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View over Krakow

I woke up early and had not slept well at all, partly because of the plastic mattress cover, which I always take as an insinuation by a hotel that their guests are bed-wetters. It just feels as if your skin can’t breathe and you feel hot even without a sheet/duvet over you. We were in much better moods today. One of the sources of friction yesterday had been that we had not set an end date to our travels and it was now high time that we did so. We agreed that trying to cover Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova would be too ambitious for this trip, but that if we could plan things we could do a loop through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, and that then it would be time to go home. “Rolling home” as one of the songs on a CD we picked up in the Baltics says.

We decided to do the replanning later today and first went out to see the Wawel, the hill just south of the old town centre, overlooking a bend in the river Wisla, and which dominates the city, physically, culturally, spiritually, with its collection of buildings comprising a cathedral, castle and many others. Our Rough Guide introduced it like this: “For five hundred years, the country’s rulers lived and governed on Wawel Hill. Even after the capital moved to Warsaw, Polish monarchs continued to be buried in the cathedral, and it is at the Wawel that many of the nation’s venerated poets and heroes lie in state within a set of buildings that serve as a virtual textbook of Polish history.” On the path leading up the side to the entrance gate in the high walls, a queue for tickets to the entrance rooms was already stretching back a long way and we joined the rear of the queue. It did not seem to be moving. There must have been hundreds of people already, queuing or standing around. Ness stayed in the queue and I went ahead and entered the main square to see if we could join a tour or get our own guide and bypass the queues.

I found a guide office and for £50 we got our own tour guide and pre-booked tickets to all the major sights. This definitely seemed worth it as there many more long queues at each of the individual buildings for further tickets, which we didn’t have to bother with. Our guide was called Chris, a young history student and in fluent English he rattled off names, dates, etc. As a student rather than a guide his exposition came across as a bit of a textbook, and he frowned on the frivolous Americans who in his view lacked respect for the surroundings. Our own efforts at humour were correspondingly limited! The Wawel was full of grand medieval buildings, most notably, from the main square, the large and ornate cathedral, where John Paul II was archbishop before he became pope. It compared with Westminster or St. Peter’s as “a place resonant to the core with national history”, to quote RG again. We toured around the inside, which seemed much smaller than we had expected. It was crammed full of chapels, statues and a central shrine, to a bishop-saint, see RG p.411 for details – and more tombs of the great and the good all around. Below we visited the crypts, along with the hundreds of shuffling tourists, which removed any sense of “crypt atmosphere”. The crypt held dozens of sarcophagi covering the ages. Back up for air and next we went to the tiered castle courtyard, which occupied the eastern half of the Wawel complex, more like an opulent Italian palazzo with balconies and an overhanging wooden roof supported by series of columns. First we visited the small treasury. Most of its contents had been looted, most recently by the Nazis but before that by the Austrians who did a very thorough job of it. After the Austrians had pillaged the castle they turned it into barracks, but now it has been fully restored and reconstructed. Next we visited the state rooms, a collection of grand rooms richly decorated with ornate coffered ceilings and massive Flanders tapestries – no photography permitted unfortunately.

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Ness feels energised - a special spot somewhere in the Wawel

We had well and truly reached our fill by now and it had been a very worthwhile tour. After so much grandeur we were in need of a simple snack and coffee. We said bye to Chris, admired the views over Krakow and the river from a terrace, and had a coffee at the cafeteria, sharing a table with an older and very Jewish British couple I had already seen around town yesterday. He reminded me of Michael Winner, and she was wearing the same Rohan fleece Ness has. We walked north to the Rynek. On the way out of the Wawel we noticed that the queues had disappeared completely. If only we had known we could have come here in the afternoon and saved ourselves £50 and/or a long wait.

Back at the Rynek we went for another drink, at a terrace café set up at the foot of the 70m tall Wieza Ratuszowa, the town hall tower. An excellent spot to just sit and people-watch. All around the sides of the Rynek cafés have set up terraces, with brewery-sponsored umbrellas. Wall-to-wall, and with plenty of customers at each one. We played cards, chilled out, and returned to the Cracovia. By now it was late afternoon. In our sixties room we spent some time re-planning and by cutting out less interesting destinations we came up with a plan that would enable us to see Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and get back to the UK for around the middle of September. Having done that we both felt much better, now having some certainty about where and when we finish our trip and finally made our turn for home. For Ness especially, but for me too, whilst the appetite for more and more travel will always be there, it is now time to say “it’s been fun, let’s go home”. On the “where do we live?” front, we’re thinking about Edinburgh and North Berwick and the plan is to give it a try and see what we think of it. In the evening we went out again to the area around the Rynek and had a tasty meal at a convivial little restaurant not far from the square on a small street, and afterwards, in the mood, went for a drink, a “digestif”, at a café on a little courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard we saw the Jewish-Rohan couple, who stopped by to say hello on their way out later. Knackering morning full of sights, and a great day.