Our final day of Košice was a whirlwind of getting to see as many people as possible in as little time as possible. Exhausting? A bit. The first stop was a bike ride into town to pick Papa Rovská up from his office and go out for a beer. He’s made a stop at the morning market, where he’s picked up a few antique communist coins for my collection. He even picked up a little bag to put them in with a traditional Slovakian pattern on it. I love how he views the world through such romantic lenses, and I’m so glad to have been able to meet him and be welcomed into his home.
He takes us to his friend’s bar, where they serve Ivana’s favorite beer, Bernard. It’s a delicious beer, even at noon. A lot of Czech and Slovakian pilsner’s mix in my mind, but Bernard is definitely the best. Some are too bitter and some are a bit too carbonated, but Bernard balances everything. We share a beer and talk, or I do more of listening. Papa Rovská understands a lot of English, but he’s still a bit too shy to try it out. But I don’t mind listening and people watching.
We finish up our beers and Papa Rovská heads back to work while we go to the craft street in Košice. I was pretty excited, as I heard they had a blacksmith and a local potter that used to be pretty nice. I have a romantic love of blacksmithing. Having done it in the past, I’ve fallen hopelessly for the fire and smoke and feeling the piping heat off glowing hot steel. So I enjoy watching it and appreciating the effort and artistry behind making something as hard as iron turn malleable and beautiful. But now, the rent has been driven too high and the artisans have left in search of cheaper workshop spaces. So now, the blacksmith shop only has a couple small pieces for those tourists that wander in. But the architecture of the craft street is still pleasing, and worth the walk.
It’s around 15:00, so we head back home to make a quick stirfry of mushrooms and eggplants for the upcoming bike ride. Next, we have to ride our bikes to the cottage out in the forest. Last time we were caught in the rain and drenched. Today is a much sunnier day, and the ride through the forest road is serenely beautiful. Even though half of it is a pretty tough uphill ride, I revel in the light peering through the treetops and play my portable speaker on high through the road. Near the end of our journey, Ivana’s tire pops and we have to walk the rest of the way. I think she needs a new bike.
The grandparents don’t know that we’re coming, but they warmly welcome us with grapes, cakes and coffee. Uncle Roman is there, and he switches his bike tire our for Ivana’s popped one in an incredibly lucky turn of fate. We sit with the grandparents and talk, and they’re in awe over the ridiculousness of my upcoming journey’s. I think I have their approval, even if I’m going back across the planet soon. I’ve enjoyed sitting and talking with people raised during communism, especially those raised in it. Talks with my Berliner friends parents, who lived on the East side of the city are equally interesting. Some of the stories do seem enticing. When you graduated, you were essentially given a job in your field that pays you enough to support a family and purchase a flat of your very own. Now that my graduation is coming up in less than a year, I have a nearly crushing fear that I won’t survive. I would be extraordinarily lucky to get a job in any field that pays more than minimum wage. Let alone, find an internship in anything I’m interested in. Let alone, rent a room in a shared apartment that I can afford while still paying for monthly expenses.
But then again, I can buy oranges and nice Levi blue jeans whenever I want…
Of course, the life I’m currently living would be absolutely unimaginable under communism. The process of getting out of your city to study abroad, even in Moscow or Prague, seemed extremely difficult. Free speech and human rights are also another massive privilege with the life I currently lead. I’m extremely grateful for the privileges endowed with growing up in 21st century North America and Europe. Especially, those endowed with graduating in a nearly socialist state. When I graduate next year, the Danish government allows me to job hunt and apply for a fresh residence permit for six months. Along with that, I receive unemployment benefits as long as I’m on the job hunt and showing up to regular job center help sessions. Then again, the competition in Denmark makes it increasingly difficult to find a job. Even being a native English speaker is nearly useless, as every Dane speaks fluent English. That on top of the extraordinarily competitive and expensive apartment rental market in Copenhagen (where I may inevitably have to move in order to find a job in English) will make my post-graduate self a very stressed man. Some Danes say I should begin looking now if I want to move to Copenhagen, because waiting lists can take 1-2 years. But that’s all for future Carter to worry about. These are the things running through my mind as I sit across from two individuals who lived on the other side of the Cold War.
We linger a bit longer than we perhaps should, as we’re on a schedule of meeting people. But staying with the grandparents and being able to say goodbye is precious. At around 19:30, we get back on the bikes and head down back to Papa Rovská’s house for another beer. We wait in the bar outside his house, and he calls and says to come up to his flat. We arrive, and I say hi and head to the bathroom. When I come out, Ivana is smiling and holding her brand new bike, a beautiful classic Austrian bike restored and ready for a ride to any picnic spot or farmers market. Funny, how the universe works.
He offers us a beer, and we sit around listening to music and looking at classic car books. Papa Rovská’s baby is an old Czechoslovak Škoda, beautifully restored. Maybe one day I’ll be allowed to go for a ride in it.
