Tag Archives: old town square

Do Widzenia, Kraków

We came back from Oświęcim in surprisingly high spirits.  Jim supposed that to some degree we were incapable of fully experiencing the horrors we had just seen; or perhaps we were subconsciously steeling ourselves against the tremendous sadness.  Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant surprise.  We decided to dine that night at a vegetarian restaurant in Kazimierz called Momo Bar, but they were closed when we arrived, so we walked around the corner to Manzana.

After our delightful experience with “Czech-Mex”, I was excited to try its Polish iteration.  Upon entering Manzana, I was immediately aware of how “Western” the attitude was here.  For one thing, the waitstaff was impeccably attentive, which was actually rather jarring after almost six weeks of the kind-but-distant European table service we’d gotten used to.  For another thing, the silverware was given to us rolled up in our napkins, instead of in a basket.  It’s the little things, I guess.

We started with an order of Mexican pierogis, which were deep-fried and served in a very pretty bucket.

Yum-o!

Since everyone seems to love the food pics, here’s the rest of what we had:

This was my vegetarian quesadilla. Ordinarily I try not to order things at restaurants that I can make pretty well at home, but I couldn’t say no to this one.

This is Jim’s goat cheese enchilada with salsa verde.  Note the fork shadow; I literally stopped him mid-bite to get the picture.

The next day in Kraków would be our last; we had tickets back to Budapest on a train that left at 10pm that night.  Originally I had wanted to take a day train because the route from Kraków to Budapest goes through the Carpathian mountains, which I really wanted to see.  However, upon closer review, the trains don’t go through the mountains at all– only the buses do.  A bus trip didn’t sound nearly as nice as a train trip, mountains or no.  Plus, as Jim rightly pointed out, a night train would save us the cost and hassle of trying to find an extra night’s accommodations.  So, night train it was.

We woke up the next morning, finished packing, and headed out of our flat one final time.  Our plan was to catch a tram back to the north side of the river, find a breakfast spot, and get to the train station wherein we would leave our bags while we wandered around for the rest of the day.

Spring had suddenly arrived in Poland, and the heavy down coat I’d been sporting for the last six weeks became completely unnecessary.  The city was alive with people enjoying the turn in the weather, and we decided an outdoor breakfast spot would be ideal.  As soon as we crossed into Kazimierz, we spotted Café Młynek.  It’s a bed-and-breakfast spot, but luckily the breakfast part is open to the public.  We sat our bags down and perused the menu: simple fare, perfect for breakfast al fresco.

Various cheeses, vegetables, bread, scrambled eggs, fresh-squeezed OJ, hot coffee…. the breakfast of champions.

After breakfast, we made it to the train station to deposit our bags in one of their storage lockers.  The plan was to visit an architecture exhibit at the Kraków Bunker of Art (hands-down the best name for a contemporary art museum ever).  Then Jim had to do some work and I decided to busk on the Old Town Square once again.

There’s my busking face again. St. Mary’s is behind me.

I did all right again.  This time, I took into account what the tour guide had said about the Polish being a sad people, and I tried to play as many sad songs as the ukulele could handle.  People leaned out their windows to hear me, and the folks going by in hansom cabs seemed to enjoy it, so that made me feel good.  After an hour or so, I decided to go meet up with Jim at Castor Coffee Club on the Square.  My throat was pretty sore and I had my heart set on ice cream.  Castor Coffee Club did not have ice cream, but they did have a killer mango smoothie, and after counting up the tiny Polish money I had earned, I had just enough to get one.

Tiny Polish money. The waitress was not amused.

From there, we decided we had to eat dinner at a traditional Polish restaurant; we’d avoided it thus far because of our experiences with traditional Czech food, but this would be our last chance.  Jim suggested Chimera, just on the other side of the Square from where we were.  Personally, I found the name horrifying, but the menu seemed all right, so we went.

Chimeras!

The restaurant was down a long set of stairs, in a cool and rustic cavern.  The aesthetic fit the meat-and-potatoes fare we were to be provided.  We started the meal off with a gorgonzola-stuffed pear.

Heaven on a plate.

As for main courses, I opted for grilled meat with grilled vegetables.  Jim went with a platter of various vegetarian dishes, though he did help me finish the meat that I couldn’t finish on my own.

Mine.

Jim’s.

After the meal, which looked pretty but (aside from the pear) was rather mediocre, we checked the time and decided it was time to head to the train station.  As you may recall, the train station is connected to the shopping mall, and the shopping mall houses what quickly became our favorite coffee shop in Kraków, called TriBeCa Coffee.  We still had some time to kill, so we stopped in for one last cup: flat white for me and Americano for Jim.

Very true.

After our coffees, it was officially time to board our train.  This was to be my first experience in a proper sleeping car, and I was beyond excited.  The room was tiny, and the top bunk (which I claimed) was only accessible by ladder, a point that was lost on me until I realized how tricky it would be once the train started moving.  Live and learn, I guess.

