The former Polish capital of Krakow is a picturesque city with plenty of Eastern European allure and a fine line in flavoured vodkas
I confess I wasn’t expecting overly much before I arrived in Krakow. Sure, I’d browsed some websites and noted that there appeared to be a charming-looking old town centre, and a few ancient monuments, but I still couldn’t shake off the idea of a grim, joyless burg, where locals queued for cabbage and beetroot before heading home to their tower blocks. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I arrived at Dworzec Glowny station at 5pm on New Year’s Eve and the only thing the locals were queuing for, among the pleasingly picturesque, meandering streets, was alcohol, and plenty of it. Poland, of course, is the home of vodka (it’s been brewed here since the Middle Ages), and boasts several different specialities, from Krupnik – a honey vodka – to my favourite, Zubrowka, a vodka made with bison grass. Its cinnamon-like taste lends itself beautifully to being mixed with apple juice, to make the local cocktail known as ‘tatanka’.
Before doing anything else, I sampled a few of these in one of Krakow’s traditional underground taverns, which you get to by entering a narrow passageway, then going down a set of steps to be confronted by a cavern-like maze of stone-walled rooms. Their cosiness makes it tempting to settle in for the night, but I wanted to get a sense of my surroundings before heading out for the big midnight celebrations.
My hotel, the Wit Stwosz
, was a very comfortable three-star two minutes from the main square, the Rynek Glowny. One of the largest medieval squares in Europe, it is dominated by the twin-spired church
of St Mary’s Basilica at the top, with a distinctive hall, known as the Drapers’ Hall, in the middle. It’s steeped in history, where traders used to meet and barter, and provides an attractive focal point for the square.
North of the square, the street of ulica Florianska leads to the Gothic and elegant St Florian’s Gate, a remnant of the defense walls built around the city in the 1300s. To the south of the square, ulica Grodzka leads down to Wawel Castle, one of Krakow’s most historic sites. Situated on Wawel Hill, above the wide, meandering Vistula River, it was the seat of Poland’s royal rulers from the 11th to the 16th centuries. It’s worth taking a tour of the magnificent state rooms, private apartments and treasury for their impressive tapestries, paintings and decorations.
Then wander back down to the banks of the river - be warned: the wind blowing off the Vistula can make it bitterly cold! - to see the lair of the legendary Wawel Dragon; apparently it used to live in a cave and was slain by Prince Krakus, who gave his name to the city, in the 8th century. An iron monument stands in front of where the cave used to be, delighting children (and some adults…) with its occasional fire-breathing.
From Wawel Hill, it’s a 10-minute stroll down to Kazimiersz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter. Formerly a town in its own right, it’s now experiencing a renaissance as a bohemian, fashionable area, full of cosy cafes and bars, while still maintaining its Jewish roots. Of course, Jewish history and its haunting horror is inextricably linked with Poland; only 30 miles away from Krakow is Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp. A visit here is as harrowing and as humbling as you would expect.
Back to the centre of Krakow, and you will find no shortage of cafes, bars and restaurants on offer. The exchange rate is extremely favourable, which means that you can generally have a very good meal for around a tenner. If you want to pay even less, look out for one of the dozens of pierogi specialists, which sell only these steamed, boiled or fried dumplings, which are unique to Poland. Filled with anything from cheese to cabbage, mushrooms, pork and beef, they are enjoyable as a snack or as part of a larger meal.
I stumbled on a fantastic Polish restaurant called Babci Maliny on ulica Szpitalna 38, which offers a fantastic range of delicious Eastern Europan dishes, from borscht to fried carp, in amazingly ornate surroundings; there’s even a piano player! Suitably stuffed, it’s time to head back out to one of the many underground bars again, and drink yet more Zubrowka - purely to keep warm, of course…