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Trip Report One Week in Krakow

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Krakow may not have made the Fodor's "Best of Europe 2012" list, but it's definitely on our Best of Europe list!

Way back in October when our flights were booked, and before United merged with Continental, we had reserved rather excellent bulkhead Economy seats--room to stretch out, but without the Economy Plus surcharge.

One week prior to departure I checked on our reservation to confirm we still had said excellent seats.

On the day before departure, my OCD self checked on the reservation only to find that the plane had changed (no big deal), but so had our seats. United had now scattered us across Rows 44 and 45, those miserable rows in the back of the plane, right by the toilets and galley, and including the window seat in the last row, which shouldn’t be a seat at all. Sigh.

After a 90-minute wait time on the phone with what passes for United’s Customer Service (including being disconnected twice), I learned that this was not my father’s United Airlines anymore. After the merger bulkhead seats were now considered “Premium,” and because we hadn’t paid the “Premium” fee when we made the reservation (pre-merger) we were bumped. Somehow this logic seemed appropriate in relation to our upcoming trip to a former Eastern Bloc country.

Knowing I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the automatons, I upgraded our seats at extra cost to Economy Plus, and submitted the United Airlines “Request for Refund.” I’ll let you know how that turns out.

The morning of departure was like others--a small crisis involving a pollen-induced nosebleed for DD (10) and stuffed friends who MUST BE CLEANED NOW consumed part of DH’s morning while I was on a teleconference, DD was practicing violin for an upcoming local orchestra audition even though we are moving overseas in three months (her teacher said it would be a good experience), and DS (15) was blaring 70s rock in his room, ostensibly “packing.”

Our flight out of Dulles left 45 minutes late, meaning we would have less than 30 minutes in the Frankfurt airport to make our connection to Krakow. Dinner on the plane was more inedible than usual, a weird, overly salty “Asian” chicken and gummy rice concoction that even the Teenager didn’t like. The new Boeing 777’s, however, were very nice. The individual movie and game screens are well done, and the chair recline is more comfortable, which probably explains why I couldn’t sleep at all during the flight.

Once on the ground in Frankfurt we were greeted by Lufthansa crew who had held the Krakow flight and whisked about 20 of us through the underbelly of the airport to a special Immigration line: we all filed off the bus, had our passports stamped, and filed back on the bus.

The bus drove along the tarmac until practically the end, depositing us at the next-to-last regional plane in the line. We climbed aboard; and from my window seat I watched a baggage truck brimming with luggage pause as our plane taxied to the runway, then turn around and head back to the terminal. I thought, “I bet our luggage is on that truck.”

I must have nodded off on the flight, for I awoke to hear the two young boys in front of me screaming in pretend, “We’re going to crash!” as our jet was descending through the clouds into Krakow. No one around me thought it was funny.

Krakow International Airport is small. As in, one baggage claim conveyor, small. It wasn’t hard, then, to hear my Polish last name perfectly pronounced, and the phrase “Lost Luggage” over the announcement system. Surprise! Our luggage hadn’t made the flight. I sent DH out past Customs to explain to our driver, who spoke no English, what was going on, while I filled out the Property Irregularity Report. The comedy here just writes itself.

This, on top of United rearranging our seats, on top of everything going on with our overseas move, on top of not having slept on the flight, just put me over the edge. Despite the cheeriness of our kindly driver, I broke down and cried in the car all the way to the apartment (http://www.vrbo.com/124623). Once in the apartment I crawled into bed to sulk while DH and DS went out for lunch provisions. DD went quietly to her room and read. I know she desperately wanted to read, “Hunger Games,” which I had finished on the plane, but she couldn’t bring herself to disturb me to ask for the book. I have such perfect children.

After we ate we walked to the Galleria Krakowska and the apothecary to buy essentials just in case our luggage didn’t arrive. Walking back we passed a consignment store, where a beautiful loden velvet barn coat for a mere 35 ZLN (about 11 USD) caught my attention, so I bought it. The sun was shining, our arms were filled with groceries and a few clothes, and somehow everything felt a little better.

