For some reason I find myself spelling Kraków properly, but writing the English version of Warsaw instead of its real name, Warszawa. I don’t know why. Sorry.
We hadn’t originally planned to go to Kraków on this trip, but we realized that we’d have time, and everyone recommended it. Before we left, we had been thinking in terms of finding a hotel in Kraków when we got there. That certainly sounds crazy now, but at the time, Lenore was insisting on having some spontaneity in our plans, and I was placating her on that. I’d also had a negative experience with booking a Paris hotel sight-unseen on the last trip, so the idea of choosing a hotel on the spot didn’t sound so bad. When I mentioned this to Ania, though, she reacted anxiously, saying that Kraków is popular with tourists all year and would be booked up, that hotels are far more expensive than we’d expect, and that she was going to find us a hostel right away, something affordable but decent. She was very familiar with the city, and she quickly e-mailed me a list of possible hostels. I chose Hostel Centrum because it had a two-bed room available in addition to the usual dorm-style hostel setup, making it more like a private hotel room. The price of 177.6 PLN per night was definitely attractive, though far more than the dorm-type accommodation would have cost.
As I said, the train ride from Warsaw to Kraków was pleasant and relatively luxurious, and it only took a couple of hours to get to the Kraków Główny (main) station. I was expecting a bright green grassy countryside, and wasn’t disappointed.
The train station disgorged us into a well-appointed shopping mall, where we were warm enough to enjoy a snack of good-quality gelato. (There had been as much ice cream available in Warsaw as coffee, but we’d been too cold to care.) The place was large, and it took a while to find the way out, but we didn’t mind window shopping on the way. When we emerged from the mall, we found ourselves in the midst of a whimsical display of dozens of manikin-like figures, a fun introduction to the city.
It wasn’t hard to find a taxi to get us to the hostel, but it turned out that we could have easily walked the short distance if we’d understood where we were going. Hostel Centrum is rather like a big apartment complex. There is a very small lobby and office, and larger and smaller guest rooms ranged about, with a kitchen for each group of rooms. As promised, the young, with-it-looking staff members spoke good English, and apparently other languages as well, though we didn’t have personal experience of that.
The hostel room was extremely spare and utterly style-free, but adequate. There was a surprising amount of wasted space; the only furniture was the two twin beds and a small table, with two skinny lockers against one wall, in a bedroom of about 12 by 14 feet. No rugs of any kind. There was one small compartment for the toilet and one for the shower, off of another surprisingly large chamber outfitted with an extra sink and mirror. The heat came from a wall unit in each of these two rooms, and when we arrived, neither was turned on. We were already pretty well frozen, and our hearts sank when we entered the frigid room. It seemed like those big spaces were never going to warm up, but eventually they did.
A full-size water heater hung from the ceiling, a little ominously, in the shower space. At least we wouldn’t have to deal with the one thing that was wrong with the Harenda, the hot water supply going away late at night when I especially wanted to warm up with a hot shower. However, the shower had an extreme water-saving device– it would only stay on for a minute or so, unless you pressed the control knob again, meaning that you had to do this over and over if you wanted to actually get clean. This might be a good idea in the desert Southwest, but even here, I think it would be overkill.
We were looking forward to the promised laundry facilities, but unfortunately there was a washer but not a dryer. The drying equipment consisted of a folding rack. We felt that our clothes might not dry soon enough with the chilly temperature in the hall, so we didn’t try it. The kitchen was reasonably equipped, though, and we very much appreciated having the possibility of making tea. The again-promised free WiFi was more or less a reality, but we could only get a signal from our far-flung room by snugging up to the window ledge. And we weren’t just Facebooking, folks– we needed that connection to study train schedules!
Our hostel was just a few blocks from Kraków’s main landmark, the Wawel Castle. Kraków used to be the capital of Poland, and this huge edifice was the residence of the royals. Now it houses the National Art Collection. The castle and the hill upon which it stands dwarf everything else in the area.
