As we stepped of the aircraft steps onto the concrete apron my first thought was “it’s a bit more chilly than Edinburgh was.” Typical British thought process. It’s almost indoctrinated into us, but at least I didn’t voice it.
Nonetheless, as we entered the building the process of going through passport control was a quick and painless one, and my first opportunity to practice saying “dzein dobry” (good day). A couple of burly, if somewhat overweight, looking men wearing khaki camouflage uniforms and sporting a holstered black pistol each caught my attention within the baggage reclaim area. Reassuring to know public protection was at hand.
Kraków in brief: The city of Kraków itself is the second largest in Poland, located in the south of the country and is steeped in history, stretching back to the 7th century. Skipping forward, during the German occupation of Poland it was the centre for the German government. It’s a recent European City of Culture. This year, 2016, the World Youth Day is being hosted, something which was evident on our travels. Children singing and dancing in the square and various signs promoting it.
BUDGET ONWARD TRAVEL
Having carried out a little research we established one of the quickest and most inexpensive of ways to reach the centre of Kraków was by train. The train station is fully integrated with the airport, something which is now almost taken for granted everywhere other than at Glasgow. That said, you will have to walk past taxi drivers offering you their services for €20. This translates to around 85-90PLN (zlotys).
The cost was only a little over 4PLN each. Be warned though, although the machines take coins, notes and bank cards the machines only accept smaller denomination notes. As I was about to find out. If you get to the end and insert a larger bill note than the machine accepts then it spits it back out. No problem, but it then also cancels the whole transaction and back to the beginning of the process you go.
The train was sitting waiting at the platform. They depart every half hour. It was spacious, modern and comfortable with adequate luggage storage on board. There was an electronic display showing where the train was and what the next stop would be. The ticket examiner greeted us in English. I’m not entirely sure what I expected from former Eastern Bloc railway, but this wasn’t it. I can’t remember exactly how long it took to reach Kraków Głowny, but I estimate around the half hour mark. It certainly didn’t feel like long.
The walk from Głowny to the Old Town (in Polish, ‘Stare Miasto’) was only around 5-10 minutes. The first area your eyes will set upon are the tree lined footpaths, well away from the busy road, adjacent to the walls of the Old Town (pictured). The wall spans 1.9 miles, or around 3km and features forty six towers.
Poland was already endearing itself to me.
For those interested in history the Old Town was the centre of Polands’ political life from 1038 to 1536, at which time it was moved to Warsaw. The entire medieval Old Town was also one of the first chosen for UNESCO’s original World Heritage list. The impressive main square (Polish, ‘Rynek Głowny‘) is the largest medieval square in Europe and hosts a market, with street food, clothing, flowers, bread, cheese and – of course – souvenirs.
There are horse drawn carriages available day and night in the square. There’s something a little sad to me about those magnificent, truly beautiful, horses just standing there much of the day, so I decided not to give in to the horsemen and women who try to lure you aboard every time you walk within 18ft of one. I’d just prefer they were in fields enjoying life, but I understand the attraction.
FOOD & DRINK
The aforementioned market provides a good selection of street food, from traditional Polish pierogi to Polish/German style sausages. We opted for pierogi. 5-10PLN will buy you some pierogi of your choosing with fried onion. I personally recommend taking the mix option and just trying it all! The pierogi at the market was a little on the oily side when compared to subsequent restaurant meals, but it was delicious nonetheless.
There are an abundance of restaurants around the Old Town area, you’re really spoiled for choice. Having roamed the area checking out menus we eventually settled on restaurant No.7, situated on the main square. The service was excellent, the food first class and the ambience had a definite romantic edge to it. Two courses each and a couple of drinks came to around 150PLN.
Definitely worth a try for a drink is the Wódka Café-Bar. It’s at Mikołajska 5, Kraków. It’s cosy, very cosy. Especially if you sit upstairs. Perhaps only seating for about thirty people in total. There’s a low ceiling upstairs, which at 6’1” was noticeable. The area was dimly lit, there were two slightly shaky, and sticky, wooden tables with four seats around them and a third table with a more comfortable looking sofa. They have a huge selection of vodkas in all sorts of flavours (and some beer/wine if one of your group isn’t willing to try straight vodka – and it is drank straight here). They do a “random” small wooden tray of six flavoured vodkas for around 35PLN, served in what look like miniature wine glasses. Our selections included chilli chocolate, hazelnut, apple, raspberry and two others my memory cannot recall. The chilli chocolate certainly had the oesophagus warmed, as if there was a small fire gently burning all the way down to the pit of your stomach. The others were much more palatable. I overheard some other people say they’d been given horseradish flavour – which I’m so happy I didn’t try! Perhaps it pays dividends to be nice to the barman. I can imagine this place gets pretty busy with tourists in the summer months, so you might be best to try it avoiding peak times.
I can only recommend what I have personally tried or experienced. ‘Aparthotel Stare Miasto’. The location was excellent, just one road back from the main square. Check in was a little slow, but that’s about all I could criticise the place for, and luggage quickly taken to the room. We booked a superior room, which cost around £50 ($75) a night. I was immediately impressed with how spacious it was. The décor really impressed me too, though it perhaps lacked a professional quality finish it was a brilliant fusion of traditional and modern. Exposed brickwork, wooden beams, stained glass, a glittering array of ceiling spot lights, a spacious modern shower room and all the kitchen facilities we could need. There wasn’t much of a view, okay there wasn’t really one at all, but who travels to spend their time in a hotel room anyway?
PLACES TO SEE
Being only in Kraków for two nights I confess I did not see it all. I would have loved to see Schnindler’s Factory, the place where nazi Oskar Schnindler did his best to save his Jewish workforce from death. Sadly it was closed on a Tuesday. I’m not sure if that’s the case all year round, but certainly is in Spring.
Wawel Castle, photographed, which is perched upon the banks of the Vistula River in Kraków is definitely worth a visit. If you like castles or historic buildings that is. It’s within walking distance of the Old Town. It’s quite unlike the castles we have here in Scotland. It’s more colourful for one. It’s also more of a complex, featuring a number of buildings within its walls. It’s free to enter the grounds and take a look around and there are some great views over the Vistula River.
March in Poland can be what we Scots call “chanking.” In plain English, bloody cold. I remember the beautiful warm colours of the castle buildings contrasting nicely with the various shades of purple and blue on my numb hands. A wee tip, take gloves.
Of course one of the must see museums, I feel the word ‘attraction’ is inappropriate, near Kraków is Auschwitz-Birkineau. With a keen interest in 20th century history I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the place. Such is the significance of the place I’ll cover that in a completely separate blog…