Friday December 1st – Day 2, Krakow
Having arrived when we did the night before, we had no food available in the apartment (we could have done a small amount of shopping in one of the many 24 hour “supermarkets” that Carrefour run in Krakow but couldn’t be bothered) so we had a quick hot drink and set out in pursuit of breakfast.
My aim was the Cafe Noworolski, which was in the guidebooks as providing a perfectly decent breakfast in a stunningly art nouveau interior just inside the Cloth Hall, often to the accompaniment of live music. And so it proved. The piano player was pretty smooth too.
The rooms are beautifully decorated, the interiors originally designed by Józef Mehoffer, with each one having a different set of designs, and although service was on the slow side (and we had to remind the waitress that she hadn’t delivered one element of the promised Viennese breakfast) we were adequately set up for the day after a portion of coddled eggs, some very good bread rolls, and the Edam cheese – though what is Viennese about Edam I have no idea!
Outside the Christmas market was in full swing, so after we finished breakfast we wandered through the stalls to see what was on offer. If we liked what was saw then we planned to do a little Christmas shopping, though not immediately. This was more in the nature of a recce. Our investigation showed us that there were plenty of good things to purchase, unlike some Christmas markets where all you’ll find is cheap Chinese-made tat. There were local food specialities, clothing, jewellery, toys and sweets as well as some lovely (but fragile) tree decorations, Christmas wreaths, and a selection of hot drinks (mostly of the mulled variety).
This is basically the part of town that I already knew, with the massive square, the remains of the old town hall (just the tower) and the glorious Sukiennice, the Cloth Hall, which has been there in one form or another since the 1300s. It originally sold, as the name suggests, fabrics, along with high value items like salt, which was mined nearby.
It was cold out, so we walked briskly through the southern part of the old town, heading for the royal castle complex on Wawel hill. In effect we were walking down the so-called Royal Route which used to be taken by Polish monarchs en route to their coronations, right up to the time when the capital moved to Warsaw in the 1590s. There’s a massive amount to see at Wawel and we knew that tickets had to be bought in advance for some of the attractions.
As it turned out we were able to get tickets for timed entry to the State Rooms, and after to the Treasury and Armoury but there were no tickets for the Royal Private Apartments, which you can only visit on pre-booked guided tours. The earliest we could get any for was Tuesday so we booked them and figured we’d work out the logistics on the day. So my advice is to book in advance (and by in advance we’re talking submitting a form several days ahead of your planned visit).
The courtyard of the main castle is stunning, as well as surprising, in that the last thing you expect that far to the north and east of Europe is a Renaissance Palace that would not look out of place in Verona or similar – and is apparently the largest Renaissance Castle in the world. There was a certain amount of building work going on (apparently a lift is being added to make the complex more accessible) and the slippery surfaces meant you had to be careful where you walked, but we were soon lining up to see the interiors. There’s a security check, you are asked to put on plastic shoe coverings, and finally you are in.
We didn’t take the audioguides on offer, though maybe we should have done. However, even without them there is quite a lot of information on offer, particularly describing the original (and not so original) frescoes around the tops of each room. The best of these are the work of Hans Dürer, brother of the rather more famous Albrecht (and no bad artist in his own right it would seem). None of the furniture is original, though it is all of the period – this is because the castle has had a chequered career and a lot of restoration work had to be done to cure the ravages of time, fire, and a spell as a barracks for the occupying Austrians. It’s a miracle the building has survived at all really. There are no photos as it’s not permitted, though I did sneak the odd one on the staircase outside the apartments, looking out over the town.
After that we really needed a hot drink, but we were straight into the Treasury and Armoury, which again was intriguing. It contains some of the Polish royal regalia including what may or may not be the original coronation sword, as well as an alarming collection of seriously nasty-looking weaponry. There’s also a display of cannon from the Battle of Grunwald, and a display jewelled sharp, pointy things! Again, no pictures and sadly also no comprehensive guidebook either, which seemed a shame to me.
We were beginning to feel very cold again, so it was now emphatically time for a coffee (and as it turned out also a piece of fresh Polish cheesecake, a lovely, light, fluffy confection that filled a gap usefully). The purveyor of this refreshment was the Trattori Wawel based to one side of the visitor centre. It would have been even nice in there if we could have persuaded our fellow guests that when they left, shutting the door would have been a good idea.
By the time we’d finished, the sun was starting to go down spectacularly beyond the Vistula.
And just by way of contrast, as the sun vanished, a gorgeous full moon started to rise.
We walked back via the walls of the castle, and back through the old town. By the time we reached the main square again (Rynek Główny, the largest medieval market square in Central Europe) we were feeling ready to roll, so we hit the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Painting which is in the Cloth Hall. It’s just four rooms (and one of them was closed during our visit) but it’s utterly glorious – there are some stunning art works in there, some of them also quite disturbing, most especially the work which started the collection,
Afterwards we stopped off to do a little shopping to make sure we’d have something for breakfast over the remainder of the trip, and then headed back to the apartment since it was getting much colder now.
After changing for dinner we walked back through the Florianska Gate and down to the main square, where despite our best efforts we completely failed to get a pre-dinner drink in Norowolski (though we were again entertained by the pianist). Giving it up as a bad job when we couldn’t get the attention of any of the staff, we decided we’d be better just going straight to the restaurant instead.
Tonight we planned on dining at Wentzl, a hotel restaurant in one of the splendid old buildings that line the square. I’d dined here before and it had been good, so I was optimistic. That optimism was not misplaced. It is, and here I quote: “Located in a fine fifteenth century building on Kracow’s Rynek… The splendid Renaissance interior is famous for its distinguished collection of paintings from Wojciech Fibak’s “Ecole de Paris” cycle.” It has – off and on – been a restaurant since 1792, so that is quite a history. There is, however, nothing outdated about the cooking.
After some consideration we opted for the seven course tasting menu of “Traditional Wentzl Dishes”, which again might suggest an old-fashioned approach. Well apart from the price (approximately £50 for the seven course option), it was bang up to date.
The amuse bouche that came while we drank a glass of Champagne was a cheese mousse, drizzled with honey, which reminded us both of why cheese and honey is such a good idea! It’s something I first ate a long time ago, in le Pain Quotidien in Stokkel, in Brussels back when that establishment was not a worldwide chain (and it came as an open sandwich of brie on rye bread, with honey). And damn it was good. Even the best part of two decades later it sticks in the memory!