Our first wander out of the hostel took us into streets lined with small shops and restaurants. There were a few coffee shops to be had, and some ethnic food places, but neither the caffeine-intensive atmosphere of Warsaw nor the plethora of sushi bars was present. We ended up at a Polish restaurant that looked comfortable. It also had a large map of the old part of the city painted on the wall near us, with a “you are here,” which certainly didn’t hurt.
Potato pancakes were a prominent part of the menu, and I wondered if they’d be like what my family would make (but generally doesn’t anymore because they take forever and have a bajillion calories). They were– crispy and perfect– except that they were smothered in a daunting amount of goulash, big chunks of pork, with a flower beautifully crafted from a red pepper on the side. I stared, wondering what to do with this plate of one complete meal on top of another. It turned out to be one of the most delicious things I’d ever tasted. Lenore’s luck was not quite as good; she ordered pierogi, having had such a positive experience with them in Warsaw, but they were heavy, doughy, and bland, not as good as the humble ones we get frozen at home.
This did little to dispel our belief in the overall excellence of Polish food, though. As in Warsaw, we were able to get extra-yummy bread, and a nearby grocery had a tremendous variety of it. I was glad I had thought ahead and brought a cloth bag along, because there was no chance of getting a paper or plastic bag with our purchase.
Breakfast at the hostel was included, and was adequate but considerably less elegant than at the Harenda, no surprise there. It consisted of a roll with jam and (eek) margarine, cornflakes and milk, and a little tin of chicken or ham pasztet, which I guess is the same as paté, but I don’t know because we never tried it.
As in Warsaw, churches abounded.
Kraków’s Old Town area has an unusual configuration; there is a central corridor, and it has only a few entrances. Surrounding it is a park-like strip of green space, the Planty Garden Ring, with a broad sidewalk going through its middle.
You can get an idea of the layout and what the area has to offer at this site: http://www.krakow-info.com/planKrak.htm. The map there will also give you an impression of the overwhelming size of the Wawel and the hill it’s built upon.
Decorative horse-drawn carriages were everywhere, but we walked. Here are some views of the middle of Old Town:
Of course it was impossible to get away from the Chopin Year celebrations, and one of the manifestations of that was a scattering of metal effigies of pianos.
Restaurants lined the streets and squares. Many of them had outdoor sections with gas heaters, and attractively designed, harmonious furnishings and table settings. However, as enticing as they looked, there were few takers on this chilly day. Lenore felt that Kraków had a more working-class, down-to-earth feel than Warsaw did, but these sleek restaurants looked pretty upscale, or at least artsy.
The local women seemed to cope with the cold by wrapping themselves in fluffy, lacy scarves with all sorts of embellishments. We were happy to go along with the fashion, and snapped up a ruffly, fringed crochet-like long scarf for each of us, mauve for Lenore and black for me, and a triangle of woolly heather grey with heavy silvery lace edging that became a warmer babushka to wrap over my hood and made me a great deal more comfortable. My black scarf has become my very favorite thing to wear this fall. I also added a pair of vivid purple leather gloves, bought from a street vendor that had a whole rainbow of gloves on racks. They were warmer than the ones I’d brought, and I was glad to have them, though the weather was a bit warmer than it had been in Warsaw. You can see from the pictures that the amazing sunny skies continued most of the time.
The fashions being shown in the shop windows were generally impressive. I wouldn’t mind going to Kraków just to shop for clothes (and to snack on good bread). Of course, the traditional Polish souvenir item is amber, and it is everywhere. I looked at hundreds of pieces of jewelry, trying to decide on just the right pair of earrings. I finally found them at the Sukiennice, the venerable Cloth Hall, which is lined with booths selling all sorts of touristy goodies. What got me to fork over the złotych at last was a circular Chinese-looking design. I look for the quintessential Polish item, and I pick something Chinese. Go figure.
I did get some idea of Polish jewelry design, and much of it was fascinating. There was a tendency toward wildly huge earrings, though, many of which seemed unwieldy and unwearable to me. Colors were mostly vivid and in-your-face. Lenore bought a couple of pairs of disc earrings about 2 inches across, one with a peacock feather motif and one in incised wood. She considered a pair made from dried, glazed real orange slices, but didn’t buy them when she had a chance, and regretted it later. Just as well, if you ask me. There were a lot of floral styles among these inexpensive pieces, including regular silk flowers put on findings, crocheted or sewn-fabric blossoms, and bright felts wound into layered circles or cut into petals.
