I heard the Trabant long before I saw it. I even smelled the Trabant long before I saw it. And when the cloud of exhaust fumes eventually cleared and I did see it, I wondered if it might be wiser to feign illness rather than get in for a tour of the Nowa Huta industrial district on the outskirts of Krakow.
But I needn’t have worried. Driver-guide Lukasz’s wife was expecting their first child any day, and there was no way the dreadlocked gentle giant who just about fitted behind the wheel was going to jeopardise being at the birth by risking a run-in with a tram. How Mrs. Lukasz felt about being driven to hospital in the middle of the night in a plastic car with an engine notorious for overheating and a plastic shell prone to melting, I don’t know. On the plus side, after inhaling all those gas oil fumes en route she wouldn’t have needed an epidural.
The sprawling Nowa Huta (New Steel Mill) was Stalin’s ‘gift’ to Krakow, where the England soccer team will be based for Euro 2012. It was a new workers’ city of towering tenements that aimed to redress much of the socio-economic imbalance in the old town where the stinking rich had for centuries lorded it over the smelly poor. But I don’t suppose Uncle Joe received many thank-you letters from the dispossessed farmers, generations of whom had worked the land owned by the Catholic Church on which building began in 1949.
Crazy Guides (www.crazyguides.com) offers two-hour Trabant tours of Nowa Huta (€33/£28 per person), and if you get a driver-guide as amiable and knowledgeable as Lukasz you’ll agree time does indeed fly when you’re enjoying yourself. Highlights include a visit to an apartment furnished in Soviet-era style where you can toast your good luck with a glass of vodka that you weren’t brought up under Communist rule and watch a propaganda film on a crackly old TV set. Such mind-numbing fare was staple viewing for Nowa Huta’s 200,000 residents, 38,000 of whom worked in the steel mill, but at least they didn’t have to put up with EastEnders, or they’d have been queuing to dive into the blast furnace.
I’ve been going to Krakow for long weekends several times a year since I first went in September 2008 on the recommendation of my friend Justyna Samolyk who’s from there but lives and studies in Belfast. I was back in Poland’s top tourist city three weeks ago (my 17th visit) for Justyna’s marriage to Belfast boy Brendan Bell, another friend of mine, in the splendid Church of St Augustine and John the Baptist. Call me a sentimental fool, but as I was present when they first met in the Oak Lounge of the Errigle Inn on the Ormeau Road it was an especially moving moment to see them exchanging their vows.
A moving moment of an altogether different kind came two minutes before Justyna and her dad walked down the aisle when usher Brendy McKeown, whose sole responsibility on the day was to seat the bride’s family and friends on the right and the groom’s on the left, suddenly realised he’d boobed and triggered a mad scramble to swap sides.
There was no such panic as I sat sipping a beer in the sunshine in the 13th century main square, Rynek Glowny, above, a couple of days before the ceremony. Weddings in Poland are marathon affairs that can last four days, so I was taking it nice and easy when a little old lady came over to my table, babbled something and thrust a pamphlet into my free hand. On the front were two photos side by side, one showing a big fat grumpy-looking guy with “PRZED” above it and the other of his thinner, happier self labelled “PO”. My Polish isn’t great, but I recognise “BEFORE” and “AFTER” when I see them. She’d given me a flyer for WeightWatchers.
This might have had something to do with my liking for Poland’s national dish, bigos, which has left me with a bit of a paunch. Bigos is a stodgy but delicious stew you can stand your spoon up in that contains chunks of beef, pork, venison, wild boar, smoked bacon, several sorts of sausage, sauerkraut, shredded white cabbage, onion, wild mushrooms, caraway seeds, black pepper and red wine. If there’s room, you can add a bayleaf. All this is simmered on a low heat over a couple of days or more, and left-over cuts of meat from other meals are thrown in as it bubbles away. The end result is God’s gift to gluttons, though I prefer to say gourmets.
Every Polish mother takes huge pride in her particular version of bigos, and every young Pole working in Ireland and Britain brings back a big frozen lump of it in their hold luggage after a visit home. As long as their return flights aren’t delayed they’ve nothing to worry about and can look forward to a traditional feast with their friends or housemates. But if that stuff starts to melt and leaks from its Tupperware container, the airport sniffer dogs go nuts. Worse, it takes about three hot washes to remove the stains from clothes, and even then they still smell of stew.
The best bigos I’ve had in Krakow is served not in a fancy, expensive restaurant but in cheap and cheerful Kuchnia u Doroty (Dorothy’s Kitchen) where the locals eat, at 25 Miodowa Street in the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz. If you’re really hungry, ask for the potato pancakes (placki) with goulash which will have you loosening your belt before you’re even halfway through, so don’t order a starter. If you’re just peckish, have some zurek (sour dough) soup followed by a plate of pierogi (stuffed dumplings). The WeightWatchers lady would approve of Dorothy’s beetroot soup (barszcz) with little mushroom dumplings, but if you go for this, sit very close to the table to avoid getting bright red drips in your lap. Barszcz is delicious, or as online reviewer Natalie wrote, “really tasty with a capital S”.