Back home, we checked the Lufthansa “Lost Baggage” website and discovered that our luggage had been located. We called the airport and were told that our luggage was on the 6:00 flight to Krakow. Yeah, us! Except that flight had a 3 hour layover in Munich and would not arrive in Krakow until 10:00, two hours after the “Lost Luggage” office closed.

A fresh cloud settled over us as we wondered if, and when, we might see our bags. A few moments later the Property Manager, Sylvia, rang to tell us that our luggage would be delivered to our apartment at 8:00. How did she know, we wondered?...

...Around 8:00 p.m. our mobile rang, and the person on the other end said he would be at our apartment in 30 minutes with our luggage. At 8:27 the buzzer rang, and DH went to greet the delivery person who had our luggage. Hurrah! We still wonder how Sylvia knew, though...

Saturday dawned early, and I enjoyed the quiet time catching up on email and news in our lovely, lovely apartment. We were in an old, 19th century building a mere 5 minutes’ walk to Rynek Glowny (the Market Square). The owner of the apartment works for the UN and travels between Bangkok, NYC, and Krakow, so the recently renovated space had 10 foot European ceilings, IKEA furnishings, Asian-inspired art, and a NYC modern and well-supplied kitchen.

Having endured three weeks of pollen filled sinuses at home because of the unseasonably warm weather causing everything to bloom, we were all ecstatic that the Krakow forecast for the week called for cool temperatures, with even a chance of rain or snow on two of the days! Crazy, I know. Well, someone was listening, for our first day brought wind, rain, and temperatures hovering around 45 degrees Fahrenheit! Did that detour us from heading to the highest point in Krakow, Wawel Castle, to spend the day sightseeing? Not at all. We were just happy that our suitcases filled with warm clothes had arrived. Except for DS, who had failed to pack a coat. Or hat.

Our planned walk along the “Royal Route” from Florianska Gate to Wawel Castle was more of an endurance effort than a picturesque and leisurely stroll; it’s hard to window shop or take photos when the wind is whipping rain at you from all directions. DS stopped along the way to purchase a bright yellow rain poncho and the equally touristy red and white “Polska” knit hat, and the photos of him in that getup have “blackmail fodder” written all over them. Once on the castle grounds we enjoyed self-guided tours of the State Rooms and Treasury, and an English-guided tour of the Royal Apartments. Our guide was very knowledgeable and engaging, but one could still detect slight resentment as she described the many countries that have ruled or occupied Poland over its history. On the walls of the apartments hung glorious Belgian tapestries custom made for Jan Sobieski III, one of Poland’s greatest kings; these tapestries were woven to include metallic threads and were stunning in their richness. History records approximately 157 of these tapestries being willed to Poland by Sobieski after his death; 136 remain in Wawel Castle today, including remnants of those that the Nazis cut and used as rugs and floor coverings. The Austrians did their share of plundering, too, when Poland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and King Sigismund III, a Swedish alchemist by trade, is credited with burning down most of the castle while experimenting in one of the apartments. After that he decided to move the capital to Warsaw.

Wawel Castle itself reflects the various influences on Poland. There are architectural features that span the Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic periods, so to visualize Wawel as a typical “castle” went very much against our mental grain of the prototypical Neuschwanstein structure.

No castle complex is complete without a Cathedral, and Wawel is no exception. The site of coronations since forever, and also the site of Pope John Paul II’s first mass as a priest, this one is Gothic in style, but with Renaissance and Baroque domes for the various chapels. Very captivating even on a gray day. We climbed up the tower to see Poland’s largest bell, and climbed down into the crypt to see the final resting place of many important Poles, including Tadeusz Kosciuscko, Fredryk Chopin, and “King” Jadwiga (following her husband’s death, Poland loved her but wasn’t quite ready for Queen Jadwiga, so they just called her King Jadwiga. My people can be odd pierogis at times, I guess.) A final stop was “The Lost Wawel,” an underground tour of recently (since 1975) unearthed discoveries of Wawel Castle dating to the medieval ages. Pretty cool.

