Krakow: Now, the rest

In spite of what you might have gathered from my last post, we did actually do more in Krakow than eat. The city has a lot to offer, and we tried to see as much as we could. But truth be told, we did sometimes plan our activities around the next meal!

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St. Florian’s Gate, seen from the Barbican

The city is small, making it easy to wander and explore. There’s also a good tram/street car system for longer trips. The first thing we did on Friday was to buy the Krakow Card, giving us access to all public transport and free entrance to many museums and attractions. (It’s worth noting that the most visited sites, like the Castle, are not included in the Krakow Card.) Our first day took us to the Barbican, one of the last remaining parts of the fortified city walls. St. Florian’s Gate leads into the Old City. We decided to stop in St. Mary’s Basilica, and ended up arriving just in time for the opening of the Veit Stoss altarpiece.

As often happens when we travel, we stumbled into something that we weren’t expecting, and didn’t know anything about. When we entered St. Mary’s, I was surprised by the size of the gathered crowd, and wondered if we had arrived just before a service. But we soon realized that the opening of the altarpiece was the attraction.  Thanks to the dumb luck of timing, we were able to see the sculpture, carved between 1477 and 1484, fully open. I later learned that the altarpiece had been seized by the Nazis in 1941; it was discovered five years later in the basement ruins of Nuremburg Castle and returned to Krakow.

The Basilica is also the site of the hourly Hejnał Mariacki, the St. Mary’s Trumpet Call. The trumpeter is in the Basilica’s tower, and from there plays the piece four times, in the direction of the four old city gates (with a wave to the cheering crowd below). The noon performance is broadcast worldwide by radio. If you listen to the piece, it seems to end very abruptly. The legend is that sometime in the 1200s, a trumpeter was sounding the alarm against an invading force, and was shot in the throat by an arrow, putting a quick end to the tune.

St. Mary’s is on the edge of Market Square, which is crowded with cafes, vendors, and horse-drawn carriages. Cloth Hall, once a center of international trade, is now a good place to buy amber, football jerseys, and other souvenirs. Our friend-turned-tour guide had tipped us off to the rooftop cafe at Cloth Hall, which was a great place to spend an hour or so in the sun.

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The view from the Cloth Hall roof cafe…

(You have to earn your way in, as the entrance is not easy to find…it’s located inside a museum that happened to be closed when we were there, though the cafe was still open.)

One of Krakow’s most popular attractions is not in Krakow at all: the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Although it’s only about 10km from Krakow, it was almost a day-long activity. You can only tour the mine with a guide. Tours are offered in at least seven languages, but if you speak anything other than English you should check the tour schedule before you go. The English tours were offered every half hour, but the Italian tour, for example, was only three times per day.

We went on a Saturday and as a result had to deal with huge crowds. Rookie mistake, I know. It was also a slightly confusing system, with an initial queue for tickets and then separate lines for each of the different language tours. Our 11:30 English tour was so large that they split us into three groups, making the tour feel a bit rushed, since there was always another group on our heels.

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A (salt) statue of Copernicus

We spent close to 3 hours in the mines, exploring the third level, about 135 meters underground. For some perspective, the mine has nine levels.  Since the 13th Century, men (and later, horses) worked the mine, extracting salt through dangerous and intense labor. Somehow, in the middle of this work, they also found time to carve sculptures and religious chapels, including the remarkable St. Kinga’s Chapel, an enormous underground church. All carved out of salt. And available for events, special masses, and concerts. Weddings, too.

I wasn’t able to figure out why these chapels and monuments existed. I would assume that either the miners were mining, or they were making their way back up to the surface of the earth. When would there be time for prayer, let alone sculpting?


IMG_3092One morning we traveled across the Wisla river to visit Ghetto Heroes Square, located in what was the center of the Krakow Ghetto. The Square has a haunting memorial of 33 empty chairs representing the Polish Jews who were imprisoned in the Ghetto during World War II. Over 20.000 people were locked up in an area where only 3.000 had lived previously. The Square was a place of assembly from which inhabitants of the Ghetto were sent to Nazi death camps. Across from the Square is the Eagle Pharmacy Museum, which has been restored to its 1940s condition. The pharmacist was the only non-Jewish inhabitant of the Ghetto, and he and his staff provided care and help to the Jews, including smuggling food and information, and sheltering those who were going to be deported. The small, interactive museum shares the stories of the Ghetto’s residents and provides powerful, humanizing testimonies to their lives and deaths.


