Eat, Sleep and Be Merry…

Over the last couple of posts, I have shared quite a sombre side of my Krakow experience. And it is true that the dark period in Krakow’s past is an essential part of understanding its character and place as an historic and cultural centre of Eastern Europe.

But Krakow is also filled with a sense of warmth and joyful spirit. The people are friendly. Its medieval history is stamped indelibly in its glorious architecture, cobbled streets and picturesque plazas. It has a wonderful – and accessible – music scene, delicious food and a rich spiritual lineage as a main centre for Catholicism in Europe.

For my part, it would be a shame to let a dark past overshadow your armchair tour of this beautiful and soulful city. I had such a great time that it would be remiss of me not to encourage you to visit. And what better way to wrap everything up than by giving you a list of my favourite bits and a few recommendations to boot. So here goes…

Generally food is tasty, filling and good value and the best local tipples are beer and vodka. (The Poles are not hugely into wine, but this market is growing.) Suffice to say I ate and drank well.

I tried both pierogi and borscht for the first time on this trip – with great success I must say. And my top dining out tip? Miod Malina (translates to Honey Raspberry) a short walk from Rynek Glowny towards Wawel Castle. I sat outside and enjoyed a glass of wine and three delicious courses to the strains of a classical string duet…for about £20.

My first pierogi (dumplings) – sitting looking over the hustle and bustle of the main square on Day 1 – were filled with a delicious mix of cabbage and mushroom. My second helping was on Night 2 (at Miod Malina) – a scrumptious blueberry version served with soured cream. Sigh…I ‘heart’ pierogi!

Spacious, cheerful and unbelievable value – that’s Hotel Benefis. This small 4 storey hotel sits across the river from the main hubbub of Krakow but it’s only a 15 minute walk to Rynek Glowny. I had a large 4th floor room with a balcony and a view of the spires of the Wawel Cathedral, Main Square Tower and Mariacka Basilica for slightly less than the price I paid for a box-size room in Rome. Oh and the staff are great.

Hotel Benefis –  highly recommended!

Be Merry
Without a doubt, music be the food of Krakow and play on it did from the bugler’s haunting hejnal from the tower of Mariacka Basilica each hour, an impromptu choir outside the Church of St Adalbert in Rynek Glowny and any number of concert options for a bargain price. You may sniff at the leaflet bearers and their nightly programs as ‘tourist-y’ but for the equivalent of about £12, it is possible to enjoy a healthy dose of the remarkable talent available in this incredibly musical city. Here’s just two:

Day 1: Chamber music at the Church of St Peter and Paul
The Thursday billing was Classical and Film Music so there was the well-known – Mozart, and Vivaldi, Over The Rainbow and Schlinder’s List – and some new discoveries for me. As I sat in that glorious church, the haunting notes of Morricone’s Once Upon A Time In America filling the nave, I felt moved and incredibly blessed to be there.

The Church of St Peter & Paul

Day 3: Chopin at Bonerowski Palace
Chopin is one of Krakow’s most famous sons and every night you’ll find concerts throughout the city featuring his music. The deft fingers of Pawel Kubica introduced me to my first Chopin on a sparkling Saturday evening that had been left refreshed by the day’s rain.

The salon at Bonerowski Palace

Aside from music, there are many other treats in store if you get yourself to this delightful city. Mariacka Basilica, with its uneven towers soaring above Rynek Glowny, is glorious inside and lush with intricate detail. Rynek Underground is a fascinating museum located under the Cloth Hall in the Main Square which traces the archaelogical history of Krakow. And make sure you wander past The Papal Window and give a nod to Poland’s other favourite son, Karol Wojtyla, who moved to Krakow to attend university, joined the underground seminary during the occupation and rose through the ranks of the Catholic church to be elected its 264th pope, John Paul II, in 1978.

The Cloth Hall in Rynek Glowny. There’s a market inside but its real treasure lies underneath.

So that’s it. Four days in Krakow filled with amazing and moving experiences that I’ve done my best to share with you through this series.

I hope you’ve been inspired to visit.
Other posts in the Krakow series
It Starts With The Locals
Lightly Salted
The Dark Side
A Monstrous Vision

Lightly Salted…

Poland, and particularly Krakow, is known for its historic and tragic role in Hitler’s persecution of the Jews during World War II. But what it is not so well known is its connection with something that we still use everyday…salt.

Wieliczka Salt Mine (it’s pronounced Veil-ich-ska – I had to work surprisingly hard for a couple of hours to get that right!) is about a 20 minute drive from Krakow and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site for more than 30 years.

But a little over 3 hours is all you need to get up close and personal condiment-wise.

Old miners steps about 100m below the surface

Used for the preservation of food prior to the invention of refrigeration, salt was one of the lynchpins of the Polish economy. Salt was once valued more highly than gold and the workers at the mine itself were so highly regarded that they were actually paid with it. (The word salary, comes from the Latin sal, the word for salt.)

White ‘gold’

The visit all starts with taking some steps – many many many of them (380 in fact) – down to level 1 of the mine 90m below the surface and ends 2 hours later a further 45m deeper (that’s 135m for those of you that have well and truly run out of fingers!)

In between, we walked the rock salt corridors, gaping at each new cavern, wondering at the bravery of those that worked here and breathing in the salty air. Rubbing my fingers along the walls gave me a quite literal taste of the origins of the condiment that will eventually end up on the dinner table.

Wood (rather than metal) is used everywhere to support the corridors and caverns providing a safe place or all comers

Throughout there are extraordinary natural monuments alongside man’s efforts to carve and shape the dark grey stone: tributes to Poland’s visionary forefathers (from Copernicus to Pope John Paul II) as well as its legends (St Kinga) and superstitions (the Treasure Keeper). And to top it all off each breath is therapeutic, the salt-laden environment being ideal for the treatment of asthma and other respiratory conditions. (There is actually an underground health spa for these treatments if one is so inclined to revisit.)

Copernicus preserved – in salt – for all eternity

Wieliczka Salt Mine has been operational for over 700 years – although commercial salt mining stopped in the 1990s, salt is still extracted from the water that dampens ceilings and walls and fills numerous underground lakes.

This underground lake is overseen by the Treasure Keeper from his alcove. Smile at him and you will be lucky, so the saying goes. (Do you think it’s a bit like going to a singles bar?)

It’s a relatively easy 2km walk through the mine with many stops to look at the various points of interest with a local guide. There are toilets and a couple of shopping opportunities along the way so one can stock up on sugar-laden snacks, caffeine fixes or a souvenir or two…and take care of the ‘essentials’. There’s also a museum on site – but the 2 hours was just the right amount of salt for this Aussie palate.

My recommendation would be to join a group tour (I was with Cracow Tours) which means avoiding all the hassle of getting yourself there and back and queue-ing up in between. My group didn’t allow time for anything other than the mine tour but you can go on your own and join a group there if you prefer to allow a little more time for other exploration.

And last but not least, you’ll be pleased to know that the return to the surface is via a fast mining lift, with 8 of your fellow men, women and children, which takes no more than a few minutes, feeling the cool salty air in your hair and on your face as you ascend back to the main entrance building.

And it’s just as well. 380 steps upwards might have proved a few steps too far!

Other posts in the Krakow series:
It Starts With The Locals
The Dark Side
A Monstrous Vision
Eat, Sleep And Be Merry