From 8pm-3am, six days a week, the same soviet style blue van pulls up next to the kerb in a suburb just outside Krakow old town. The two men get out of the van each night, dressed in white coats like butchers or doctors, and without talking to each other, cook up hundreds of delicious traditional kielbasa (polish sausages) for passers-by. The huge banger is cooked over a wood fire, and served up with a bread roll and a dollop of mustard.. This was polish fast food at its finest, and the que of ten people in front of us let us know we had found a winner…
So… we loved Krakow! Maybe it was because of the city’s compact size, the kielbasa van or the sunny weather, but no doubt the hostel we stayed in made a big difference. Remember the 1994 Jim Carey movie The Mask? The owners of our hostel certainly did, and had themed the hostel around it. Everything from the walls to the sheets fitted with the green inspired colour scheme, and murals adorned the wall of the characters, including the dog… all this, coupled with comfy beds and friendly staff, made it a great place to stay and explore the rest of the city.
Unlike many of Poland’s large cities, Krakow escaped much of the destruction of WWII and so its old town is still intact. It has the largest market square in Europe and is surrounded by some architectural gems like the medieval St.Mary’s church, where a bugler plays from the tower every hour, on the hour, before waving to the crowds below like a rockstar. Like many other town squares in this part of the world, it was surrounded with bars and restaurants and made the perfect place for our new favourite hobby… people watching whilst sipping an over priced beer.
The Wawel castle complex is another medieval treasure in the city and, due to it being on top of one of the city’s only hills, gives great views across the building tops. Inside the castle walls is a collection of museums and a cathedral that I’m sure are all very good, but being cheap backpackers and not wanting to get “museumed out” we chose to visit only one. The state apartments are the rooms that would have been used to host guests at the castle, now filled with art and furniture of its grand past. However, the thing that was most exciting (in our opinion) was the wallpaper.. now I realise this isn’t the most obvious thing to get excited about but the wallpaper in the state rooms was amazing! It was just so old (18th century) and still on the walls…I don’t know why but for some reason it was really impressive… We finished our visit to the castle with a trip to the dragons cave. A place filled with legends of dragons and dragon slayers, but now home to a very cool statue that breathes real fire. They don’t do things by halves in Krakow…
Outside the old town and close to where we stayed was the old Jewish neighbourhood of the city, Kazimierz, complete with several synagogues and museums. It has now become an artsy, bohemian area, with plenty of great bars and cafés, plus a street food area complete with red London bus?! The district is based around its square, where at its centre, in what once was the kosher butchers, now is the best place to buy zapiekanki (polish pizza) in the city. Luckily for us this round building with small hole in the wall cafes also proved the best place to catch an open air gig, with the stage on the roof of the old butchers. While the polish comedy/jazz band played on the roof, the crowd danced on the streets below with a beer in one hand and a zapiekanki in the other.
Of course there is a much sadder part of the polish jewish history of Krakow. During the Nazi occupation of Poland the jewish citizens were forced to live in crowded and unsanitary ghettos, often before ‘liquidation’ when the majority were sent to labour and death camps. The former ghetto is situated on the opposite bank of the river in the Podgorze district of the city, nearby is Shindler’s Factory, now a museum. This is the factory of which the book and film Shindler’s List was based, and it now offers visitors a glimpse into what occupied Krakow was like for its inhabitants. The creaky floors and interactive exhibits were really interesting, even if you did have to push your way through the seemingly never-ending tour groups. We also looked around the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, an enclave of help and hope in the jewish ghetto, and listened to first hand testimony of those who survived.
After well over a year away from a mine site, the geologist in Ryan was feeling some withdrawal symptoms, so lucky for him (and all mineral fans) just outside of the city is the Wielicka salt mines, one of the oldest continuously operated mines in the world. Joining a mandatory tour group, we were secretly thrilled to be given a tiny earpiece to listen to our guide. After months of watching other people, particularly in China, being led around with headphones we were interested to know what all the fuss was about. It was just a shame the guide didn’t hold up a flag for us to follow and we weren’t all wearing matching hats!
The tour led us 135m underground, through a series of chambers and the hundreds of years of history of the mine. It was a little bit like being in the dwarfs liar in Lord of the Rings at times, with a lot of salt sculptures along the way. The highlight was a huge chapel built by three mine employees, complete with salt altar and chandeliers. And I know what you’re thinking, yes we were allowed to lick the walls (Ryan assures us that this is the actual geological way to test for the mineral) and yes they tasted very salty!
So after a great few days in the city, it was time to head for the hills!