Creches the soul of Christmas in Krakow

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A brilliantly colored object about 3 feet tall in the lobby immediately attracted my attention as I walked through the front door of the Hotel Francuski in the Old Town of this historic city. The sparkling structure reminded me of the castle in Disney's Magic Kingdom -- albeit a psychedelic version.

The bellman proudly identified the "castle" as a szopka, one of the ornate Christmas creches (the Poles call them "cribs") for which Krakow is renowned. It is pronounced "shop-kah," quite appropriately, I thought, for this vibrant city with a dazzling array of merchandise in its Christmas markets, especially amber waves of jewelry dangling in the 14th century Cloth Hall, which is one of the world's oldest shopping malls.

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Most szopkas have two things in common -- they are handmade with colorful foil wrapped around a frame of cardboard, wood or other material; and they are often designed as a hybrid of Krakow's two most famous churches. The towers of the szopka in the hotel resembled the Gothic spires of St. Mary's Basilica, and the Renaissance-style dome was clearly patterned after the gold-plated Sigismund Chapel in the Wawel Cathedral, considered the holiest place in Poland. It was the site of royal coronations, and all but four of Poland's 45 kings are buried there.

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Krakow is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in Europe, with its abundance of amber at bargain prices contributing to its popularity. Sometimes referred to as "Baltic Gold," amber is actually fossilized tree resin.

The largest deposits in the world are found along the southeast shore of the Baltic Sea in Kaliningrad, a small area of Russia sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, which has smaller deposits around the port of Gdansk. The selection of amber creations in Krakow -- especially the shops with wall-to-wall amber -- boggles the imagination. The Christmas markets also offer hand-made boxes, dolls and chess sets; lace; fine leather goods and glassware.

Window-shopping on Krakow's major commercial street, ul Florianska, was a magical experience with twinkling lights and the sounds of Christmas music all around us. We reached majestic St. Mary's Basilica at the south end of the square, known for its distinctive uneven Gothic towers (266 and 200 feet) and an enormous (43-by-36 feet),altar, a masterpiece that took sculptor Wit Stwosz 12 years to complete before it was dedicated in 1489.

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Every hour of the day, a bugler plays the same five-note song that was used in medieval times as a warning that the enemy had been spotted. The simple trumpet tune has been broadcast at noon on Polish radio since 1927. Oddly, the hejnal (bugle call) always stops abruptly in mid-tune because legend has it that an arrow from the Tartar invaders struck the trumpet player's throat before he could finish.

Today, the bugler could be playing a warning that the Christmas crowds are coming. It's only a matter of time before travel brochures selling the enchantment of the Christmas markets in Germany and Austria give equal billing to the delights of Krakow.

Author: Ed Wisneski

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Source: the post-gazette.com