frosty icicles clung to the bare branches of the trees as we wound our way down the smaller alleyways of Kazimierz.

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After we’d turned a few corners, things started making sense. We were walking along the streets where the Jews were liquidated — the very streets which appear in Schindler’s List. The further we got in to the center of the Jewish district, the more clear the movie locations became — the long street, the stairway under which the young boy hid the woman, the balconies and courtyard where the suitcases were piled up, it was all there.

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We also passed the Krakow equivalent of Budapest’s “Heroes’ Square,” and here it appears as a smattering of chairs throughout a cobbled park. This was inspired by a little girl who, during the liquidation, was pictured carrying a chair far too big for her out of her house, trying to preserve any possessions for her family that she could.

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After that, it was only a short distance to the old factory which Oskar Schindler owned and in which he employed more than a thousand Jews, saving their lives after his radical change of heart.

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The gate of the building is still the original one from the 1940’s, and next to it is a wall of pictures which include an image of Helen, the young Jew whom Goethe takes as a maid, and Izaak, Schindler’s financial aide and business associate. Watch the movie, people.

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Finally, a picture of Schindler himself, in between two friends.

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After we’d taken a short time to delve into the true story of Schindler, we journeyed to Wawel Castle, which I had been wanting to see ever since I knew we’d be in Poland. It really is a beautiful castle, although much of it was obscured by the heavy fog.

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There was also a dragon down below, symbolizing the heroic founding of Krakow. Legend says that a dragon was terrorizing the people of the region long ago, devouring all of their cattle and their virgins, so they had no meat for food and no women to marry off. In order to keep his daughter Wanda from becoming the final sacrifice to the dragon, the girl’s father promised her hand in marriage to any knight who could kill the dragon. Many brave warriors came to challenge the dragon, bringing all kinds of weapons great and small, but none succeeded. Finally, a shoemaker went to challenge the dragon, bringing only some lamb to serve as the dragon’s breakfast.

The dragon greedily devoured the lamb, but the shoemaker had infused the lamb with sulfur. The dragon’s mouth burned for the entire day, and he spent the time from sunrise to sunset gulping down the waters from the Vistula river next to his den. By night, he was as wide as a balloon after trying to quench the fiery taste in his mouth. His body could not contain all the water, and he exploded.

Today, the statue stands as a reminder of how the shoemaker slew the dragon and, with Wanda, became the first inhabitants of Krakow. Yes, it really does breathe fire.

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Some of the dragon’s bones hang in the doorway of the cathedral as a permanent reminder of the great beast.

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We did go inside the cathedral (whose roof is made of real gold, by the way), but we weren’t allowed to take pictures while inside.

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After Wawel, we trekked back to the main square of Krakow, which is the largest medieval town square in Europe. Yes, all of these are different segments of the square, as it’s too big even to capture in a panoramic picture.

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In the center of the square is also a huge market house (which was the first market in Europe, by the way), as well as Anne’s Church. This is the same church as above, which I said that you couldn’t see the top of through the fog. Up in that tower, a trumpeter plays hejnel each hour on the hour, stopping abruptly mid-song to commemorate the trumpeter who was shot in throat by the enemy while sounding the alarm which alerted the city of danger, saving the city by doing so. You can listen to the trumpet song here: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdG2jcwgu_g&feature=related). I was in the square during the song, but it was too noisy for me to take video.

After the church, our tour of the city was over and we were free to go our own ways. For me, that meant seeking out a shop that sold traditional Polish sweets. But I had to do it quickly, because my body was so achy from the cold that I was beginning to feel sick. You know how that goes, right? On the way, I snapped this picture of these guys dressed up

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Unfortunately, they got really angry at me, shouting and pointing at the cup the one with the arrows was holding. Obviously, that means that I have to pay in order to take pictures, and this is certainly not the first time I’ve seen something like that. I simply apologized, signaling that I wouldn’t take any more pictures, and walked quickly away to blend back into the crowd before he could follow me. To be completely honest, I didn’t see that he had a cup or I would have known not to take a picture. He pulled the cup out of his pack as I was snapping the picture, since I caught them right when they were just setting up (alongside all the people pretending to be statues in the main square).

