For this Christmas, Jack and I will be in different countries, so we planned an earlier, Christmas-sy weekend away in a cold, beautiful European city: Kraków.
Neither of us had been to Poland before, but it was a treat. Reminiscent for us of Prague (Stare Miasto – or the old, medieval town – especially) and Budapest (especially for the atmosphere of pubs in the Jewish quarter, and the general affordability).
Above: day 1, in the old town by the Christmas market trees.
A grey morning, but stunning views. These glorious green copper tops belong to the mishmash of extensions and architectural styles all rolled together in the Wawel Cathedral. Wawel, literally translating to ‘between two swamps’, describes the architectural complex on the top of a hill just beside the Vistula River. It’s where the Royal Castle and cathedral can be found.
Exiting from the side of Wawel Cathedral, I almost missed this beautiful exit gate with all its knobbly bolts and decorations.
The front of Wawel Cathedral… you can make out more of the four predominant styles: Romanesque, Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance.
Walking around the Wawel complex.
Back near the main old town square is Sukiennice, a long market hall sheltered from the elements and full of tat you probably won’t want.
Jack walking along the oldest street in Kraków.
Another beautiful old medieval door within a gate.
The gold, silvery pink, peach and apricot of old town Kraków, indoor chandeliers beaming out into the overcast of mid-day.
The Renaissance-style courtyard of Wawel Castle.
The average age of all Kraków citizens is just 26 because of the huge student population (more than 300,000). In the middle of of our walking tour, we took a break for coffee and Polish chocolates in this university cafe, where famous alumni include Pope John Paul II and Copernicus.
Back in Stare Miasto, the window at the top of St. Mary’s pops open and a bugler bellows out at the turning of the hour.
Jack looking for that kielbasa…
Kielbasa links garland the huts, also full of kebabs, ham hocks, vegetables ready for roasting, and many other treats.
Our delicious lunch of kielbasa, grilled mushrooms, sauerkraut, black pudding and mustardy bread. Their black pudding is made with big pearl barley and has the consistency of haggis. By the way, I eat pretty much all of the things these days; I had a final stand against the likes of haggis and black pudding but now that I’ve had a taste, I understand. Unbelievably delicious.
Venice is famous for its flocks of pigeons, but Kraków gives St. Mark’s Square a run for its money.
Full view of St. Mary’s Church.
Later that night, we made our way to dinner in Kazimierz (usually referred to as the Jewish District), for potato pancakes stuffed with goulash and pike perch. We came back to the place above – Ariel – on another cold afternoon for a perfect, warming bowl of matzo ball soup and a plate of pierogi.
Above: inside Ariel’s; the walls covered in portraits.
St. Joseph’s Church in the Podgorze district; the ‘Disney’ church, across the river from Kazimierz.
Along the walls of Kazimierz, single eyeballed homes getting taken away to alien lands.
After our cozy dinner at Kuchnia u Doroty, we meandered to a few excellent bars. If you find yourself looking for good craft beer in Krakow, might we recommend…:
Omerta: though oddly decorated (everything is in full Godfather theme, from the decor to the fonts), Omerta has a really excellent selection of beers, including many Polish beers new to us. The bartenders are very knowledgeable and the beer costs, on average, 12 zloty (at the moment, this translates to just over £2).
The other bar we particularly loved was a little bit smaller, but also had an excellent selection: Strefa Piwa (pictured above). There are a few cooperations set-up between the bar and local pizza places, so you can easily order pies for direct delivery.
Jack enjoying his rauchbock beneath the pop chart lab-like cave ceiling.
In the morning, breakfast at the cute Cafe Camelot.
No no no …. notariusz. Couldn’t help myself.
Day 2, exploring the Wieliczka Salt Mine! We had to wait an hour or so for our tour (they start new tours each half an hour, though with limited capacity be prepared to wait), but once your appointed hour arrives, a guide will take you down to the first of 9 levels – about 55 flights of stairs – to this small chamber held up by wood beams hundreds of years old for the start. The wood is very well-preserved, almost petrified even, by the high salinity in the air.
A salt sculpture of Copernicus, who visited the mines in the 15th or 16th century. The salt mine here is one of the original 12 sites designated an UNESCO World Heritage site. It continued operating as a salt mine from then until 2007.
