Kraków is the final city on my tour (save for a few bonus days in Budapest before I leave), and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was fairly sure it wouldn’t be quite as well-trod as the more touristy areas of Prague, but aside from that, I was going in blind. And I was kind of excited.
Our train pulled into the station after dark. The Kraków station is attached to the mall (?), so we hauled our bags in to look for a place to catch a WiFi signal so that we could touch base with our hostess. The opportunity presented itself as soon as we entered, in the form of Loża Cafe. We sat our stuff down, and I got to speak my first words of Polish (dwa piwo, proszę) to a very understanding waitress.
Upon achieving Internet access, and mapping out our destination, a cloud was gathering on Jim’s brow. “I think this place is further out than I was expecting.”
As it turns out, it was deep, wayyyy deep in the suburbs. It took us well over an hour on two different modes of transportation to get to the place; as we passed the time crammed into a tiny light rail car with four dozen other passengers, the stark reality of the situation became apparent. Neither of us care for the suburbs in our daily lives, but especially when we’re trying to experience new major cities, living on the outskirts of town is horribly inconvenient.
Suffice to say, we got to the place, which was in a sprawling, nondescript apartment complex that could’ve been in any suburb anywhere. We met our hostess, who was very nice. We spent the night there, both tacitly aware that we had to get out of this arrangement as soon as possible.
The next day, we bailed on the suburbs and booked a room at the Aston Hostel, which was a seven-minute walk away from the Main Market Square. Much, much better.
By the time we got settled in our new room, it was approaching the dinner hour, and so we headed out to Mamma Mia Trattoria. Once we sat down, my eyes instantly fixed upon the smoked-salmon-and-avocado pizza (that also had rocket on it, because rocket is as ubiquitous throughout Europe as Ikea furniture, as it turns out), and try as I did to consider other offerings on the menu, my mind had already been made up.
The service was great, and once again the waitstaff was exceptionally forgiving of our entry-level Polish skills. (Thankfully, it’s similar to Czech in a lot of ways, so we at least had that working in our favor.)
The next day started with Irish breakfast. I’ll just skip the backstory and get right to the picture.
After a leisurely meal (because anything quicker than “leisurely” would have certainly resulted in cardiac arrest), we set out for Wawel Castle. On the way, I got caught up looking at scarves and imported jewelry, and while I was indisposed, Jim went and did this.
It’s called “gorące czekolady”, which Jim had imagined to be hot chocolate, and I guess in a technical sense he was right. It was hot, and it was definitely chocolate. A 12-oz cup full of liquid chocolate. When I found him outside holding it, I burst out laughing, it was that ridiculous. In the end, what you see is about how much of it we managed to drink before handing it off to a homeless woman.
We walked the rest of the way down the street until we hit the castle.
The compound was beautiful, but I’m going to be totally honest: at this point we were a little castle-and-cathedral’d out. After a turn through the Wawel Cathedral, we debated that very point, with Jim steadfastly maintaining that he never wanted to set foot in one again, and me appreciating the historical significance of the castles and cathedrals as they pertain to wherever I am at the time, but largely agreeing that the cathedrals in particular are rather a “seen one, seen ’em all” kind of thing (the one exception, in my mind, is the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague, which houses the Infant Jesus, the story of which we found fascinating).
Once we’d come to terms with our opinions on castles and cathedrals, we moved on towards Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of town which sits on the bank of the Vistula River.
I wasn’t yet aware of the history of the area, but I would soon find out that leading up to World War II, the Jews who lived in Kazimierz were forced across the river into Podgórze, where they awaited deportation to the concentration camps. But all that in time.
Our third full day in Kraków was full of wonderful things. First, we realized our hostel was a block away from Stary Kleparz, an open-air market packed with produce, clothing, bakery, various odds and ends (for example, we couldn’t find a plug adapter anywhere in Prague for less than US $30, and yet this market had dozens for about $.66)… really great stuff. I highly recommend a stop here.
From there, we walked to the Main Market Square. The street that our hostel is on leads directly to it, and when you enter, you come face-to-face with St. Mary’s Basilica.
I think that, out of all the cathedrals and castles we’ve seen on this trip, St. Mary’s might be my favorite (perhaps because we never saw the inside). I think what I really love about it, besides the stately way in which it presides over the Square, is the asymmetry of the towers; after the mirrored towers of Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Vitus, and Our Lady Before Týn, I found St. Mary’s to be a refreshing change of pace. Perhaps most interestingly, every hour a trumpet signal (better known as hejnał mariaki, or Cracovian hymn) is played from the taller tower, and cuts short before it finishes. According to local legend, this is in remembrance of a guard in the 13th century who sounded an alarm to warn of the impending attack on the city by the Tatars; he was allegedly shot in the throat by an arrow before he could finish the tune, which is why to this day the signal stops so abruptly.
If you wander around Old Town for more than five minutes, you’ll notice the plurality of kebab stands surrounding you. We initially took notice to keep track of which ones serve falafel, but there was something else we started noticing signs for: zapiekanka.
Zapiekanka is a cheap (and, judging by how readily it can be found, very popular) street food item in Kraków. You begin with a baguette, sliced in half length-wise. Then you cover it with mushrooms and cheese. Then you bake it, and once it’s baked, you pour ketchup on top. Upon learning about it, we decided we had to try it at least once, and today was going to be the day.
I can’t speak for Jim, but as for me, one was enough. One was more than enough, actually; those things are huge. 🙂
That’s all for now– more Kraków to come!!