Kraków, Poland — June 2014
An early breakfast and a 6:30 am taxi to the train station. 3 train changes on the 15 hour journey prove difficult. We sprint to get on the second train, but the third leaves without us. A nice Polish businessman helps us find the way to the bus, and Anna, a young medical student helps us find the way to our lovely Hotel Globtroter Krakow, on Plac Szczepański, one of the old city squares.
Krakow City Tour
Up early the next morning. First, breakfast at Scandale Royale, a little cafe across the square from our hotel which gives us the strength to meet the challenges of our strenuous itinerary (eggs, smoked salmon, cheese, bread & wonderful coffee for $6!
Our excellent guide Marta then picked us up at the hotel for a 1/2 day walking tour of Krakow.
First stop Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. The Jewish quarter, established in the 15th century, contained 65,000 Jews before the Second World War. Only a few thousand survived the war and only 200 or so now live in Krakow.
Dinner at “Klezmer-Hois” a Jewish restaurant in Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow. This restaurant comes highly recommended, partly for its food, but mostly for the traditional Jewish “Klezmer” music which had its roots in Romanian, Gypsy and Middle Eastern music. The restaurant is housed in an old Jewish ritual bath house which is decorated like having dinner at your rich Jewish aunt’s house. The beet-root soup was the highlight of my meal!
Krakow is a city of churches, including Wavel Cathedral (the national church where most of Poland’s important rulers are buried), medieval winding streets, medieval, renaissance, baroque and Art Nouveau buildings (and some ugly communist-era buildings for contrast) and lovely Wavel Castle.
Walking the lovely, winding streets
After Marta’s 4 hour history and culture lesson, we were exhausted and again in need of sustenance.
Desiring to sample more traditional Polish dishes we gave “Polski Smaki” a try (a no-frills cafeteria restaurant serving tasty, authentic Polish food to a local Krakow crowd). We ate there 4 nights, favoring the pierogis, Zurek (a sour rye soup) and cold beet soup!
After a quick breakfast, we took a taxi to the bus station, then caught a bus for Zakopane (a 2 hr drive south to the Tatras range of the Carpathian Mountains).
Zakopane in the early 1800’s, was a village known for rebellious shepherds, perpetrating the occasional robbery. In the mid 1800’s it became a health spa for TB patients and tourists soon followed, as did a local school of architecture (the Zakopane Style) which had its roots in the local Polish traditions versus Swiss or Tyrollean styles which the Zakopane School felt had “ruined” other Polish mountain regions.
After a tour of Zakopane on foot, we were delighted to try a typical Polish Sunday family dinner: a breaded, fried pork cutlet, with real Polish potato pancakes, porcini mushroom gravy, local beer(9% alcohol), bread and a pickle. Later that evening, our hotel desk clerk positively drooled over this menu.
Czestochowa: The Soul of Poland
After coffee and pastry at the small cafe across the square, our guide Marta Chmielowska picked us up at 8am for the 2 hr drive to Czestochowa, 114km north and west of Krakow.
In the 13th century village of Czestochowa lies the Black Madonna Monastery rising above Jasna Gora (Bright) Hill. Nearly 5 million pilgrims flock here every year, 200,000 of them traveling on foot! While visiting the sanctuary, you are immersed in an atmosphere of sincere religious piety.
The monastery, founded in 1382 is surrounded by fortifications to protect it from pillagers. In 1384 the monks were given the famous icon of the Black Madonna by the local Duke. According to legend the icon of the virgin was painted by St Luke, but was probably painted in Byzantium around the 6th Century.
In 1655, the monks paraded the icon around the ramparts in front of the invading Swedish army. As tradition goes, her miraculous intervention halted the Swedish invasion.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine
10 miles from Krakow, Neolithic peoples evaporated the salt out of the many seeps and springs, but a mine was started when the seeps began to dry up and has been producing salt at least since the 11th century. In the 15 century 1/3 of Poland’s income came from this white gold.
Originally published at dwwillett.wordpress.com on June 9, 2014.