Parts of the original fortifications of the city remain, though now they look quite peaceable. We stopped for coffee and muffins next to this section.
We were told that it was possible to spend days exploring the art collection at the Wawel, but our time was limited, so we toured only the outsides of the buildings on the hill. That was a goodly hike in itself. From the back, there were sweeping views of the river known in English as the Vistula, more properly the Wisła.
Ania tried to send us on another gastronomic mission, to find the restaurant that she said had the best pierogi in all of Poland, which was in the Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. We went off in that direction to look for dinner on the 7th, but I thought Lenore had brought Ania’s map, and she thought I had, and by the time we figured out that we were mapless, we were too far out to go back. We had a nice stroll by the river, but the area was almost entirely residential, and we never did figure out where that restaurant could have been. We did find a good one outside the Kazimierz, though, with a waiter who had lived in Chicago and was eager to chat about his experiences there, including the bits of Spanish he’d learned from a neighbor. My dinner was odd but delicious, a wheel of camembert fried in a breadcrumb coating, so that it was crispy on the outside and melty on the inside, with a topping of cranberries. Nothing remotely like a balanced meal, but for once in a lifetime, quite enjoyable– though truly terrifying to contemplate the calories.
Those calories were probably the most disturbing thing I encountered in Poland, and that was a pleasant surprise. Until maybe a year and a half ago, I had panic attacks at the slightest thought of visiting Poland, and it was about the last place on the planet I wanted to go. As far as I can tell, that came from a set of past-life issues. I put in a lot of work on everything connected to those issues over the years, and one of the consequences was that the discomfort about that part of the world disappeared. But I was still on the lookout for any sort of impressions or flashbacks, and half-expecting to have a meltdown of some kind. The Blikle experience turned out to be the only thing even remotely like that. Overall I felt quite comfortable in Poland. Not exactly at home, perhaps, but comfortable. When we moved on to the Czech Republic, I was saddened to leave. I was glad to have my Krakowian scarves because it felt like I was still carrying a bit of Poland with me. Very different from the feelings I’d expected to have.
Poland in general was not really what I had expected. For one thing, a great many people seemed preternaturally good-looking. I don’t know how to say this without insulting my friends and family, but Americans of Polish extraction, and Slavs in general, have not struck me as particularly pretty. I always felt that we Slavs had gotten the short end of the genetic stick when it came to looks. Apparently I was quite wrong in the case of native Poles.
Most people seemed stylish, as well. Lenore thinks that Europeans are more stylish than Americans in general; it’s true that one did not see sagging pants or backwards baseball caps. I felt a bit style-compromised because I could only bring what wardrobe I could carry in one suitcase, and with the necessity of wrapping up so much, that wasn’t being seen anyway. It was hard to know what to do with my hair, since it had to be constantly crushed under hat, hood, and scarf. It worked pretty well to pin it up in sections– looked pretty much the same after taking off all that fabric.
We asked at the hostel about getting a cab to the train station, and were told that we might want to walk there instead, which is what we did on the morning of 10/8. It wasn’t a bad walk at all. However, once we got to the station area, we were quite unable to figure out which building we were supposed to go into, and wandered around for a bit. At last we realized that it was clearly marked with a large sign, which somehow we’d been unable to perceive! We sped through the mall area again, now short for time, and found where we’d left the incoming trains. There was only one small ticket window to be found, which seemed awfully strange for a main station. When we finally got to the window after quite a while in line, we were told that this section was only for trains to nearby destinations, and that the international tickets were in another building. By this time we were getting a bit concerned about making our train.
When we reached the right room of the right building, it still wasn’t easy to see the few international ticket windows– again, Poland seems to be a little deficient with signage– but at last we got to the right place. The cashier, mercifully, spoke good English. We would have been completely helpless to get tickets to Prague otherwise, as there were multiple times and itineraries to sort through.
The trip to Prague was considerably more challenging and less comfortable than the one between Warsaw and Kraków. I’ll take that up next time.