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Posts tagged ‘krakow’

where’s cinderella? ;)

It’s definitely no small feat to out-Disney Walt but Krakow does… it’s Disney – but not fake – so more wondrous – and cheaper – than the real thing 😉

cinderella's carriage?

cinderella’s carriage?

There is no Cinderella though.  She would not really look out of place, but if you want a princess lunch, you need the real Disney.  You will be more wowed by the sites in Krakow though…

Like Rome and Paris, you can just wander and see spectacular architecture on an ordinary street.  Certain sites though are required stops.  You can do them in any order but they are all worth your time.

The largest is the Cloth Hall.  It is located on the Old Town Square and was one of the first shopping



malls.  Apparently they got their start in the Renaissance 😉  In those days it was stone instead of glass and narrow staircases instead of escalators but the general concept hasn’t changed.  These days it’s full of tourist souvenirs.  Dragons are very big in eastern Europe and Krakow has one, which you can take home in a variety of fabrics and sizes.  One of the most colourful creations is the szopka – a Krakow version of the nativity scene that features colourful representations of actual Krakow buildings in addition to the manger.  The most classy, discrete souvenir is amber.  The Cloth Hall is a great location to check out different designs at competitive prices.  I ended up with earrings in three different shades.

It’s not clear the true impact of religion on global progress (or decline) but there is no question it has resulted in a lot of spectacular architecture.  The Catholic Church would be totally at home running a Super PAC but at least it funneled most of the funds into an ostentatious display of wealth that could be enjoyed by the masses instead of cringe-worthy campaign ads.

just part of the altar!

just part of the altar!

You can visit any of the churches no matter how you feel about the Pope.  You may just need to pay a few zloty.  The most magnificent is St Mary’s Basilica.  It is just off the square near the Cloth Hall.  It just looks like a church from the outside.  Not unimpressive but it is not until you get inside that you appreciate it is not just any church.  You have to pay an extra five zloty to take photos but it’s totally worth it – except, of course, that it is full of ornate stained glass, over-the-top ornamentation, intricate wood carvings… it is impossible to do it justice in a cheezy tourist photo.  It is better to put your camera away for a few minutes and just take in the workmanship and the grandeur.  The altar is one of the grandest I have seen – and I have seen a lot of churches 🙂

Krakow is full of churches and you should seek out some of the less famous ones.  One of the most

a tiny piece of the amazing art deco stained glass

a tiny piece of the amazing art deco stained glass

impressive is St Francis’ Basilica.  It is off the tourist path so you can enjoy it without crowds.  What is impressive are the spectacular art deco stained glass windows.

the shoes! :)

the shoes! 🙂

Krakow is full of delights like that.  You can score a pair of shoes that will make your friends envious.  There is an opera house modelled on Paris.  There are horse-drawn carriages where the horses are perhaps better attired than the patrons.  You might encounter a spontaneous polka being played.  There are various venues where you can enjoy classical music in a historic setting.  Cinderella would feel right at home 🙂

I never even managed to get through all the experiences I was hoping for.  Kazimierz was the Jewish quarter until World War II and houses Shindler’s famous factory.  Apparently it has re-emerged as a cool, bohemian quarter, the kind of neighborhood I gravitate to in cities.  I also wanted to check out Nowa Huta, a model Soviet city from the Cold War era.  Of course, the other thing to do in Poland is try vodka.  I’m not really a fan but it’s always fun to try and experience the local culture.  I did do some vodka tasting on Florianska Street but it was a tourist scam.  Find a bar – or if you have a long layover in Warsaw airport like I did – try some high end vodka there.

I was driven back to the airport by the same driver who brought me to the hotel.  He had also given me recommendations.  I confessed that I had not realized how much there was to do in Krakow and my visit had been far too short – but that did provide the perfect excuse for a second trip.  Perhaps this time I could even leave the airport in Warsaw.  I hear good things 😉


Heigh Ho – to the mine we go ;)

One of the highlights of a trip to Krakow is actually not in the city itself.  The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Like Wawel Castle, it is one of the original twelve.  UNESCO has gone the way of Beatles tribute bands but Poland boasts two of the original band members – and they are spectacular.