Another great Kazimierz restaurant is Ariel, above, at 18 Szeroka Street. The website critiques are mixed, with some people loving it, some hating it, and others moaning that it’s a rip-off, but I’ve had dinner there several times and have no complaints about the Jewish cuisine or the prices. In fact, it’s worth the cost of the flight just to try the speciality of the house, Berdytchov soup, a heavenly concoction of beef, beans, honey, cinnamon and paprika, the recipe for which is a closely-guarded secret going back generations. I don’t think even waterboarding would get it out of them. An added bonus of dining in Ariel is the live Klezmer music provided by some of the country’s most distinguished musicians while you eat (try the stuffed goose necks).
Steven Spielberg and the stars of his 1993 Oscar-winning Schindler’s List frequented Ariel when they were filming in Krakow, which is home to the enamelware factory where German industrialist Oskar Schindler employed and protected Jews from the Nazis. Just over 68,000 Jews lived in Krakow, mostly in Kazimierz, before German troops entered the city on September 1, 1939; eight months later, 53,000 of them were ordered out, ostensibly to be resettled in the surrounding countryside. In March 1941 the Krakow ghetto was established in the Podgorze district on the other side of the Vistula river, and the 15,000 Jews left in Kazimierz were force marched there to live four families to an apartment in an area that had been home to just 3,000 people. Conditions became even more appalling in October of the same year when 6,000 Jews from outlying villages were moved in. The systematic ‘liquidation’ of the ghetto took place between October 1942 and the following March when 19,000 people were transported in cattle trucks to slave labour and extermination camps. On March 13 and 14 some 2,000 starving souls considered unfit for work were shot dead in the streets. Today, around 1,000 Jews live in Krakow.
Diagonally opposite Ariel is the Remuh cemetery, established in 1533. Located beside the synagogue of the same name, its gravestones were smashed to pieces by Hitler’s henchmen and used for paving, while the cemetery itself was turned into a rubbish dump. Years later, many of the stones were recovered and put back together, and those beyond saving were incorporated in one of the renovated graveyard’s interior walls, below, as a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
If any greater reminder were needed, a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the Nazis murdered 1.1 million Jews and 200,000 Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies and members of other ethnic groups is a hugely sobering experience that proves overwhelming for many visitors. Tickets including return transport and a guided tour of Auschwitz, 65 kilometres west of Krakow, are available from most hotel reception desks and several excursion agencies throughout town for around €40/£35 per person.
Krakow can be bone-chillingly cold in winter and swelteringly hot in summer. The average high in January is 0C/33F and in July and August it’s 21C/71F (it was minus 14C when I took my Trabant tour in February and 20C for the wedding last month). The temperate spring, summer and autumn conditions make these the best times to visit, when life is lived outdoors and lunching and dining alfresco are a joy. Better still, the city authorities are intolerant of rowdy stag and hen parties that have made Dublin’s Temple Bar, Amsterdam and Prague such a pain, so you’re unlikely to be bothered by boozed-up buffoons. That’s not to say stags and hens aren’t welcome. Rather, they’re simply expected to behave and show a bit of respect for those who haven’t gone there to have bums and boobs flashed in their faces.
The best-known and most photographed face in Krakow belongs to sculptor Igor Mitoraj’s work, Eros Bendato (Eros Bound, otherwise known as the Big Head), in the main square. It’s hollow, meaning you can climb inside and stick your head through the eye holes for a quirky pic. Another popular pose, particularly with kids, is to stick a hand in one of the nostrils, which makes for a quirky pick. The bronze Big Head, below, serves as both a piece of art and a meeting place for friends who might be staying in different hotels or get separated while wandering around. It’s right in front of the Vis a Vis bar where you can sit and enjoy a pint of lager for just 8 zloties (€1.90/£1.70) — the cheapest beer in the square — while watching the world go by. Next door is Harris Piano Jazz Bar, the funkiest live music venue in town which is perfect for starting or ending an evening.
The old town (Stare Miasto), a World Heritage Site that was spared the destruction of the Luftwaffe’s bombs, is home to some fabulous restaurants. My long-time favourite is Miod i Wino (Honey and Wine) at 32 Slawkowska Street, an olde worlde joint that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval era movie. It’s not for vegetarians, which is the case with most restaurants, as the menu is almost exclusively meat, poultry, fowl and game. The speciality dish, presented with great fanfare, is “meats skewered on a flaming sword and served by a monk to the sound of a trumpet”. I’m not convinced of the monk’s bona fides, but the dish is exactly as described and its arrival always gets a big cheer, as does the resident traditional music group.
