Tuesday December 5th – Day 6, Krakow
Tuesday was our last day and so after breakfast we tidied up the apartment, dropped off the keys and hauled our suitcases to the offices of the travel company who would be responsible for taking us to the airport in the evening. We were there just before 09:00 because we had a lot we wanted to achieve on our final day including the bits of Wawel Castle we had not been able to visit earlier in the trip, and a food tour of Kazimierz and its environs, which would serve as lunch, food being very much on our minds.
The offices are on Plac Szczepanksi and on one side is the remarkably lovely Stary Teatr, decorated in deliciously Art Nouveau style on the outside. The inside did not appear to be accessible so we settled for cooing over the motifs and then headed down towards Rynek Glowny as usual, this time with intent to have a hot drink prior to legging it down to Wawel, where we had times tickets for the Private Apartments tour, and a plan to try and fit the Cathedral in as well if we possibly could.
Refreshed, we walked down to the castle, which was very quite at that time of the morning, and navigated our way to the Cathedral ticket office (which is not in the same place as the Castle ticket office, confusingly). The Cathedral is stunning inside, though not as overwhelming as St. Mary’s Basilica, in that some surfaces at least remain unpainted. There is a very strict order of visit though, and if the arrows and signs are not enough, a number of staff hang about too to point you, disapprovingly, in the right direction should you stray. The cathedral, otherwise known as the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill, is the third building on the site, the first two having burned down. The rather more robust stone iteration has been here since the 1300s and was consecrated in 1364. It was build on the orders of Władysław the Short (or more entertainingly Władysław the Elbow-high) and he was the first King of Poland to be crowned there.
The centre of the building houses the tomb of St. Stanisłaus (1030-1079), Bishop of Krakow, martyred after basically falling out with King Bolesław II the Bold, initially over a tract of land. It would lead to the King murdering the Bishop, and a very unlikely story about the quarters of Stanislaus’ body reuniting that serves as a metaphor for Poland. Anyway, it’s a very ornate tomb (as the following photo – which is not mine – shows)…
There is also – after a pretty tricky climb up some very steep wooden stairs which I would not recommend to the not so limber – the massive Sigismund Bell, all 13 tonnes of it (28,000 lbs!). The bell was cast in 1520 by Hans Behem, and it needs a dozen bell-ringers to ring it. It’s not the only bell in the tower, but it is the biggest one; in fact it’s so big that within the confines of the tower I couldn’t get far enough away from it to get all of it in shot. Apparently it’s audible up to 30km away, so I’m just glad it didn’t go off while I was up there!
After clambering back down the other side of the tower (they have a one say system which is just as well given how narrow the steps are) and figuring out where I was in relation to where I’d started, I found Lynne and we continued round the cathedral.
The interior features 18 spectacular chapels, including the 15th century Chapel of the Holy Cross, found to the right as you enter and featuring some wonderful Russian murals as well as Veit Stoss’ 1492 marble sarcophagus to Kazimierz IV. Photography was not permitted so again you’ll have to have someone else’s photo of the stunning ceiling in there.
From there we went down into St, Leonard’s Crypt where kings and statesmen rest now. I did sneak a photo or two down there:
The crypt holds the tombs of Polish kings and heroes including Michael I, John III Sobieski, Marie Casimire, Józef Poniatowski, Tadeusz Kościuszko, Władysław Sikorski and former president Lech Kaczyński. To add to its historical significance, at least for Catholics, Pope John Paul II said his first Mass on the altar here on November 2nd, 1946, a day after he was ordained.
Outside the cathedral is a collection of massive bones which some will try and tell you are the bones of the dragon Smok (killed by a smart cobbler using a sheep full of sulphur – don’t ask). However, it looks more likely that the bones are of a more conventional animal like a whale or a mammoth, though no one is about to take them away to examine them because the locals claim they have magic properties, which protected the city from destruction in the past.
We now had to scoot to the castle courtyard for our scheduled guided tour of the Wawel Private Apartments. We’d booked it on the Friday and this was the earliest possible slot we could get. It was worth the effort, and our guide was both informative and interesting, and was more than happy to answer questions. I was slightly disappointed afterwards to find that there’s no comprehensive guidebook for the complex, just some quite sketchy booklets aimed squarely at the tourist rather than a serious tome, which I would have liked to take away with me. Regardless of the availability or otherwise of serious reading matter, I would highly recommend including this in any trip to Krakow.
From Wawel we needed to head over to our rendezvous for the tour, but on the way we wanted to take a short refreshment break. We walked through the Planty Park, the gardens that replaced the old city walls under Austrian rule. A side street revealed a small and very charming restaurant and wine shop where we stopped for coffee. We had been warned not to eat too much so we stuck to just drinks, though I’m sure we would have enjoyed whatever Klimaty Poludnia had to offer.