You can get to the salt mine via public transport but you will have to join a guided tour to see the mine so there didn’t seem to be a huge advantage to not just signing up for a tour from Krakow.

If you are on a tight budget, you can save a little organizing your own transportation.  The full tour is not expensive and you can relax and fully enjoy your day.  It also looked like the tour group we joined at the mine was smaller than the ones assigned to the public tours.

The salt mine is fascinating.  The deposit of rock salt in Wieliczka has been mined since the 13th century.  It is one of the oldest of its type in Europe.  The mine illustrates some key historic stages in the development of mining techniques in Europe from the 13th to the 20th centuries.  It’s hard to believe in the 21st century world of cheap, often iodized, salt that in medieval times it was currency in some economies and many important milestones in human history came about because of the production or transportation of salt.


under the earth…

What is really astonishing is how long the mine has been a tourist attraction.  Each year it is visited by more than a million visitors!  Tourism began in the 18th century and there is large roster of famous guests.  Some – like Pope John Paul II and Goethe – have special salt statues to immortalize their visits.  It is also interesting as the temperature is more or less constant and the salt in the air is supposed to be good for your health.  There is a cathedral with excellent acoustics and fascinating subterranean ponds.  You can even spend New Year’s Eve in the mine!

Who knew mining could be so glamourous 🙂

It is definitely not an attraction for anyone with the slightest sense of claustrophobia.  The mine is a giant maze.  You start your journey on a train that takes you into the mine to start your explorations.  It starts like Disneyland but you also need to be comfortable walking as it’s a journey.  You walk about three kilometres and do some serious stairs.  At the end, you are herded like mineworkers into an extremely crowded elevator that is the real deal used to take workers into and out of the mine.  It is freaky but very fast!

The mine itself is interesting but what has enticed the millions of visitors are the sculptures created by the workers.  The sculptures are all composed of rock salt from the mine.  They are incredible.  Famous people are immortalized in salt.  The most whimsical are the sculptures of the Seven Dwarfs – mining of course 😉 and lit by coloured lamps.

resisting disney is futile ;)

resisting disney is futile 😉

not your ordinary piece of salt!

not your ordinary piece of salt!

One of the rewards of the long journey is that you eventually emerge into a cathedral built entirely of salt.  Mining is not without danger so, in this deeply Catholic country, the workers built the cathedral to pray for their safety.  It is impossible to describe.  You are several levels under the ground but you are in this majestic space full of glittering salt (even a claustrophobic would be fine it is so large).  It is one of the most unique sights you can witness anywhere in the world.

This is a tourist attraction, not a mine, and one has to be impressed at how creatively they are trying to push you to buy salt in the gift shop.  Who knew you could do that many things with rock salt…

In addition to the wonders of the mine, you learn about the place of salt in human history and how the value and role of commodities in society is always open to disruption from new technology or changing tastes.

If you do a group tour, you may also be exposed to the new tourists of the 21st century.  We had a professor from Oman and a family from Mexico as part of our group.  The roads are being increasingly diversified.  It can only be an advantage to the planet for more people to go and see it and get to know each other.

One of the wonders of travel is discovery.  Most of the discoveries are small and personal.  But sometimes you stumble by accident upon something unexpected that is truly worthy of international fame.  Go check it out!


beyond perogies and kielbasa…

I know one should try the local cuisine.  I once ate a deep-fried locust.  So it’s a bit pathetic that I tend to shy away from trying the local cuisine in eastern Europe.  It’s mostly because I grew up in central Canada where perogies, kielbasa and borscht are normal foods you bring to a community dinner in a church basement.  They are very popular on the Prairies and exotic in other parts of the world but I would much rather indulge in cannelloni or tod mun pla.

One of the wonderful discoveries I made while I was living in Germany was the abundance of great Italian food outside of Italy.  It would be good for the Italians if they could figure out how to form a responsible government and act a little more German but it means there are lots of Italians escaping to places with better economic prospects and they bring their food with them.  So, in eastern Europe, the first thing I look for is a good Italian restaurant 🙂 There was one in the hotel so I didn’t have to go far and the meal was delicious.

