Thursday, May 22, 2014

Know When to Fold 'Em

CHAPTER 29:  IN WHICH WE HEED A COUNTRY SINGER 

Around the World, Days 29-30:  Krakow to Warsaw and beyond.  As our time in Krakow wound down, we began making plans for Sofia, Bulgaria to be our next stop, having already decided that our city-hopping ways were contributing to our continued failure to completely recover good health.  Then on Tuesday night, as we were about to make payment on an apartment in Sofia, we began to hear strains of Kenny Rogers.  I was still hacking through the night and Ken's cough had roared back with a vengeance, and yet the gambler's words grew stronger until they were loud and clear.

As enthusiastic as we were about this ‘round the world trip when we left home a month ago, we remain unable to shake the health issues that began to plague us a few days into the trip.  The respiratory bug that came on board with me our third day in Reykjavik left within a week only to take up residence with Ken.  Since then, we have yet to experience a single day when both of us felt well or a night when we slept restfully without being wakened by one of us coughing.  We’ve pushed through this bronchitis and other illnesses thinking the problems would eventually leave us in peace.  When they did not, we tracked down an English-speaking doctor in Prague.  Unfortunately, his prescription not only did not effect a cure, it apparently introduced some unexpected and unpleasant side effects.

So, sick and tired of being sick and tired, we decided it was time to fold on this trip.  We coughed up a sizeable change fee (finally something productive!) to LOT Polish Airline and revised our destination from Sofia to London, where we had many more return flights to the U.S. to choose from.

In keeping with what appeared to be the theme of this trip, the return trip offered up some memorable moments.  Upon our arrival at the Krakow airport (really just a prefab aluminum building for domestic flights), our flight to Warsaw was listed as “Check-In Suspended.”  Hmmm.  Apparently since the noon flight threatened to disrupt the security agents’ lunch, screening did not open until 10 minutes before the flight was to depart.  Interestingly, all of the agents had large handguns strapped to their legs, so we certainly didn't complain about their lack of timeliness.  

With a comfortable two-hour layover, we had lunch in Warsaw and left for Heathrow on time.  In London, all went smoothly until we rode the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5, the alleged location of the Hilton hotel where we had reservations for the night to await our flight back to the States the next morning.  After a futile search for the hotel within the terminal (found other hotels there), we located a hotel information desk.  The very courteous agent informed us that the hotel was not at the terminal but “off-site” and that there was a convenient Hotel Hoppa bus just outside the door that would take us there for only $15.  What she failed to say and, in her defense probably did not know, was that our wait for this multi-hotel shuttle would require 45 minutes of standing in the below-ground transportation area sucking up diesel fumes from the dozens of buses that came through going to other hotels and transporting airline crews before the H57 bus to the Hilton finally showed up.  A brief 20-minute ride later and we were in a rural area at the speciously named "Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5.”

On Thursday morning, we avoided the Hotel Hoppa and took a taxi back to Heathrow (fool me once, and all that), dutifully making our way to Gate 25 to board our Delta flight to JFK in New York.  With all the passengers checked in, there still was no aircraft, so we were crammed into yet another airport bus and transported more than 20 minutes on a circuitous route to finally arrive at the other side of the same terminal we had just left, boarding by airstairs from the tarmac.  The bus trip lasted so long, passengers were speculating about whether we were being taken to Gatwick, or maybe Edinburgh.

The shining star of this return story was the flight to New York because we were able to score an upgrade to business class seats and enjoyed all the perks that went along with it, particularly the lie-flat seats, which allowed us to catch some sleep on the 8-hour flight.  Upon our arrival at JFK, we went through passport control and customs, then were channeled out of the secure area directly into a line for a security screening before going to the gate for our connecting flight to Atlanta.

Because four flight attendants sauntered into the gate area half an hour after boarding was set to begin, our Delta flight to Atlanta could not depart on schedule.  By the time we pushed away from the gate, the delay had put us into the path of a line of rain squalls.  Before we reached the runway, the pilot announced that he was shutting down the engines where we were because no flights were being allowed to take off.  

