Time rolls on, and now we are out of Russia and into Poland, a country that is a bit of an unknown with a history of being overshadowed and bossed around by their neighbours on either side. A fine country though, and we enjoyed our time there despite Mother Nature trying her hardest to make sure we didn’t – when we arrived in Kraków it was 35 degrees, and the heat was stifling. This was made all the more painful by the fact I woke up on the second day with a blocked nose and sore throat having finally caught the cold that I had avoided all year! The heat didn’t last too long though, on the third day that we were there the skies slowly darkened as some foreboding clouds moved over the city and at about 2pm the heavens opened, and it rained for the next two days. Not much to do about that though, other than to get on with things and seek cover whenever possible – although in hindsight, shelling out some zloty for an umbrella would have been a good idea!
Rewinding a little though, to when we left Russia – we arrived unreasonably early at Moscow airport after reading stories about queues upon queues, a lack of English signage and generally unhelpful staff. To our (pleasant) surprise, it was actually one of the less chaotic airports I have been at and we moved through the usual airport motions at a surprising speed and spent a lot of time mooching around the gate waiting to board and avoiding the shiny souvenir shops. 1 point to Moscow. One 90 minute, nerve shattering Polish Airlines/Aeroflot flight later, we were on the ground in Poland with a 3 hour train journey down to Kraków ahead of us – travel days like these are what we all live for right? We did reach Kraków eventually though, walking through the busy streets with our backpacks, dodging the people merrily spilling out of the pubs onto the footpath left, right and centre along the way.
Kraków is extremely pretty, very much the storybook picture of what you expect from a European town. The city has been around since the 7th century, and according to my walking tour guide it was left untouched through the Second World War, apparently spared by the Germans because some of the buildings were originally built by Germans (in some form, it seemed like the borders of countries in Europe were fairly fluid for a while) many centuries ago. I guess we should thank them for that, because the Town Square, with the Market Hall and St Mary’s Cathedral is a sight to behold, even for a church weary traveller such as myself.
But Kraków, in August anyway, is also extremely touristy. Coming from Russia, where is was unusual to hear English being spoken unless you had joined up to a walking tour, it felt like every second group of people we saw were English lads who has travelled over for what looked a lot like a bucks party, or Australians. Along with a healthy dose of Spaniards and a few Americans thrown in the mix, we could have been almost anywhere except Eastern Europe. Apparently it’s very different outside the summer months though, when students from the four universities come back to fill the pubs and clubs instead of tourists. To be honest though, I don’t mind the tourist vibe for a few days when a town is this pretty and so damn cheap.
But the best thing about thing about Kraków? There was a pierogi festival on while we were there. A dumpling festival. Half the Town Square was dedicated to eating meat, vegetables, cheese or dessert wrapped in dough. There could not have been a better case of accidental good timing. In the shadow of St Mary’s Cathedral, there was a number of stalls all offering up a variety of flavour combinations, and you could purchase a single pierogi for 1.5 zloty (50 cents). I must have eaten my body weight in pierogi while we were there – potato, mushroom, meat, cottage cheese, beetroot, tomato, spinach, bacon, cherry, choc banana – if it was available, I ate it. There was also Polish street food available, including bread, potatoes and a tasty pork knuckle I devoured on the first day, spicy pork and basically pork cooked in any way you could wish. To wash it all down you could grab a plastic cup of beer for $2 and sit back, satisfied you were doing Poland right.
There was also loads of gorgeous flowers around the square that I lusted over.
Other food we ate there included two tasty breakfasts at Charlotte, a trendy cafe where you can have a champagne breakfast with their heavenly homemade bread. The highlight was when we got a plate of cheese with my favourites – chèvre, blue cheese and Brie, along with some cheddar, for about $3!
I also had an interesting meal at CK Browbar, a microbrewery around the corner from our apartment. To start with I had a beer tasting paddle which wasn’t the greatest as my beer came out lukewarm and, rather curiously, with a straw? Needless to say, I discarded the straw and despite the temperature particularly enjoyed a dark beer with a hint of ginger in it. While I was there I ordered a burger with slow cooked pork shoulder, and I’m not sure what I expected, but what I got certainly wasn’t it. I was far from disappointed with what I did get, although it’s difficult to describe – the bun seemed like it had been toasted then soaked for a while in gravy, and the pork shoulder was a fillet of meat, albeit very tender and tasty. The addition of sliced pickle on the burger was welcomed – it cut through the thick gravy in a much needed way.