I did come to Krakow to do more than just hang out at the hotel, though.  Even if it was a great place to hang out… The first night I had done a tiny bit of wandering before succumbing to jet lag and just eating at the hotel and going to bed.  On my journey I had spotted a restaurant just across the street from the hotel that looked intriguing.  Modern Polish with a little Italian thrown in.  It’s called Magnes and apparently it’s quite new on the Krakow scene.  The chef defected from one of the other grand dining restaurants in town to open his own place.  It’s astonishingly good.  I could have eaten there every meal and been perfectly happy (but then what would I write about 😉  I need to take more notes on WHAT I eat.  I enjoy being in the moment though and letting my food be nourishment rather than art.


The food at Magnes was so amazing that I actually took some notes!  So I can recommend the beef carpaccio with parmesan.  It was such a bright red I wondered if it was beef or if it was game.  It is possibly the best carpaccio I have ever had.  It melted in your mouth.  There was the typical shaved parmesan on top but also some rucola, romaine and cherry tomatoes topped off with a sublime vinaigrette dressing.  The server brought me an equally delicious Primitivo to accompany it.  That was followed by squid ink tagliolini with shrimp and white asparagus. For a pleasant change, the white asparagus was cooked perfectly instead of to mush.

Magnes would have been enough to have me recommending Krakow but apparently Krakow is full of serious foodies.  What is wonderful is that there is lots of choice so, if you are on a tight budget, you can head to a milk bar.  If you are used to splurging on chef’s tasting menus, you can do that too – but the bill will make your wallet dance.

I try to mix it up a bit so the next night I went to Aubergine, which had been recommended by In Your Pocket.  Unfortunately, it seems to have closed (most of the information is in Polish so it’s a guess).

the route to dinner...

the route to dinner…

For my final night, I went big.  The Pod Roza Hotel is part of the Likus Hotels and Restaurants empire.  It’s high end Poland.  I saved money on the hotel so I would have more cash for food 🙂  The restaurant in the Hotel Copernicus doesn’t have a Michelin star yet but it tastes like it should.  You can actually eat Polish food and it’s delicious.  No perogies and kielbasa here… I was subjected to borscht – and herring – however.  The chef tried hard but I am still not a fan of either…

But then there was foie gras with chocolate, raspberry and ice cream that got the taste of the herring out of my mouth.  It was inventive and sublime.  It’s a tiny place and you have to eat what the chef has prepared.  There are three options – five, seven and twelve courses.  Five is plenty!  The chef changes the menu every month and apparently it is inspired by Polish royal cuisine.  But re-interpreted for modern royals.  It’s one of those meals that is an experience, not just something to eat.  The mango/coco mousse in a broken eggshell came with eating instructions!  Since champagne goes with everything, I drank some delicious champagne from a house I did not know but the service was stellar and my server did not steer me wrong.


After writing this and reliving all the wonderful flavours, the leftover pizza that will be dinner tonight seems a bit sad.  If you want to live like a young royal on a middle class salary, book that flight to Krakow.  It’s not your grandfather’s Poland anymore 😉

who knew Poland was a hipster paradise? ;)

I realize it’s unfair to keep comparing Krakow to other places but it is still enough of an underground destination that it helps people to more easily visualize what Krakow has to offer so, sorry Poland, but I did wonder if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Austin… or Portland…

Given that Austin and Portland are two of my favourite places on the planet, it was like being transported into a fairy tale.  Like the others, it is a college town so there are lots of cool things to do – and lots of offerings students can afford.

I really regretted my early Friday night – and that I hadn’t booked a longer stay – but I was determined to at least get a taste for what Krakow had to offer.

I first discovered this in Dubrovnik but, if you are heading east, check out in your pocket guides for great tips on what to do.  I had an amazing time in Krakow thanks to them.  In writing this, I finally signed on to the website and see they have lots of destinations but what makes them special is that they have insider tips for countries like Latvia and Belarus.


I am far too old to be a proper hipster but, rather than having an arrested adolescence, I seem to have an arrested 30something complex.  Luckily, as long as I get a decent amount of sleep, no one seems to question my age-appropriateness in the venue.

