Krakow Welcomes Headingley Rotary

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaster tour magician, Geoff Steel, with characteristic panache gave us a foretaste of Poland  at the pre-tour meeting with roll-mop herring, garlic sausage and Bison grass vodka with apple juice.

What he could not have anticipated were five glorious days of continuous sunshine and temperatures approaching 30°.

Tourmaster Geoff Supervises the arrival at the Hotel

Tourmaster Geoff Supervises the arrival at the Hotel

On 19 May 2014The Executive coach that whisked us off to Newcastle is normally used to carry The Leeds Rhinos round the country: most luxurious it was!  Dinner shortly after our mid-evening  arrival at Krakow’s ‘Golden Tulip’ four-star hotel had been pre-arranged and reassured us that if we did not want to dine out during our stay, there was a fine quality of cuisine available here.

Our “meet-and-greet” tour guide, Isabelle, met us bright and early on Tuesday morning for a walking tour of the medieval City. Four hours walking round a 13th century city could have been a bit much but not in the company of Isabelle.

The hotel was a couple of hundred yards from a belt of trees called the ‘Planty’, which encircles the wall of the Old City and here, in the shade,  she outlined the troubled history of what was Poland’s capital city untill 1702, when after a great fire in the castle, the royal family moved to Warsaw.

Isabelle was enormously professional and informed; I thought that she must be an academic historian in her own right. The photographs give a strong sense of her enthusiasm and pride in her city.  Her eyes lit up as she was talking about Copernicus’s astrolabes in the Jageillonian University which was Founded in 1364. It is the world’s second oldest, only 16 years younger than Prague’s Charles University. Memorably she also told us about Krakow’s other superstar, the recently beatified Karol Józef Wojtyła , Pope John Paul II.

On subsequent days we had the time and opportunity to visit in more detail some of the places she showed us that first day, but the tour gave us a panoramic introduction.

The day before it had been pouring with cold rain; the Vistula was high and muddy brown. Floods were devastating Bosnia and Serbia.  But now some of the city’s 170,000 students were out enjoying the sun’s arrival, crowding the many pavement cafés and bars. Like Leeds, this is a city of young people: 60 % of the city’s population is aged under 45!

From the Planty, Isabelle took us to the square with the fountains, the Jageillonian University, the Franciscan Church and then we had our first view of the castle. By way of the Bishop’s Palace from whose window  Pope John Paul used to have an evening dialogue with the students and citizens of his city, then up a steep slope to the Wawel Cathedral and Castle. Housing the tomb of St Stanislaw, this is also the resting place of Poland’s kings and queens from its consecration in 1364.

Gazing down at the swollen River Vistula, we were warned of the wrath and insatiable appetite of Krakow’s dragon, Smocza, which lives in the caves beneath us; one or two of our more susceptible maidens paled a little! A more sombre thought is the small Katynsky cross outside St Giles’ Church below the castle, a memorial to the 22,000 Polish officers, doctors, academics, teachers and lawyers who in March 1940 were taken to Katyn Forest and, on the orders of Stalin, were shot by Russian soldiers.

The tour ended in Rynek Glowny, laid out in 1320 and Europe’s largest medieval square. It is bisected by the Cloth Hall, now an arcade of craft and amber shops, balcony coffee bars and restaurants, also housing the city art gallery. The twin towers of St Mary’s Church is as well-known an image of Krakov as the castle and from the four corners of the higher tower a bugle call is sounded on the hour, commemorating a brave bugler who saved the city from attack by tartars. Here we sadly said goodbye to Isabelle who still looked fresh and vibrant after her four hour lecture:

Most of our number dined in the Square. There are so many competing restaurants that that the price was cheap and the food good. Some brave souls returned at night to savour the jazz clubs and night life (Brendan, Monty and Rosemary among them); some of us were content to chin wag in the agreeable bar of the hotel.

Not everyone took the first organised tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Marion and I did, however, make a very fascinating tour of the Jewish quarter with Martin on the last day. The thousands murdered by the Nazis are commemorated in the Old cemetery and, although the Jewish community is reduced to about 600, the area has been rebuilt and there is a University department of Jewish Studies on Ul. Mediowa. The old market area of Kazimierz is now a thriving centre of bohemian  night-life. The Corpus Cristi Church is a reminder that Jewish and Christian people lived here amicably side by side.

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District 2230 The Rotary Club of Krakow

On Tuesday evening your President, President-elect and Vice-president paid a brief visit to The Rotary Club of Krakow which meets in a hotel, Dom Peroni, just off the Main Square. Nick was delayed so I filled the breach with a self-deprecating comparison between Leeds and Krakow. I was also able to pay tribute to the airmen who played such a decisive role in The Battle of Britain whose photographs appear on the walls of the Polish Club in Leeds. We took them the pamphlet ‘Headingley Rotary In Action’ and they gave us a little flag to bring back home. They were warmly welcoming!

Chapel of St Kinga

The second organised tour was to the Wieliczka salt mine which provided about a third of the king’s income. We started at the top of nine levels built in 1649. The architecture of these vast caverns is supported by pine beams and there are exhibits, working models, statues and several chapels, by far the most impressive of which must surely be the Chapel of St Kinga with its scenes from Christ’s life carved out of salt. There is even a salt Pope John Paul! The mines were originally part of the dowry of Kanga, a Hungarian princess.

In Krakow there was no shortage of things to do, food to try and sights to see. The Wawel Castle’s Royal and State rooms which at present house Krakow’s greatest art treasure, ‘The Lady with the Ermine’ take most of a day. There are 400 churches housing some amazing medieval and baroque treasures (such as the giant polychrome triptych in St Mary’s). The Barbican and medieval walls are magnificent and beneath the Main Square an excavation has re-interpreted the street life of Krakov in the 13th century. One group mastered the tram system and visited Schindler’s Rekord  factory which was built in 1938 to make  enamelled pots and pans. He entered some 1,200 names of Jews as indispensable skilled workers in a factory that could have been run by 50 employees, thus saving their lives!

On the last night several of our number attended a concert of the piano music of Chopin in a small church.

Five days wasn’t enough but Marion and I shall be returning. My abiding memory of this holiday is the pleasure of the company of so many friends from within and outside Rotary. Our thanks go to outgoing Chairman of the International Committee, Geoff Steel, whose legendary powers of organisation triumphed once again. On the coach on the way out of Krakow President Nick presented Geoff with a pair of amber cuff-links, a small token of our thanks for his splendid achievement.

Chris Walbank

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