Someone is ready for bed.  Or screaming to be let out of confinement.  One of the two.

Although we’d be sleeping while it happened, I was overjoyed to know that the train would be stopping in Prague and Vienna on its way to Budapest.  We rocked off to sleep shortly after the train left Kraków.  The alarm was set for 7:30am, and we’d be pulling into Budapest a little after 8am.  The trip was about to come full circle, a bittersweet realization.  On the one hand, I love Budapest so much and was so happy to go back; on the other, I was so not ready to go home and leave Europe and my love behind.  We still had three full days to spend reveling, though, so for now it was time to drift off to sleep while the train carried us around the mountains and back to Budapest.

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v Praze

PART ONE

Soooo… Prague.

I’ve started writing about it a dozen times by now, and for some reason I’ve found it exceptionally difficult.  Since time’s a-wasting, I’ve decided to abandon over-thinking and just start writing.

The train ride from Budapest to Prague took about 7 hours, through Hungary, Slovakia, and into the Czech Republic.  We passed dilapidated castles on faraway hilltops, sailed through tiny towns we’ll probably never see again, and mused at the differences we were noticing in the language.  I would later learn that the Czech alphabet contains 42 letters, 8 of which have a háček (ˇ); the most fearsome of these, I would come to find, is the “Ř”.  But at the time, still completely unfamiliar with the many ways in which Czech differs from Hungarian, we deemed all the háček letters “angry”, since the symbol calls to mind a furrowed brow.

We made it into Prague just as dusk was settling into night.  The first order of business was to figure out the exchange rate, and we discovered that we’d be working with much smaller numbers here than in Budapest, which was a relief in some ways but a little confusing at first.  The second order of business was to buy tickets for the tram to the apartment.  We had originally intended to meet our landlady at 7pm, but ended up getting there closer to 7:45pm.  When we got off at our stop, a girl asked, “Hallo, are you looking for an apartment?” and at first I thought she was soliciting.  In fact, she was the landlady.  Immediately after we made that connection, Conor, a friend of ours who’s living in Prague, came around the corner.  He’d been waiting for us as well, since we also told him 7pm.  The landlady walked us all up to the apartment, showed us around briefly, and was gone, leaving us to marvel at what we would eventually deem the Cupcake Palace.

Pink walls and gilded curtains. Yummy!

This is our room. Note the Flying-Spaghetti-Monster light fixture.

Once we were settled, Conor took us to The Hanging Coffee for our first meal, which was a harbinger of meals to come: lovingly prepared, delicious, heavy as all hell, and always with beer.  The name of the place comes from a custom wherein a customer buys two cups of coffee, but only drinks one; the second is left “hanging” for someone else who may not have the means to buy coffee for themselves.  I like that.

After dinner, we walked past the John Lennon Wall.  I took a couple pictures, but it was pretty dark out.  I’ll try to get some more when the light is better.

The Lennon Wall is interesting because, during the days of Communism, it would be continually painted over by the authorities, only to have Lennon/Beatles quotes and flowery graffiti repainted on it the next day.

In my life, I loved them all...

After that, we went out to drink beer and play pinball, which would become a pretty common occurrence during our time here.  Stayed out really late drinking beer, among other things.

The next day, the combination of a big day of travel and a long night of revelry meant we slept in in a big way.  That day was very low-key, and we enjoyed some down-time in the Cupcake Palace, observing our surroundings.  We live in a small neighborhood at the foot of Vyšehrad Castle, across the street from a little church and a restaurant that serves Czech comfort food in intimidating portions.  There’s also a grocery store a couple blocks down the rail line, which we visited so as not to have to eat out every meal (which would almost certainly kill us).

I still don't know the name of this church, but Pod Slavínem is on the right.

The Gothic spires belong to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, at Vyšehrad Castle. I love our neighborhood.

The third day, Sarah and Jim and I ventured out to see the tourist-packed sights of Old Town.  I don’t generally enjoy tourists, though I am often one myself.  Tourists move through main thoroughfares in large numbers at infuriatingly glacial paces.  They cause tacky souvenir shops to sprout up in their wake by the dozen, each one bumping its own selection of bass-heavy American pop music and offering the same exact stuff as all the others.  And, worst of all, tourists make the beer more expensive.  However, one must learn to deal with tourists if one is to get to see things like this:

The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, built in 1410.

The Church of Our Lady Before Týn, initially built in the 14th century.

Around the perimeter of the square, vendors sell sausages and pastries and various crafts.  There was one place that Sarah was ordered by a friend of hers to patronize: a stand selling the Czech version of kürtőskalács.

Sarah is in the red coat, and this picture is proof that she did as she was told.

