Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Krakow Adventure, Part 5: Getting Here and There

Our time was short in Krakow, so we tried to see as much as possible. Fortunately, Krakow's tremendous tram system made that possible. Whereas our beloved L'viv tramvais are mostly old and decrepit, running on cobblestone roads, and prone to break down, Krakow's system is new, slick, and smooth. Electronic kiosks sell tickets at most stops, and a ride costs a bit under $1. Of course, that is no bargain compared to L'viv's $0.10. But, Krakow seems to have more extensive lines and simply more trams.

One of Krakow's most marvelous places is the main square, pictured above. Turning the corner and seeing Market Square for the first time is awe-inspiring. The space is wide, the buildings majestic, and the feeling is reminiscent of the one we had when entering Red Square. You marvel at the expanse in front of you, and the history that has taken place there. The picture does not capture how the space envelopes you as you enter it. It is also a marvelous spot to soak up the sights and sounds of the city. Erik enjoyed these bayan players on the right so much that he bought their CDs (classical music on three button accordions). Carter chased many birds here, so he enjoyed the square as well (on the left).The square is also ready for the 21st century - it is a WiFi zone!

We also spent time at Krakow's palace of kings - Wawel Castle. Many of the most important rulers of Polish lands are buried in the cathedral, along with a saint or two. To the left you see Erik and Carter in front of the cathedral - John Paul's parish when he was archbishop. Below and to the right you see Carter running back and forth across an expansive courtyard on the castle's grounds.

Unfortunately, our time in Krakow ended quickly and it was time to return to the realities of work in Ukraine. Our return trip on the train shook us back to reality. When we bought tickets for the trip to Krakow, we could not purchase a return seat because they were not sold in L'viv. We did not think of this as odd, just a part of the idiosyncrasies of life here. But, in Krakow, everything seemed to make sense. We bought our return ticket - Krakow to L'viv - and all was well with the world. Or so we thought.

Part of the way along the rails, packed into an uncomfortable train car full enough that some people sat in the aisle, and separated from each other due to the crowd, we discovered that we did not have tickets to L'viv. Yes, our ticket said that L'viv was the final destination, but we did not have a spot allocated to us on the train cars that were going into Ukraine. Erik tried to figure everything out with the conductor, but he only spoke Polish. After his conversation, he chatted with a nice young Polish woman in his room who offered to help. She explained that it was payback for all of the kindness of the citizens of Milwaukee who helped her during her visit (a tip of the hat to Milwaukee). Between her English and Polish, and Erik's modest understanding of the conversation, they struck a deal with the conductor who took pity on us. He would check with the conductors of the other train cars. If there was a spot available, he would make arrangements for us to transfer. Thankfully, there were four places (Carter did not need a ticket). We trudged through four wagons, with all of our luggage, to our new seats. We paid an additional $80 in cash to the conductor (we suspect that this payment went to the conductors on some kind of deal/kickback and that officially our compartments were empty. We did not receive our tickets back as receipts - a standard on all trains). After all of the confusion, we settled in and relaxed.

The train ride was about 10 hours. It only took around 5 hours to actually travel; border control and changing the wheels took the other half. Soviet rails run on a wider gauge than the rest of Europe, so the train cars are lifted and the wheels and axles are swapped out for larger/smaller ones (depending on the direction you are heading). We arrived home, exhausted, around midnight and quickly fell into our beds.

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