Sunday, June 23, 2013

Krak-ing up for my birthday

Friday the 21st (my birthday) lined up as a slow day of business for me. As I was working in Edinburgh, Scotland, I decided that I’d take an impromptu birthday trip to Poland.
One $120 Ryanair flight later, I arrived in Krakow, Poland. (Hard to believe that there are direct flights between Krakow and Edinburgh, harder still to believe that there’s TWO different airlines that fly this route.) I dropped my bags in my $28/night 3-star hotel (thanks,, and set out to consume as much of  Krakow’s sights, sounds and tastes that I could find room for.

(click on any picture to enlarge).

First stop: some Polish street food. This is an obwarzniaki – a baked treat that is the bastard child of a pretzel and bagel. 

Immediately afterwards, I ran into this character near the Castle (“Piwo gratis” = “free beer.”) It was definitely a sign that I was in the right place.

From a tourist standpoint, Krakow is known most for two things: the “Old Town” that survived World War Two intact, and for being the hometown of Pope John Paul II. I didn’t know much else, but found an excellent guidebook (Rick Steves’.) My first stop was Wawel Castle, Poland’s most visited site.
Wawel Castle from Vistula River
Grounds of Wawel Castle
The castle on the Vistula River was notable for being the home of Poland’s kings for much of the country’s history, but there is one other reason that the castle is visited: apparently (according to my guidebook) some Hindus believe that the castle is one of seven sacred “power points” (chakras) on the globe (along with Rome, Mecca, and a few others.) As a result, some believers come to the castle and hug a certain very powerful part of the castle walls. The castle authorities don’t like this, and have placed signs in front of the wall and have a watchman nearby to shoo people away. Nevertheless, this wall attracts plenty of attention – the dirtiness of the wall is due to visitors hugging it to draw “power.”

(For the record, I hugged the wall. Let me know if you think I am more powerful.)

Wawel's "Power Point." Note the smudges on the wall from hugging believers.

After Wawel Castle, I strolled the Old Town, which was way, way, way better and more interesting that I anticipated. The Old Town – which dates back ~600 years is a mix of medieval streets and a large open square, but also blends in more recent history – Pope John Paul II spent most of his pre-Papal life in Krakow, and it is commemorated, as in this house where he lived as a student.
Pope John Paul II's college room, with the Castle in the background.

While roaming Old Town, I stopped for lunch at a Milk Bar – a type of communist-era cafeteria. The Polish government still subsidizes these cafeterias in order to provide a decent meal at a decent price. I ordered the daily special (did I mention that I don't know any Polish?), but had no idea what I was in fact ordering.  Here’s what I got: a pork cutlet with potatoes, pickled beets, and strawberry drink for ~$3.) The Milk Bar is a uniquely Polish experience.

You know how in some cities there’s a Starbucks on every corner, sometime more than one? Well, it’s like that in Old Krakow, only substitute “Church” for “Starbucks.” That said, the highlight of Old Town is the Market Square. Sure, it’s touristy, but also great for its’ history.

Market Square in Krakow's Old Town
After a few hours of Old Town, I set off for a shopping area and the train station to make plans for the rest of the trip. Near the train station is a local institution that was pointed out in my guidebook: these two surly guys cooking kielbasa on the side of the road.
Kielbasa guys. Note the communal stand-up dining table in the background.
They set-up every night from 8pm to 3am, selling only kielbasa  ($2) and sodas from their old van, apparently with gruff charm.

There’s nothing better than local street food, so I had to try some. I ordered, then took my plate (sausage, mustard, roll) and joined the crowded stand-up table (see behind the van.) My first instinct was to put the kielbasa on the roll, but I watched the locals, and the local way is to eat the kielbasa in slices and occasionally mix in bites of the roll. The kielbasa was very good.

I strolled back to the Market Square - even more impressive after dark.
Old Town at night

Old Krakow's market square.
To wind down the night I walked back towards Wawel Castle only to find that a very large classical concert was playing at the base of the Castle. I was surprised to see the attention to the concert – not just that the audience was large – but that the audience was all ages, and that outside the seating area the concert was more like Lollapalooza, with food, beer, and wine vendors. So, I worked my way in to the free show, grabbed a $2 beer and enjoyed.

I’m not a classical music aficionado, so I don’t know what was played, but my rule is that all music sounds better live, and with the Castle at night as background, I figured that I made the right choice to come to Poland for the weekend, and that I couldn’t have put together a better day.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ben Franklin on the NSA spying issue (~240 years early)

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”

Benjamin Franklin

With my new friends on the Great Wall of China

With my new friends on the Great Wall of China
Click to go to my online photography

World sun clock

Uncommon Man's Creed

"I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon -- if I can. I seek opportunity -- not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me. I wish to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole, I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia. I will not trade freedom for beneficence, nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master, nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud, and unafraid, to think and act for myself, to enjoy the benefit of my creations, and to face the world boldly and say, "this I have done." All this is what it means to be an American." -- Anonymous