There’s nothing like seeing a city through the eyes of a local. Sharon Ní Chonchúir experiences the real Krakow with a Polish friend.
I try to get under the skin of places I visit on my travels. I try to find out what it’s like for people who live there.
What do they do? What do they eat? What does it feel like to have their history and to have grown up in their culture?
These aren’t easy questions to answer but when a Polish friend invited me to join her on a trip to Krakow; I knew I’d get a local flavour of this tourist city.
Krakow has long been known as a cheap weekend break destination but I thought my friend would help me see past that to its true character.
She brought me to dinner in Pod Baranem on the night I arrived. This restaurant is all dark wood, deep carpets and low lighting and it’s full of Polish families eating traditional Polish food, with lots of meat, creamy sauces and hearty dumplings on their plates.
While Polish food can be heavy, it is possible to eat lightly if you make the right choice.
We had cabbage stuffed with mincemeat and rice in a mushroom sauce, a beetroot soup with dumplings and herrings in sour cream – all of which made for a delicious introduction to Krakow.
We left traditional Poland behind when we went for after-dinner drinks at Café Camelot. With its shabby chic interior and ample outdoor seating, this café is popular with local young people who come to enjoy coffee, sandwiches and cake during the day and boozy drinks and jazz in the evenings.
The next day, we got to know Krakow better on a walking tour of the city. It’s perfect for exploration on foot as most places of interest are within its compact centre.
The most central of these places is Main Market Square, the largest medieval market place in Europe and one of the few to have survived unscathed.
My friend made sure we were there when the clock struck the hour as a trumpeter sounds his horn from the tower of the basilica on the hour every hour throughout the day.
The tower of this 14th century basilica used to be manned by a lookout guard who would sound his horn to signal the approach of invaders.
One guard was struck by an arrow mid warning and his call was never finished. Today’s call stops mid-way in memory of this fallen defender of the city.
That’s not all there is to see and do in this handsome square. There’s the Renaissance era Cloth Hall whose ground floor is made up of an arcade of stalls selling traditional souvenirs and whose upper levels form part of the national museum of art. There are several impressive churches.
There are plenty of bars, cafés and shops. And there is always some sort of live entertainment to enjoy.
But we decided to escape the throng of the square for Collegium Maius, the oldest college of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. Established in 1364, it’s the oldest building of learning in Poland and Copernicus himself is known to have walked its cloistered courtyards.
From there, we wandered up Wawel Hill to its historic castle. A seat of government from the 11th century; this castle is regarded as the spiritual homeland of Poles today.
Its hodgepodge of architectural styles reflects the various cultures that have influenced this city. There are baroque buildings, Gothic cathedrals and the castle itself is a graceful Italianate Renaissance design with an elegant courtyard.
We took a tour of the castle, during which my friend pointed out all the little touches that make it special. The priceless tapestries, used to tell Biblical stories to the illiterate people of the past.
We even got to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. It’s one of the most important paintings in Polish collections and it’s currently on display in the castle.
I was thrilled to see it but my friend was much more excited about the castle’s cathedral. Many Polish kings are buried here in royal tombs and in the underground crypt, making it sacred to the Polish people.
Signs of their devotion are everywhere you look. People kneel to pray. They lay flowers on tombs and many stop to bless themselves before a vessel that contains the blood of Pope John Paul II.
There’s a cult-like devotion to this pope in Poland. I saw pictures of him everywhere and after our trip to the castle, my friend brought me to a bakery that specialised in his favourite cake.
Cocktail Kama serves kremowka – a cake of pastry, cream and custard – just the decadent treat we needed after our day’s walking through Krakow.
Our next stop was a restful hour in the Planty Gardens. This park replaced the defence walls and moat that surrounded Krakow until the early 1800s.
By then we were starving and made for Pod Nosem. We sat outside, enjoying the view of Wawel Castle above us and the sounds of votive songs from a nearby church.
We enjoyed the food when it came too. This was Polish food with a lighter touch and we especially liked the nettle soup and the noodles with cabbage, cod and dill.
The next day started on a serious note, with a visit to the Kazimierz district. Established as the Jewish quarter in the 15th century, there were 64,000 Jews living here at the outbreak of WWII when they made up 25% of Krakow’s population.
Few Jews remain here today apart from remnants of their culture , especially the Remuh Synagogue. This humble prayer house is still in use and I was particularly moved by its cemetery, which is one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in Europe.
It was damaged during WWII and the fragments of the tombstones that were shattered during that time have been built into the cemetery wall in a poignant memorial to a dark time in Polish history.
We followed the path of Krakow’s Jews from Kazimierz to Podgorze. In 1941, the city’s Jews were forced into the ghetto here. A three metre wall was built around them, crowned with arches that were designed to look like Jewish tombstones.
You can still see remnants of this wall as you walk through Podgorze today. On Ghetto Heroes Square, you’ll see a sculpture of 47 metal chairs. These mark the spot where Jews were gathered when the ghetto was liquidated in 1943.
Each chair represents 1,000 Jews who were evacuated from here to the death camps and each chair also brings to mind how those same Jews stood in this same square surrounded by their furniture, pots and pans and suitcases, unaware of the dire fate awaiting them.
You’ll find the Pod Orlem Pharmacy on the corner of the square. It was managed by Tadeusz Pankiewicz who was the only Pole with a right of residence in the ghetto under the Nazis.
His pharmacy became a meeting place for Jews, giving them a connection to the outside world and even offering salvation for some Jews in hiding. There’s an exhibition here now, depicting life in the ghetto.
The other museum worth visiting in this part of town is the Schindler Museum.
Located in Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, it houses an evocative exhibition of Krakow under Nazi occupation using photos, posters and film footage from the era as well as some fantastic reconstructions.
Later that evening, we had dinner in Miód Malina which serves Polish and Italian food. We ate Polish herrings served on beetroot carpaccio with onions, sour cream and sage and a traditional soup made from fermented rye, white sausage, bacon and egg served in a bowl made of bread as well as some potato dumplings stuffed with cabbage.
We discussed what we had learned of Krakow. This Polish city is much more than a weekend destination that is known for its cheap beer.
It’s a city with a long and interesting history that has at times been cruel and violent. It’s also a city of young people and life, of parks, bars, cafés and culture.
It’s a city that rewards exploration.
Ryanair flies to Krakow from Dublin and Shannon.
Where to stay
The Amber Boutique Hotel is just beyond the Planty Park outside the historic city centre. It’s quiet and comfortable and rooms start from €100. www.hotel-amber.pl/en
Where to eat
You’ll find the most traditional of Polish food at Pod Baranem. From pierogi dumplings to roast veal, wild boar or venison; it’s the real central European deal, with top quality ingredients and everything made in-house.
http://podbaranem.com/en/ Pod Nosem is an elegant restaurant with a seasonal menu based on the best seasonal produce cooked with a light touch. Highlight was the noodles with cabbage, cod and dill:
Miod Malina is a restaurant with a traditional folk décor of hand-painted dressers, rustic wreaths and an open log fire. The food is a combination of classic Polish and Italian.
It’s up to you whether you have fermented rye soup with sausages, bacon and egg or play it safe with a lasagne. http://miodmalina.pl/en/
What to see
The 650-year-old Collegium Maius; Wawel Castle and Cathedral – don’t miss the Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci; Remuh Synagogue and cemetery; Ghetto Heroes Square and Pod Orlem Pharmacy; Schindler Museum
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