Sunday, June 20, 2021

Visit Me (and the Museums) in Krakow!

"As of June 19th, 2021 United States nationals and legal residents are permitted to lawfully enter Poland." –Polish Tourism Organisation

I found out yesterday morning from the tour guide on a free walking tour of the Kazimierz (the Jewish quarter). Even though I didn't learn much new from the tour itself (I mean, I live in Kazimierz), but that little nugget of information was worth it! Plus, I learned that a main road near historically was river bed, and that the plaza I live near, Plac Wolnica, used to be 4x as big as it currently is. The free walking tours are great, and if you get a chance to visit I will highly recommend you take one or two of them.

Speaking of visiting, did I mention that you can? And you should! I was looking up flights for my parents (from El Paso, TX to Krakow), and round trip was less than $1300, and I'm guessing if you fly out from a more major US airport it will probably be even less. I know it's not cheap, but it's also not that bad for international travel. Plus, if you visit accommodations are free! My flat can comfortably accommodate at least five guests. Mom and Dad will be here a few weeks in July, but the more the merrier if you ask me. You just need to come before we fly out on 15 August. When you come, we can get some tasty treats and tasty views, like this:

Fancy ice cream on the square is my favorite part of living in Europe. 

If that doesn't convince you, maybe my river of the museums in town will. I've already written about some of my favorites, so I won't spend a lot of time on those, except to give an overall rating:

My first Krakow museum, HistoryLand, was a real treat! 8/10—it's great if you like Legos and overview history, but you definitely need to pay for the audio guide. 

The only reason to visit the Princess Czartoryski Museum is to see DaVinci's Lady with the Ermine—5/10.

Galicia Jewish Museum takes an interesting approach to history telling, but it's not really my style of museum—7/10.

I just wrote a raving review for Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum last week, and so my 10/10 rating shouldn't be a surprise.

Now for the new reviews. Shall we go from worst to best?

Time marked by the layers of earth in the Underground Museum. 

With only 4/10—the Rynek Underground Museum. The concept is good, because clearly there's going to be some good stuff buried beneath an 800-year-old city, but it felt so...fabricated. I didn't go with a guide, and I'm sure that would have made it better, but I'm not willing to go back a second time to test that theory.

There were some interesting pieces in the National Museum, but there was a too much religious art to sift through to find the more unique pieces. 

The National Museum in Krakow is huge and I only saw two of the exhibits, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. I give it a 6/10, mostly because I can't remember much of it. It had a big chain of religious art and artifacts, and there was a little bit of a history tour through the art extending from medieval times to the mid-1900s. It was both overwhelming in scope and underwhelming in presentation. I'm sure there is a lot worth seeing, but I'm not sure if it's worth it for me. 

"Kunst Macht Frei" translates to art makes you free; it's a play on the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate leading into Auschwitz. 

I always think I like contemporary art museums, but maybe I don't? MOCAK (Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow) had a pretty interesting setup when I went—the temporary exhibit was WWII related, so it felt like a history and art museum in one. Some of the art was fun, and some was really good, but a lot of it felt like the artists were trying to create massive meaningful imagery but without enough noticeable skills to back it up. 6/10 from me. 

Views from the top of the City Hall Tower on a clear day. You can't walk out on the terrace but they have it set up so you can still see pretty well. 

I give 7/10 for the City Hall Tower. It's fun climbing the steep uneven stairs that open up to the top clock tower. From the top there are lovely views of Old Town and the surrounding city. If it's too much of a climb, there are side rooms off of the staircase that have some historical displays educating on the history of the tower and the clockwork. The real reason to go is the view and the information is an added bonus.

Looking at old photos through a magnifying lens in the Schindler's Factory Museum. 

Schindler's Factory is the best museum in town—9/10. The curators do a really nice job of presenting information in many different formats so as you move from room to room you are looking at the information through a new lens (sometimes, literally looking through lenses). The only reason this isn't a 10/10 is because it's more of a general WWII museum, and I would have liked to learn more about the specifics of Schindler's Factory.

Deep in the bowls of the Lost Wawel exhibit. In my opinion, this is a much more interesting way to see old Krakow than the Underground Museum provides. 

Wawel (the castle) also doubles as a museum, but there are so many exhibits that you buy tickets for separately that it's hard to think of it as a single cohesive space. I've seen the Dragon's Den (fun but not much to see—5/10),  Wawel Recovered (too architect-focused for me—4/10), and Lost Wawel (a super cool sneak-peak into the depths of the castle—8/10). Even if you don't seen any of the formal exhibits, it's very worth walking through the castle grounds, which is why my overall rating is a must see for anyone visiting Krakow. 

Blocks of salt that came from Wieliczka Salt Mine and are on display at MOCAK. 

But that's not all. There are still tons of museums I haven't been: Museum of Municipal Engineering, Pharmacy Museum, Manggha Center, the Old Synagog...and then many more. We saw the grounds of the Aviation Museum, and I half-jokingly really want to go to the Museum of Illusion, but the main spat that I will make an effort to see before we move is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Visit me and maybe we can go together *wink wink! 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

Gosh, was it only this Monday that our car got picked up for shipping? It feels like months ago, but now that means we only have a few months to go. I'm not sad or disappointed, but I feel like the next two months are going to go by in a whirlwind. 

For our last day with the car, we went to Auschwitz. I wasn't particularly excited to go (I mean, it's not a place known for having a good time), but I felt obligated to. The former Nazi concentration camp surrounds a town that is about 1.5 hours west of Krakow. The town of Oswiecim is like any other Polish agricultural village, except for the massive busloads of tourists that regularly drive through. I suppose the area is historically known for large deposits of people who spent too long in sweaty crowded vehicles.