But for now, we overstay again and have to head to another bar to meet a friend. It’s beginning to be a trend to go get a beer with people here. But I can’t complain, when Slovakian beer is so delicious and so cheap. We head to a microbrewery down the street and meet Ivana’s high school friend Peter in the brewery garden. We talk and have delicious conversation over delicious beer. It’s getting quite late, and we have to get back home to visit with Mama Rovská before she goes to bed. We get back just in time and get to talk for a while before getting some much needed sleep.
The next morning, we give a nice goodbye to Mama Rovská before she goes to work. Papa Rovská is picking us up and driving us to the bus station, he picked up some stamps for my postcards on the way, because that’s just the kind of helpful guy he is. I’ve been received with such loving arms since I’ve been here, and I’ve truly felt at home in Slovakia. It’s rare that you’re welcomed with such love, and I’ve felt it here in such an amazing way. We hug goodbye and get on the bus to Kraków, where we’ll be for the next few hours. We pass right by Ždiar, and feel silly that we didn’t plan it out a bit more. But it’s good to say goodbye to everyone.
We drive through Slovakia and it’s cute Tatras mountains once again. I’ve really enjoyed Slovakia. It’s not a country I often give too much thought too, honestly. Before I met Ivana, my only Slovakian experiences would have been minimal. I may have come to the Tatras on a day trip from the Southern Polish town of Zakopane. I may have also done a day trip to Bratislava if I were in Vienna, as it’s only an hour away. But I wouldn’t have spent too much time in Slovakia, and I may not have given it much of a second thought. That’s why I’m so glad and so lucky to have received such an immersive Slovakian experience. It was certainly worth experiencing, and I’m happy that I’ve done so. I would recommend the Tatras to anyone traveling around Poland or the Czech Republic, and Košice is worth a stop as well for anyone in the area.
For now, I’m excited to see more of Poland. I’ve loved every moment I’ve spent in Poland. Weird, right? My first time was a day trip to Szczecin from Berlin last year. It’s not a big city, but I loved walking around all the adorable buildings. When I came back last winter to see Gdańsk and Poznań was when my adoration became fully fledged. I just walk around with a smile. Everything is so nice and cute, so wonderfully priced, and so devoid of tourists.
Kraków is no different. If anything, it’s maybe one of my favorite cities in Europe. We walk to our hotel from the bus station and I do so with a smile for the whole walk. It’s so calm here!
All of the buildings are unique and adorable. I’m so happy. We drop our bags and head straight into the old town. Our place is just outside town in a nice quiet neighborhood. But even the center isn’t insane. There’s so much green in the city. Where the city walls used to be, there lies a calming garden that surrounds the entirety of the old city. It’s an intelligent and calm way to transform what once served as a barrier.
The main square is surrounded in cute buildings. There are a lot of people, but it isn’t overwhelming. It doesn’t feel bustling, it feels alive. Alive with happy smiling Polish people and tourists just as happy as I am to be in this city.
We immediately stand and watch an accordion trio play classical music with insane precision. The accordion isn’t an instrument I could play. There’s far too much going on all at once. Watching them with the main cathedral in the background is a treat. We walk around the corner and watch another amazing street band. This time, some kids about our age our playing polka-tized versions of pop songs. They have so much energy and they’re rocking it. Especially the tuba player. That boy was born to play tuba, more than anyone else on this planet. He owns it like no other, and the tuba becomes a part of him as he rips out the base lines for Polka and Michael Jackson songs and everything else in between.
Our ‘destination’ is a hummus shop in the Jewish district. Just like Budapest, the Jewish district is the hip side of town. I was a little bit biased, and expected the drunken stag-parties and annoying tourists of Budapest. To my delight, this was not the case.
Everywhere we went in the Jewish district was pleasant and calm. There’s so much green, and so many well made pieces of architecture or art.
There is still the occasional drunken bachelorette party or drunken hoard of British tourists, but that’s sort of unavoidable in the side of Europe where you can get a beer for $1.50. We go to a nice square and eat vegan burgers, then wander around into a communist bar followed by a relaxing candle filled bar for another pint. We walk out and I grab a zapiekanki, the local drunk food which is just a baguette cut in half and covered in sautéed onions and mushrooms and cheese. We stand and watch a lunar eclipse, and revel in the fact that we’re the only people in the square watching the eclipse.
We wander back to old town and stumble into an outdoor animation festival. I love animated short films, so we sit and enjoy and eat some sunflower seeds under the stars.
My introduction to Kraków exceeded my expectations completely.
