Ah fall. The crispness in the air, leaves changing color, the return to the hearty foods that make the lack of warm weather bearable…
And vacation. Yes, one of the many perks of being a teacher in this country. Just when la rentrée winds down, it’s time for another two-week holiday.
I’m spending most of this holiday at home (because I still have a dissertation to write…joy), but I did plan out some time to get away for a quick weekend.
I guess the first question would be ‘Why Krakow?” and the answer to that would be, well, because Eastern Europe has been a bit of a theme in my travels as of late, and I thought, why break with tradition?
It also has a lot to do with where I went on the morning of my second full day there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Basically, though, what with it being fall break and all (yay for a little break from teaching), what I ideally wanted was a weekend somewhere that screamed autumn (as in, lovely foliage) and where I could indulge in some food that I only ever get in the mood to eat when it’s nice and crisp outside and my belly needs fuel for warmth.
So, Poland it was. And because Krakow was selected as the European capital of gastronomy for 2019 (yes, that’s a thing and it’s wonderful), the decision was pretty much set. I knew just a bit about Polish food from having been exposed to some of it (read: pierogi, kielbasa and Polish vodka) back in the States, so I was very much looking forward to experiencing more of it.
Spoiler alert: Krakow is a very excellent food city, and may have just topped my (very short, since there are only three items on it) list of food tours I have done. More on that in a bit, though. For now, in order, the things I did.
I arrived at the airport early in the afternoon, meaning there was plenty of time for some early exploring before dinner. After taking a cab into town (I had just missed the train into the city center and the next one wasn’t due for another hour…), I checked into my private room at the Secret Garden Hostel. Actually, “hostel” is a bit of a misnomer. This place was not only incredibly clean, quiet and updated, it also had probably one of the most comfortable beds I had ever slept on in a hostel (or even in a hotel for that matter).
Really though I am not lying when I say I wanted to roll the thing up and transport it here.
The hostel is located in the Kazimierz district, known as the Jewish quarter, as well as the place to go out for dinner/drinks and get a general feel for Krakow’s cultural life for both locals and visitors. Ongoing construction on the main street cutting through the neighborhood made getting around a bit tricky, but other than that, staying there was positively delightful (and delicious).
My first food stop wasn’t in Kazimierz, however. Instead, I walked all the way up to Old Town and over to Gorace Paczki for a traditional Polish donut filled with rose jam. I grabbed a seat on an empty bench in the park nearby and dug into the still-warm pastry. Fluffy, yeasty, with just the right amount of jam filling to be stuffed without exploding everywhere, this treat was the best way to start my trip, and a definite step-up from the last jelly donut I had before this (which I’m pretty sure was from Dunkin Donuts…). The best bit, however, was that it only cost 3.5 zloty, or $0.91.
Oh yeah, for travelers on a budget, Poland is definitely a good place to check out.
After devouring my donut, I had a bit of time to kill before my dinner reservation (for 1, ha!), so I spent it basically walking around the park that encircles the Old Town. I found out on the walking tour I took the next day that the park, designed during the period when Krakow was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, replaced the walls that formerly surrounded the city, but that evening, my biggest priority was taking pictures of every tree, trying to capture some of that golden color I’ve missed so much.
As mentioned earlier, my dinner that night was a solo endeavor in a sit-down, slightly above casual restaurant, something I have managed to avoid in all my other trips before this one. Don’t get me wrong, I actually have eaten dinner out by myself before, but there is a difference between doing it somewhere I am familiar with (as in, here at either my neighborhood dumpling place, or the slightly less nearby ramen place by the BNF), versus in a place where I have never been and don’t know anyone (or the language, for that matter).
But I wanted something cozy, and Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (or Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz) delivered that. Yes, the restaurant is a bit more touristy than what I might otherwise go for, but the food was good, there were candles on the table (a bit of a theme in Krakow and Kazimierz in particular, I soon found out, and one of my favorite little details about the neighborhood I chose to stay in), the décor was just the right amount of kitsch, and there was live music.
For my dinner, I ordered roast duck breast with cranberry sauce, potatoes, and side salad as well as a glass of wine. It cost me less than $20 total, not bad for my “treat yourself” meal! If I hadn’t been so full (seriously, the portion sizes were very generous), I may have even ordered a small dessert.
