My wife had decided to leave me for a weekend to have girl time with her bestie over in Vienna which meant I had to come up with something to do for three days. Ah, poor me and the traveler's life.
The result? I decided to meet up with a friend in Krakow. I had met my friend James--who keeps up this blog about Warsaw--years ago in Tbilisi doing a volunteer stint with Teach and Learn in Georgia. We kept up through the years and now he's living the teaching life in Warsaw while I'm in Prague. Having been to Warsaw already, I wanted to see something new, and daresay, something more authentically old Polish. Krakow then was the best choice for that, being that it was the old capital of the Kingdom of Poland and survived WWII nearly completely intact, with only a few Nazi bombs going off when the Germans retreated.
a street in the old town
There are several ways to get to Krakow from Prague. The routes I know can be found through Student Agency or Polski Bus. For travel across and around the Czech Republic, Student Agency is the standard bus (and now train) service, and it's easy to see why. The bus service is fairly cheap, especially in regards to destinations in the Czech Republic, and it's quite comfortable. All the seats are of a plush faux leather, often equipped with personal televisions and your own selection of movies. Free coffee, water and wifi is standard on almost all journeys (make sure you're on a "fun and relax" bus), even though the wifi can be subpar, but you're on a bus, so what can you expect. I took the trip from Czech Republic to Krakow for about 69 euro round trip. Instead of a bus, I started the journey on a train of equal quality, then transferred to a shuttle bus run by Tiger Express of not quite equal quality. Student Agency was originally focused on student travel, but has become such a successful company that it's for everyone now and is even currently expanding into the airline business.
Since writing this though, Student Agency has upgraded the route, and now offers the much nicer fun and relax buses from Ostrava to Krakow. Cesky Drahy, the main Czech train service, also now offers a daily and overnight train to Krakow as well.
The square between the old town and the train station
My shuttle arrived a bit before James’s, so I had a little time to scout around for some exchanges. I ignored the exchange right next to the bus stop and walked around through the mall across the street to take a quick break for the toilets. Then to the back of the bus station, passing by several shady exchanges where I should have at least peered in for the rate. Upon meeting my friend, we walked to the front towards the Old Town and I hit the first nice looking exchange I got and for some reason didn't glance at the rate. An easy indicator that you're about to get ripped off is that the place is clean and nice looking, the second is that they don't even bother to show you what you're going to get, they just dish out the cash immediately. After seeing the meager sum stacked before me, I complained. "Really? That's your rate? That's a bit of a difference from reality." They then promptly upgraded my rate to "VIP status" which is still a mild hole in the pocket, but not such a large hole that one can get raped through. The second place I exchanged at, across from St. Andrew’s in the old town, was much more reasonable and handed out a fair rate straight up, so I recommend using that one.
That sorted, we made a quick stop at a milk bar on the main street for some authentic Polish food. I had the potato pancakes smothered in gulash. When in Central Europe, you're never far from goulash, and one might even judge your region of Europe based on how accessible goulash is. It was a good mix, but the goulash lacked the bit of spice that I've grown used to with Czech goulash. But it was cheap, so no real room for complaint. For a good cheap meal that's not a kebab, milk bars (mlechny bar) are always the best way to go.
the main street food square in Kazimierz
To complete a real tour of a city though, one must have its street food, and this is especially true in Krakow, where the best street food to be had is in the Kazimierz neighborhood. It's impossible to truly get an authentic feel of the flavor of the city without enjoying what most occupants feed off of. Sure you can eat the best examples of their food, sit in some restaurant with a grand view eating some French guy's reinterpretation of the native ethnic gesticulating preferences.
