Final days in Poland

Krakow, like Warsaw, was incredibly busy!

Much of our time was spent in workshops. Teresa Woicjk, Ph.D, was the facilitator of most of these workshops. Much of what we learned had to do with leadership and community service, but we also discussed Thaddeus Kosciusko (the Polish hero of the American Revolutionary War, who designed the fortifications at West Point and Saratoga) and Jan Ignacy Paderewski (renowned Polish concert pianist and former Prime Minister of Poland).

The most important part of our Krakow workshops involved creating community service projects. Each American student group teamed up with their corresponding group of Polish students (for example, we IMS students were teamed with our host siblings from Łódź). Each group had to come up with a project that would serve the Polish host community, write a proposal letter, and create a presentation to tell the other groups about their proposed project. For all of this, we had approximately eight hours! (I am under the impression that the group(s) that wrote the best proposal will receive a grant from the Kosciusko Foundation with which to implement the program in the Polish host community.) Although this process was rather harried and a bit stressful, I actually found it to be almost fun. I’ve never written a proposal letter before, and I think this experience will really benefit me in the future.

Of course, we did quite a bit of sightseeing in Krakow as well.

Unlike Warsaw, very little of Krakow was destroyed during World War II. Thus, many of the buildings there are not only beautiful, but also extremely old.

The first place we visited was Jagiellonian University (say it with me – Yag-yuh-loan-ee-un).

This university was established way back in the 14th Century, making it one of the oldest institutes of higher education in Eastern Europe. It was the alma mater of many of history’s great minds, including Nicolas Copernicus and Pope Jan Paweł II (John Paul II to all you non-Polish speakers).

Our next stop was Krakow’s main market square, also known as the Rynek.

This square is one of the main tourist destinations in the city of Krakow, making it an excellent place to find souvenirs. The Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, held dozens of vendors selling everything from t-shirts and keychains to icons and crucifixes to old-looking swords and traditional Polish clothing. And of course, you can’t talk about Polish souvenirs without mentioning amber. This precious stone is actually ancient tree resin which has become fossilized, and is found in many deposits in and around Poland. For this reason, amber jewelry is plentiful and fairly inexpensive — a tourist’s dream! (Yes, I did get a few pieces of amber jewelry…it’s quite pretty.)

But of course, there’s much more to see on the Rynek than just souvenirs. St. Mary’s Basilica stands at the corner of the square. It is from here that every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter from the Krakow fire department plays the Hejnał (pronounced “Hey now”). This five-note melody ends abruptly, as if someone interrupted the trumpeter. Legend says that the reason the melody stops short is that, in the 13th Century, a trumpeter began to play the Hejnał when he saw Tartar troops coming to invade the city. However, before he could finish playing the tune, he was shot by an enemy arrow. Although this tale is fairly implausible, it still makes for a good story.

We also had the chance to go inside of St. Mary’s Basilica. This was actually my first cathedral visit in Poland; thus, I was nearly blown away by the fabulously intricate decorations. Front and center in the church is a dazzling altarpiece built in the 15th Century by Wit Stwosz, a German artist.

I apologize for the blurriness of this photo...

The altarpiece is actually a triptych, meaning that it is comprised of three pieces, two of which fold out to reveal the inner decorations. We had the privilege of attending the ceremonial opening of the triptych. A nun opened the huge doors to reveal Wit Stwosz’s depiction of the death of the Virgin Mary. Although I’m not familiar with that story, I was still able to appreciate the art. Life-sized wooden statues of Mary and many other people made up the center of the triptych. It was truly an amazing sight

On our second day in Krakow, between workshops, we visited Wawel Castle. This gorgeous palace is situated on top of a hill along the Vistula river, providing excellent views of the city. Besides touring the main palace building, we also briefly saw the inside of Wawel Cathedral (where Pope John Paul II offered his first Mass), as well as toured St. Leonard’s Crypt, beneath the castle itself. In the crypt we visited the tombs of Thaddeus Kosciusko (where we laid a wreath, sang the Polish and American national anthems, and said an Our Father) and Lech & Maria Kacznski (the former president and his wife).

On Sunday we traveled south of Krakow about 10 km to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the Middle Ages through 1996, salt was commercially harvested from these mines; now, they mainly serve as a (quite exciting) tourist attraction.

After climbing down 54 flights of steps, our tour guide led us through tunnels excavated by miners. Many of the tunnels were surprisingly old – I think the oldest one we visited was excavated in 1666!

Because it often took so long for miners to return to the surface, they carved several chapels down inside the mine itself so that they could service their religious needs without returning to the surface of the earth. These chapels were beautiful, complete with soaring ceilings, statues of saints and and altar at the front — all carved out of salt. It was amazing.

After our tour, we had the privilege of eating lunch down in one of the caverns of the mine. The room we ate in was absolutely enormous!  The food was good, too.

And that, my friends, is a summation of our final days in Poland — July 1st through 4th. Sorry it took me so long to get this posted! I’m working on a couple of more summary posts right now, so I promise that this isn’t the last you’ll be hearing from me. :)



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