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Trip Report A few wintry days in Krakow

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Just back from a short home exchange to a flat in Kazimierz, the trendy/arty bit of Krakow.

Seen and done

Even under skies that stayed leaden-grey all the time that I was there, there was a certain extra charm to seeing real snow weighing down Christmas trees and street decorations alike.

But both the weather and the short daylight hours ruled out the sort of outdoor strolling that, to judge from the guidebooks, would be an attractive option in the summer. Another factor to bear in mind is that many of the museums and sights are closed on New Year's Day.

I had four days, in which I managed to visit the Czartorysky Museum, the Collegium Maius, Auschwitz/Birkenau, the Mariacka church, and to make my own trip out to Jaworzno, where my father was put to work in a coal mine as a prisoner of war.

The Czartoryski takes you through a dizzying succession of Polish monarchs and marshals of the 16th-18th centuries and their various portraits, acquisitions and knick-knacks (the glory days of richly-decorated armour and sumptuous carpets and tents acquired as booty from defeating the Ottomans soon give way to more domestic goods), and then a collection of paintings, which likewise rather tails off after the mediaeval, Renaissance and the Rembrandt. The star attraction, Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, is currently on loan to an exhibition abroad.

In the Collegium Maius, the mediaeval base and current museum and ceremonial heart of the Jagiellonian University, not everything is mediaeval: it's the closest I shall ever come to an Oscar, and Olympic gold medal or a Nobel prize (this must be one of the few places where you can see them all in one cabinet, as they have been presented to the university by former students). The main impression, however, is of the solemnity with which great institutions like this present their history (all the more understandable here, given what's happened to Poland over the centuries); much is familiar to anyone who's seen an Oxford or Cambridge college chapel or library, but there are some really impressive examples of decorative art and craft.

At Auschwitz, beyond the obvious reactions, I began to wonder at what point it becomes a distant and detached "history" in the way so many older horrors now are. I couldn't help noticing that some people had brought really quite young children, how the chirpy agency courier (not the local museum guide) advised to have the hot chocolate at the museum "Because Auschwitz coffee is horrible", how promptly and obediently we stuck on the coloured patches she gave us to identify her group, and how when I remarked on it, she simply went on to tell me how their old stickers used to fall off - the irony of the situation completed passed her by.

I've never been a great one for celebrating New Year's Eve, and even less on a cold and slushy evening after a day at one of the most miserable places in human history. There was a stage show on the main square, apparently, but a pop concert doesn't appeal at the best of times. So after catching some photos of the more striking Christmas lights and decorations, it was an early night in for me, and Sasha the cat (who came with the flat), and the TV. The obligatory fireworks took up quite a bit of the night - not much to see in view of the general murk, but plenty to hear, not just a half hour fusillade at midnight, but occasional resurgences throughout (and occasionally the next day, too). Sasha hid under the bed.

Apart from the fireworks, it was also possible to hear that rain was clearing the snow a bit, which meant that New Year's Day was misty. It was also very, very quiet. Not much was open, so I waited to watch the Vienna New Year's Day concert on TV before a brisk walk around the Wawel hill and its cathedral (the decorative rain-spouts making their function very clear). The Royal Castle museum and the cathedral were closed, but back on the main square (Rynek Glowny), the Mariacka church was open, and the profusion of gilding and the detail of the mediaeval altarpiece are well worth a visit (buy tickets in advance on the opposite side of the little square beside the church - the entrance on Rynek Glowny is supposed to be for those visiting the side chapels for prayer).



From the UK, direct flights are only available on Ryanair and Easyjet, the "flying bus" airlines. I've been to Barcelona with Easyjet, which was OK, and so - despite the apparent horror stories about how grasping Ryanair are - was this. Outbound, we took off late but caught up with a following wind; a half-empty flight meant that luggage appeared more or less instantly. Going home, the delay in departure couldn't be caught up, and a busy Sunday afternoon's arrivals in Stansted meant that it was about 45 minutes before I could make it to the bus.

Within Poland, public transport is pretty efficient, even if the trains (and particularly the track beds) seem a bit Soviet-era still. The airport is still on a single-track branch line which the train thumps over at almost walking pace for quite a time before joining the main tracks; and on my trip to Jaworzno, there were equally bone-shaking thumps. But the trains ran more or less to time and are a fraction of UK prices.

There is no difficulty understanding the tram system in Krakow (or at least, not with the maps in my guidebook); tickets can be got from a range of kiosks, or (at a small supplement) from the driver. Prices are so cheap it really isn't worth worrying about multi-day passes and the like, though they are available.

Eating out

I'm no gourmet, and perhaps I'm easily pleased, but the places I ate and drank at seemed OK:

Pod Złota Pipa, Florianska 30 - towards one end of the "Royal Mile". A cellar bar and restaurant, offering traditional Polish dishes (I had pierogi - sort of ravioli). They also offered a fortune-teller (no-one seemed to need her services, and she didn't seem bothered - no doubt that was no surprise to her).

The café on in the first courtyard on the Wawel Hill was open on New Year's Day, and I had an acceptable schnitzel and potatoes there.

In Kazimierz near where I was staying:

Café Arenda, ul. Nowa (near Plac Nowy): a bit more upmarket in decor, but the food is traditional Polish.

Pizza Fabrycky, ul Josefa: recommended by my exchange partners: good value.

Les Couleurs/ Kolory: ul Estery/Plac Nowy: French-style café, studenty clientele, likewise recommended by my exchange partners.

Propaganda, ul. Miodowa 20: mentioned in my guidebook, and then I happened to spot it while wandering around. Small dark bar with cellar, crammed with posters and dusty artefacts from the Communist era.

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