What cities do you think of when you hear the words ‘European vacation’? Surely, visions of Paris and its artistic beauty, or London and its fabulous history, or Venice and its sparkling canals come immediately to mind. But I am here to change your mind! Do not neglect the jewel of the east: Krakow, Poland – it has art, history, and beautiful waterways all of its own, and is considerably cheaper than any of the preceding locations!
When I declared my intention to visit Krakow for a period of six weeks in late 2002, there were two stock responses that I received from virtually all of my family and friends. The first was a sophomoric attempt at humor, likening the city’s name to its vague homonym “crack house,” but the second concerned assumptions about the temperature there. It was universally assumed by my midwestern neighbors that Poland, and thus Krakow, was perpetually covered in a thick layer of ice and snow, akin to the arctic in its deathly-cold climate. They couldn’t have been more wrong! I arrived in the city in early February – the middle of winter – and found that the air temperature was rather more comfortable than the climate at home, in Ohio. Sure, there was snow – but it was a mere couple of inches, compared to almost a foot that had fallen in Columbus, before my departure. I stayed on until mid-March, and by that time the weather had cleared up considerably. In all, the climate was not terribly different from what I was used to, except for being slightly milder and more comfortable.
9) The Rynek Glowny.
Pronounced ‘RIN-ek GWOV-nah,’ the Ryneck Glowny is the largest market square in any European city – and more incredibly, it has existed in more-or-less its current state for over eight hundred years. While there may be an occasional cyber-cafe or McDonald’s restaurant on the fringes today, its most lasting monuments still stand strong, and are breath-taking to tourists that visit. In the center of the Grand Square is the Cloth Hall, a monolithic edifice filled to the brim with merchants hawking ludicrously affordable home-made goods (from amber jewelry to hand-carved toys and elaborate wooden chess sets), as they have since medieval times. Just upstairs is Krakow’s National Museum and its enormous collection of Polish paintings from the 18th century, some of which are quite famous even today. Littering the outskirts of the square are an unimaginable number of merchants and money-exchangers, from small booths operated by traditional Polish merchant-families, to monolithic western retailers selling imported culture to Krakovian teens. If you want to go shopping in Poland, the Ryneck Glowny is the place to do it – and everything is jaw-droppingly cheap (in price, not quality!)
8) The Food.
I am an excessively picky eater, and so one of my biggest worries before my trip was that I wouldn’t be able to find suitable food day-to-day. I was under the impression that Polish people consume only sausages like kielbasa, drowned in kraut and other nastiness – and boy was I wrong! At first, I was not very adventurous – and as such, I was delighted to find a fabulously up-scale Chinese restaurant not far from my rented flat. I was doubly happy when I saw the pricing – for a Polish family, 20 zloty for a meal is a rather high price to pay – but for an American on vacation, it amounts to a meager $5! For this price, I got some of the most wonderful egg-drop soup I’ve ever had in my life, a huge plate of sizzling butter-shrimp and side dishes, several cups of soda, and a deep-fried pineapple dessert. All while enjoying an atmosphere that many in the United States pay top dollar for.
After a while, even the best Chinese food gets tiresome, and so I began to experiment with more local fare. And I was shocked at how much I enjoyed every bit of it. From fruit-filled pierogies to bread-bowls with homemade beetroot soup, I consumed it all hardily, and without a touch of regret! And as the traditional Polish restaurants were somewhat lower-class than the oriental fare I originally started with, I was surprised to find that I could feed myself comfortably for about $2 per meal, if not less. And I do like to eat!
7) Wawel Castle.
Wawel Castle is built on a hill that bears the same name, and it has been populated by humans for well over fifty thousand years. It wasn’t until the 1500s, however, that Poland’s King Sigismund the Old decided to construct a Palace there. He brought in architects and artists from all corners of Renaissance Europe, and it quickly grew to be a monument of monarchial power. Its grandeur and beauty exist to this day, largely untouched by time – you can wander into the royal chambers and stroll past lines of ancient potraits commissioned from the finest Dutch and Italian artists, and even marvel at the magnificent Renaissance furniture that still adorns every inch of the place.