The challenge in Krakow is that there is way too much to do, especially on the weekend.  You can watch live music, you can go to a dive bar, you can be a tourist and park yourself on the main square with a beverage, you can dance to electronic music or you can watch a classical music concert in a baroque church.  You just have to pick something.  Otherwise, you will just sit with your in your pocket guide in your hand evaluating options until the current venue kicks you out.

on your way to the music :)

on your way to the music 🙂

I didn’t manage to get through all the options but I did try to mix it up and see what I could in my short visit.  If you are travelling with a companion or two and want to have a cocktail in a sophisticated environment, Baroque is a good choice.  If you are travelling solo and looking for some interesting people watching, try Baccarat.  It is a little rough around the edges compared to London but there was a good local band playing covers and singing songs in Polish that the crowd definitely enjoyed.  There was a lot of velvet drapery, much of it in crimson.  Perhaps it is a hangout for Dracula…



I would not have taken Dracula for a Mojito kind of guy.  But I would recommend you stick to those kind of cocktails in eastern Europe.  It’s still the 90s in some ways.  But there is a charming retro vibe.  Just don’t try to order a Manhattan.  They didn’t have any bourbon!  I am sure there would not have been a sour cherry or a burnt orange garnish… Don’t try to be fancy… drink beer – or vodka – and you will have a blast.

I had one more evening and had done enough exploring to know my way around quite well so went a little further afield for Sunday night.  The club is called Piec’Art and is famous for jazz.  It wasn’t actually jazz but folk music as channeled by the Poles.  The cover was minimal, the beer was cheap (and excellent) and the band was talented.  I felt very local.  There were only a handful of people in the venue.  I had asked in English if there was a band in order to buy the ticket so the band said they would have to skip the intro because it was in Polish.  I said I was in Poland; I expected people to speak Polish.  So they just performed as planned.  I didn’t know what they were saying a lot of the time but that is the amazing thing about music – it is universal even when you can’t understand the lyrics.


During the band’s break, Lucas asked me where I was from.  Apparently he and his father are big fans of Canada and hope to visit someday. I learned that the bar was empty because there was an election in progress and people were at home watching the debate.  I expect people vote in Poland.  Because I roam the world so much, I have often ended up in places while there was an election in progress.  It’s always interesting to see the political process in different places.  The right to vote is such a privilege but people in old democracies often don’t bother voting or making an informed decision.  You come for the entertainment but often the experience is richer than expected.

I’m not cool enough to be a hipster but have followed my own drum and been into alternative stuff since I was pre-teen.  I came of age when it was a lot more controversial to be different and the global political landscape was a galaxy away from where it is now.  With the Americans and Russians running around the world trying to stir up trouble and handing out AK-47s like Halloween candy, it can be hard to feel like we are making progress but I keep visiting countries where democracy is a newish concept and lots of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last couple of decades.

The alternative has become the mainstream.  And not all stuffy old practices were bad.  One of the great delights of travelling in Europe is the eye candy – well-groomed, clean shaven men of all ages in tailored suits and wonderfully shiny chic shoes.  Personally, I think if the hipsters want to score more often, they might consider shaving, put on a suit, trade the ironic trainers for a pair of shiny lace-up oxfords and learn how to talk like a charming Latin gentleman… 🙂  You probably can’t trust them but it doesn’t mean you will be able to resist 😉

prague 3.0 ;)

Finally we’re going somewhere new 🙂  I have been roaming around Europe quite a bit this year, both to places familiar and place foreign so will fill you in on the highlights.  I will likely not do it chronologically just to keep you on your toes 😉  Too much travel and not enough writing!  But lots of notes and photos so the travels should make it here eventually…

These days in Europe everyone complains about how crowded and touristy Prague is.  I was one of the privileged people who got to see it years ago when it was still emerging from communism and concepts like customer service were still foreign affectations.  I will actually be going back next month so will be able to see for myself if Prague has been ruined by the market economy. Stay tuned 🙂 <it’s taken me so long to get this post finished I have now been back…>

Just in case the rumours are true, I have been collecting alternatives you can visit that provide a largely similar experience.  Ljublijana is the best if you hate crowds.  You can still find quiet in Dubrovnik if you stay in town and get out of the Old Town while the cruise ships dock.  Or you could go to Krakow!