But to truly know--to truly know!--you must descend from your high ivory tower and denigrate yourself enough to spend a bit of time in the dense jungle of Adidas track suits and felt Kangol caps--at least if you're in Eastern Europe--and eat what those highly studied individuals are gorging themselves on. In many cities, due to the ubiquity of the Turk and their breathless ability to create hordes and migrate, it's usually shawarma or doner kebab. The interesting thing there is that, the shawarma of any city outside of Turkey is actually better than that served within the land of Ataturk. I've tried shawarma from Istanbul to Olympia to Sarpa, and haven't ever found durum or kebab comparable to that moist, roll of guaranteed diarrhea case as I have found outside the towering casino-slash-five star hotel Holiday Inn in Tbilisi.
a street bordering Kazimierz and the old town
But seriously, thank God for Turks having a Euromance. If it hadn't been for Turkish migrations into the lands of North, the only fast food you would be able to get would be McDonald's and KFC, nearly a truth in cities like Prague, where I'm living now. Luckily though, some locals also persist in street food, and cheese-o-philes have usually opened one or two panini stands in most city centers, and maybe some sort of psuedo-Parisian place that is a much nicer version than most places in Paris emerge.
On a rare occasion though, emerges a truly local delicatessen of artery clogging crap, loaded with enough cholesterol and terrible bits and pieces to make Billy Joel finally keel over and have that heart attack-ack-ack he's been singing about for all these years. In Dresden, such an awesomeness is found in the currywurst. In Prague, the giant sausage hot dog. In Berlin, the wienerschnitzel sandwich. And in Krakow, the zapiekanki.
zapiekanki, image from moyastacja.pl
The zapiekanki is all the more intimidating since it completely lacks any English language equivalent. The closest you might comet to an accurate translation is simply its description--super long pizza thing. The super long pizza thing emerged as a midnight favorite in the formerly Jewish now bar district of Kazimierz. There is about five windows that serve their own zapiekanki in aptly named Zapiekanki Square, each window serving their own variations and interpretations of the greasy long sort-of Polish bruschetta. They all serve variations of different toppings, from Spinach and cheese to salami and egg to the every so tasty sounding offering of 3 cheeses, sardine, tomato and jalapeno. Generally I think the variations were invented by drunks, which can probably be verified by the extraordinarily long lines found at zapiekanki square starting at about 1 am.
The zapiekanki that I had was essentially a long piece of bread, toasted with some sort of garlic butter, then topped with salami, cheese and fried onions. It was about as long as my arm and was so tasty, the pigeons were lining up for their fare share. I had to swat a couple off just to make a point that the whole thing--other than the onion crumbles that fell off and scattered across the floor--was mine mine mine.
So when in Krakow, remember, hit up the Kazimierz district and try out some zapiekanki. It's the only way to make your trip truly complete.
Where to stay
From there it was off to the hostel. Hostels are tough to pick in Krakow. A quick search reveals some nine hundred of them, all with one draw or another. There was Tom and Greg's Bar Party Extravaganza Hostel, which sounded too much like a bro bar, and then there was Panda Hostel, complete with creepy pictures of a guy in a panda costume hanging around the different rooms--I was so close to choosing that one, obviously. Based only on the price and location, I had picked for us Momotown Hostel, which is situated right on the north edge of Kazimierz, right near the castle and the old town, a perfect spot for a serious exploration of Krakow.
around the Kazimierz neighborhood, after a rain
The Momotown Hostel itself is unimpressive. With its wall-to-wall white floor tiles and bare walls - the check-in room at least has some fun paintings of dealing with a party city theme - the place felt like I was sleeping in a college dormitory or cafeteria with bunks. The beds were comfortable though, and with a maximum of six people to a bed, quiet enough if not for the guy with some severe night time respiratory problems in the neighboring bunk. The commons room was fairly uninviting and as it was separated by two floors from the kitchen, failed to garner any camaraderie among the travelers. That said, the hostel had clean sheets, clean bathrooms - except for when one Irish guy peed in the sink - lockers and towel checkouts for 1.50 zloty.
Absynt and Momotown in Kazimierz
Below the hostel was the apparently famous Absynt Cafe, which advertises itself as famous among Krakowian artists, where they often end up for their after party and where dancing on tables until 4 am is not unheard of. I don't know about that part - the place looked bohemian enough - plus couches, old, wooden tables, and all-in-all an ideal place for an absynth binge, but the only activity we saw there was the Irish factory worker bachelor party that was going on for some three days straight from our hostel. I'm fairly surprised that these guys didn't head on to the strip clubs or what-not, and only walked 3 meters from the hostel door to start up and end up every night in the otherwise empty bar, every single time they wanted to party. But I guess they found their place and that was fair enough.