Perhaps more interesting is a site just outside the Castle’s walls, on the Wawel Hill itself. Legend has it that Krakow was founded ages ago by a dragon-slaying Prince called Krak. The dragon supposedly made its home in a massive cavern on Wawel Hill, and from there it terrorized the populace, consuming both cattle and virgins with impunity. Krak victoriously slayed the dragon, but the legend lives on – and the cavern that held this Stone Age beast is frequently visited by tourists, and can be accessed from within the castle proper. It draws many visitors – and in fact, a large six-legged metal sculpture has been put in place – and to the delight of visitors, it spews fire every few minutes, in true draconic fashion!
Kazimierz is Krakow’s traditional Jewish district, formerly a bustling hub of mercantile activity. That changed somewhat abruptly, however, with the invasion of German Nazis, and the stark truth of what happened to its residents is well-known to all but the most ignorant. Even today, one can see the massive synagogues and cemetaries that served as the heart of Polish jewry for centuries, but in stark contrast to that is a huge yellow building that was used by the Nazi SS in its relocation and eventual extermination of the residents of Kazimierz. It is an area that, simultaneously, makes you marvel at the beauty of historical architecture, as well as ponder the cruelty and brutality of humanity’s shared past.
While Auschwitz is not technically a part of Krakow, it is only 60 km away from the city, and so many tourism companies offer direct bus-lines there and back for an affordable fee. It is here that Kazimierz Jews were locked up and murdered, along with gypsies, Polish homosexuals, and, eventually, Soviet undesireables as well. Visiting is a sobering experience, but it is one that I encourage all travellers to do – there are guided informational tours, and while donations are accepted, there is no charge to see the camp or to hear of the atrocities committed there.
4) Hejnal Mariacki.
Hejnal Mariacki translates, in Polish, to the ‘trumpet signal.’ It is played live, every hour, in the Ryneck Glowny, and I heard it many times while sipping tea or shopping before I was informed as to its meaning. In 1257, Poland was faced with the danger of Mongol invasion. With Tatars at the Krakovian gates, a trumpeter bravely stood atop his tower and played his song, warning the city of the impending danger. Because of this warning, the gates were closed before the enemy could get to them. Sadly, the trumpeter was shot in the throat by a Tatar arrow, and so, in memory of this ancient sacrifice, the city replays his song – ending it abruptly, as he did when he was killed. While the tune’s complete version is now unknown, it is a testament to the ancient history, and the exceedingly long memory, of Poland and its people and should not be missed.
3) The Vistula.
The Vistula is Poland’s largest river, and it runs right through Krakow. For as little as $5, you can get yourself a three-hour boat tour through the city, and see its sites from a vantage point that few are lucky enough to experience. If you are feeling more adventurous, however, you can rent watercraft and go out on your own. There are motorboats and kayaks available, but I recommend the two-person paddle-boats. They allow for a nice romantic excursion, are very affordable, and give you a bit of exercise if you want it as well.
2) Jagiellonian University.
Jagiellonian University has stood for well over five hundred years, exactly where it stands now. Even today, it is one of Poland’s most important educational institutions, and some of the nation’s most famous citizens have attended there – from Nicolaus Copernicus to the late, great Pope John Paul II. For tourists though, the most exciting feature of the university is its massive historic library. Housing well over 4.5 million books, some of which date back eight hundred years, the library is Poland’s oldest -and- its largest. Even if you don’t speak Polish, it is worth it to take a peek.
Polish vodka reigns supreme out of all liquors I have ever tasted. There are literally dozens of varieties of the stuff, but my absolute favorite (no pun intended) is the Bison Grass Vodka, called Zubrowka by the natives. It is an odd looking yellow liquid, and each bottle has a long blade of bison grass floating around inside, a trademark not unlike Mexican tequila and its worm. Unlike tequila, however, Bison Grass Vodka has a very good taste. With flavors reminiscent of almonds and vanilla, it is an unusual drink – and at 80 proof, it is sure to get you where you are looking to go. Even if this fancy designer vodka is out of your price range (at approximately $5 per bottle), you can always try some of the cheaper stuff – screwdrivers made from everyday Polish vodka lack the bite that I have come to expect from such a drink, but they certainly don’t lack the punch. It’s very much like drinking orange juice and then suddenly discovering that you are drunk.
- Official Krakow English Tourism Site: www.krakow.pl/en/