Awoke on Sunday morning to light snow falling outside, the temperature a spring-like 30 degrees. No matter, though, for on the agenda was our booked tour of Wieliczka, the 13th century salt mine and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an ambient temperature of 55 degrees year round. Ahh, tropical.

The tour did not disappoint. What an amazing structure--history, art, technology, engineering--all explained to us by a proud, and rather funny, Polish guide. Down 383 steps we went, 135 meters below the Earths’ surface. We walked about 1% of the mine; to walk every path in the mine would take 7 whole days. At one point in Poland’s history, salt from this mine constituted 30% of the Polish economy; mining here was halted only as recently as the late 1990’s. At the end of our three hour tour, an elevator whisked us to the surface in total darkness in just 30 seconds. We reached the surface to discover hail falling as we dashed to the tour bus back to Krakow! Within moments it was gone, though, replaced by sun and blue skies and punctuated by an occasional gust of wind.

We idled away the waning hours of the afternoon with a delicious lunch and casual meandering through the markets in search of souvenirs to bring home. We also returned to Wawel Hill to find the Krakow Dragon. And lucky us, it being April meant that he was “breathing fire” for all passing observers!

Monday brought mild temperatures, sun, and 30 mph wind gusts--we think spring made an appearance. Our agenda was very light, to tour the Jewish Quarter and, time permitting, see Nowa Huta--a little pre WWII and post WWII sequencing. I carefully plotted our walking route through Kazimiercz and discovered, of course, that Schindler’s Factory Museum is closed the first Monday of every month, so we planned to return later in the week. Still, we explored several of the prominent synagogues and Catholic churches in the area, spending time to put everything into context for DD before our visit to Auschwitz the next day. After lunch we rode the tram all the way out to Nowa Huta. In retrospect, we should have taken one of the guided tours to fully appreciate the things we saw (the former Lenin Steelworks, the renamed Solidarność Avenue) and the things we didn’t see (gates into the socialist housing areas, leftover forts from when Austria bordered Russia, etc.). Live and learn.

On Tuesday morning we collected our rental car before driving to Auschwitz. We arrived at 9:30 for our reserved 10:00 pick-up time and the Europcar representative actually made us wait until 10:00 before releasing a car to us. Too funny. From the rental spot we headed for Auschwitz and were able to join the 12:30 tour. The tour is lengthy, informative, and profoundly moving.

Early start on Wednesday for Wroclaw. Wroclaw has more canals than either Amsterdam or Venice, has the second largest market square in Europe (after Krakow) and has brass gnomes hidden everywhere. The city also has an architectural flair that is a little like Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber and Brugges combined, with a splash of Polish renaissance thrown in. Just delightful against the bright blue sky!

Some of the gnomes are easy to spot, and some we never found at all. In between we enjoyed lunch on the market square (sun! warm temperatures!) before wandering over to Ostrow Tumski, the island of beautiful cathedrals. We only regret not spending the night, for we ran out of time to see the Japanese Gardens and Centennial Hall.

Our return trip to Cracov was as miserable as any drive along the New Jersey turnpike on a summer weekend. Just as we approached the on-ramp to the A4, we spied traffic at a standstill as far as the eye could see. So, armed with a lame Google map on the iPad (I’d left the Michelin road map of Poland at home!), a half tank of diesel in our rented Skoda wagon, and about 400 zloty in my pocketbook, we hit the back roads of rural Poland in an effort to skirt the traffic. Can’t say we saw anything more interesting than we see in rural New Jersey, alas, but at least we were moving.

Our long day stretched even longer into the evening as we finally sat for one of those eternal European dinners at an Old Town restaurant back in Krakow around 9:00 p.m. Around 10:00 we let the children make their way to the apartment through the lively streets of the Old Town while we waited ever so patiently for our bill, and then we, too, strolled home arm in arm through the cobblestone streets.

