Saturday, June 18, 2011


Yesterday was a free day. My idea behind this was first, to give the students a psychological break after spending a full day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and second, to hope that the students would use the time to see some of the more beautiful parts of Poland.

One student went to the Wieliczka salt mines, a UNESCO world heritage site near Krakow, where the mines go back centuries, and you can find elaborate rooms carved fully out of salt. The three other students and I went south to Zakopane.

This was the first time I ever tried to do this as a day trip. I asked the students Friday night if they would prefer to leave on the 8:40 or 9:40 am bus. "Why would anyone ever want to take the 8:40 bus?" one student replied. I set 9 am as our departure time from the hotel.

I had forgotten to check the tram schedules, so we missed the tram by 2 minutes. Instead of running every 10 minutes, on Saturday, it's more like every 20 minutes. That meant we didn't get to the station in time for coffee, and the 9:40 bus was full. Instead we caught a slower bus that left at 9:45 am. We got to Zakopane around 12:15. While the students looked for coffee, I went to look for the bus to Lysa Polana, our next leg of the trip. I heard a Polish announcement over a loud speaker, mentioning Morskie Oko and found the bus. I called the students over and we got on. After a 20-minute ride, we reached Lysa Polana.

By now it was getting close to 1 pm, so we stopped for coffee or hot chocolate (apparently this was powdered coffee and the students didn't care for it). Now it was time for the next phase of our trip: the horse-drawn carriages. I was the first on in my row so that meant I was sitting rather close to the horses' back end. We had to wait until the cart filled up and finally we started off.

Clip clop, clip clop, clip clop. This carriage moved far more slowly than the one I took four years ago. Every now and again I could hear the driver talk to the horses "Yo" "Yo" "Andeen" "Yo," etc. A 3-year old little girl on the cart would sometimes happily yell out "Yo!" One of the students turned out be quite allergic to horses and had to cover her nose and mouth. It took us over 1.5 hours to reach the end of the path. From there we had a 20 minute walk to the lake (Morski Oko). We made it by 3pm.

I had checked the weather and it was supposed to be warm and overcast with possible thunderstorms, but it turned out to be quite cold. I was the only one in both shorts and t-shirt. Nonetheless, I'm very cold tolerant (it's heat I can't take). We entered the ski chalet lodge at Morski Oko, and got in line for food. I ordered chicken schnitzel (my safe default), with vegetables and potatoes, along with a cappucino and a slice of szarlotka (apple cake). I also brought some rolls and cheese with me from Krakow.

Food never tastes so good as when you have to hike to it and it's cold outside. We happily ate and sat in the warm room for 30 minutes. Then we went out again to look at the lake, walked down to the shore, looked at the ducks. Around 4pm, we turned around to walk back. Just as we started we saw a large doe near the path grazing. Some dozen photos later, we continued on. The area is so green, with small rills, white, blue and yellow wildflowers, little ponds surrounded by grassy meadows, and then, further on, a stream flowing down out of the mountains. On three sides, tall craggy peaks, faced with sheer cliffs, some still with snow, rise up.

It was cold and late, so we took the horse-cart back down. This time, he moved much faster and we made the entire journey in less than 30 minutes. We quickly caught a bus back to Zakopane and were in town by 5 pm. Instead of rushing back, we walked around the town. I showed them the open air market, full of kitschy highland products. One of the odder sights were the giant, life-sized costumed figures, including a "Hello Kitty" person. Then there were the people selling the tiny toy mechanical dogs, who barked, twitched, and had possessed-looking green glowing eyes.

We went into a dessert place for a snack before the bus, and two of us had some fresh waffles with really fresh and tasty Polish strawberries. Another student got a dessert omelet. The students were also happy to get "decent coffee" for the first time that day.

We caught the 7:15 bus back to Krakow and made it to the city in less than 2 hours. Along the way we passed through Nowy Targ, where my grandmother's family came from. While there are some nice pre-war buildings, a lot of the downtown is made up of communist-era "charm free" structures. As Poland has boomed recently, the newer buildings outside of the center are being put up in the highland style, so the city is a real mix. But unless you were going to the Thursday morning weekly regional market, I would skip it.

Back in Krakow, I found some English-language books for the plane, and then we went looking for dinner. One student requested we return to Wesely, so we did so. She loved the salads and in fact ordered two: one for appetizer, one for main course. I had the green peppercorn steak this time. The steak was well cooked but the sauce seemed to have more capers than peppers. It just tasted odd. The fresh strawberry cocktail for dessert remains the highlight of the meal.

The large tour group in the neighboring room was entertained with musicians and dancers in traditional Polish garb. None of us thought the singers were that good; more kitsch than class.

By the time we headed back to the hotel it was 11:30 and the trams had shut down. Luckily it was only a 15 minute walk. Since Sunday, our last full day, involves just a walking tour of the former Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz, I told the students they could sleep in until 9:30 am.

I intended to sleep in as well, but the rain this morning woke me. I went back to sleep, but eventually woke up, glanced at the clock and saw it was 6:30, so got up. After I showered, shaved, and dressed, I checked my watch. It was only 6:15 am. I had misread the clock and had gotten up at 5:30 am by mistake (sunrise is at 4:20 am). So my last full day in Poland is going to be a rather long one.

When we're in Kazimierz later this morning, I'm going to try to make a reservation for tonight's farewell dinner back at Szara Kazimierz, since that was the students' favorite place so far. Then, tomorrow, we head back to the States. I'm hoping my tomatoes are still alive.

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