Krakow is one of those gem-like cities in Europe that people are starting to really sit up and notice.
For the most part, it’s an extremely walkable city as it’s mostly flat and there are several neighborhoods to stay in, connected by trams and major roads. Old Town is the major tourist area and subsequently the most crowded part of the city, whilst Kazmierez, the old Jewish Quarter, is an up-and-coming neighborhood with beauty, charm, great places to eat, and a history that can’t be ignored.
(Stay in Kazmierez – you won’t regret it!)
I stayed at the wonderful Hotel David, right in the old Jewish Quarter and across the street from Ariel, one of the best restaurants I ate at on this holiday. It was quiet, had friendly, helpful owners, and was very accommodating when I arrived very early from the night train at 7:30 AM.
I walked into Old Town, about 20-25 minutes away, to visit Wawel Castle. It is a slight turn uphill to the castle, but the grounds are well worth the walk. Buying a ticket can be tricky, as all tickets are various attractions within the grounds are separate. I ended up getting one for the Royal apartments and State apartments (not to be missed), the Treasury/Armory, and to see da Vinci’s famous Lady with an Ermine. I figured I’d make a morning of it since it was about 9 AM now.
The painting is something to see – it’s been moved to the castle rather recently – especially if you’re a da Vinci fan. An English-speaking tour through the major rooms of the castle proved interesting, as I’m not exactly up on my Polish history even though I’m 25% Polish with a very Polish last name that is strikingly similar to a major Polish football player. On the plus side, every tourist shop had a jersey with my name on it, and that doesn’t happen ever!
After touring the apartments, the armory and treasury was really fascinating, considering it details jewelry and fashion styles of the different time periods. Of course, there were plenty of swords, knights’ armor, maces, and other objects with which to do grave bodily harm.
A refreshing coffee in the courtyard revitalized me – and, let’s face it, woke me up as I’d been up nearly all night on the train – and made me realize that I had motion issues from the rocking train. Every time I sat down, bathroom included, I felt like I was on a ship tossing in a rocky sea. It made me grateful that I never had to trail around the world in a rickety wooden boat. God bless the Pilgrims of the Old World.
Post-coffee, I was able to find the main square – really, a giant square and hard to miss – and roam around by Town Hall, St. Mary’s Basilica and several other beautiful churches. By now, the sun had cracked the clouds and was making the day warm and the stained glass of the churches sparkle as it should.
It’s highly worth a side-trip to the two smaller churches, one named the Church of St. Andrew and the other called the Church of SS Peter & Paul. St. Andrew’s is about a thousand years old (it doesn’t look a day over 500), and another old church right on the square, Church of St. Adalbert, rivals it in age, as it too was built around the 11th century. Holy old churches, Poland.
I used to think that St. Augustine, Florida, was really old …
Lunchtime meant finding a traditional Polish bar mleczny (milk bar) and some local dishes. Near Old Town is a small place called Bar Grodzki, which had a man behind the counter who looked so much like my Polish grandfather that I did double-takes every time he went by. I went for the steamy stuffed cabbage rolls and few other small dumpling dishes. The best part was drinking down the fruit compote – a beverage that is sweet, tart, and filled with fruit at the bottom. I promise it’s a good experience.
I had made a ticket reservation for the Rynek Underground museum – absolutely recommended that you reserve a time and date online as it’s a busy site – so I ventured down the shadowy corridors of the Cloth Hall to claim my ticket. It was such an easy process, and one thing I learned on this holiday, especially during Easter in Europe, is to book tickets ahead of time and pray for good weather (if necessary).
The Ryneck Underground is a classy museum that tells the history of the medieval market square, complete with sounds, interesting displays, and projection screens. I ended up arriving just before a school group, so the later in the day you can reserve, the better. However, I able to read up on all the displays easily and traveled through time with “locals” who were telling their medieval story.
Afterwards, St. Mary’s Basilica looked rather inviting, so I bought a ticket inside with the pass to take pictures. It was worth the extra bit of money for the photography ticket, as the interior is something magical with its starry roof and gorgeously carved triptych. Don’t miss the bugler’s call on the hour, as it announces the time. Check out the legend associated with the bugler’s tune, as the guy stops short each time, supposedly in deference to a story that had a bugler getting killed with an invader’s arrow right in the middle of playing the note.
History was kind to no one, including buglers.