The trdelník is smaller than its Hungarian counterpart, but admittedly more delicious.  It comes in just one flavor, versus the Hungarian four or five.  We shared it amongst ourselves and enjoyed it thoroughly, and then got a few cups of svařák (the Czech version of forralt bor) to drink while we continued walking around.

While crossing the Charles Bridge, we heard the unmistakable sound of a hot jazz band playing “Blueberry Hill,” and were stopped in our tracks by these guys.

I found my thrill...

They’re called Jazz No Problem, and they were knocking it out of the park.  Something about hot jazz being played on a bridge by a bunch of middle-aged Czech guys went straight to my heart like an arrow, and I was in love.  It probably has something to do with the fact that they are seriously good; the clarinet player in particular caught my ear, in a similar way to the harmonica player of Mojo Workings.  And I’ve decided that I absolutely must build a washboard set-up like the one they were using, complete with wire whisks.

We crossed the bridge and heard a couple guys playing Bob Dylan songs underneath, so we followed the sound.  They were pretty good, but we kept walking, because it had been hours at this point and the sun was starting to go down.  We passed a park that featured some giant black baby statues in mid-crawl; what made them particularly creepy was the fact that they all had indented rectangles where their faces should be.  We took pictures, but they all turned out way dark, so I’ll spare you the weirdness.  I learned that there’s a radio tower on the east side of town that features the same creepy babies climbing up it.  I’m not really sure what the creepy baby thing is about.  Oh well.

On our way to cross the Vltava river to get back home, we spotted a “farm store”, featuring produce that was a lot better-looking than the sadness we’d picked up at the local grocery store the day before, so we went a little crazy.  Broccoli!  Red peppers!  Zucchini!  Cucumber!  Pickles, feta cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, etc. etc. etc.  We’d only been in Prague a few days at this point and already the importance of vegetables was irrevocably impressed upon us.

Made it back to the Cupcake Palace to watch a Russian movie which we soon found out had no subtitle options.  We decided to watch it anyway, and devised our own plot, which can be summed up by the phrase “Uncle Grandpa Baller Gangster Fight Vacation”.

I love it here.

PART TWO

One of our next wandering missions was to explore our neighboring castle.  Conor had already taken us up to Prague Castle, which was gorgeous and majestic but ultimately packed with tourists.  He had mentioned his preference for Vyšehrad for the exact reason that it was a lot more laid-back, which sounded great to us.  Before we went to the castle, we wanted to find breakfast, and so we headed up a hill to the east of the Cupcake Palace in search of Passe Partout, which sounded like a promising spot.  However, once we crested the hill, and walked to the spot where it should’ve been, we discovered that it had been replaced by some upscale-looking bistro place that none of us was particularly enthused about patronizing.  Looking around the square, we found Café ZanziBar, scoped out their menu, and decided to go in.

After a satisfying meal, it was time to make our way to Vyšehrad.

I don't know what this is but I liked it.

This made me feel like I was on a religious pilgrimage 500 years ago.

It’s actually a little ridiculous how close our apartment is to the castle, and now that I’ve been made familiar with the compound, I’ve realized that we can actually see part of the wall from our window.  Once we got to the top, the view was amazing.

All of Prague, with Prague Castle in the distance.

Me and Jim admiring the view.

We wandered around the perimeter, taking pictures of various structures, most of which are centuries older than the current iteration of our home country, which is always a staggering thought.

St. Martin's Rotunda, the oldest building in all of Prague (circa 1100). Wrap your head around THAT.

At the southern end of the compound, there was a little museum that cost 50Kz (around US $3) to enter.  We paid and went in, and were confronted by a millenium’s worth of history of our immediate surroundings.  Vyšehrad has many myths surrounding it, some involving Vratislav I, the first King of Bohemia.  King Charles, for whom the famous bridge is named, was also a prominent figure in the stories told.  There were artifacts encased in glass that predated Columbus’s arrival to the Americas.  I was awe-struck.

From there, we went to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the glorious Gothic spires of which can be seen from our bedroom.  We could enter the lobby, but, as with St. Vitus at Prague Castle, there was an entrance fee to see the rest of it. (According to Conor, this hasn’t always been the case, but I’m not surprised that it ended up being so; a nominal fee, times a ga-million people per day, ends up being quite a lot of money, and why give history away for free when there’s money to be made?)

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

After that, we wandered the cemetery, and were slightly surprised at how recent most of the graves were, considering how long this place has been here.  Sarah took some pics of some of the statues, except for one very unsettling one, which she refused to photograph because we became convinced it would follow us if she did.

This wasn't the one, don't worry.

Dinner that night was at a pizza restaurant we’d visited once before, and at this point we’ve become regulars (it’s tied with Pod Slavínem as the neighborhood place we’ve frequented most often).  The pizza is pretty outstanding, and they’ve got WiFi, which is always a plus since the one drawback about the Cupcake Palace is that it lacks internet access.

On to Jim’s birthday!

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