Once upon a time one of my best friends was dating a Polish guy who took her to Poland to meet his family and see his homeland.  Her recounting of the journey was not something the tourist board of Poland would have been anxious to publish but I was pretty sure Poland had changed in the last twenty years and even she liked Krakow.  So off I went…

Once again I was working until I got on the plane (to Paris, not Krakow, we’ll talk about that later) so showed up with some Zloty and no idea what I would spend them on.  I had chosen a hotel off the internet that looked charming and they had organized a charming Polish man to pick me up at the airport.  I wouldn’t recommend arriving in Beijing or Johannesburg without any research but it’s a fine way to arrive in Krakow.

Arriving with no plan makes it feel like more of an adventure.  There is a LOT to do in Krakow I discovered so make sure you stay for a few nights – and start planning as soon as you arrive.  I mostly got lucky…

my home in krakow!

my home in krakow!

My hotel was spectacular.  The Pod Roza Hotel is the oldest hotel in Krakow. It is located between the Florianska Gate and the Main Square, in the heart of old town. The hotel is on the busy Royal Route, which leads millions of tourist straight to the Royal castle.   As you can imagine, it is in a glorious building and it really IS right in the middle of the action!  If you happen to do some shopping or decide you need a sweater, you can pop into your room and barely miss a beat on your tourist quest.


The hotel also offers two restaurants.  The most atmospheric one is where you eat breakfast every morning.  I am a fan and a connoisseur of the sumptuous buffet breakfasts frequently included in the price of your room in most of Europe.  It’s rare that you get actual champagne but the best offer sparkling wine, freshly cooked hot options, a myriad of charcuterie and cheese, yogurt, a selection of cereals and pastries, several kinds of juice, various bread options, etc.  The Pod Roza breakfast was certainly one of the finest on offer.  In addition to the usual grand offerings, it featured delicious smoked salmon, not just ham but prosciutto, and, as an extra bonus – custard!

I arrived exhausted so it was a sad Friday night.  I really wanted to explore more but it was hard to keep my head from falling into my plate so I finished my dinner and went to my comfy bed.  It ended up being a great strategy.  I was up super early so could scarf down enough food to last me until dinner and still get to the castle before it opened.  Krakow is a magical place to arrive without a plan.  Everybody loved it.  It used to be the capital.  Both the Nazis and the Soviets left it alone so the Old Town is like planting yourself in the seventeenth century when people did not have Teslas so you can walk everywhere and see a lot for your effort.  Even horse-drawn carriages in the moonlight that look ready to take Cinderella to the ball.

It’s on par with Paris for its ability to transport you to another century and groan when you get home and see how many photos you have taken and now have to do something with 😉  Since I had no plan yet, I knew there was a castle and the castle was at the end of the Royal Route (the king used to do a drive-by for the peasants on the way to the castle).  The hotel is on the Royal Route so I just decided to follow the path and find the castle.

view from the tower

view from the tower

I may have been naïve in my knowledge of Krakow but that does not mean it is undiscovered!  So you may want to plan ahead a little more 🙂  I got lucky.  Wawel Castle is a marvel.  I ended up spending most of the day there as I got lucky and it was a gloriously sunny day.  They only sell a certain number of tickets each day to visit some of the buildings, including the State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments so either show up early or book in advance.  Also check out the Sandomierska Tower for the view over the river and some cool looking buildings I never had a chance to check out.  This is a very Catholic country so there is also an impressive church on the grounds.

one of many castle shots :)

one of many castle shots 🙂


You actually get a guided tour through the State Rooms so I learned an interesting piece of trivia.  Given that this was the old days when the kings spent the peasants’ money trying to out-bling each other, there are some magnificent tapestries.  Apparently they are still intact since the Polish leaders packed them off to Canada for safe storage before the Nazis could get their hands on them.  History involves a lot more intrigue than we realize – I am slowing learning as I explore history by checking out castles, churches and monuments.

Once you’ve checked out the castle, you can explore the rest of the Royal Route.  Krakow is filled with gorgeous buildings and churches, all in styles that would have made Mies van der Rohe roll his eyes in disgust.

There is much more to tell but my advice is to get there before the secret gets out any further…  and there is an overnight train from Prague so you could even do a compare and contrast (my plan in October)…


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