Saturday December 2nd – Day 3, Krakow
I started the day with a 5k run as Krakow has a parkrun of its own. Leaving Lynne in the lovely, warm apartment I headed out into the cold, layered up with every piece of running gear I had with me (vest, sweater, jacket, two head-protectors, gloves, the works) and was still frozen by the time I reached the venue, Blonia Park, a flat park on the edge of the old town that used to be used for ceremonial events. It was -5C and a lot of runners were gathered, stamping their feet, swinging their arms and generally trying to keep the blood flow to their extremities going! It was so cold it hurt, so I was very happy when someone yelled to Polish equivalent of “Go!” and we all set off. I ran most of it with a fellow tourist, Mark, from Cambridge as we had a similar pace (or in my case these days, lack of pace) and afterwards there was hot apple tea and someone distributed toffees, before I walked back into town to have a shower and thaw out.
After a late breakfast we headed out to try and do as much of the old town walk that I’d read up on in the In Your Pocket guide as possible. Incidentally, if you don’t know these guides, they are really very thorough, very up-to-date, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. I first used them in the late 2000s when we went to Bucharest, and was impressed by their general attitude and their accuracy (as well as their refusal to sugar coat things). If you’re travelling anywhere in Eastern Europe, I would check whether they cover your destination and download any relevant guides. Oh, and they’re also free.
The walk started at the Barbakan (but it was closed for the Winter) so we admired this sturdy survivor of the 15th century fortification effort, and then took a look at the 14th century Florianska gate and the actual remainder of the city walls (also closed for the Winter months). It’s but a short hop from there to the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, which has been in use since 1893. It was designed by Jan Zawiejski, and is considered one of the most important examples of theatre architecture in Europe apparently. Unfortunately it too was closed, so we had to settle for admiring it from the outside! It was becoming a bit of a theme.
From there, instead of heading up Florianska street, we sidled round the back to the spectacular St. Mary’s Basilica, which dominates the approach to Rynek Glowny. The church is – as so many are – on the site of a much earlier Romanesque church that was destroyed by the Tartars, and the replacement was consecrated in the 1320s.
It’s changed a bit since then, and is in fact one of the most spectacular church interiors I’ve ever seen. I don’t think there’s a solid surface that hasn’t been painted. The vaulted ceiling in particular is utterly gorgeous.
Over the centuries, the church underwent numerous reconstructions of both its exterior and interior, and is fascinating with side-chapels, and gilt everywhere! They really have thrown everything at this one…
However, the real highlight is the late Gothic altarpiece (1477–1489) which is the work of Veit Stoss, and is breathtaking. It is apparently the largest altarpiece of its kind anywhere in the world, and it’s so detailed, so fine, that it’s no wonder that it is regarded as one of Poland’s great treasures.
In the early 15th century the towers were completed, with the northern tower being made into a watchtower. This is where the hejnał mariacki bugle call is played every hour on the hour. The story may or may not be true (and may even have been invented by an American journalist), but the tune stops mid-melody in honour of a possibly mythical trumpeter who was shot in the neck while trying to warn the city’s inhabitants of a Mongol invasion.
After we’d completed our circuit of the church, we headed outside looking for hot chocolate, with little success. The Restaurant Sukiennice had a notice claiming they had hot chocolate, but when we asked, we were told the machine had broken down. They had “cacao” which was pretty much powdered instant hot chocolate, which wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind though it would do in such cold weather.
It did also provide an answer to the question that had raised its head the night before as to whether you could grow wine in Poland or not. Turns out you can!
Suitably defrosted we headed round to pick up tickets for the Rynek Underground museum then continued to see what there was to see on the Old Town walk. This included this chap who sits outside one of the cafes (he was a regular in life and remains so after death):
We took in the Town Hall Tower, which is all that is left of what looks like it would have been a truly spectacular building had it survived the centuries unscathed. We took the advice of the guidebook which suggested that the inside was not especially interesting, and didn’t bother paying to go and look at the interior. We did however wander round the outside trying to work out which way it leans. It may be a lean of 55cm but we couldn’t quite see it ourselves.
From there we continued down to the very fine St. Francis’ Basilica, which is another highly decorated church, this time done in more recent times. This is an art nouveau masterpiece, and once again there is barely a surface without decoration. although the church is 13th Century, it was painted by Stanisław Wyspiański, who was clearly a man of many talents, not least of them being representing flowers!