Instead of heading straight back to the hotel to sleep after dinner, however, I ended up walking a couple of streets over to Eszeweria, a cozy (more candles!) bar on Józefa street. The weather wasn’t quite cold enough to call for it, but I decided to order a mulled beer anyway because why the hell not. And so my night wound down with some reading by candlelight, clearly as good an indicator as any that this weekend was getting started on the right foot.
It was an early wake-up for me this morning (another habit I have during my solo trips), as I wanted to get a good breakfast (and coffee) in before heading out on the first of the two free walking tours I wound up taking while here. For my breakfast, I walked about a half hour north of my hostel, towards Krakow’s main train station, to check out Wesola Café, a spot that had come up in my research into the local coffee scene. The café was pretty packed when I got there, but I managed to snag a spot by the window to enjoy my filling breakfast of warm, spiced millet with fresh fruit accompanied by a very much needed flat white.
After polishing off my breakfast, I walked the short distance over to the former gate into the Old Town to meet up with my walking tour (organized with Walkative). Our two hour excursion took us through several sites, such as:
The aforementioned Barbicon gate:
The central market square, featuring (in order) Saint Mary’s Basilica, Cloth Hall, and the lone remaining tower of what was once Krakow’s town hall
Poland’s first university (founded by King Casimir the Great)
Before finally ending at Wawel castle
As far as free tours go, I would recommend this one, but I was not exactly the biggest fan of the guide who was a bit more brief in his explanations of things than I would have liked (this is personal preference though). That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to these things, and I will say that I had a much better experience with the guide on the second tour (moral of the story: try and go for current/former history students). Plus, it did kill about two hours of the day, which was good since I didn’t have anything else planned until much later in the afternoon.
Still, it was only just after noon when the tour let out, so there was a little question about what to do in the meantime. This issue was promptly resolved with a brisk walk across the river and to the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art. Now, those of you who look up the museum on Google Maps will notice that it is located just next door to Oskar Schindler’s former factory (now a museum with a permanent exhibition on WWII and the Holocaust). I ended up not going to visit the factory on this trip, instead opting for the decidedly less crowded art museum, which at the moment was also hosting several exhibitions on or around the Holocaust.
I managed to kill another couple of hours browsing around here, leaving me plenty of time to walk back to my room, rest up for a quick minute, and then head out again to my next activity (and the reason why I skipped lunch that day).
Yes, everyone, it was time for my food tour.
Unlike the other two tours I have taken on my solo travels thus far, this one (Delicious Kazimierz operated by Delicious Poland Food Tours) did not center around touring a market but rather on visiting different places in the Kazimierz neighborhood. One of the advantages of this approach is that it puts visitors in contact with locally-run places at the same time as it showcases what the city/Poland have to offer, culinarily-speaking. I can happily say that I ended up adding a couple of places to my mapstr after taking the tour (for when I eventually come back, of course). The group was relatively small (12 total, including the guide), and the overall atmosphere was very convivial, I’d say more so than the other two tours I had been on previously in Budapest and Riga.
Though the beer and vodka may have also helped a bit with that.
And it was definitely a good thing that I came hungry too because I was positively STUFFED afterwards. Here’s a brief rundown of what we tried.
Four different kinds of pierogi, including potato and cheese, mushroom and cabbage, spinach, cheese and garlic, and “sweet” plum with sour cream. Those are the potato/cheese pierogi (also known as Russian-style pierogi) in the photo.
Several different Polish tapas like herring, smoked kielbasa (this is the way it’s traditionally eaten here, so a big difference from the kielbasa in the States), grilled mountain cheese with cranberry sauce, pickles, and sliced Cracowian bagels topped with mushrooms or apples and thin slices of lard. These were also accompanied by a tasting of two different vodkas: the famous bison-grass vodka that is usually taken as a shot (and pairs very well with the herring) and then a digestif vodka flavored with quince that is meant to be sipped.
Zapiekanka, a sort of Polish pizza made from a baguette topped with cheese, mushroom, ketchup (yes, this was invented around the 80s, so there’s an explanation for everything) and chives. The nosh of choice for folks here after a night out (though kebab is starting to make some inroads).
