Krakow–a Hidden Gem

Bidding farewell to my Prague, possibly the love of my life, was difficult. But alas, five more weeks of Europe await. I took the night train from Prague to Krakow, Poland, which although not a five star hotel, isn’t an uncomfortable way to save time. For a $15 reservation fee (if you have a rail pass) you can book a bed in a little compartment with a few other people. When you wake up, you’ve arrived with an entire day ahead of you!

I must admit, Poland was never on my list of places I hoped to visit. It was an obscure, iced over land somewhere between Germany and Russia, famous for hot dogs and sauerkraut. Well, it damn well should have been! Krakow has much of the same Old World charm of Prague, but it’s still a diamond in the rough so to speak. Popular with Europeans in the know, it hasn’t quite caught on as a top destination. It’s just obscure enough and difficult to get to that stag parties haven’t figured out it’s (inexpensive) appeal. Shh, don’t tell them.

Poland was hit hard by WWII. Structurally, Krakow held its own ok–the bombs definitely did some damage but many of the old structures survived. But socially, it was devastated. Poland was once a bit of a safe-haven for European Jews, who faced bigotry all over Europe even before the Nazi days. When the Nazi occupation took hold, approximately 30 percent of the Polish population was Jewish. In addition to going after the Jews, the Nazis thought of the Slavic people as sub-humans only fit for forced labor. Thus, many ethnic Poles were sent to labor and death camps alongside their Jewish neighbors. About 90 minutes outside of Krakow is Auschwitz Concentration Camp, possibly the most horrific place humanity has ever known. 1.1 million people were murdered here in four years. Can you even imagine? I’ll be headed there on Tuesday, and frankly, I’m a little nervous about the emotional toll. By the end of WWII,  90 percent of the Polish Jewish population had been wiped out. NINETY PERCENT. As a whole, one in five Poles had been murdered–that’s twenty percent of the total population decimated in six years. That’s something from an apocalyptic blockbuster.

Just like Prague and East Germany, following the war the Soviets stepped in as its not-so-benevolent overlord until 1989. Anti-German sentiments led to “restructuring;” i.e., expelling all Germans from Poland. The Soviets also forcibly sent all Ukrainians back to their native homeland. These actions combined with the decimated Jews, left Poland pretty homogenized with no notable minorities. It remains so today.

So far Krakow has been nothing but incredible. The locals are a bit gruff, but a smile goes a long way. There is just a curtness to Eastern Europeans that takes some getting used to. Western standard customer service is still a relatively new thing–under the communist regime such a concept of working for tips wasn’t fathomable. It’s cold, poverty and unemployment are a bit high and they couldn’t buy chocolate until the 90s–let’s give them a break. They’re trying to catch up.

My hostel is a little funky, but it’s got charm. Housed in an ancient building a few blocks off the Old Town square, you have to climb four flights of narrow wooden stairs to reach it. No elevators here! There is a reason Europeans are thin. It has a communal kitchen with the coffee pot always brewing and feels like you’re staying in a local’s home rather than a hotel.

Krakow’s Old Town Square is a toned down version of Prague’s. Less touristy kitsch, more local flare. It’s the Spring Solstice here and the town, despite snowy conditions, is bursting with new life. In the vibrant square, currently decked out for Easter with giant colorful eggs and pastel streamers around may poles, families with young babies pick out Easter Eggs, elderly women dressed in traditional folk sing medleys on stage, and Sunday mass is standing room only. I popped my head in to get a peek of the enthusiastic Polish mass, but you  have to be discreet here. Nearly the entire population is staunch Catholic and they get a little touchy about looky-loos in their churches. Well, they shouldn’t build such beautiful ones then! 🙂

The square is filled with vendors peddling everything from touristy souvenirs to hand made socks. Locals actually do come to the square for shopping needs so it feels authentic. And the food–oh, oh, ok let me speak to the food. I think I could just skip all the sights and spend my day eating here.

I had no expectations of Polish food. I roughly assumed it was mostly hearty meat-and-potato stews, which it CAN be. But it also has layers of complexities. I am currently having a love affair with Pierogis–a sort of cross between a pot sticker and a ravioli dumpling filled with any number of things. Beef and potato is common but I was delighted to find ones filled with smoked ricotta, spinach and mushrooms. They come both boiled and crispy fried. For about $2 you can get a huge stick-to-your-ribs mound of pierogi. I’ve eaten it three times in two days. Wash it down with a $1 (huge) cup of hot mulled wine and you’ll survive the winter. I am absolutely learning to make both these things when I return.

pierogi

Another amazing thing I’ll be dreaming about for years is a huge baguette (about 8 x 3) toasted over an open flame and smothered with garlic butter and sauteed onions. They also do it with melted cheese and sausage. It’s basic, but it’s greasy, comfort street food at its finest.

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The Poles also don’t mess around with their sausages. And although I don’t partake in this particular favorite, it’s tempting. Stall after stall sells thick juicy tubes in all manner of flavors. The sweet smoky aroma practically dances through the air, touching every part of the city.

The weather has been a challenge here so the sightseeing is a little slow, but thankfully most things you want to see our within a short walking distance. Yesterday it snowed, today it’s seriously raining–and with near-freezing temperatures it’s ICY rain. It does make it difficult to want to roam about the city. It’s a shame because the weather report is calling for 65 and sunny after I leave! There are some huge advantages to European travel in the off-season: fewer tourists, better prices and more local festivals and events. But be prepared to be cold all the time. Layering is absolutely essential here. And so are gloves, scarves and hats! I had to buy a little red knit hat and I look a bit like a gnome walking about.  

Last night the hostel hosted a local vodka (Wodka) tasting so I got to meet some people, although interestingly I was the only female of about 30 attendees. Generally everyone speaks English so it’s the preferred method of communication for most. If there’s an Italian and a Korean, they will be able to communicate through the unifying common tongue. And actually many people I’ve met here are excited for the opportunity to practice their English skills. 

One comical moment involved a rare Italian who didn’t have a word of English, but did speak broken Spanish. So we had an awkward conversation in Spanish (SPAIN Spanish mind you, which is a bit different than Latin American Spanish), much to the amusement of a Barcelonian sitting beside us.  But it was a pretty great experience to be able to find a way to chat. And it’s motivated me to practice my Spanish, which is pretty rusty these days.

Below: The Italian and the Spaniard

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Right now I’m hiding from the rain inside.  As I mentioned, it’s tempting to want to fill every moment of the day with sightseeing, but I know it’s important to just take some down time. A part of me is a little grateful for the rain because it leaves me no choice! In this weather it’s tempting to just crawl into bed but I’m trying to get some much-needed writing done.Visiting countries like Poland, with such incredible stories to tell, is really inspiring my writing. Around every corner a new idea sparks for either Rebel Song or a new adventure.

Well, I think I’ve rambled enough for one afternoon so I’ll leave you with some pictures. I might go eat more Pierogi now.

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Below: I finally had to do some laundry. But I found a little place that’s a laundry mat AND a cozy pub! What a great idea. 

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