What Temperature Can A Three-Year-Old German Shepherd Live Comfortably In The World’s Best Kept Secret, Krakow and Zakapane, Poland

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The World’s Best Kept Secret, Krakow and Zakapane, Poland

As a former flight attendant, I visited all European countries except Albania and Poland. Poland is the 5th largest country in Europe. Apart from Lech Walesa, Copernicus, the Pope and a decade of Polish jokes I never understood, I knew nothing about this country. However, my interest was peaked because soon it would be hot on the tourist trail and because my Chicago husband’s family is from here. He accompanied me with a sense of joy in discovering his roots. I went to educate myself and enrich myself with something new. We flew from Atlanta via JFK and Warsaw to Krakow for just 4 days. No rest for the weary with a head spinning route. I prefer to visit cities in the off-season to mingle with the locals. It provides a more authentic and intimate atmosphere.

Upon airport arrival, we are cheerfully greeted by Pavel, who will be our driver throughout. He holds a “Suza Davis” welcome sign. I say, “Hi, I’m Suzy from Atlanta.” I chuckled when he replied, “Yes, under the United States.” We entered Hotel Amadeus, an elegant 16th century inn in the heart of downtown. Prince Charles once went to bed in our room, I am told.

We set out to hunt for dinner. The illuminated Old Town was amazing and filled with so many young people, it made me feel like an old man. 150,000 students live in this university town. Krakow is Europe’s premier party scene where they stay out until the birds sing. This historic district holds the highest concentration of bars and restaurants in the world. We suddenly discovered Pierogi Garden, home of the freshest Polish pastas. They were filled with sauerkraut, lamb, beef, berries, chocolate and even peanut butter. There were 6 types of soups, all with beets, which I loathe. After a dozen dumplings, I had melted sheep’s milk cheese that was beyond delicious.

Poland has experienced countless invasions throughout its history. Devastated by the Germans and later by the Russians, it finally achieved independence in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet communism. Krakow was slated for destruction near the end of WWII by the Germans. They planned to blow it up after the Russians took over, luckily the war ended hours before the plan was carried out.

Today it remains one of the few cities remaining in its original form. With a population now of 780,000, it has transformed into a trendy international capital. Vibrant and modern yet somehow preserves its traditional culture with regal architecture. It is in Kraków where you find the spirit of the new Poland.

On the 2nd day, we were greeted by Anna who was amazingly beautiful. We started in the network of cobbled streets in the Old Town which was meant for walking. It was a maze of museums, chapels, galleries, cafes and hole in the wall bars. Even in winter there was entertainment with street dancers, mimes, accordionists and at one corner, I watched a knight in armor break dancing.

We entered Market Square, the largest medieval square in Europe where little has changed since 1257. It is crowned by the Bell Tower where a bugle plays at the top of the hour. It drives the residents crazy at night. A must-see is the Cloth Hall where fishmongers, cloth merchants and bakers sold their wares since the 14th century. Now it is a fabulous arcade of handicraft stalls.

We walked to the well-preserved Jewish Quarter, which is now full of artistic character. Poland once held Europe’s largest concentration of Jews at 3.5 million. The kings of Poland during the Middle Ages noted that they were expelled elsewhere and invited them in to increase the economy. Here they flourished until the Holocaust and enforced communism after World War II. Now there are only 180 left. We looked at the ghettos where Spielberg’s famous movie was shot and looked across the river to see Schindler’s factory.

Rick Steves writes that a milk bar must be visited here. Anna escorts us to one of these government subsidized cafes for the working class. They are a relic of Poland’s communist past. Everything is amazingly cheap. I ordered a bowl of homemade soup and cheesecake for $2.

We then visited Wawel Castle, a 12th century masterpiece and a defining icon of the city’s pride. There were no queues as we walked its corridors of history. This was the residence of kings for 500 years. Anna explains its legend of the fire-breathing dragon named Smok here who ate virgins for breakfast.

This was reinforced by the discovery of strange large bones in the 1400s. (The bones are actually whale bones as this area on Europe was once under water eons ago.) The dragon thus became the symbol of the city and is ubiquitous in souvenir shops. Anna then pushes us into various beautiful churches, always as boring to me as paint by numbers, yet they were exquisite. I wonder if there are any Protestants here. She replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, one.”

The afternoon was spent on restaurant and hotel inspections. I loved the formal greetings and it is always educational. I learn about local cuisine and accommodations in the best location for the best price. All the hotels were fully booked. Jews and Catholics visit throughout the year on religious pilgrimages or come for root tours.

Krakow was recently rated in the top 10 European destinations. I now see why. Americans continue to rave about Prague, which I now find with inflated prices and lower standards of service. It became as expensive as Rome. Eventually, Krakow might do the same after Poland converts to the Euro in 2012. For now, you can splurge on affordable prices. Europeans flock here for 50-70% savings. Germans and Danes especially come for dental and optometry needs. Medical tourism including plastic surgery is booming. I met an Austrian flight attendant who flies monthly for medical treatments at half cost.

At night we had dinner at the Wierzynek Restaurant, the oldest in the world, serving princes to tourists since 1364. It was delicious peasant cuisine (organic) of wild boar, roast ribs and massive potatoes. I ask them to teach me the Polish, Slavic language, which is as impossible as a mouthful of alphabet soup. The word toilet has 5 syllables.

On the third day, we woke up to a gray, cold and wet day which gave us the right atmosphere for what we were about to see. Pavel drove us 60 km to Auschwitz. We were greeted by Yuri, our brilliant personal guide, whose only passion was to enlighten us about the unthinkable tragedies that took place here from 1940-45. I have visited Dachau once, but this was the largest of the concentration camps. That death factory killed 1.4 million people of 27 nationalities. Most were Jews. The others were Gypsies, Soviets, Poles, gays, political dissidents and more.

We entered the gate reading, “Work shall set you free.” Inside was a powerful reminder as we looked at the crematoria, starvation cells, kilos of hair, infinity glasses and a pool still gray with ash 60 years ago. The most serious for me was the children’s section. It held a sea of ​​tiny shoes, dolls and meticulous German documentation of 230,000 little ones who suffered and died here.

We were driven to the extended camp of Birkenau (Auschwitz II), with its wooden barracks built to house 100,000 but later holding 200,000+. Together in silence, the three of us walked half a mile to see the ruins of the gas chambers and a memorial. At the end of our tour, Yuri said goodbye to us with this profound statement, “I have guided several Holocaust survivors who have visited here as tourists. They told me at the end that I am not capable of presenting 1% of how bad it is. It really was .” This was the most emotional moving site my eyes have ever seen.

In the afternoon we visited the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine. This mysterious and vast underground city 3 miles long has been extracting salt for 800 years. The World Heritage Site attracts a million visitors a year and it seems as if they all arrived today.

Our guide Justina seemed to have an obsession with salt, but it was just the love of her job as a guide. She asked to be followed down 836 steps, which was a better job than Head of the Stairs. Caves bored me, but this site will be etched in my mind forever. Imagine underground chapels, ornate sculptures, candelabras and life-size figures carved entirely from salt or a restaurant and post office 380′ below street level. It was spectacular. For centuries miners and horses spent their lives here. They remained healthy in this rich microclimate. It has to do with magnesium ions, whatever those are? Today, people come to the healing rooms of the medical complex for isolation in natural air purity.

Day 4. I am constantly searching the globe for unique things or places to introduce to fellow travelers. Today I found it in Zakapane. For years now, a friend of mine has been insisting that I visit this mountain resort with the funny name that I could never remember. We drove to the clean air of the Tatra Mountains with Eva, our expert guide for the day. She said this adventure destination of 60,000 residents swells to 200,000 almost year-round. In summer they come for mineral baths and Alpine hiking. In winter they come to ski. That week Zakapane hosted the International Ski Jumping Competition.

Here was a charming city of artists and Giorake, an ethnic group of mountain highlands. These wandering shepherds trace back to the 15th century. They love to dress up in their colorful clothes for tourists. They live on cheese or anything smothered in cheese. We visited a cheese market the size of Switzerland. As far as my eyes could see, there were sheep and goat cheeses artistically sculpted into every shape imaginable. We also toured the Water Park with an Olympic size hot spring mineral pool and rode the cable cars high into the mountains for amazing scenery.

It was a most productive and enjoyable day trip. I found a local tour company that organizes fun activities for groups such as horse sledding through the forest, dog sledding and the new “snow rafting” in rubber rafts swinging sled style down the mountain. At the huge open-air market with countless ethnic stalls, I bought a striking leather and fur for $260 that looked fashionably 6 times its price.

There is so much that I didn’t get to see during this short visit. On my next return, I will do the new “Crazy Communist Tour”. Outside Krakow is Nowa Huta, a once harsh socialist suburb of forced industrialization. Massive steel mills overtook the rich countryside. Doctor and professors were sent here to work. Miles of concrete housing blocks were erected to house them.

During a tour you can discover firsthand Stalin’s gift to Krakow by driving a classic East German Trabant car to Nowa Huta. A dinner of salted bread, pickles and vodka is included, followed by dancing at a retro 70’s era disco.

Under the yoke of communism, the Poles refused to renounce their religion. Stalin said, “Implementing communism here is like saddling a bull.” Faced with such a determined spirit in the people, he gave up. I am amazed at all the obstacles this stoic country has overcome.

If you have been there and bought the shirt from London, Paris, Madrid or Athens, I encourage you to visit undiscovered parts of Europe. Krakow is destined to become the next Prague. It’s bursting with history, friendly faces, hearty cuisine, and it won’t break the bank. If you can visit the new Poland, please tell anyone about Zakapane, one of the world’s best kept secrets.

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