Anyway, by using my strategy of “dodge into the tiny alleys away from tourist spots,” I was able to find a great place called Ciasteczka z Krakowa. The young woman behind the counter was incredibly nice and spoke English very well, so I took a quick look over the sweets in the shop and then asked, “How many can I get with 6 zloty?”

I can’t change coins at a currency exchange, so I wanted to spend of the 6 rather than having it sitting around doing nothing for the rest of my life.

Anyway, she told me I could probably get seven or eight (depending on how much what I chose weighed, of course), so I started picking out the things that sounded good. I ended up with this box of utter deliciousness:

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From top left to bottom right: babeczka z różą i marakują [bun with rose], babeczka z karmelem i orzechami arachidowymi [bun with caramel and nuts], babeczka kajmakowa [bun with toffee], babeczka tiramisu [tiramisu bun], babeczka marcepanowa [marzipan bun], pierniczki z różą [gingerbread with rose], pianki advokatowe [advocat cookie, or a type of whipped egg cookie], babeczka  kukulka [kukulka bun], and poduszeczki waniliowe [vanilla shortbread].

I haven’t tried them yet – I’m saving them for the long bus ride home tomorrow. I’ll let you know how they are, though!

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When it came time for dinner, I returned to the market square and headed down a side road to the incredibly decorated Miód Malina. Upon entering, I was blown away. I have never eaten in a place this fancy. I seriously had no idea what to do with all the silverware because I’ve never been in a place where you have so many courses that you have to actually use all that silverware.

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We were given one drink free of charge, so I choose an orange juice and waited for the first portion of my meal excitedly. I had no idea really of what it would be until only a few moments before I got it — a rye soup with Polish sausage and boiled egg, served in a bread bowl. Err, bread vase is more like it.

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I must say, it was delicious. The broth was thick and stayed hot (very hot) for a long time inside that bread. The sausage was delicious, tender with a summer sausage flavor without being too strong on the spices. Not at all thick or textured, very smooth yet substantial. I just couldn’t resist eating everything but the bottom of the bowl as well. And when I say that bottom, I mean that I ate the sides and the top and just left the very very bottom. 🙂

I knew when I was eating it that I shouldn’t have been eating that bowl because, to my knowledge, we still had two courses coming. But the bread was just so good!

The waiter, who was very nice, quickly snatched away our empty plates and replaced them with the main course, a variety platter of pierogies — three with cabbage, three with meat, and three with potato and onion. I examined my plate carefully and then sampled one of each, getting lucky enough to choose those three out immediately.

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At the same time Bekah, who was sitting next to me and who can’t have flour, was served her special meal (a rather impressive one, if I don’t say so myself).

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She (and the rest of us) was so shocked by her meal that she just couldn’t stop laughing, and she was shaking her head so vigorously I couldn’t get a clear picture. It was hilarious!

Anyway, the cabbage pierogies tasted very much like a dulled version of sauerkraut, but they were still quite good. The breading was crispy without being tough, and it was buttery with just a hint of onion nicely browned. The meat ones seemed to be filled with a boiled version of the meat from the earlier soup, the summer sausage taste greatly downplayed in favor of more spices. Although they were still good, the meat ones were my least favorite. Then came the potato one. My favorite! At first, it seemed to taste exactly like a creamy hushpuppy — the seasonings were very similar. After a few moments, though, the potato taste seeped through and added a nice dimension to it. After having tried each one, I could tell by their shape which was which without having to cut them apart, so I ate the meat ones, then the cabbage, leaving the potato pierogies for last. Yes indeed, I ate them all!

At this point, I was quite full and certainly content to sit around for a while before our final course showed up. It didn’t take long with the prompt service, though, before a small tray of apple pancake with raspberries was placed before me, the caramel and cream cheese drizzle just a bit too enticing to resist right at that moment.

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Strange-looking pancake, right? It was very crispy and light on the outside, but the inside was not pancake at all. I was expecting a typical pancake with apple slices, but what I got was a light, fluffy pastry filled with apple cream and just a little bit of batter. It was delicious. I wanted more, but at that point I literally felt like I was going to explode. I ate so much that my back hurt.

I was quite content to just there and chitchat for half an hour until I could move again before heading back to the hotel. One last night here before the magical Budapest bus takes us back home.

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