Food, wine, travel, music
It was almost summer when I got to Krakow a few years ago. The snowy blanket of winter had given way to flowering trees and shrubs. Pope Benedict’s recent visit was a good excuse to dredge the buildings in floral baskets and celebrate his appreciation of their own favourite son and pontiff Pope John Paul ll.
Grand buildings line the square, the two towers of St Mary’s church interrupting the low skyline. There are no neon signs, but at night the low lights from cafes and bars, the shops of the Cloth Hall colonnaded walkway and floodlit castles mark the understated grandeur that is Krakow, one of the latest easy-to-reach destinations in Eastern Europe.
While the journey from the airport is a little forbidding, more like what you expect in a post-communist country (large barrack-like buildings with lots of small windows), the centre of the city’s architecture is far more interesting and has a distinct lack of modern high rises. There is a feeling of being back in the Ireland of the fifties, but with more beautiful buildings.
Food still has real taste and is hearty and often stylish. Poland has not yet fallen prey to the commercialisation of food production either and 80% of its agriculture is still chemical free. Cafes, bars and restaurants are mostly in cellars (indicated by the word Pod for a bar) where dark red plush curtains and flock wallpaper, large mahogany tables and all shapes and sizes of chairs make for a friendly ambience. You could end up having a drink at the same table as a group of strangers who are quite likely to engage in conversation in perfectly good English. More modern bars are lively and have plenty of good coffee on tap as well as a long list of vodka choices. Apart from Polish beer, this is the cheapest beverage.
There is plenty to see in the centre of the city. For those interested in architecture, there are magnificent examples including St. Dominic’s Church where haunting harmonies are sung with soft voices of an average age of 21 by choir and congregation alike. Mass takes place every day at 6.30. am and is well worth the early rise, even if only to see the church slowly come to life as each member of the congregation lights and holds a slender candle – a ceremony which would inspire the most convinced atheist. Hot tea and bread is offered afterwards in the refectory. As a companion said, //You can get drunk anywhere in the world, but this is unique.\\
Of course Krakow is most proud of Pope John Paul 11 who was born there and whose anniversary of his death was celebrated and remembered by the current incumbent whose visit was welcomed by just about everyone in the city. A church named after John Paul is just one of its boasts. Chopin was Polish and as one woman told me //we are romantic people. We show that through music and letters, not big embraces in public. Chopin expresses our emotions. In winter we eat lots of fat and hibernate, but once spring comes, there is an explosion of emotions and of course when we get drunk we become very funny!\\ She went on to sing a song about the joys of snow. Film director Roman Polanski was also born in Krakow and we can see where his moody art got its roots.
A few days in Krakow will give a good feel of the city which boasts seventeen universities, often in gracious buildings. Shops near the main square (Rynek Glowny) are located in old buildings and there are the usual international shops such as Max Mara, Mango and Diesel, but most local fashion shops are a bit behind the times. Souvenirs are handcrafted and wooden, and there is a good range of genuine amber jewellery, some of it well styled.
There is plenty to see outside Krakow too. It is difficult to anticipate a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps with anything but dread, and it is no different to the horrific images we have already seen on film footage. However, collections of prosthetics, heaps of uniformly grey hair due to their poor diet and reading glasses bring human suffering in stark, bitter winters, inside to the red brick and wooden buildings where they perished. People walk around in respectful sombreness. A visit there is about paying homage to those who died there and resolving never to be part of an ignorance which perpetuates such horrors.
The salt mines in Wieliczka have a more positive ambience and quickly we forget the threats of punishment to work backbreaking shifts 327 metres underground. Covering 4.5 million cubic metres of caverns, they are well lit and not at all claustrophobic. The five floors have stunning carvings made from salt and entertaining guides tell their 330 year history which is a social document of the area. Touch the walls and lick your fingers – they are salty! The ground floor chapel is the most impressive and a lift brings tourists back to the top. There is also a café for sustenance and thirst quenching. You get a strange craving for a packet of salty crisps.
Krakow has temperatures of 35 degrees in summer and reaches minus 20 in winter, so get there soon. A pair of sturdy walking shoes is all you need to enjoy a glance at the past.
Eat in: Szara Rest and Bar on Main Market Square – Good ambience and food in the elegant dining room. Good coffee in the lively bar. Email to reserve a table:firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0048 12 421 66 69.
For more casual food, look around the bars and small restaurants of the Jewish Quarter known as the Kazimierz District since the 15th century, serving anything from take-aways to old style Jewish feasts, complete with beetroot soup, filled dumplings (pierogi) and kosher wines. This is where the most bars are to be found and where young people congregate to listen to live jazz (very popular) and to dance in the cellars. This area is where to find craftspeople such as violin makers.
Stay in: Radisson Hotel on Straszewskiego 17 www.radisson.com
Budget accommodation is plentiful with guest houses, small hotels and tourist hostels http://www.krakow.pl
Visit: Wawel Castle to appreciate the grand history of the city. Allow half a day.
St Mary’s Church on the old square is beautiful.
Tours can be arranged to take visitors along routes such as University Route, The Royal Way, Jewish Route, In the Steps of John Paul 11. http://www.krakow.pl
Idea: There are music festivals and events every month from jazz, to classical to February’s International Festival of Sea Shanties, a theatre festival in March and from April onwards too many to mention here. http://www.krakow.pl
Currency: 1 Zloty to o.24. Easy to change in tourist areas. Plenty of banking machines.
For a group guide contact: Mazurkas Travel.
Contemporary jewellery: RA Galeria. ul.Mikotajska 24.