Two different craft beers locally brewed by an organization who uses the proceeds from their sales to fund bear conservation in the mountains where the beer is made. If you’re ever in Krakow, I recommend checking Ursa Maior out for yourself.
Then it was on to dinner which featured two soups (sourdough soup and beetroot soup with meat dumplings) followed by a variety of mains: potato pancakes with Polish-style goulash and sour cream to top them with, hunter’s stew (sort of like a choucroute garnie in that its main components are cabbage and pork products), and cabbage stuffed with beef/veal and rice and topped with tomato sauce.
And because we weren’t already almost full to the brim, there were also apple fritters with a sour cream and red fruits dipping sauce.
You’d think I would have just rolled myself back to my room after this (the hostel was only two minutes away), but instead I decided to have a nightcap at Alchemia, a local bar with an underground venue that happened to be hosting a series of jazz concerts that weekend.
I won’t say too much about this other than it was very experimental jazz. Like, incredibly so. If I could post sound clips on here, I would, but for now, just imagine a dude playing a guitar with a teacup, and you’ll get what I mean.
It was an overall early night though because the next day I had to get up incredibly early (well, actually earlier than even I had originally anticipated, since a headache that had been ‘nagging’ me all day decided to kick into high gear that night…joy).
I started my early (as in out of the hostel by 06h15 early) morning by marching over to the only 24hr pharmacy I could find within a reasonable vicinity, picking up some ibuprofen, grabbing a coffee and apple muffin from one of the only bakeries open that early that was also on my planned route, and then hopping on a charter bus. The bus was part of the other reason for my deciding to spend the weekend in Krakow. Rather than touring more of the city, I was going to spend the morning on a guided visit of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Coming to visit this site has been on my mind for a number of years now, but it gained a sense of urgency with the current state of things in the world. I have no immediate connection to the site. Going was, instead, more about furthering my own education. Prior to this, I had never visited a site of a once-active concentration camp. I had, however, visited several museums and exhibits dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, the most affecting of these having been the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. I was fourteen then, and it was while on a trip with my Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember much about that visit, except I think it’s highly likely that my eventual decision to want to visit Auschwitz in person originated there. I think it may have felt something like a responsibility I owed to those who were slaughtered or the comparative few who survived there that someone of my generation go.
Honestly, it’s a somewhat similar reasoning to one I would give if someone were to ask me if I ever would want to visit a plantation. For the record, I have (in New Orleans), but what was notable about this one, and where I as a visitor ended up spending the most time, was in the former slave quarters where a new exhibit was just getting off the ground, documenting the reality of life in and around that ornament of a house. The younger generation owes it to the past to acknowledge and directly confront moments like this, and then learn from them, even though such a process may be difficult.
With Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, one thing that I had not really counted on as much as I should have was how much “notoriety” it as a memorial/tourist site has built up. Yes, I was very much aware before going on the controversies surrounding the taking of selfies or staged “insta-worthy” photos along the tracks leading to the main gates of Birkenau. Thankfully, I didn’t see any of this on my visit. No, what ended up standing out more during this visit was the number of people who were there in the first place.
The question of mass tourism is one that gets brought about often with regards to cities (see: Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and even many areas of Paris), and I think soon it will have to be reckoned with in regards to sites like this one. On the one hand, more people visiting and educating themselves on the history of the place is good for the spreading of knowledge. On the other hand, sites like this one are not quite the same as ancient ruins or big cities. Sites like this were designed (especially in the case of Birkenau) to torture and kill en masse, and as such, demand a different approach on the part of the visitor.
I’m not saying everyone must go in expecting a profound, life-changing experience. That would be fetishizing the space on a somewhat different level (and commodifying it even further than it already is, in a way). What I will say though is that pushing and shoving (more so from some individual visitors than guided groups as a whole), snapping a photo and moving on without regard for others in the (relatively small) exhibition rooms is a bit much. Of course not everyone will want to linger on everything, but when your guide (who was otherwise very informative) starts getting exasperated and cutting some bits of her lecture short, it tends to put a different perspective on things.
