Krakow: Small but perfectly formed for a long weekend
For better or worse, the city has become a ‘new Prague’, an eastern European city where it’s cheap to eat and even cheaper to drink. But don’t let a few rowdy gadabouts turn you off this charming spot
A little internet access can be a dangerous thing. This became apparent while planning a trip to Poland’s second-largest city, Krakow. I email my father a link to a restaurant’s website with the message: “I booked us a table here on Saturday night.”
Three minutes later he replies: “I hope everyone likes pike stew.”
They don’t. I’m embarking on a weekend with a few fussy eaters and keeping the menu at this Polish TV chef-run restaurant a secret is proving difficult. I found rave reviews online, the same place my father is now accessing the menu and gagging about pike stew. Therein lies the rub of travel in our online age: you can take and you can give but you can’t please everyone.
We plan Krakow with military precision involving numerous emails before flights and apartments are booked. In the weeks before take-off, I copy and paste articles into my smartphone’s notepad. I email myself the names of bars and directions to the train station.
Then we arrive and suddenly wireless access and my carefully pointed notes feel redundant. Krakow is perfectly formed and a short wander through the centre will throw up more gems than any Google search could hope to do.
If you find accommodation in the right place – we opt for self-catering five minutes’ walk from the main square at the graphic designer-decorated Red Kurka apartments – this is a tourist-friendly city. It is surrounded by a narrow parkway, called the Planty Park, around the city’s walls, so you’ll find it hard get lost.
When we visit, in late March, the snow is falling, the wind is biting and the streets are not yet teeming with the tourists we are assured are coming. (This spring excursion has also meant our accommodation is cheaper by 30 per cent thanks to the low-season discount)
Krakow, for better or worse, has become a ‘new Prague’, an eastern European city where it’s cheap to eat and – most importantly for men on stag weekends – even cheaper to drink.
But don’t let a few rowdy gadabouts turn you off this charming town. It is very possible to spend a weekend here and avoid the stags, the hens and all other manner of wild nightlife.
Ryanair flies from Dublin to Krakow late on Friday evening, which gives you enough time to drop your carry-ons and head to Klimaty Poludnia, a wine bar and restaurant, for a warm welcome. Polish food is hearty and ideal for a group fresh off a three-hour flight, shivering in the minus temperatures. Plates of pierogi (dumplings), pork knuckle and a thick goulash are washed down with complimentary shots of flavoured vodka – don’t turn down a chance to sample the cherry or hazelnut varieties – before we sway into the main square to marvel at the many churches and medieval splendour of the imposing Sukiennice (Draper’s Hall).
The square is home to seasonal markets and at Christmas I imagine the scent of glühwein permeates the air. On our visit in the run-up to Easter, the stalls are selling decorated eggs, dried flower arrangements and warm pretzels, which are hard to resist on chilly afternoons.
Set your alarm for an early start one morning and visit the Wieliczka salt mines, which are in a nearby town. Once at the mine, you go 400 steps down a wooden staircase whereupon you’ll find yourself more than a 100 metres underground in a salt mine hundreds of years old.
Spending most of our first morning and early afternoon in Krakow for the salt mines was worth it. The miners, in addition to burrowing hundreds of metres into the earth in dangerous conditions to meet a pre-refrigeration population’s demand for salt, carved cathedrals with chandeliers and a life-sized statue of Krakow’s most famous former resident Pope John Paul II out of the salt underground. It must be seen to be believed.
The Catholic Church and the late pope are all-present in this city. On Sunday evening, the formerly deserted streets are thronged as young and old congregate for Palm Sunday. Our taxi driver has photos of John Paul II in his rear view mirror and you can join a tour to visit the places he lived and worked during his long tenure in Krakow or, in milder weather, pay homage at the Blonia (meadows) outside the city where he held a mass for one million people upon his return after his election as pope. (Sound familiar?)
And so to Steven Spielberg, Oskar Schindler and the SS. Not mentioning the war is nigh on impossible in a city so touched by the atrocities of Hitler’s regime. A trip to the site of Schindler’s former enamel factory, where a permanent exhibition tells the story of the city under Nazi occupation, is a good primer for a visit to Auschwitz and an education in the way the war touched every part of life in Krakow.
Behind that is the Museum of Contemporary Art and, while it is perhaps one for modern art lovers only, anyone with a little knowledge of the second World War will appreciate the neon Kunst m acht Frei (Art will free you) installation by Elyse Warren downstairs in the museum, which takes its inspiration from “Arbeit macht Frei” (labour will free you), the slogan that stands above the entrance to many of the Nazi camps.
You must travel an hour out of town to pass under one of the original signs and begin a three-hour tour of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Few words can describe the bleakness of a morning touring these camps but not doing so when you’re so close doesn’t feel like an option. Upon return to Krakow the city takes on a warmer tone, a beacon with its streets flowing to the centre and cosy bars that soothe after the morning’s chill.
We found our comfort in Kazimierez, the Jewish quarter. There in Plac Nowy (new square) the young of Krakow congregate in restaurants and bars. Explore this part of town on foot and you’ll find signs of Krakow’s hip side emerging in burger joints such as Love Krove and smaller shops and cafes.
Monday morning heralds our departure from Krakow but before we do, a quick two-donut breakfast – if ever a city loved its cake it’s this one – prepares us for a walk along the parkway to the city’s castle. Wawel Royal Castle is on a hill at one end of the city and its exhibitions and very presence speak of Poland’s vast history up to the present day. Lech Kaczynski, the former president killed in an aircraft crash in 2010, is buried here.
If you like chocolate, be sure to fill up on the city’s finest in the sweet- smelling Krakowska Manufaktura Czekolady (Cracow Handmade Chocolate) cafe, which is on Szewska off the main square. Go upstairs and sample their hot chocolate and their chocolate cake. Try it all, basically. Then do the same with the city itself.
PLACES TO EAT
Cheder, Jozefa 36
This Israeli cafe in Kazimierz is a cultural institution and an information centre with a history. Teas are €2-3, tapas €5 and filled pittas about €4.
Ancora, Dominikanska 3
A seven-course tasting menu will set you back about €50. Serves European dishes with a Polish influence and delectable results.
Klimaty Poludnia, Swietej Gertrudy 5
This wine bar and restaurant is tucked away in a small courtyard beside the Planty. Eat and drink here for less than €15 a head.
PLACES TO STAY
Red Kurka Apartments, Swietej Gertrudy 5
Five minutes’ walk from the main square and about 10 from Kazimierz. Clean, spacious and comfortable. The largest apartment, sleeping six, costs about €145 per night with discounts for longer stays and the off-peak season.
Best Western, Krakow Old Town, Swietej Gertrudy 6
Beside the Planty within walking distance of, well, everything and it’s decent value for a weekend break. Doubles from €100 per night.
Hotel Unicus, Florianska 35 hotelunicus.pl
Inside the city’s walls in the centre of the action, this modern hotel has all the comforts you’d expect from its higher price range. They run weekend themed specials that are worth keeping an eye on. Standard twin rooms from about €150 per night.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Ryanair flies from Dublin into John Paul II International Airport seven days a week from April to early November for the peak season. Flights from about €40 each way before taxes and charges.