Ok, that was a bad joke...but some of us use comedy as a way of dealing with horror. It was not so horrible, though. Everything about the organization at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum was thoughtful, tasteful, and respectful. It started with a ten-minute video (voiced by Mark Hamill) with beautiful dual photos overlaying historical images on top of modern ones. Then we met our tour guide for three hours spit between Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). 

Our guide was great! Of course he was incredibly knowledgeable about WWII history, but he was very good about pointing out the stories and humanity behind each photo and location. For example, in one black-and-white photo on the unloading dock, you see the groups of men and women grouped up separately, a few SS officers, and someone in the center of it all walking around in his socks and looking a little bewildered. Our guide called out the others in the crowed who were gawking and smirking, implying the transports weren't panicked or overly stressed about their destination. He then of course reminded us that most of them were in the last hour of their lives.

The stories were humanizing, but the piles of human hair were tragic. It was the only space we were not allowed to photograph, in respect of the human remains, but it was enough hair to fill my apartment. In other spaces we saw equally overwhelming piles of shoes, suitcases, kitchen appliances, eyeglasses, and prostheses. And of course, it's difficult to hear about the gas chambers without feeling disgusted, but our guide always had a diplomatic way of focusing our concerns. 

He had a habit of reminding us that yes, the Holocaust was 80 years ago but there are still tragedies that are happening in our modern world. People are still equally capable of buying into an ethics system that leads to genocide. Tribalism is real—just watch the newest season of Ru Paul's Drag Race

I am so glad I went to Auschwitz. Not only was it interesting and educational, but it was also inspirational. Some people might think of this place as a one-time visit, but I would happily go back again and again. There is so much more to see (the place is 40 km2) and so many more stories to tell. If you get a chance, I highly recommend visiting. 

The message "Arbeit Macht Frei" helped to subdue the prisoners, making them think that they were arriving at a long-term work camp. For some it was a work camp, but it wasn't long-term for anyone. 

The space was unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful, except for the rows of barbed wire fences everywhere. Our tour guide also noted that it would not have looked so green when it was occupied; the grounds would have been muddy and crowded.

A visual representation of how disabilities were viewed. 

This is only about a sixth of the total pile. Now imagine the same volume, but with human hair.

The ovens inside one of the crematoriums. 

Inside Birkenau (Auschwitz II). 

This is the photo I described, above, cleverly placed in the spot that the photo was taken from.

The destroyed remains of a gas chamber.

We got to be the first tour inside one of the newly renovated structures. Each of these infirmary beds used to sleep 4-7 people.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Bieszczady and Beksiński

Last weekend we checked off the final spot on my Poland must-see list—the Bieszczady Mountains. They are not the biggest mountains, nor the largest Polish national park, but they have been recommended to us by multiple Polish natives. 

We drove four hours to get to Poland's little south eastern tail that boarders Slovakia and Ukraine. In fact, a stretch of our main 21km hike was along the Ukrainian boarder (which was much more secured than our previous hikes along the Slovakian boarder). The countryside these is different than our area, our the nearby Tatry Mountains. The Bieszczady Mountains are lower, and most of the park is tree-covered rolling hills with patchworks of dark and light green. 

We chose a route that hit three of the highest peaks in the park. As most of our Polish hikes go, it was pretty cloudy and windy for the first two peaks, but we had some views and an overall marvelous time. While there, we also saw a snake, bear tracks, and a hedgehog! Although it's hard to say what made the area so special, I loved being in the Bieszczady region.

On our way home, we stopped by the town of Sanok to visit the Zdzisław Beksiński gallery. I had never heard of Beksiński until moving to Poland, but, at least among all of my Polish friends, he is the best Polish artist ever. His paintings are very detailed but dark: apocalyptic landscapes, deadly bodies, and nightmarish figures. 

I didn't realize it, but the Beksiński gallery was part of a the larger Sanok museum, so in addition to the multiple rooms dedicated to Beksiński, we also got some other artists and city history. As with most local history/art museums, a good chunk of it was religious, but it was still a nice museum. Afterward we tried a local specialty—proziaki, a soda bread that was filled with various sandwich fixings. All-in-all, it was a super enjoyable way to spend our second-to-last weekend with our car (our moving company is picking up all of our stuff on Monday). If it's the last Polish trip we take, it will be a good last trip. 

Our hike started off sunny, but as soon as we got into the woods we were under cloud cover. 

Like most of our Polish hikes, we hit some cloud cover and many crosses.

Once we were outside of the cloud cover, we had some great views!

On the boarder (granica). In the background you can see the yellow and red striped pole next to he yellow and blue bole, marking the Polish-Ukranian boarder. 

We didn't come across any mountain huts with restaurants and accommodations, like are popular in that Tatry Mountains, but there still were some little spots to keep out of the rain.


The Sanok museum started us off with some WWII history...

...and of course there was religious art. I particularly enjoyed the depictions of hell. 

This is the favorite of a few people I know. It seems especially apt after a year of quarantining. 

This one might be my favorite. I didn't notice the facial features until I stepped back. Although this doesn't show it especially well, in many of Beksiński's paintings I felt like I was looking at the bright colors that are found inside of a human body.

Downtown Sanok. It was very cute, and very Polish: colorful buldings, a church, and umbrella-covered restaurant tables.

The soda bread sandwich, which is a specialty of the Subcarpathian region of Poland.