More than an hour late, our 757 at last climbed into the storm.  Though the pilot pushed up to its maximum altitude of 42,000 feet, we were still buffeted by high winds for most of the trip, giving those late flight attendants a free pass on serving beverages.

But the story has a happy ending.  Our faithful, friendly limo driver Faisal was still there at the Atlanta airport waiting for us when we arrived an hour late, the same guy who had delivered us to the airport a month ago.  And we arrived home, finding all was well—except us, of course.  But we've scheduled appointments with some doctors that speak English and are very hopeful they can get us all fixed up so we can hit the road again.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Bit of Krakow History

CHAPTER 28:  IN WHICH WE HEAR A FIERY TALE

Around the World, Day 28:  Krakow, Poland.  Like many European cities, Krakow boasts a long history.  The earliest known settlement, dating back to the 4th century, was established on Wawel Hill.  According to legend, the ruler Krakus built the town, naming it after himself, at the top of this hill immediately over the lair of a powerful dragon.  When livestock and young maidens kept disappearing, Krakus invited knights to attempt to slay the dragon in exchange, of course, for his daughter's hand in marriage.  In true romantic fashion, all the knights, errant and local, fell to the dragon's fiery power until a local cobbler conceived the solution and baited the dragon with a sulfur-filled sheep, leading to its demise.

Wawel Castle on Wawel Hill along the Vistula River
Since Krakow is a popular tourist center, it comes as no surprise that for the paltry sum of 3 Polish zlotys (about 99 cents US), one can descend into the dragon's cave from the top of Wawel Hill, exiting just at the site of an array of souvenir kiosks selling...yes, dragons!  Stuffed (though not with volatile sheep), wooden, plastic, metal, or most any other type of dragon figurine is available.

By the year 1000, Krakow had become a center of trade and in 1038 became the seat of the Polish government.  Krakow continued to serve as the capital of Poland for almost six centuries and still plays an important role in preserving the national identity.  Unlike so many cities in Poland, Krakow was hardly damaged in World War II, and restoration efforts in recent years have been returning many historic buildings to their original glory.

Just north of Wawel Hill, the Old Quarter remains the heart of Krakow.  The city's Market Square is said to be the largest in Europe, surrounded this time of year with sidewalk cafes and populated with tourists and locals who like to hang out there.  We made the obligatory climb up the old City Hall Tower for a fantastic view of this vibrant public space.

Town Hall Tower
Dominating the east side of the square is St. Mary's Church, a massive Gothic basilica built in the 14th century.  At 262 feet, the taller of St. Mary's towers historically served as a watch tower for the city.  Following tradition, a trumpeter still blows a signal from the tower hourly.  In memory of a now famous trumpeter who was struck in the throat by an arrow when attempting to warn the city of a Mongol invasion in the 13th century, the trumpet call is abruptly interrupted each time it is played.  You can hear an example here.

St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow
Behind the communion table in the sanctuary is the massive 40-ft tall sculpted altarpiece.  Panels depict scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus, with scenes of Mary's joy on the inner panels and her sorrow on the exterior panels.  Each day at noon the doors are opened to reveal the huge carved centerpiece.

St. Mary's altarpiece (photo from Wikipedia)
As the Nazis began invading Poland during World War II, townspeople dismantled the altar and hid it in different places around the country to protect it from Nazi plunder.  Their efforts were in vain as the German governor of Poland determined the location of the treasures and had them removed them to the Third Reich.  After the war, the altar work was discovered in the basement of the bombed ruins of Nuremberg Castle, returned to Poland and restored.

We will wind up our visit to Krakow tomorrow before moving on to our next destination.

More Photos from Today

Krakow Cathedral on Wawel Hill
Flower Vendor at Old Town Square 
No shortage of horse-drawn carriages around the square
Waiting for a fare  
Old Market Square


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