As an American the idea of taking a Greyhound bus from one state to the next is quite the common occurrence. Busing, with its student friendly prices and semi-flexible schedule, makes it an obvious choice of transportation for any wandering nomad, and in Europe this pattern is no different. In fact, buses in Europe are arguably both cheaper and more comfortable than the average American Greyhound. The best bit you ask? Not only can you take these bright yellow regional expresses from region to region, one can also travel from one COUNTRY to the next! So on one sunny, yet brisk, afternoon my Czech friend and I hopped on one of these petrol filled land ferries from Opava, a small town in the south of the Czech Republic, to Kraków, one of the most famous and historical cities in Poland. This beautiful metropolis located only two hours from the Czech border was the capital of Poland until the late 1500’s and today the city’s historical district stands as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Our bus arrived in the late afternoon, and after a hurried dash to the much needed ladies room — European buses don’t stop long enough for any bathroom breaks and the bathroom on board only comes stocked with toilet paper one in five times, so come prepared — we made our way to our hotel. One wonderful thing about Eastern Europe is that prices for food, drink, and living accommodations are all quite cheap. This makes it simple for two students living on a budget to find a comfortable room for a reasonable price. In fact, we were able to find a cute room in the very heart of the city for no more than 20€ a night! The only downside, although some may consider it exciting, was that the bathroom/living area was situated below the sleeping quarters, and to get to the beds we had to climb a slightly rickety wooden ladder. After placing bets on who would fall down in the middle of the night first, (happily this never happened… I only slipped down the last couple of rungs once :)) we decided to embark on our first Kraków adventure and headed towards Rynek Główny, also known as the Main Square.
The square, surrounded by historical houses and churches and complete with cobblestone streets, was crowded with people. Tourists, students, and daily commuters all mixed together to form a scene of colorful mayhem. Swarms of pigeons pecked among the feet of googly-eyed pedestrians purchasing golden dumplings and pastries from potbellied vendors. Violins and tubas, the classic sounds of polish folk music, mixed with the clip clopping of horse hooves on the cobblestones creating an almost medieval ambiance. The incredible smells of roasting honey-glazed meats and baked goods drew me and my Czech companion to an outdoor market situated in the middle of the square. Here, adding to the medieval vibe, we found a blacksmith hammering away at horseshoes as well as countless other vendors selling their traditional, handmade wears. Stands overflowed with the classic flower crowns worn by Polish women, sweets, fresh breads, meats roasting on open flames, books, and amber jewelry.
The last item made me pause. The golden glowing amber stalls caught my eye. There must have been more vendors featuring amber, in countless shapes and forms, than any other good. Wandering deeper into the market we discovered an enclosed area where the stalls seemed to be set up more permanently. Here too I found that at least every other stall displayed a wide variety of amber products. Now my curiosity was peaked, I had to find out what was so special about this golden gem. One vendor, who had a long-standing family business working with amber, was kind enough to answer my questions and tell me a little about the gem’s history and its connection to Poland.
Amber, it turns out, is the native gemstone of Poland. This fossilized resin, ranging from 30 to 90 million years old, is a semiprecious “stone” that is found in great abundance along the Baltic coast, giving it its colloquial name “the gold of the north”. In ancient times the Polish/Baltic coast supplied many civilizations with amber, including the Romans and Ancient Greeks. Due to the gem’s popularity a trading route, known as the Amber Road, was created connecting today’s Poland with the Italian Peninsula and eventually even stretched East towards Constantinople and Baghdad. The Polish people, specifically in the Kurpie region where the gem is often found in the soil, were particularly famous for their amber craftsmanship. The inhabitants of this region also believed that the gem had magical qualities. Women were often told to carry a piece of amber with them to treat infertility, while healers were known to tell the ill to inhale ambers aromatic smoke to cure their ailments.
Who knew that along with its alluring golden glow this gem might hold practical uses. As our Polish amber historian continued telling me more about Poland’s connection to the gemstone, I began perusing the Nordic gold on offer. While most of the amber was set as center pieces in necklaces or thick sterling silver bracelets, one wooden wall carving with a delicate amber inlay caught my eye. The carving depicted a glorious, ornate castle made completely of amber sitting underneath the waves while a women, to left of the castle, swam away from it. I asked the vendor if the carving had any significance. His wide, five toothed grin was all the answer I needed.
“It’s an old Polish legend.” He explained…
Long ago, back when god’s and humans were more accustomed to one another, the goddess of the sea, queen Jurata, lived in a palace underneath the waves. Now this palace was no ordinary palace for it was completely made of Nordic gold, or amber. Back then, while humans knew about the existence of gods and goddesses, it was forbidden for any god to fraternize with a human or vise versa. Nevertheless, Jurata fell in love with a human fisherman and for one whole year she ventured above the waves, every evening, to meet with him on Polish shores. The king of the gods, Perkun, god of thunder and lightning, (remind you of anyone) found out about these secret meetings and became furious! He was outraged that Jurata would dare fall in love with a human! As punishment, while Jurata was resting after a particularly long night ashore with her lover, Perkun shot a huge bolt of lightning down, splitting the ocean open and shattering Juratas’ golden home with her in it. To this day, people find fragments of her castle on the beaches in the form of amber that has washed ashore.
Seemingly satisfied with his rendition of the tale, our amber peddling friend sat back smiling. I may normally opt to promote more scientific reasonings for how natural materials came to be, however, at that moment I think I preferred the more mythical and enchanting tale as told by this charismatic character in front of me, his huge nearly toothless grin still fixed to his face. After a few more kind words and one last look at his selection of goods, I walked away to explore the rest of the vast market, with a new ring on my ring finger made of ancient oak wood and pieces of destroyed castle that once belonged to a sea goddess.