The entertainment is a lot livelier in cellar restaurant Morskie Oko (8 Plac Szczepanski, just off the square) where the focus is on regional cuisine and diners at long tables are treated to up-tempo folk music while whooping dancers in splendid folk costume whirl like Dervishes. Pod Wawelem (26 Gertrudy Street, opposite the impressive Wawel Castle) provided some impromptu entertainment when a four-piece Spanish rock band sat down near me and proceeded, it appeared, to order everything on the menu, washed down with an endless supply of lager. Loaded plates and overflowing litre tankards kept arriving and were emptied in record time, and I got glared at a couple of times for gawping, not at the three big beefy fellas shovelling food down their throats but at the sole skinny female member of the band who was effortlessly keeping up with the guys. I reckon she must have been sneakily feeding a Great Dane under the table. Either that or she has hollow legs.
As with Pod Wawelem, below, which serves huge portions of just about every animal that stepped aboard Noah’s Ark, it’s best to make a reservation and avoid disappointment if you want to eat in Krakow’s consistently best restaurant, Miod Malina (40 Grodzka Street). I’ve dined there as often as I have in Miod i Wino, and I’ve yet to find fault with anything. The spare ribs from the wood-burning oven are out of this world. So are the banana and apple toasted sandwiches with a honey dip in Cafe Zakatek, a little hidden gem opposite the bike hire shop up the alleyway at 2 Grodzka Street. This is where I have breakfast every time I’m in Krakow, and I swore to myself I’d never tell anyone about it, but the more customers Zakatek gets the more tips the charming girls who work there will get. As long as it isn’t invaded by hungry hordes while I’m sipping my tea and reading my book, I don’t mind revealing the secret.
Don’t bother trying to read in Bar Singer (Plac Nowy, in Kazimierz) unless you’ve brought your night vision goggles. Here it’s all red velvet curtains and candles, which gives the impression you’ve walked in on a seance. However, the only spirits you’ll encounter are in bottles behind the bar, though I have seen a couple of customers who appeared not to know if they were in this world or the next.
That said, it’s by far the coolest — and darkest — bar in town and the preferred hip hangout for artists, actors, writers and musicians, none of whom I know from Adam, but going by the welcome some receive and the number of drinks sent over by admirers they must be somebodies. If you’re into people watching, grab a stool at the bar or grope your way to a table (they have sewing machines on them, hence the bar’s name) and settle down for a fascinating free show while the most eclectic selection of world music plays from the speakers. Those who enjoy a glass of wine should order a double as the measures are so miserly (100ml) they’d make Ebenezer Scrooge blush.
If you’re looking for something to read, the Massolit second-hand English language bookshop at 4 Felicjanek Street, five minutes’ walk from the main square, is a bibliophile’s dream, but resist the temptation of buying too much if you’re flying with Ryanair — one paperback over the baggage limit and they’ll throw the book at you. Occupying a former shop and next door apartment, it has more than 20,000 titles on its ceiling-high shelves. The first time I dropped by there were so many people walking around carrying stepladders I thought they had the decorators in.
Don’t mention steps to the guy who does the cleaning at the 13th century Wieliczka Salt Mine — he’s got 378 of them to sweep every morning before the first busload of tourists arrives. After the anti-clockwise descent to the first level, at 64 metres, visitors (1.2 million a year) have been leaning to the left for so long that they find themselves walking in a circle when they eventually set foot on the salt floor. The tour (buy your €38/£33 ticket in Krakow to avoid the queues at the on-site kiosk) including transport and an English-speaking guide lasts 90 minutes and covers a distance of 2.5 kilometres, taking you to a depth of 135 metres where the temperature is a naturally constant 14C. Farther down, yet still above sea level as the town of Wieliczka is on an elevated site, there’s a private sanatorium for asthma, allergy and skin condition sufferers.
A 30-minute bus ride from the centre of Krakow, the mine is a mind-blowing marvel. The Chapel of Saint Kinga, 101 metres underground, makes the first century Jordanians who fashioned the Treasury at Petra in a sandstone rockface look like amateurs compared to the miners who dug this vast cathedral out of salt. More recently, a statue of Pope John Paul II, carved from a block of the stuff you sprinkle on your chips by miner-sculptor Stanislaw Aniol and installed in the chapel in 1999, has become an even more revered attraction since his beatification four months ago.
The former Archbishop of Krakow died in 2005, but statues, portraits and posters throughout the city, like that above outside the Holy Cross Church announcing a series of commemorative masses, are evidence of the special place he occupies in the hearts of his fellow Poles. Karol Jozef Wojtyla loved Krakow, and was loved in return. I love Krakow, too, which is why I return so often. Like the 40-second elevator ride back to the surface of the salt mine, every visit to my favourite weekend destination is an uplifting experience.
˜ A regular shuttle train connects Krakow’s John Paul II airport with the city centre. Tickets for the 18-minute journey cost 10 zloties (€2.40/£2.10) on board.
˜ See www.cracow-life.com, www.inyourpocket.com/poland/krakow and www.krakow.pl