Krakow, Poland: Underrated and Undiscovered

krakow market square

This summer, I was fortunate to spend a week in the city of Krakow, in southern Poland. Two friends and I had a flat ten minutes from the center. I had planned for Krakow to be the “least exciting” destination on my Euro-trip; in the end, though, Krakow won me over completely. It shattered my expectations of Poland– a gray, stone- faced, solemn country trapped in the doldrums of a Post- Soviet identity crisis.

I was, however, eager to see Poland at least once in my life, since my father’s ancestors hail from a village near Krakow. I thought that experiencing Poland was a neccessity at one point or another, and the opportunity presented itself this summer when a friend of mine offered up her grandmother’s flat in Krakow for the week. So, that’s how it happened that the two of us, along with another friend of ours, ended up reuniting in Poland.

I arrived in Krakow after a grueling 36-hour long-haul from Lagos, Portugal (that story is for another post, though). I flew into Wroclaw, then took a seven- hour train down to Krakow. The distance by car is only three hours, but the trains chug slowly through the Polish countryside, stopping at every town along the way. The second- class compartment was comfortable , but not air- conditioned. I stuck my head out the window and let them warm breeze mess up my hair. I read a book until night set in, and at about midnight, we rolled into Krakow. The city limits seemed to last an eternity, then all the sudden we careened into the station. I looked for a taxi and used my horrendous Polish pronunciation to try to explain my destination. After some help with the GPS (bless technology), we got on our way. Five minutes later, I was at the doorstep of the flat.

poland train

Polish countryside seen from train

The building had the typical concrete austerity of what I would expect from Polish architecture. Yet, each balcony was spruced up with overflowing flower boxes and colorful sun umbrellas. I dragged my one-wheel-missing mini suitcase up four flights of stairs (Polish people don’t believe in lifts). My friends greeted me and promptly served me a plate of pierogies (a Polish variation of the ravioli), and a shot of Polish liquor, the kind you can sip slowlywith a sweet satisfaction, and flows down your throat with a happy warmth. We sat on the sofa, sipping on our liquor and listening to Polish radio, until exhaustion got the best of us.

The next day we got up at a decent hour in order to explore the city. We took the bus into the city center. We walked through the regal city gates into Krakow’s Old Town. At the end of a long cobblestone street lies the Market Square, a World Heritage Site, and the city hub of hustle and bustle. It’s named Market Square for the lovely public market in the middle of the square. We went on a shopping day here later in the week. Let me tell know– Poland knows how to do gifts. I found many treasures for my friends and family– real wool slippers that feel like heaven on your feet, intricate hand-blown Polish glassware, a medieval- looking beer stein engraved with a dragon, and heaps and heaps of authentic amber jewelry. There were other goodies, like fur hats and traditional beaded festival vests, that my bare-bones budget (or tiny suitcase) would allow me to bring home. On the weekends, there is also this fabulous antique outdoor market outside in the square. I gazed for hours, longingly, at antique Polish artwork, furniture, literature, glasswork, and jewelry– I felt like I was taking a look back in time, to the Poland that my great-grandparents called home.

poland vests

Goodies from the market.

We walked some more around the Old Town, then decided to grab lunch at a well-known restaurant across from the theater. Poland is fabulously cheap– I ordered a towering plate of Budapest- style potato pancakes for 25 zloti, the equivalent of 5 euros. The restaurant was decorated like a grandmother’s parlor, with live canaries chirping in the back. However, the more enigmatic restaurant we ate at during subsequent days was called Babci Maliny, located also in the Old Town. Hard to find, but a true gem: a plum, rosy- cheek Polish babcia (grandmother) greets you as you descend into the cellar-like space. She will motion to an unpretentious wooden door where the dining room is located. You enter what I can only describe as a village tavern, log walls, framed photos of famous visitors all over the walls, a fire crackling, a fur coat hanging from the hook. Every inch of space is covered with a charming knick-knack. The menus have been only recently translated into English. Babci Maliny has been discovered, and evidently adored, by tourists and locals alike. At lunch hour, the conversation around the sturdy wooden tables takes on a spirited roar. You place your orders at the counter while they quickly whisk up you fixings. Polish food is fabulously hearty; the European version of the American South’s “comfort food”. However, the important difference is that Polish food uses fresh, untainted ingredients in their recipes, resulting in semi-health- friendly dishes. At Babci Maliny, prices are even cheaper than the restaurant by the theater– a full plate of pierogies for a meager 10 zloti! On the contrary, a pitcher of tap water will typically cost 16-17 zloti. I would always recommend pierogies to anyone wanting to dip their toes in Polish cuisine, but you could truly try any dish, and you will not be disappointed. I tended to gravitate towards the Budapest- style potato pancakes, with their distinct paprika red sauce and topped with beef and mushrooms.

poland babci

Outside of our favorite restaurant!

After a long meal, we returned to the square to sip a tea or coffee and let our stomachs settle. That’s another perfect feature of many European cities– a cafe culture, with chairs positioned to face the square as to watch the world go by. We could sit at a cafe for an hour, even two, and no one would ask us to leave– people slow down mid-afternoon in Poland, allowing themselves a deserved break, a satisfying meal, and a hearty laugh with friends. I wish Americans could learn to embrace such an alien concept.

Some time later, we decided to trek to the local Krakow castle. The fortress is situated on a hill overlooking the Vistula river.  Unfortunately, the castle grounds close at 5 pm, so we didn’t have the opportunity to see the famous bell, one of the main attractions of the site. Instead, we walked around the grounds, and ordered a gelato. I tried, unsuccessfully, to use the power of flirtation to persuade the gelato man to give me a slightly larger scoop. His quiet smirk was very clear: no.

krakow gate

Outside the Krakow city gate

My friend suggested that we go see the fearsome Krakow dragon, who makes his home below the castle, on the banks of the Vistula. Turns out the ferocious beast was only an iron- cast sculpture, but he still breathed fire if anyone would feed the machine. We took a few shameless photos with the dragon, moving some Polish youngsters out of the frame in the process. After checking off that “cheesy tourist picture” off our list, we were tired. We lay by the river into the late afternoon, as runners, rollerbladers, skaters, young people, old people, all flowed past. Occasionally an industrious teen would come up and offer us a flier for a local tattoo parlor or dance club. I accumulated more than a dozen fliers per day simply walking around Krakow. Still, this wasn’t bothersome– most people were actually genuinely interested in what some foreigners were doing in Krakow, and they wanted us to have the best experience possible. The friendliness, and national pride, of the Poles, shines bright.

poland dragon

Days spent wandering the Old Town exhausted us; Even though we were dog-tired, we were filled with such a lush contentment at the choice we had made to come to Poland. Catching the tram to return to the flat each evening, I felt a keen sense of belonging in this land of my ancestors, as I stared out the windows and watched people go about their lives. Though we were simply temporary visitors traveling through their space, I did come to feel a purpose in me being in Poland, yet I haven’t discovered exactly why.In any event, the arrival at our tram stop would lull me out of this reflection

We would return to the flat, sip a shot of that heaven-sent liquor, and fall into a deep nap.   As the sun began to set, though, it was time to wake up again, and prepare for the night. Poland by day is a different creature than Poland by night– but this I’ll discuss in my next post.

poland birds

Happy, in Market Square


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