The other stand out meal was at Wrega, a busy pub in the Jewish area that was filled with Polish nationals (as far as I could tell) – always a good sign! Ollie had what can only be explained as a plate of meat and chips, while I keep things low key with some Ruskie pierogi – one of the most common varieties of this polish treat, filled with mashed potato and cottage cheese.
There were a few other things we managed to do in Poland, in between avoiding searing sunburn and getting drenched. I took a walking tour around the city, visiting Wawel Hill and Castle where I discovered that Mount Koscuiszko is actually named after a Polish guy who never even visited Australia, and whose name should actually be pronounced as koz-zhoo-ko there’s a handy quiz night fact! The castle was cool, with a new part of the chapel being built ever century or so, resulting in a mush mash of architectural styles in one building. We also visited Florian’s Gate, one of the last remaining parts of the protective rampart built around Kraków to protect the city from attack many centuries ago, the oldest street in Kraków and the dragon statue by the river which actually breathes fire every 5 minutes, much to the delight of young and old.
On one of the warmer days I joined a food tour that I happened across while hanging out in the main square, where we got to try warm lard with onion on bread (surprisingly flavoursome), a shot of vodka with an optional ‘after bite’ – a small piece of herring on a toothpick (politely declined), unidentified sausage (tasty, if a bit fatty) and cheese (a bit sour and strangely warm), and zurek (sour rye soup with egg and sausage) at a tiny restaurant where the soup had to be sipped hurriedly our of espresso cups so they could be washed and the other half of the group could try it. I particularly enjoyed the hunters stew we had at the end – our guide told us that the recipe is as follows: boil cabbage for a while; open your fridge and put in whatever meat you have; boil for a while longer; and open the fridge and add whatever else is left in the fridge. It sounds legitimate, the ingredients were fairly unidentifiable but the soup was thick, meaty and filling.
One of the highlights of our time there was a football (soccer) match between the biggest Kraków team, Wisla Kraków, and Lechia Gdansk. We actually had to sign up for ‘fan cards’ to get a ticket, which required our passport numbers. This is because Poland has had a lot of problems with football related violence, so now your fan card is connected to your national ID number, or passport number in the case of foreigners, and if you don’t play by the rules your fan card will be revoked and you won’t be able to go to matches anymore! Hectic. The game had a great atmosphere though, with the chanting from the local teams fan base going non stop for the whole 90 minutes. Beers were incredible cheap, but not many of the locals were drinking – we were certainly the only ones making use of the trays to purchase 6 full strength beers for the price of 1.5 beers at Subi! A few strange looks came our way carrying the beers around. The game was a draw in the end, which left some of the locals a little despondent, but as far as we could tell the two teams were pretty friendly, with some people in our area having two scarves on, on for each team – I’m guessing you wouldn’t see that a local derby!
We visited the salt mines after the rain hit, where we descended 135 meters to find a whole underground world,complete with cathedrals, lakes, garden gnomes and horses stables. It was amazing what had been hand carved out of salt, including an elaborate church complete with salt chandeliers that is big enough that people get married in it today. Pretty amazing thinking about the commitment that must have been required, but apparently miners were mostly very religious people, and as it was a very dangerous place they liked to be able to pray a lot.
Ollie visited Auschwitz, sombrely paying his respects to the men and women that spent time in such awful places. I had visited Sachsenhausen, which is a camp just out of Berlin a number of years ago, and without any family connection didn’t feel a strong need to physically revisit the experience. I do believe it’s important to remember and pay respect to the things people during that era in this part of the world went through in whatever way you choose, and while I was wandering around the city that day, I found myself devoting some thought to it, and acts being carried out in the name of religion in other parts of the world in this current time. A somber topic indeed, but not one to be explored further here.
And so our time in another city reaches its end, and we made our way to the train station for he overnight train adventure to Budapest. Until then!