For our last day in Krakow we had left the agenda open for a possible day trip to either Czestochowa or Zakopane, but the forecast 55 degrees under a cloudy sky dawned as a cold, wet, rain with peak temperatures around 40, and having had an unpleasant drive home the night before, we decided to cobble together instead a driving tour of Nowa Huta and a visit to Oskar Schindler’s Factory. Nothing like a little more “Poland under the Occupation” to wrap up a holiday.

Our first stop was Wanda’s Mound, so named for the daughter of King Krak, founder of Krakow. As we approached the path to the mound, a lonely old-style tram motored past into the foggy path, carrying just a couple of passengers. Seemed fitting.

At the top of the mound is a lovely Eagle statue, in a bit of a shabby state after years of Communist neglect, as well as a commanding view of Krakow and the former Lenin Steelworks. From the mound we motored to Jan Matejko’s house, a structure that, surprisingly, the Communists left in place. Matejko is a famous Polish artist that none of us had heard of, but we felt it was important to see a structure that survived Occupation.

Driving around Nowa Huta is an experience. The neighborhoods are laid out identically, and all look grey and somber. Lenin thought that keeping the Polish renaissance style was a nice idea, but could be “improved” with a touch of Soviet realism. We read that inside some of the courtyards are the remains of Cold War bunkers, but we didn’t feel like disturbing the good people who live there by poking around to find them. Some other time, perhaps.

Leaving Nowa Huta, we drove past many of the other notable sights, along Lenin Avenue Pope John Paul II Avenue toward Lenin Square Ronald Reagan Square and then past the Lenin Solidarity Monument. Our final destination for the morning was related to an earlier Occupation. On the northern fringes of Nowa Huta are the remains of three forts that sat along the Austrian and Russian border during the Austro-Hungarian Empire days. Bonus!

The excitement of having seen two remnants of the occupation of my motherland behind me, we pointed the Skoda toward Kazimiercz to see Oskar Schindler’s Factory, now a Museum of Krakow History. Thankfully the museum was not a glamorization of the movie, because I thought that would not appropriately recognize the many regular citizens who helped the Jewish people, but was rather a poignant display of Krakow’s recent history. From the museum we attempted to get to the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, but the rain and our rumbling tummies directed us toward another very late lunch.

Note: most of the rest of this post discusses the food we ate, so those not interested may wish to scroll to the end.

From start to finish on this trip, airplane “food” notwithstanding, the cuisine never disappointed. Of course. Opening night supper in the apartment was real Kielbasa and real Pierogis from the market, the pierogis cooked in plenty of real butter and onions, preceded by śledź (herring filets) basking in olive oil atop our favorite Tuc crackers. Smaczne!

On Saturday we sought respite from the wind and rain at a Communist holdout, Bar Mleczny. These “Milk Bars” were created in order to serve respectable fare at government subsidized prices, and remain to this day both (partially) government subsidized and serving very respectable fare at respectable prices. Borscht and dumplings with mushroom gravy was just perfect. The borscht had that familiar vinegar flavor of my mom’s, and the dumpling sauce was not lacking mushrooms. The boys went with the Special of the Day, a fried pork cutlet with beetroot salad and potatoes, and DD enjoyed a huge roast quarter chicken. Thank goodness we were hungry, because the portions were generous!

Lunch on Sunday was late enough following our return from the Salt Mine to almost be considered an early supper. We discovered a little gem right off Rynek Glowny, whose name escapes me, serving smalec, a plate I’d seen so many times in my childhood: thick slices of bread, spread with lard mixed with bacon. DS enjoyed his with a cold beer--is there a better Teenage Boy food fantasy than lard, bacon, and beer?

Our snack that night was, upon the children’s request, Zapiekanka, the dreadful Polish version of French bread pizza, except that the Poles substitute ketchup for pizza sauce. I couldn’t go so far as to actually eat the zapiekanka sold by street vendors, so we compromised and bought the frozen variety at the market.