Our friend’s list of suggestions had one major omission: Krakow is home to a Pinball Museum. I’ve never been one for video games, and I won’t pretend I’m great at pinball, but I really love it. It’s hard to find pinball machines – most arcades don’t have them anymore. So to discover 300 m2 of pure pinball was a dream come true. IMG_3100Some machines dated back to the 1970s, others were more modern. You’re not going to learn much about the history of pinball, but that’s not what you came for. The entrance fee lets you play all day or come and go, and all the machines are set to free play. It’s also a bar, and while you can’t put your beer on the machines, you can take a break for a sip now and then. Heaven.

The sites on the usual tourist route – the Castle, the Cathedral – were nice, but very busy, especially with school groups on spring field trips. Tickets to the Castle rooms were sold out, so we only saw the outside. We were able to visit the Cathedral, but soon discovered we had hit our limit on the number of Gothic churches we could absorb in one weekend. By the time our Monday evening flight came around, we were churched-out, walked-out, and ready to head back to Amsterdam. But Krakow more than met our expectations. With its rich history – both medieval and modern – excellent food, relaxed pace, perfect weather, and unique attractions, Krakow earned a place on our list of great European cities.

 

 

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Krakow: First, the food

What do you do when a Thursday/Friday one-two punch of Dutch holidays collides with Memorial Day in the US? You plan a weekend city break. Destination: Krakow.

The city had long been on our list of places to visit, thanks to a well-traveled family friend who had lived in Krakow on-and-off for some time. He named it among his top three favorite European destinations, and, in advance of our trip, provided an exhaustive list of things to do and see (and eat), complete with a pronunciation guide.

A late flight and a further delay got us to the airport after 11pm on Thursday night. We took a taxi to the hotel – a rare luxury for us, but worth it due to the late hour. Our return trip on Monday would be via the comfortable, reliable, and very cheap train. On Friday morning, we explored the city before meeting up for our afternoon food tour with Delicious Poland.

Food tours have become a standard part of our travels. They are a great way to learn about the local cuisine, find lesser-known eateries, and meet fellow travelers. Plus, any guide worth their salt will give you recommendations to help plan the rest of your visit.

We met our guides, Kamila and Göksel, at a market in the Kazimierz district. They are a couple both personally and professionally, working together to build their tour company around their love of travel and food. They greeted us with bread and salt, a traditional Polish welcome. We were surprised that we were the only people signed up for the tour that afternoon, so we got the VIP treatment!

While Göksel went ahead to prepare things at the first stop, Kamila toured us through the market, which was filled with local farmers selling fresh vegetables and fruits. Then it was off to the first of seven stops on the tour: Przystanek Pierogarnia, to sample Poland’s famous dumplings. We tried four different pierogi, including dessert pierogi, filled with strawberry and drizzled with sweet cream. Yum!

Over the next three hours, we sampled the best of Polish cuisine, most of which I can’t spell or pronounce. The tour was a great combination of strolling around the neighborhood and sitting down for soup or a selection of main courses. Everything was arranged well, thanks to Göksel’s advance work. Throughout the tour, Kamila gave us

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Barszcz (beet soup) with dumplings, for Christmas Eve

some history of the Kazimierz district, and background on the different foods and when they are traditionally enjoyed. We learned a lot about how the privations of Communism impacted Polish cuisine. Chronic meat shortages required Polish cooks to be inventive – they found other flavors and other ways to make filling and satisfying meals.

 

Our favorite stop was Kuchnia u Doroty, a very traditional restaurant where we tried six dishes and a drink, and found the best dish of the day: placki ziemniaczane, potato pancakes “Hungarian” style, with pork and a goulash sauce that was just delicious. (We went back to Doroty later in the weekend and I ordered it again.)

Even though we were starting to fill up, we had several stops to go, including a bakery for a rose-hip jelly filled donut, then a craft brewery for some beer.  A visit to Plac Nowy (New Square) let us try zapiekanki, a sort of French-bread pizza with the toppings of your choice. Zapiekanki is only found in Krakow, and the traditional version is with mushrooms, melted cheese and chives.  It’s sold from small kiosks and shops; that it is both cheap and delicious makes it a favorite late-night snack, especially for students and anyone heading home after a few hours of drinking.

Speaking of drinking…our final stop was a vodka bar where we sampled four different vodkas, one traditional and three flavored, all delicious. We toasted our tour guides with a final Na zdrowie! Kamila shared a map and a list of some of her favorite stops in Krakow, so we were well-prepared for the rest of our weekend. We said our goodbyes and headed back into the neighborhood, full and happy and more than satisfied. If you find yourself in Krakow, check out Delicious Poland – in addition to food tours, they also do vodka and craft beer tours, so there’s something for everyone!

Next time: the Salt Mines, castles and cathedrals, and a visit to one of Krakow’s hidden treasures: the Pinball Museum!

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