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Trip Report Trip Report: Krakow, May 2012

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Trip Report: SE Poland plus Wroclaw, May 2012

This year we went to Poland for three weeks. We were supposed to spend ten days traveling in England with friends showing us around, but they kept on changing the number of days and when they would be free, so we decided to postpone that trip and go to Poland instead. We had never been there.

To determine our itinerary we used Fodor’s Poland 2007 and the Michelin Green Guide for Poland.

We had an open-jaw ticket, flying from SFO to Krakow with a change in Frankfurt and then returning from Nice to SFO via Frankfurt and Calgary. Total cost for two: $2640. Whenever possible I give prices--the reader should keep in mind that they only represent a single point of entry and have no other permanence--because I find expressions of satisfaction or dissatisfaction over a price without an amount to be unhelpful.

We were picked up at the airport and taken to our “B&B”. Breakfast was extra and we were not interested, so in essence we had a room (850PLN or $258 for five nights) a stone’s throw from the Rynek (main square) in Krakow. It might have been a little high for what it was, but it had the real estate mantra: location, location, location. It was comparable in comfort and amenities to our room in Rome--see that trip report--except that the room was redone with more taste and the bathroom, while as narrow, had an acceptable shower that took the whole width. It also had a window that gave to a back yard with little noise. The owner was helpful, and arranged for the salt mine tour that we took. The entry way to this apartment with a couple of rentals had an old PC that allowed us to check e-mails. We booked it through Booking.com and it is:
Pokoje Goscinne Wislna
Address Wislna 5, Stare Miasto
Kraków, 31-007

We arrived in Krakow in the middle of the afternoon, took a nap (against most recommendations but it works for us) and went to eat at a local “cafeteria” (Chimera Salad Bar, recommended by Fodor’s) around the corner which was vegetarian except for the herring fillets. Their special that night was similar to a quiche with broccoli which looked interesting but was not as good as their more traditional foods. The pricing was a choice of single item, a plate of three items or a larger plate of six items. They had a special on Spanish red wine for 5 zlotys ($1.50 approx.) the glass. The rest of the meal was similarly priced, and fulfilled our needs: vegetables without trying to decipher a menu--although it turns out that most menus in Krakow establishments are also in English.

What we saw:

We were not lucky with museums. The Arsenal was closed for renovation, except for its antiquities section, although its most famous painting, a Leonardo, was being exhibited elsewhere. The Michelin Green Guide indicates that Wawel Castle is open on Mondays, when in fact it is only the courtyard which is accessible--none of the apartments. The ticket office was unclear about this, as if it was sold out, but when in the courtyard, we saw little traffic in or out of the castle itself while the courtyard was crowded. We saw Nowa Huta on a Sunday, when almost everything is closed down except the churches. I went to the salt mines while my wife stayed in town and went to see the museum above the Cloth Hall; not particularly interesting, she said.

But we did see quite a few churches that are worthwhile seeing. We particularly liked the stained glass in the Franciscan church, although the rest does not match St. Mary’s. I went to the top of St. Mary’s and happened to be there when the trumpeter blew the hour. The top is below the four wooden towers attached to the main tower, which is disappointing in that I had hoped to see the inside of the structure and perhaps an explanation for the structure itself. We did see a nice photography exhibit in a gallery close to the university (Palac Sztuki). It was of developing world portraits, with nice colors, but it lacked the bite of Salgado images. We were the only ones there.

We visited the Kazimierz district. The Synagogue Remuh was not worth the price of entry as it was under renovation with scaffolding in and out of it, but the cemetery is worthwhile. The Synagogue Izaaka, which according to Fodor’s shows documentaries (1936-1941) of the prewar Krakow ghetto, is now run by Chabad, with klezmer music in the evening but no more film. The Stara Synagogue had an exhibit about the Jewish secondary school founded at the turn of the 20th century with a secular curriculum.

The salt mines are definitely worth a visit, but it is not for those who have mobility problems. The tour starts with a descent of several hundred steps and from there we are taken several more levels down, and the guide does hustle us along. As we walk through this small part of the mine (it also has a sanatorium for temporary relief of respiratory problems--the air is dry and has no bacteria) we see some of the wooden capstans that were used before probably modernization. The most impressive is the large chapel carved out of salt (including the chandeliers), a work of the late 19th and first of the 20th centuries. It takes some effort to imagine working in total darkness with much more limited lighting than is provided in the tourist area (having worked in gold mines, I have some sense of it).

Nowa Huta is definitely worth a visit. It’s reachable via street car, and the stop is Ronald Reagan Square. The steel works are not accessible, but the town itself is interesting as a planned post-W.W.II unit. It appears stark and severe on the outside, but every complex of apartment buildings of three or four stories has an inner garden courtyard, often unkempt but giving an idea of what had been intended. It resembles very much, in this planned aspect, the housing that I am familiar with on the outskirts of what was West Berlin, specifically in the Britz area.