Lunch on Monday was another gem discovered in Kazimiercz, a small Polish kitchen with a folk-art style decorated cellar that was perfectly warm and cozy. I started with the borscht, beautiful in color and slightly sweeter in taste, and followed by potato pancakes topped with goulash. (I am genetically immune to the calorie content of Polish food and thus did not gain a single pound.) DS’s lunch was a trough of roasted pork ribs baked in a honey wine sauce and piled with potatoes and sauerkraut. He ate every bite. DD had by this time developed her own approach to the large portions: she ordered the kluski noodle soup wherever we went, and then sampled from all of our plates.

On Tuesday evening we were drawn to a Ukrainian restaurant, where once again we were not disappointed. The restaurant was in a lovely cellar (as were most), with creaky wooden floors and decorated in a folksy style. I enjoyed a savory Carpatho-Russian style pork cutlet with an onion, pepper, and tomato dill sauce and beetroot salad. DH had a spiced kebab with dilled rice, and DS enjoyed a Carpathian-influenced rolled pork stuffed with bacon and kielbasa, with cumin sauce.

After our long day in Wroclaw on Wednesday we pulled into Krakow very hungry. We were also obviously delirious, because I almost gave in to eating at The Mexican, a Polish Tex Mex restaurant whose busty waitstaff senoritas caught DS’s attention. Good thing there wasn’t an available table, because I think I’d still be regretting “Pork Knuckle Desperado” and the margarita rimmed with sugar that I spied on the menu.

We found instead a cozy restaurant and settled into a delightful candlelit alcove in the cellar. We’re not quite sure what style of food we were eating, so each of our dishes was its own little delight. We began with a shared first plate of polecamy, spicy pork-filled dumplings served with a tangy yogurt-dill sauce. My entree was a tkemaili-spiced chicken kebab; DH enjoyed a grilled pork steak with tkemali sauce; DD had a traditional chaczpuri (flat bread with Georgian cheese, very similar in appearance to a white pizza); and DS had a chicken dish with a creamy, almost Indian-like spiced sauce.

Cherubino, a restaurant featuring Tuscan Polish food commanded our attention on our final day in Krakow. After all, Bona Sforza of Italy was chosen to be the wife of Sigismund I of Poland some 5 or 6 centuries ago, thus merging two of the world’s most amazing cuisines, so we would otherwise have been remiss not to try it. Our starter was a kingdom-sized cheese platter containing a combination of various farm cheeses, including the most sublime, amazingly runny blue cheese we have ever eaten. The boys even slathered it on the rye bread in the basket, so now I know the secret to getting them to eat rye bread at home!

My entree recalled my childhood once again, small loaves of ground veal shaped into pudgy patties and adorned with a creamy dill sauce, and far and away the best beetroot salad of the week. DD savored the carbonara with pork knuckle. She seems to be genetically immune to Polish calories, as well. DH went all out with a final grilled pork steak with onions. And DS indulged in a pork filet with roasted apples and plum sauce.

The finale of our epicurean bacchanal this week brought us full circle. While walking through the market near our apartment late Thursday afternoon, I confidently walked up to the butcher and ordered, “Jeden kilogram kiełbasy, proszę.” Over our plates of kielbasa and dumplings we toasted another outstanding family holiday. Na zdrowie!

The wrap-up was our usual. Didn’t see everything we wanted to. Not enough pictures taken. Too few postcards purchased. About the only thing we did in sufficient amount was eat! Flight home was long, and to add insult to the injury of being home, we were busted at Immigration by an agriculture-sniffing Beagle who caught scent of the apples and pear we had in our carry-on from our apartment. Whoops. We were sent to “Line A” once through immigration where a gruff CBP agent chided us before sending us on our way. And once at home, our lazy Foxhound barely lifted his head from the sofa to greet us when we walked in the door.

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