A weekend of unchained gluttony in a town full of history and culture, together with an underground trip. A few lines about alleys and beavers as a bonus. February 2016.
I hate winter. It is cold and dark and I feel cold and depressed. This is also the time when I can´t afford going on longer holidays which means no exotic destinations either. However this February was sunny and an old friend of mine, Bára, was free to go somewhere for a couple of days. She looks after good state of trees and flowers in one of the biggest Prague parks. With low count of employees it is not always easy. Yet she found a weekend when she could be missed a her phone would not ring all the time (she knows now how wrong she was, even her cat got pissed and disappeared for a couple of weeks). Three days off are just enough to visit some neighbouring country. Well then… I was in Vienna short time before that, about 15 times in Berlin, but Poland, this Poland, such an unexplored part of Europe for me. When we forget about all those vodka and pope jokes it is a beautiful country with picturesque Krakow not far at all…
Cheap and comfortable trains
Once you start looking for connection from Prague to Krakow, the first thing google finds will probably be just the connection we also opted for. It has even got its own website from which you get redirected to Leo Express homepage (English version available). The carriages have tables, sockets, wi-fi, stewards offer meals and drinks. You have to change for a bus in Bohumín but don´t worry you just walk out of the station and there it stands waiting for you with leather seats and complimentary water and snack. Final stop is main train and bus station of Krakow and a huge shopping mall in one. 10 minutes walk to the central square. You will probably not need to use public transport as everything is in the walking distance. No trouble understanding either, Krakow is prepared for tourists and also is a university town which means a) there are many students speaking English b) you will feel old here if you are over 30. We were even luckier, Polish like Czechs. No idea why, maybe there are amazed by the fact that most of us can live happily without having to worship any god.
Flat by the square
With such a touristic destination you would expect accommodation prices in the historical centre to be insane. Not necessarily. We found a nice, clean and renovated studio flat for a price a of a shared hostel room 2 minutes walking distance from the main square via air bnb. Szewska street from the square then first turning to the left Jagiellońska. Why are the names so important? Going in our footsteps you will find a hidden shoemaker´s. They repair and make shoes. Their shoes are made from leather with timeless style and low prices. You can have them made to measure as well.
Back in Szewska street you will find a chocolate factory. It is not the only one here. I might be spoiled but I was not impressed. Quality level easter chocolate eggs for neighbours children. Choice of different shapes did not make up for it. However Bára liked the liquid form. I am fortunately not capable of drinking a bar of chocolate (yet I can eat a lot of chips with mayo).
As Bára enjoyed her chocolate and coffee in this part of the street, I was driven around hundred meters in the opposite direction. Still on Szewska street was an establishment which did not pretend anything with a large sign above the entrance saying: Pijalnia vodky i piwa meaning Vodka and Beer Taproom. Ha! I took a fancy to it the first evening and returned for a drink or two during following days. Open probably 24/7, 1 euro a shot, pub classic starters for two. Another traditional place just across the street and popular with students for its prices was Pierogarnia Krakowiacy serving different varieties of pasty (pierogy). Tasty. One might even do with 10 minute perimeter around the house.
What to see here
Yes, as about many other known European towns, a lot has been written and said about Krakow. Craving for traditional sights you will find more information on touristic websites. Of course we also paid a short visit to Wawel castle, had a look at the dragon by the river, went to the Jewish quarter… You will find more for example here. Following tips are rather my personal best of Krakow.
Stroll around the historical centre zig zag through side streets and lanes. I am sure you can do that without a manual. Then there is this famous historical market Sukiennice. Don´t go there unless you are a fan of fur, strange wooden boxes and kitsch souvenirs. We accidentally found a market we loved much more. Going from Kazimierz on the opposite side of the rails in the direction of main station, you will find it near Grzegorzecka street. Lot of stalls, fruit, veggies, sausage and a baker´s at the end where a smiling man is frying dougnuts. When he saw us watching his beautiful job he called his colleagues inside and they immediately sent us two dougnuts, still warm and with marmalade filling. Just like that. Because we were from the Czech Republic and because it was such a nice sunny day.
Kazimierz was a part of the town where Jews and Christians lived together for centuries. However it is known for its Jewish history. It is a nice place to walk around with signposts for tourists everywhere, synagogues, nice architecture and shops offering lots of different spirits. There was another place we were after – Bagel Mama which serves, well, bagels. And they are very good. We also visited a shop selling gingerbread on our way back to the centre and were looking forward to a promisingly good looking restaurant specialized in herrings. Ambasada Sledzia (The Embassy of Herring) was a big disappointment. It was rather a student bar with small offer of drinks and several courses containing herrings. The staff was really slow and confused. I tried Polish tapas which sounded like a fun idea. It was not. Bread with lard, sauerkraut, pickled gherkins and a few herrings in the middle. It was all just fatty and sour, no real taste. Bára had a fishburger which was OK.
Trip to Wieliczka, beavers included
We could have got on some of the buses taking tourists to Osvetim but we wanted to have a nice weekend with only positive memories. A trip to a salt mine was definitely one of them. We walked again to the train station and Bára commented on how the town looks after its parks. She took pictures of carefully wrapped bushes and well kept trees. So we also got to the topic of alleys. People usually love them and don´t want them to be cut down. Which is wrong. Alleys are planted for the following generations and are not meant to survive for centuries. When they are old, all the trees must be replaced by new ones. Not just some of them. It wouldn´t work…
The railway and bus station is, as already mentioned, part of a shopping mall where you can also get groceries. One of the shops sells something incredible that must have been created by a stoned American. Cinnamon rolls filled with some sugary stuff, covered in sugary glazing and topped with cream, nuts, chocolate, apples or more sweet sauce, probably not to be too dry for some. Feeling sick already? Cinnabon has even more branches around the town.
Train tickets can be purchased either at a counter or in a ticket machine. Price is as ridiculously low as the journey simple. Wieliczka is a final stop. You can´t get lost. The train goes through suburban areas of Krakow and you start noticing broken trees along the way. Oh wait! Not broken, killed by those bastards with flat tails and sharp teeth! Beavers are to be blamed. You might even see some as there must be a lot of them.
The mine. We want to read about the mine!
Wielizcka is a world famous salt mine working without interruption since 13th century with many kilometres of underground corridors. Five minutes walking distance from the station, tickets can be purchased on the spot, no reservations in advance necessary. Polish tours are about one third cheaper than the English ones. Above the ground a simple building, under the ground one big wow! Walls of salt, that you can lick, stairs going hundred meters deep, salty ponds, halls with sculptures and of course a church (Poland isn´t it..). There is even wi-fi in some parts of the mine. The tour takes three hours. We simply had to try the underground cafeteria because it was probably the only opportunity to have lunch 125 metres under the ground. Another benefit from that is that I know now I will never have to try bigos again. Traditional Polish meal of sauerkraut and meet was not exactly my cup of tea. We returned home with some salty souvenirs as they sell scented bath salts in many varieties. Back in Prague I would think of Wieliczka lying in a hot bathtub with rose bath salt and using their salt with onion on bread.
Reading this after myself makes me want to go back, give the cinnamon roll a second chance and have some drinks in Pijalnja…