We talked some more about Polish Christmas traditions, including that of eating carp for dinner, and the fact that people used to have to keep the live carp in their baths because they often didn’t have a fridge back in the communist era. As we talked we reached a milk bar. Now these don’t just serve milk but are in fact remnants of the Communist era (though the first one dates from quite a while before that) and are technically workers cafes, where you can get a solid plate of food for very little money. Anyone can go in and eat, and we were barged out of the way by a very fierce little old lady who was clearly keen to get to her lunch and not at all keen on having to get past a tour group (albeit 5 people) to do so.
From the milk bar we walked over to Kazimierz and to the rather lovely Zalewajka restaurant, named after the sourdough soup. It should be no surprise that that is what we ate there, starting with a portion of the eponymous zalewajka itself. With a scattering of dill, and chunks of potato it reminded me somewhat of the fish soups we ate in Finland, though obviously minus the fish, and is obviously a peasant dish developed back when food was scarce and you needed something warming after a day in the fields. I love the hint of sourness that runs through this and have plans to try and make my own some time soon.
Our next stop was Plac Nowy where we would be trying zapiekanka, the Polish answer to pizza. The central building in the market square is an old kosher slaughterhouse, divided into around 20 stalls all selling exactly the same thing, zapiekanka, a chunk of roasted baguettes covered in mushrooms and topped with melted cheese (though apparently some stalls offer versions without cheese or mushrooms which seems a bit fundamental, while others warn that their offering contains mushrooms and cheese!). Apparently this is the go to snack at 2 in the morning when you’ve had too much beer. I have to say that even at 2 in the afternoon, when you haven’t been drinking it’s a pretty tasty option. Most Krakovians have their favourite vendor, and Kamila too us to Zapiekanka Gastro where the baguette was just the right side of crisp, the mushrooms and cheese were in the right proportion for my tastes, and for our fellow guest, Ashley too.
Suitably fortified, it was now time for something a little more liquid. We checked in to Mleczarnia to try some vodkas. We started with the famous zubrowka (or bison grass) vodka, which I must admit I have a fondness for, before we moved through three more varieties. Next up was Soplica Czysta, a pure unflavoured vodka, made by Soplica, one of Poland’s first industrial producers of vodka. The liquid in the glass was clear, and very, very smooth to the taste. The next sample was a quince flavoured one, Soplica Pigwa, which is apparently the bottle Poles reach for if they have a cold coming on. Kamila said that it was something she’d often been given as a child if she was unwell. To be fair, it did taste somewhat medicinal! The final shot was walnut (Soplica Orzech) which I personally enjoyed much more than the quince. The bar itself is done up to look very old, with lots of knick knacks and photos from around the 1900s adorning the walls, and looked like it might be a fun place to stop off.
We were now ready for more food and were escorted to Kuchnia u Doroty, which is hugely popular, especially at weekends, and which serves solid, no-nonsense Polish dishes, many of them involving pork. We started with krokiety (croquettes), which were very solid, substantial beasts that would sneer at the Dutch or Spanish idea of croquettes! In fact the one we had was so big it had to be cut into three…
I found it a bit dry and was grateful for the cup of kompot (a fruit juice made from dried fruits) that came with it. I’d happily eat on with some sauce though. We also had a buraczki, a salad using the almost ubiquitous beetroot which had chunks of apple and onion studded through it.
The placki ziemniaczane z gulaszem was potato pancake with goulash, the pancakes made with grated potato and cooked till golden and crisp. I could have eaten a bucket load of that but was trying to exercise some restraint.
Restraint was needed because we also has samples of gołąbki (cabbage rolls) and bigos (a cabbage stew that contains generous amounts of meat of the porcine variety).
The cabbage roll was very like a sausage roll in terms of the texture of the filling, very savoury with a hit of paprika that I loved. The bigos I wasn’t so keen on, having experience of making my own. I found this version to be a bit watery, and though I liked the taste it seemed a mite underpowered compared to what I’m used to.
And then, as if we hadn’t eaten enough there was racuchy for dessert. This is a pancake, though rather thicker than a crepe or a British pancake, made with a sweet batter, strewn with icing sugar and served with a fruit compote. It’s the taste of childhood for many Poles according to Kamila, and I could see why. It’s a simple thing but delicious and comforting.
Full of food now, we were running out of steam, so it’s just as well we had just one more stop to make, to try some locally brewed beers. The final stop was the magnificently shabby Ursa Maior, run by a woman who knows how to brew beer if the two we tried were anything to go by. We drank a small glass each of Megaloman (an American IPA) and Rejwach na Kazimierzu (a Belgian Summer Ale). They were very different, and both equally good, even if the weather really wasn’t right for the second one. Oh and just in case we were still hungry there were chunks of Oscypek cheese, pieces of kiełbasa myśliwska (hunters sausage) and some tiny kabanos (smoked sausage) to ensure we didn’t starve!
It was now 4pm and the tour was over. We thanked Kamila and Göksel, said goodbye to Ashley, and legged it back to collect our bags and get the car to the airport to head for home. We had thoroughly enjoyed Krakow and would recommend a visit at pretty much any time of year.