More salt sculptures, this time a crystal of salt offered to some special Habsburg Empire lady. The mine has more than 2,000 chambers, but we only saw about 1% of them.
Check out this kitschy little chapel!
At the deepest point, you’re 1,000 feet below ground. It opens up into this dramatic chamber, Chapel of Saint Kinga, which is full of shiny salt stones and chandeliers.
Walking around the Chapel of Saint Kinga, you can see several salt sculptures including the Last Supper and a larger-than-life sculpture of Pope John Paul II.
Hey! Fun fact about ole JP II: he actually hoped to be an actor when he was younger. Second fun fact: his name is actually Karol Józef Wojtyła? How you get John Paul from that, I don’t know.
Skeletal shot of a chandelier from below.
These guys in the dim light of the salt mine.
See! You didn’t believe it. The Last Supper! Sculpted from salt rock!
Descending to lower levels, you start in a tightly wound staircase, but deeper, these open up. This one was a shot of neon over and around a deep salt lake (unglinting in shadow).
Casimir the Great (Kazimierz), King of Poland from 1333 to 1370. I feel like he might be the prototype for classic playing card designs.
Though we didn’t stay in this great beer hall for more than a moment, I loved the odd entryway. You’ve got to love those friendly muttonchops.
Back to Stare Miasto for the Christmas Market!
These elaborately decorated gingerbread hearts say things like: brother, grandpa, dad, cousin, and – adorably – ‘heart aunt’ (serce dal cioci).
Another place we didn’t stay long: Propaganda. This old bar collects Soviet-era antiques, signage and covers its walls in wheat-pasted propaganda posters.
Our last day, we went on another walking tour of Kazimierz (the Jewish Quarter) as well as some sections of the area across the river where the ghettoes were set-up. The latter half of the tour across the river is also the location of a few famous sites including Schindler’s Factory (now a very well presented museum) and the Under the Eagle pharmacy. Above, a section of the ghetto wall preserved as a memorial and reminder. Horrifyingly, the wall was designed to resemble tombstones.
At the start of WWII, there was a population of 68,000 Jewish people living in Kraków, but at the end of the war, only 3,000 survived (a full third because of Schindler). The ghetto area we walked through originally housed 3,000 people, but 16,000 were crammed into these conditions for a period of 2 years before evacuation and liquidation, rationed a mere 300 calories a day.
After our walking tour, we spent the rest of the day going through the Schindler Museum, which takes you through the history of Kraków in WWII from the aerial bombardment of major Polish cities by the Germans, told through the perspective of the Polish who were alive at the start, to the moving front, occupation, terror and brutality of the Polish at the hands of the Germans. Above: a map created by the Nazis describing the governing area of Poland as an extension of the Nazi’s Lebensraum.
Schindler was a confusing character, but though potentially more motivated to take advantage of the free labour of the Jewish population, he ultimately, and nearly single-handedly, saved a huge number.
Our last evening, in the oldest bar in Poland: Alchemia.
Very cozy atmosphere in Alchemia, with only candlelight and partially-lit chandeliers.
Top recommendations for your trip to Kraków:
First of all, plan to spend at least 4 days here so you can make sure to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine (6 miles outside the city – we took an easy train: 20 minutes exactly every half an hour). With the travel, the wait and the tour, it was easily 5 hours. You also shouldn’t miss Auschwitz-Birkenau. We made an incredibly difficult decision not to go as we wanted to honour the history and not rush it. It’s a 7-hour commitment and further outside Kraków (55 km), so definitely a full day.
Within Kraków, I’d say:
Go on a walking tour for sure; we got something out of both the Old Town and Jewish Quarter tours, but if you have to pick, go for the latter.
Spend your evenings in Kazimierz. Absolutely packed with excellent pubs and restaurants.
Although we didn’t do it, visit St. Mary’s Church tower for a great view of the Old Town.
Visit the Wawel Complex! Not sure whether you should visit the castle (we didn’t).
Absolutely visit the Schindler’s Factory museum. It was incredibly moving and well put-together; I’ll never forget my visit.
Visit an old milk bar! Not pictured, but they are crowded little cafes with incredibly inexpensive but very tasty homemade food. Get pierogis (Russian pierogis are where it’s at), kielbasa, goulash, and more. We went to Milkbar Tomasza not far from the old town several times for quick, delicious food.