Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Krakow: Jewish Style

We had not initially planned on coming to Poland. However, just before leaving Vancouver, I had a very enjoyable breakfast with Tom Staniskis with whom I have worked on numerous projects over the years. He urged me to consider a visit to Poland, and this was echoed by other travelers we met along the way. They all recommended Warsaw and Krakow, a historic city that wasn’t bombed during the war. I was also interested in visiting Poland as a result of a recent front page story in the International Herald Tribune describing an interesting new phenomenon in Poland; the resurgence of Jewish Culture amongst Poland’s younger generations of non-Jews. Krakow was particularly singled out for its new restaurants featuring traditional Jewish style foods and music.

Another reason for coming to Poland was the Russian visa situation. Despite the assurances from the Russian Embassy official in Prague, both my travel agent and the cruise booking agency were insistent that I needed a visa to get into Russia. Moreover, we might need a ‘transit visa’ to travel by train through Belarus.

Upon arriving in Krakow Thursday morning, we checked into a hotel with the odd name of Qubus. It was a new hotel, selected by Sally, with a rooftop swimming pool and spa facility that was a delight to use after a night on the train. We then set off to find a place for breakfast. While most were closed, we stumbled upon the Hotel Ester where we enjoyed a very nice Jewish-style buffet breakfast with different kinds of smoked fish and herrin
g. Well I enjoyed the herring. Sally preferred the fresh fruit.

Then we were off to the Russian Embassy. It was closed. You would think we would have learned by now. We now know it is only open Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings everywhere in Europe!

We spent the rest of the day touring around with the hop-on hop-off bus. Krakow is a very beautiful historic city. Unfortunately, we have been spoilt with beautiful cities during the past few weeks. Indeed, as we reflect on our travels, we are reminded of the old movie, “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium”.

Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic,
and now Poland.

In the afternoon, Sally set off to visit some surprisingly elegant shopping centres, while I returned to the old Jewish quarter. I found ads for Klezmer concerts, Jewish bookstores, Noah’s Ark Restaurant, Yoshe’s Fashions, a car blazoned with Hebrew advertising for Restaurant Ethnicza, and Travel Agencies offering ‘Schindler’s List’ Trips. That evening, we had dinner at the Ariel Restaurant, seated next to a German tour group. We all had the Jewish specialties and listened to Yiddish melodies played by a small combo. It was almost surreal since none of the people in the restaurant, or working in the Jewish businesses were Jewish. The next morning we set off for the Russian Embassy. Outside we met a very helpful fellow, who was picking up Visas for his truck drivers. He asked if we had our AIDS certificate. “What?” I asked. “A medical certificate confirming we don’t have AIDS” he replied. “Is this required by everyone?” Sally asked. He responded that all Poles were required to produce this, and it can take some time to get one. “Oh my God”, we thought.

After waiting quite a while, we were finally admitted into the Embassy. We were instructed to fill out more application forms, and went to see an official behind the counter. I showed him our papers, including our Czech application forms. In no uncertain terms he told us we had to have a Visa. When I told him that we needed to be in Moscow by Monday to board a cruise, he said we could have our visas that day, but “it will cost you”. He then directed us to a bank where we would pay.

Outside we met our new friend. He had been waiting in case we needed help. He too was off to the bank and we set off together. I needed quite a large sum of money and wasn’t sure if I could withdraw it all from the ATM at one time. “I wonder if they’ll take a credit card”, I asked my friend and he went off to ask the teller in Polish. “Yes they will” he said. I handed the teller my HSBC Mastercard. “No” she said. “Just Visa.” Of course I thought. Only a Visa card for a Visa!

Half an hour later, we had our passports back with shiny Russian Visas. As I was leaving, I asked about the Belarus ‘Transit Visa’. The Russian official said he didn’t know if it was required or not. So we set off to find the Belarus consulate. There wasn’t one in Krakow. There was one in Warsaw, but it would be closed on the weekend. And we were hoping to take the train on Sunday morning. We found a Travel Agent who was very helpful and tried to phone Warsaw for us. She couldn’t get through to the Embassy since its phone number was no longer in service. From their website, it appeared that Americans and Canadians required a Visa. I forgot to ask about Brits.

We returned to our hotel wh
ere we had a very nice lunch and discussed our dilemma. Not knowing what to do, we decided to find a hotel and go to Warsaw. We went onto the internet and picked the most highly rated hotel in the city, The Palonia Palace, built in 1913. A number of reviewers said it had the best breakfast they had ever enjoyed in Europe! We then took a cab to the train station, bought two tickets, and were told to run for the train since it was about to leave the station. Two hours and forty five minutes later, we were in Warsaw.

As we reflect on Krakow, we have very mixed emotions. On one hand it is a beautiful old city. On the other, it a city full of sadness. It was very difficult to visit the Jewish museums and wander around the streets that had once been home to a large and vibrant community. At the same time, it was fascinating to see the new activity. We couldn’t help but wonder what the Jews who had been assembled in a square just outside our hotel, and sent off to nearby Auschwitz, would have thought about this resurgence of ‘Jewish life’ in their city.

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