The sites can be visited independently or with a licensed guide (what I ended up doing). If I had to do it again, I would have likely tried to find a way to get there myself and done an independent visit. The site at Auschwitz overall is very well-curated, and there are brochures/guidebooks available in several different languages to accompany the already-displayed plaques, should visitors want more information. Due to the difference in building material (bricks here, versus primarily wood in Birkenau), the bunkers here that formerly housed prisoners have been transformed as exhibit spaces and archival storage. Our guide took us through most of the spaces dedicated to specific aspects of the history of the place, but there were several others that, due to time, we were unable to visit as a group. These included former barracks now dedicated to exhibits curated by the different countries prisoners were taken from. It is, in short, a site that demands a few hours of visitation should one want the time to truly engage with everything there (and one should take the time…really).
Birkenau, on the other hand, was a bit different. Birkenau (at least for me) was when the scope of everything in that space hit the strongest. I don’t know if I can properly explain in words what walking down the central pathway by the train tracks was like, looking out onto a great, open expanse of rows of what were once wooden bunkers, the rows neatly planned out, straight lines, each bunker equidistant from the other. There’s a line of trees at the back, beyond the barbed wire, just behind the memorial, pictured above. And it’s quiet there. And you are very exposed.
We were able to walk there on our own a little bit more before we had to be back on the bus. The time for reflection was welcome, in my case.
After getting back to Krakow, I grabbed a small sandwich for lunch (I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and it was already 14h15), before heading to Cloth Hall in the main square for some souvenir shopping (earrings, of course). After making my purchase, I popped upstairs for a quick peek at the 19th Century Polish Art Gallery, a branch of the National Museum of Krakow.
And I found a little slice of home there. Honestly, I didn’t even have to read the accompanying placard to know exactly what this painting was depicting.
While I was walking around the gallery, I decided that I still had it in me (and my legs) to do one last walking tour. A visit in Kazimierz centered around the history of the Jewish community in the city before and after the war (there was another tour focused on the War/the Holocaust, but that was starting in the neighborhood where the former ghetto was located, and a bit too far from where I was) was going to be starting a couple of hours later, giving me plenty of time to grab a little something sweet beforehand.
The Polish-style almond cheesecake from Ciastkarnia Vanilla hit just the spot, considering, again, how very little I had eaten that day.
As alluded to earlier, this second tour was provided by the same group as the first, though this time with a different (and more engaging) guide. We started our visit at the Old Synagogue
Before moving on to hit some other sites
Of course, a stop in the courtyard where they filmed some scenes from Schindler’s List was also included (several others in the group seemed rather excited about this bit).
And by the time the tour ended, it was dark, and I was starting to feel the first rumblings of hunger for my dinner. So, after a quick stop back into Eszeweria for a cozy glass of wine in a very comfy armchair (and the candles, I still could not get enough of them), I was heading back to the Old Town for one last dinner.
To say that U Babci Maliny is a bit tricky to find is an understatement. I mean, there is a sign above the building whose courtyard (well, courtyard basement) it is housed in indicating that you’ve come to the right place, but when the door to the building seems to lead to a library, it tends to inspire confusion rather than confidence.
Luckily a group of (French, of course, they follow me everywhere) tourists was about to walk in as well so…I followed them in. Once you cross the main hall and enter the courtyard, there is another little sign with the restaurant’s logo, only this time, it’s above the actual entrance.
The name of the place roughly translates to Grandma Raspberry. Staying on theme, immediately to the left of the entryway was an older woman, dressed not unlike the woman in the logo, knitting and pointing patrons in the direction of the dining room. Once inside, it’s pretty casual. You go to the counter, order your food off their (rather extensive) menu, they give you a number, you grab a seat and wait for it to be called out.
I went for some mushroom and cabbage pierogi (boiled, of course, as the food guide from the day before mentioned they should be) with a red cabbage salad on the side, so thankfully my food didn’t take too long to come.
And with that, it was back to the hostel, and back to sleep. The next day, I woke up just early enough to make it to Wesola for one final breakfast right when it opened (and before the crowds descended) before hopping on the bus to the airport and flying home.
Overall, I am very happy with how this trip went. Honestly, Krakow might just beat out Budapest for my favorite of my solo destinations (at least so far). At the very least, I can honestly say that, as with Budapest, I left Krakow feeling as though I needed to come back and see more of it.
Or at least to eat more pierogi.