The next morning we get out and head to a quiet neighborhood second-hand store. We don’t find anything, but I like walking through residential neighborhoods to see how people live. This one is pretty nice, even though the buildings in the residential side of town are Soviet and blocky they aren’t entirely unattractive. There’s a certain amount of charm in some of the cubes. We head back to the square and meet with Ivana’s friend Dana, a Romanian who lives in Copenhagen but occasionally has to go to Kraków and anywhere else for some work. She’s going to an Iron Maiden concert tonight, and it seems like the entire city is filled with metalheads. There are tattoos, long hair, and black band t-shirts in every corner of the city. But it’s really nice to see. As a non-metal head working at a bar frequented by Aalborg’s punk and metal-head community, I think they’re some of the nicest people. They get out all of their aggression out screaming at concerts and thrashing around in mosh pits that they become puppies when they’re out in the world. It’s nice to see so many of them too because I don’t see metal head all over town too often. They have better things to do, I guess.
Since Dana comes here so often, she has some good stops for us. We head to a vegetarian restaurant for a great lunch, and then up to the Wawel castle for some views of the city.
We go to a nice garden bar with a natural roof made of grape vines. It’s cool and comfortable, and we talk for a while. If I every make it into a position of power, I’d consider making a law that every newly built building has to either cover the roof in solar panels or a rooftop garden. Tenants can use the gardens to grow some veggies, and actually know where their food is coming from. Would it help with air quality? Hopefully. Honestly, I just wish my roof had a little garden or a place to sit. Because why not? It’s a little utopian and it wouldn’t work but it’s a nice thought. Who wouldn’t want to eat fresh grapes and sit on the roof with a beer. No one I want to be friends with.
Dana has to head to the Iron Maiden show, so we say goodbye and grab ourselves another wander around town. The weather is so perfect and the light is so nice that all we want to do is walk around. We find a good hummus bar for a big bowl of goodies, and then walk around a while. I don’t feel much like beer, so when it gets late we head back and have a quiet night in.
Our last day in Kraków. The hope was to go to Auschwitz. We looked, but we didn’t book ahead nearly in advance and spots to visit the museum fill up extremely quickly. So we have to save ourselves the depressing moment and see it as a reason to come back. We walk around, and as the forecast says rain I figure it’s a good museum day. We walk through some drizzle to a flea market with soviet goodies and then head to the MOCAK center of contemporary art. The exhibition is about statehood and the identity behind nationalism, and it’s extremely topical in recent times of more nationalistic outlooks.
Especially here in Poland where the country is becoming increasingly more nationalistic, like most states here in Europe. One part of the exhibit caught my eye in particular. A photographer went around Poland to take photos of Synagogues in line for demolition. He then presented a photo of the warm down building, along with the remarks of the people that would confront him about the building. Owners of shops would come out and tell him to leave, or yell at him or make anti-semitic remarks. It was surprising how feelings still haven’t changed in some places.
We spend a while and leave, and the forecast is once again wrong. It’s sunny and beautiful, so we walk around to the square were Jews were required to place all of their belongings during the Polish occupation. Now, chair statues stand to commemorate it.
It’s a sobering sight, as the buildings surrounding it don’t seem to have changed since the 1940’s. They’re just as bleak and grey as the ghettoes must have been. Poland experienced the war worse than many other nations, and you can certainly feel it. It’s not overwhelming, but walking around the Jewish quarter seeing homes inhabited by the same family for centuries suddenly emptied of all life is quite powerful. Even the simple art project of the brass tripping stone, where brass cobblestones inscribed with the name of a Holocaust victim is placed outside of their home. They can be seen across Europe, in Berlin or Prague or Kraków or Oslo, and they serve as a daily reminder of the lives uprooted. It’s not overwhelming in any way, and I’m glad little reminders exist so that we may never forget.
Now, the Jewish quarter is alive with happiness and life. Bands play music, museums are filled, and bookshops teach and preserve Jewish and Yiddish culture. We walk to another candle and incense filled bar for a coffee. It’s calm, and relaxing like seemingly everywhere else in this city. We grab some hummus and veggies from a shop and have a picnic along the river before walking around a bit more. We walk to a park and see a hill in the distance covered in people. We realize they’re watching the sunset, and get to the top of the hill as soon as possible.
This seems to be the local kind of thing to do, and we watch the sunset with a perfect view of old town. We ponder over the existence of sunsets. Maybe they exist so that we may pause for a moment after a busy day, and appreciate the beauty of nature with others. It’s the perfect way to close our time in Kraków. I’ve enjoyed every moment in this city, and I have yet to find a city I don’t enjoy in Poland. It’s so cute and so happy and I just can’t stop falling in love with Poland. It’s not a place I could imagine myself living, but I can’t stop appreciating it.
Now, I sit writing on a train to Warsaw. Even the trains are so nice here. It cost me $16 for a 4:30 hour ride from Kraków to Warsaw. There are comfortable seats and chargers, and decent views. A 4:30 hour train ride in Denmark may set me back $50, so I appreciate decent forms of travel. We should arrive in two hours, and I’m excited to finally see the capital. Everything seems a bit bigger in Warsaw, and I’m hoping it doesn’t lose its charm in the industrialization and skyscrapers. Kraków was a pleasure, and Warsaw will be the next adventure.
As well, Ivana is far better at photography than I am. Check her out here: