Busy Old Town, Kraków, Poland

The last stop on my trip was Kraków, Poland’s second largest city in the south of the country. During the three weeks since I had left Vietnam, I had covered a lot of ground in Europe, dozens of kilometers walking about the places I stopped and hundreds of kilometers in trains connecting me to destinations in Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Czechia, and Poland, all of which I was visiting for the first time. I had enjoyed myself throughout, but by the time I got to Kraków, I was suffering from a mild case of travel fatigue.

In fact, Kraków turned out to be an ideal place for this rather weary traveler to end his trip. Most importantly for me, the city is considerably smaller than Prague or Vienna, in terms of both area and population; it was much easier to get around Kraków. The main island of Venice is also small, but it is a difficult place to find one’s way, whereas Kraków is wonderfully simple.

Kraków is beautiful, and it is obvious that considerable effort has gone into preserving the historical character of this very old city, the origins of which date back to the 10th century of the Common Era. For hundreds of years, Kraków was home to Polish kings; today the city’s museums house relics of Polish royalty. The Kraków Old Town and Wawel Castle, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, are at the heart of what was medieval Kraków. I spent a good deal of my four days in Kraków walking around this part of the city. There were other places to see in and around Kraków, but I was content to limit the scope of my visit. When I visit a Kraków (or Vienna, Prague, of Venice) for three or four days, I am well aware that going to one site means, in effect, that I have chosen not to go a dozen or more other sites. I give little thought to this, nor do I feel compelled to move “must see” attractions to the head of my list of places to see.

St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace in Venice were impressive indeed, but walking through some of the small calle was the most exciting part of my visit to Venice. Several years ago in Paris, I waited in the long line to get into the Louvre and stood with the crowd holding iPhones in the air to get a shot of the Mona Lisa. I can tick the Have Seen box for that painting, but honestly I was not very impressed. It was the huge Renoir’s hanging in the Musée d’Orsay and the sculpture in the small Rodin Museum, which I entered to escape an oppressively hot July day, that left me breathless.

But I am straying from delightful Kraków. The image here was taken in the medieval market square at the center of the Kraków Old Town. It is late afternoon on a busy Friday. St. Mary’s Basilica, built in the 14th century in the Polish Gothic style, is on the left. A section of the massive Cloth Hall is one the right. This was an important trading center for merchants throughout Europe for many years. Today it is filled with stalls selling souvenirs to tourists. I bought a number of t-shirts of the I Love Poland variety to give as gifts when I got home.


Sunset on the Final Day in Prague

The Church of Our Lady before Týn is on the east side of Old Town Square; it’s Gothic towers were directly opposite the sun that was soon to set in the west. St. Nicholas’ Church, pictured below, is on the north side of the Square; the light on its facade was a subdued gleam, not the intense glow of the other church. The next morning I would leave Prague on a train headed to Krakow in Poland. The magnificent sunset on my final evening in Prague was a wonderful send off.


Saint and Martyr, John of Nepomuk

The Charles Bridge has 30 statues that line the balustrades on each of its sides. The statue pictured here is that of Saint John of Nepomuk; it was installed in 1683 and is the oldest statue on the bridge.

John was born in a small town in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) in the 14th century. He studied canon law in Prague and Padua in Italy, and eventually became the head vicar of a large cathedral in Prague. At this point, John ran afoul of Wenceslaus IV, the king of Bohemia, over the appointment of an abbot to a powerful abbey in Bohemia. To add some spice to the stew of religious nonsense that John got caught up in, there were two popes at the time, one in Rome and one Avignon, France. Naturally, the two popes were antagonists quarreling over the kind of stuff that religious types always seem to be fighting about; you know, god, beliefs, doctrine, all of which generally boil down to money and power. In the case of the abbot’s appointment, the king’s man was favored by the pope in France, while the choice of the Archbishop of Prague, John’s boss, was supported by the pope in Rome. In the event, John appointed the archbishop’s nominee. The king threw a hissy fit and, on 20 March 1393, had the hapless head vicar tortured and thrown off the Charles Bridge to drown in the Vtlava River. John was canonized some 300 years later; there was only one pope in Rome at the time.


The Charles Bridge Quartet, Prague

I have a feeling these four are a regular weekend attraction for people walking the Charles Bridge on a Saturday, as I was. I am not sure how to characterize their sound – jazz of a sort I suppose. I enjoyed listening for a few minutes while I snapped a few photos, and before walking on, I put 100 Czech Koruna (a bit less than $5.00) in the guitar case. The clarinet player gave me a look as if to say, “Is that all?” Whatever, it was before noon, and it was clear the band would walk away with, at the very least, enough geld for a good dinner and several pints of fine Czech beer later in the day.


Old Town Gate, the Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge spans the Vtlava River, connecting Prague’s Old Town on the east bank of the river with Lesser Town and Prague Castle on the west bank. Construction of the bridge began in 1357 and was completed in 1402; the Charles replaced an older span that had been damaged by flooding. Wikipedia’s Charles Bridge entry is a relatively short, interesting piece about the the history of this Prague landmark.

My visit to the bridge began with an early morning walk along the banks of the Vltava River. The comfy budget hotel where I stayed on the Old Town side of the river was located on a street that nobody would label picturesque, but I was only about 150m from the Vltava. It was an overcast morning, and the weather forecast called for rain, gusty winds and falling temperatures beginning later in the morning. My plan was to walk along the river until the weather became threatening, at which point I would return to the hotel or seek shelter in a café.

Sure enough, a bit more than an hour into my walk, the wind began huffing and puffing, and I turned away from the river and headed into the Old Town where I could find someplace to sit if it started to rain. As I checked the map to get my bearings, I realized that my walk had brought fairly close to the entrance of the Charles Bridge. No more than 10 minutes from the bridge, I decided to take a chance with the weather and walk over. As I approached the Gothic Old Town Gate of the bridge (pictured here), the solid gray overcast gave way rather suddenly to puffy white clouds with rays of sunshine peeking through. Instead of blowing in a rainy day, the wind had carried the rain clouds away. Delighted with this happy turn of the wheel, I realized it was time to walk across the Charles Bridge, and that is exactly what I set out to do. (To be continued with more photos at a later date.)


The Oldest Pub in Town, Prague

The round sign in the window claims the Tavern U Krále Brabantského was established in 1375 and is the oldest pub in Prague. The tavern’s website equivocates, informing us that the place is “one of the oldest” pubs in Prague. When I walked by at 8:30 on a Sunday morning trudging up the hill to Prague Castle, the place was closed and I was unable to go inside and look around. In any case, it was a little early for a pint, though I did try the beer mentioned on the sign, Pilsner Urquell, elsewhere during my stay in Prague. Excellent. In fact, I did not have a glass of anything but world-class beer during my stay in Prague. The Czechs know how to make – and drink – their beer.