He also seems to have been good at windows…
After we’d browsed around we headed back to Rynek, so that we could see the fascinating Rynek Underground museum. We’d picked up tickets earlier in the day for it as it’s yet another of the attractions with both timed entry and limited numbers at any given time. It’s a good thing in many ways, though it does mean you need to be a bit clever about what you want to see and when. The Underground Museum is a brilliant exploration of the history of Krakow, with particular reference to the Cloth Hall itself and it’s very chequered history. I didn’t take any photos in the museum, though it was permitted – my camera had taken against Krakow and the flash had jammed. No amount of cursing or for that matter poking at it with various instruments made any difference so I was stuck with ambient light (and there was nowhere near enough of that). For once I’d opted not to bring a spare camera either…
Anyway, having learned a lot about the development of the area, around two and a half hours after we’d gone in, we came back out, blinking into the Christmas lights and desperate for a drink! On the way out is the Arkady Cafe and Shot Bar, which is mostly underground, though apparently has a separate entrance upstairs, and we quickly established that their opening hours were very different to the Museum’s hours. We ordered cake and finally, three days in, got a real hot chocolate along with the world’s densest chocolate cake!
From there it was a short haul back through the snow to the apartment for a relatively quick change, and a tram ride back across town to the Jewish Quarter (Kasimierz) and our restaurant for the evening. This should have been simple – but wasn’t. First we found a tram stop on the right line, but only on one side. This meant if we got the tram there we’d be going the wrong way. So round the corner we headed where we finally found the right stop, only to realise we’d just missed the tram we needed and the next one was around 20 minutes away, with the snow coming down heavier than ever.
When it finally arrived we had to figure out which stop we needed to get off at. This proved far easier and within a few minutes we were shaking the snow off our boots in the doorway of Studio Qulinarne, a very avant garde kitchen in an old and lovingly converted old bus garage, with some very odd decor!
A short stay in the cocktail bar section while we took it turns to dry off in the ladies’ room (the towels in there came in very handy for drying snow-sodden hair) netted us a pair of cocktails in the shape of a very pleasant Kir Imperiale (made with cava and Chambord). We were off to a good start, and it was even better when the lovely waiting staff spirited our snow-covered boots away to a cupboard somewhere; the last time I made a snow coated entrance like that to a restaurant in was the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna back in about 2001!
After we finished our drinks, we were happy to be shown to our table, by a window and underneath on of the upside-down Christmas trees. A study of the menu was relatively easy as they only do a 5- or 7-course set menu. The 7-course looked excellent so we decided to go for it, with a matching wine pairing, asking the sommelier if they would make sure we could try some Polish wines as part of the selection. They were more than willing to do that…
A tiny selection of amuse bouches arrived promptly along with a glass of Champagne. There was lightly pickled broccoli, cod, smoked goose, and a lovely foie gras mousse.
There was also bread, and butter but we tried to stay away from that, at least until we got an idea of the size of the portions. The people on the next table were a course ahead, and it didn’t look too scary, but it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security!
The first course was bull trout, not a fish I’d encountered before, but not so different from salmon or normal trout, with beetroot and dill. It was delicate, with the fish coming through strongly despite the presence of the dill (which can be overpowering but wasn’t). The beetroot was very gently pickled and lovely – I’m over being beetrooted-out after Copenhagen now I think…
Sadly I don’t have a list of the wines we drank with each course, so I’ll just say they were excellent choices. The next course was a tender, tasty piece of rabbit with basil and celery, which again could have been overpowered by the herb but instead of gloriously enhanced. It was also beautifully fragile looking.
The next course should have been pork with onion and Brussels sprouts, but as neither of use get on that well with pork, and Lynne hates Brussels sprouts, I’d let the kitchen know in advance that we would like a substitute. They gave us, instead, a glorious cod dish with tomato and bull trout “salt”, which turned out to be the skin, roasted, dried and crumbled. Damn, but this was a good one, the perfectly flaked fish swimming in a tomato consomme.
The fish theme continued with zander with apple and sour cream, a fresh, crisp plateful with a lovely dense sour cream quenelle, that we both thoroughly enjoyed. We were starting to feel we’d made exactly the right restaurant choice for a Saturday night.
Things took a fresh turn with the meat course, which was described as deer with jerusalem artichoke and coffee. Coffee really can enhance the flavour of strong, gamey meat and it certainly did its job here. The Jerusalem artichokes were actually very good too, and it’s not a vegetable I can usually see the point of – in fact prior to this, the only time I’ve really enjoyed it was as a Jerusalem artichoke cappuccino a long time ago at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
We were on the home straight not, with desserts – in the plural of course. First up was hibiscus and plum, the main attraction a plum ice cream, with a variety of extras. It was lively, tasty, and also refreshing after all that fish, and the depths of the venison.
A second dessert was caramel, peanuts and popcorn. It didn’t disappoint, the caramel and peanut cake offering some surprising textures and tastes to round off the meal.
All that remained was to eat the petit fours, which were thankfully very restrained, and pay the bill.
The restaurant ordered us a taxi and we coasted home through the snow, happily full of food, and insulated from the weather.