“You can always tell a Midwestern couple in Europe because they will be standing in the middle of a busy intersection looking at a wind-blown map and arguing over which way is west. European cities, with their wandering streets and undisciplined alleys, drive Midwesterners practically insane.”
Bill Bryson might be right about most Midwesterners, but not me. I'm fairly certain that 90% of my mother's family would spend a maximum of 10 minutes squinting at a map, gesticulating broadly, and arguing passionately about which street leads to the Colosseum before eventually flagging the nearest taxi and calling it a day. I, on the other hand, find the narrow, twisting streets of European cities to be mostly irresistible and charming. Unless I'm lost and in a hurry, in which case I tend to curse them aloud in the manner of a crazy person. Even then, though, it's hard to argue against the loveliness of cobblestones and the immense variety of life and shopping to be found in a European back alley. Do you need a cobbler? A viola? Half of a calf's head? It's right there, waiting to be "discovered" by you, the naïve tourist. Never mind that the locals have been getting their calf heads there for 100 years.
Kraków is exactly the kind of European city in which I would dearly love to live. It's fully stocked with wandering streets, Baroque architecture, parks peopled with wrought iron benches and lampposts along fine gravel pathways, and enough excellent restaurants to keep me occupied for a considerable length of time. I envy the people who rush across the rynek every night on their way home, taking the rows of elegant buildings for granted as the facades soften to pastels in the twilight.
While my friend Katie was visiting, we naturally decided to venture to the city. I had been there once before, with Alice, but we hadn't done anything touristy whatsoever. Being French, Alice had seen her share of castles and cathedrals, so we mainly focused on shopping and wandering aimlessly. Katie, on the other hand, had never seen a castle in her life. Our mission was clear: tourist day!
I have to say that my favorite part of bringing a newbie to Kraków is seeing their face light up when we walk into the square outside the train station. It is so lovely, and it's not even the nicest one in town. Katie and I lingered, taking photos amidst all the travelers and shoppers rushing around us. She had been in Gliwice for some time at that point, but this was really the "Welcome to Europe" moment.
After capturing those first moments on film, we headed for the nearest tram stop, keen to get on to the Wawel Castle and accompanying cathedral. I love the trams in Kraków. Some clanky and ramshackle, others sleek and new. And always going where you need them. So, we hopped aboard and were quickly at the foot of the castle.
As castles go, it doesn't look too intimidating or grand. It perches there casually, a bit top-heavy, on a hill overlooking the river. It doesn't make your heart beat faster, doesn't make you want to invade it. It just exists in a bit of a time warp, not quite removed from the city, but not exactly a part of it the way ancient Roman buildings are inseparable from everyday Roman life.
We hiked up the path to the castle and took in the view from the ramparts. I had heard rumors of dragons in the area, but sadly, none were out and about during our visit. The castle grounds were lovely and the day was fresh, perfect for a stroll towards the cathedral, where we indulged in guided audio tour headsets to maximize our experience. There was a lot of history and art in such an average-sized building, so our time and money were quite well spent.
After the cathedral, we attempted to get into the castle, but the guards turned us away for not having the appropriate tickets. In the end, it turned out to be extortionately expensive, so I, being a vetern of castle-viewing, left Katie on her own to visit one of the set of rooms (all priced separately, absurdly enough!) and repaired to an outdoor cafe on the grounds where I could write postcards and admire the castle from afar. For free. I mailed the postcards from the little post office right there at the castle--and as an interesting side note--they took over two months to arrive in the States. Not that I knew it at the time, of course! Such are the benefits of updating this blog so far in arrears.
The rest of our afternoon was spent making our way to and around the rynek. We stopped in the Hard Rock shop so that Katie could buy her boyfriend a t-shirt, and I wrangled a restaurant recommendation from the clerk. He directed us to an Italian place where the food was gorgeous and so delicious. The waiter was even happy to practice his English on us. Thank you Hard Rock guy! A bit of shopping at the mall near the train station followed, and so ended our lovely tourist day in the big city.
I'm really happy I got to introduce Katie to her first "real" European city, and I can't wait to see her again over here! We're already planning a "Soup Tour, 2011". I, for one, can't wait!