What to see and do
Obviously, the thing to see in Krakow is the old town and the castle and to take a tour of the castle. As the original seat of the millennia old kingdom of Poland (with some significant gaps), it deserves all the reputation for splendor and beauty it gets.
the old town square
The old town district is best visited during the day. During that time, it's filled with all sorts of cute cafes and theatres, with outdoor musicians and ice cream stands. In the center of the old town square there's the old market hall, and underneath that is an excellent history museum that's hosted in the catacombs. A definite must see for visiting the town, especially if you want to get a real understanding of its founding and history.
At night, the district turns into a giant college party, with half a dozen strip clubs opening their doors, sending out their women to try to drag the men underground. So it's best to avoid, especially if you like the quieter romantic time. Stay in Kazimierz, which though it's also a bar district, it has a lot cozier bars and is quite a bit quieter, since most of the British stag party revelers are in the old town for obvious reasons.
On the north side of old town is a site for those interested in medieval fortifications. There stands the last remaining barbican. A barbican is a fortified gatehouse that allows access into the city. They are built in such a way to extend further protection to the city walls, and also allow for attack of any intruders that have made it into the gate, as the high walls of the barbican are often only easily accessible from within the city via a walkway called a neck.
inside the barbican
With cannons and howitzers, city walls and gates lost their significance though. You'll notice a big park surrounding the Krakow old town. That was where the old city wall once was, which was later taken down by the Habsburgs during their occupation, and turned into a park. Partly because walls were useless in warfare by that point, and partly because they didn't want to deal with civil uprisings (in which, walls and barricades remain to be useful, ala Les Miserables). The residents apparently though begged for a bit of the wall to remain for historical purposes, and also because the North wind makes it harder for women to get pregnant, so the Austrians left the north wall standing.
another square in the old town
The castle is built on a large hill bordering the old town district. You can tour that to get the gist of typical 19th century opulence, but if you've been on many castle tours before, you won't be missing anything. The real gem is simply to just walk around the grounds, look to the hills and have a peak in Wawel Cathedral, a magnificent and mysterious structure that holds many of the old kings and heroes of Poland.
Inside the castle
Connected to imperial times, not far from the city are the Wielicka Salt Mines. Salt was the core of the wealth of the Polish Empire, and the largest salt mine is near Krakow--hence the location as a capital. The salt mine was basically a burgeoning underground city, complete with taverns, inns, and even a cathedral. It's definitely a must visit. I didn't have the pleasure of seeing it, which is why I'm pulled back to Krakow again. If you have more than one day in Krakow though, go!
Walking distance around the city are massive hills that offer great perspectives. The best is to just walk through the Jewish ghetto, which is the Kazimierz district, across the river to the Jewish ghetto of the Nazi times. This was where in World War II, Schindler had his famous factory in Schindler's List. There's no trace of that left, but there is a solemn square. The rest of the Jewish district has been mostly rebuilt, though with plaques offering reminders of the dark events that once plagued the city.
Behind the hill which is situated behind the Jewish ghetto, there was an old POW labor camp used during World War II as well. There's a touching memorial there and the grounds are now a beautiful park.
the memorial at the old concentration camp
The hill also offers for some amazing views of the town. Nobody knows the origins of the hills, but many say that they were old, massive burial mounds.
view from the hill
Finally, there is the site that must be seen, if only for history's sake. The Auschwitz concentration camp museum must be visited if you're staying Krakow longer than a day. There's no excuse, and if you go, there's a chance you might fully understand the horror of nationalism and Fascism. The entire Holocaust is incomprehensible, and to just ponder it really isn't enough, as there's no real way to understand it without visiting a camp, and especially without visiting the mother of all death camps. It's an unbelievable scenario, but when you walk on those grounds, it finally becomes real.
I'll review more on the Salt Mines and Auschwitz in future blogs, so stay tuned. I'll leave you here for now, with the message that if you see any one city in Poland, see Krakow.
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