We were satisfied with the food we ate. Generally we picnic, eat what is local or in a more upscale restaurant. We try to avoid foods of European commonality--in other words, in Poland, doner kebab, pizza and pasta are the low cost foods that are available everywhere. It may be good, but is of absolutely no culinary interest to us. Once we had a couple of slices of pizza simply because it was getting late for lunch and nothing else was particularly appealing. Polish food is heavy on pork, cabbage and vegetable salads--i.e. grated carrot or beet salad, along with Cole slaw. Pirogie are ubiquitous and an easy way to have a light lunch.

To the specifics: in addition to the above mentioned cafeteria, we ate on the Rynek (main square) once. The weather was not great when we were there, and sitting at a table with umbrellas that barely cover them when it is raining is not the best experience in the world. But we had to try it. The Rynek has a section with stalls for vendors of mainly tourist items and street food--grilled meat or vegetables. We had a plate of grilled vegetables, a sausage and mix of barley and blood sausage. The latter let me know that I do not like their version of boudin, but the vegetables and sausage were good. We would have had lunch there more often had the weather been better. I do not recall the price, which might be higher than what a local might pay for the same thing in his own neighborhood but it was not expensive.

We also ate at a cafeteria on the Plac Wszystkich Swietych, between the Franciscan and the Dominican church, which was frequented in this case by locals and closes early (around 7 p.m.). I had a pig knuckle and some vegetable side dish (I do not write notes and keep only a general memory of meals, save what is memorable one way or the other), one of a few of this trip. It really was home cooking, nothing fancy, and also cheap. Alcohol is also relatively cheap for us tourists. 6 zlotys ($1.82), if memory serves me right, for a half-liter of beer, the same for a shot of vodka, and I think that the most we paid for a glass of wine was 12 zlotys. Next door, or a couple of doors down, there is a health food store (?) that sells all kinds of herbals teas. I picked up some made of horsetail reed--a little too mild although it may have some purported medicinal values.

Moving up the food chain, we ate at Chlopskie Jadlo ($40 + tip). I can imagine the restaurant in the winter, a haven from the cold (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/7610253994/in/set-72157630668689086 ) with food to match. Before serving us a meal, they gave us a dish of schmalz (rendered pork fat and onions) to be spread on bread. This is a standard alternative to butter, sometimes included in the meal, sometimes to be ordered as an extra. We were given a tour of the restaurant which has rooms in different rural regional styles--yes, a little too thematically oriented. The service was friendly. We turned down the mixed grill for 50 zlotys ($15) per person, but which consisted of 1 kg. (possibly more) of grilled meats--far more than we could have consumed, particularly after having eaten the bread with the schmalz. I think we had their sour barley soup, and some meat dish. This is where I started having a shot of vodka to settle my stomach in addition to the beer with the meal. The restaurant is a chain that started in Krakow, and we ate in the locale that is at the base of Wawel Hill.

We had a good meal at Farina ($82 + tip) , a good recommendation by Fodor’s. The food is a mix of Italian and Polish. We made reservations about two hours before the opening evening hours for the first sitting. For a while it looked like the restaurant would not be filled, but eventually between other clients in two’s and three’s and a tour group, the restaurant did fill up. So it might be best to make a reservation, although first sitting did not seem to be a problem.

We also ate at the restaurant Pod Baranem (http://www.podbaranem.com/ ), which was a NY Times recommendations. Its menu is Polish, the setting somewhat upscale with some strange paintings on the walls. It was very good and not expensive, probably on par with Farina. The drinks are somewhat more expensive, but I think that a glass of wine came to 12 zlotys. We made reservations walking by it on our way to the Kazimierz district, and were glad that we did as the restaurant does fill up although no tour groups came in. One has the impression that this restaurant is frequented more by locals than by tourists.

Laundry: There is a laundromat between the old town and the Kazimierz district, which is also a café: Frania Café, Starowilna 26, Krakow. It’s downstairs in the basement.

Market: There is a large daily covered market just north of the old town past the Krakow barbican, on rynek Kleparski, I believe. There were lots of vegetables and charcuterie type meats, but one type of cheese predominated: a smoked cheese formed in molds with outside designs so that the small ones often looked like a cookie; nothing special in terms of taste. On the edges of the market were people selling a few bunches of violets, or some onions, or a few article of clothing--clearly intended to add a few zlotys to one’s income; Poland’s relative prosperity seems to have left some behind.

This covers our first part of our Polish trip, which I am dividing into three parts because that is its natural division: part one in Krakow, part two our driving trip, and part three in Wroclaw.

Here are the pictures for this part: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157630668689086/show/

Unfortunately there is no way of editing a text once posted on Fodor’s, so I apologize for typos and things that I might have missed.

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