From Budapest to Krakow we took a 7-hour train ride. We had seats across from 2 young men, one Australian and one from Finlandia, who both loved to talk! The train had a club/dining car and was perfectly comfortable – until it stopped all of 20 km from Budapest and sat on the tracks for over an hour without a word of explanation.
We finally chugged into town and grabbed a cab to our really nice Airbnb. Ultra-modern Ikea is what we have come to call several of the places we have stayed. This one made it to the top of the list as every piece of furniture, lighting fixture, tables, fake plants, wall art, and kitchen cabinets were supplied by Ikea.
We would have enjoyed having coffee on the balcony each morning, but didn’t because the Polish noise ordinance, which begins at 10:00 p.m., is lifted at 6:00 a.m.
That is when the jackhammer, huge trucks and rock loader would begin work right outside our windows. You have never woken up so quickly as when the sound of a 1-ton piece of concrete is being dumped into a metal truck-bed at 6:00 a.m. It makes not only a horrid thud but also rattles your windows and shakes your bed! We enjoyed this lovely form of awakening every morning of the week we were in Krakow except for the two weekend days.
But the good news is – We Loved Krakow! We were within 2 blocks of the Vistuala River that winds its way through this lovely, walkable city.
We began our stay, as we like to start every visit to a new city, with a free walking tour. The Old Town is a totally pedestrian walking area. The old city walls, of which the majority have been torn down, have been planted with trees and flowers and now is a beautiful green walkway that encircles this part of the city.
Since we were up so early, we wandered into town before most everyone else was moving about and discovered the vast squares that make up much of the center of Krakow. That’s Joyce waving from afar in the first square we wandered into on our way to meet our walking tour.
Towering over Old Town Krakow are the twin towers of St. Mary’s Basilica. This is one of the most beautiful churches on the inside we have seen, and we were not allowed to take photos! If you click on the link, you will see just how amazing the interior truly is.
The trumpet you hear when you open the site is an original piece played each hour – day and night – from a small room at the top of the tallest tower by a rotating group of trumpet-playing Krakow firefighters (long story – don’t ask) after which they wave to the people below to prove they weren’t a recording.
The square where St. Mary’s is located and where we were to meet our tour guide was massive! Filled with people and flower stalls, a fountain that looks very similar to the entrance to the Louvre, very well-dressed horses with carriages to take you on a tour, lots and lots of outdoor restaurants, including the ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe and numerous other huge buildings.
The walking tour provided us with loads of historical information about Krakow, its long-ago past and more recent history under the thumb of the Nazis and the Communists. We saw the gentleman who stands at the entrance to the Old Town and welcomes everyone with an accordion song; the lovely national theater that doesn’t allow visitors and only produces programs in Polish; a man who for 20+ years spends his days lying on the main walking street balancing a soccer ball on his feet for tips; numerous ‘official – they gotta have a sticker’ carts selling the Polish favorite – a combination of a hot bagel and a pretzel.
We saw more large churches; a metal head lying sideways in the square that you can climb into; several cute cement statues and a very strange fountain; many pieces of artwork honoring John Paul, The Polish Pope, who was born and went to school in Krakow.
And of course, Krakow has a castle – and it’s a humdinger!
The Walwel Royal Castle sits high on a hill overlooking the river and the city. It has a large man on horseback that greets you as you climb up to its walled enclosure. It has its own cathedral (of which photos were once again not allowed) but see that golden dome? That’s real gold. One of the late queens donated her jewelry collection and had it melted down for the dome in honor of her favorite saint. I found statues of funny men in armor and more Popes, bronze statues of the King’s favorite dog and the best dragon waterspouts I’ve ever seen. And, a rather nice view of the Vistuala.
One dark and dreary day, Joyce took a tour of Auschwitz – Birkenau. I had toured the concentration camps when I was living in Brussels in the early 70’s and decided then that once was enough. I stayed in and wrote, read and relaxed.
That evening we found TAO, a fantastic sushi/Thai/Asian fusion restaurant set in a beautiful garden just down the street from our Airbnb. The food and service were exceptional, and we dined there twice during our week in Krakow. To be honest, we went back because they had a swing which we both, of course, had to try!
The next day we toured the old Jewish Quarter of the city. 70,000 Jews had lived in this vibrant part of the city for hundreds of years until WWII. Those that you see today, we were told, are visitors, mostly from the United States, who come to visit the synagogue. There are are only approximately 60 Jews living in Krakow today. Two Jewish cemeteries are the resting place for many who lost their lives during WWII.
We learned that the area where our Airbnb is located, only a 10-minute walk from Oskar Schindler’s famous plastics plant, is where the ghetto was established during the war. Everyone was moved out of the Quarter and across the river into what was then a wasteland only good for a few manufacturing plants and nothing more.
The large plaza we crossed each day to head into the center of town is known as The Jewish Hero’s Square or The Empty Chairs of Krakow– memorializing those who died in the ghetto. Even the street art of today is a warning to all to never again be taken in by a leader whose main theme is racism and demagoguery – all for the good of the people!
We were told we couldn’t leave Krakow without having a Zapiekanki. So on the morning of our last full day, we went to the market in the Jewish Quarter and indulged in what was a combination of toasted baguette topped with cheese and tomato and pesto and then a squeeze of what tasted like thousand island dressing. It was gooey, and messy and delicious! (Note: picture of a young man sharing our table eating his – we made too much of a mess to take a picture of ourselves!)
Walking back across the Vistuala , we walked The Lovers Bridge which crosses between Kazimierz and Podgorze, aka, the Jewish district and former Jewish Ghetto. Not only does the bridge have locks put there by lovers, it also has the most whimsical and amazing metal ‘aerialists’ who twirl in the wind. They are connected by only a thin wire, and each is perfectly balanced to maintain their place high above the crowds.
Our week in Krakow had come to an end, and we really were sad to leave as we found this beautiful city so friendly and walkable, with great food and so many things to see and do. But now it was time to move onto the Czech Republic and a week in Prague.
Until next time…..