A few weeks ago, through my Twitter account (ilivetotravel), a friend connected me with the Amateur Traveler Travel Podcast ( http://amateurtraveler.com/ ). Chris Christensen runs this website and he interviewed me a couple of weeks ago to share my experience visiting Krakow and the neighboring region. Being interviewed is not necessarily a daunting thing in and of itself but being recorded for playback did feel more daunting!
The podcast was published this past weekend (episode 185) and you can hear it by going to his site and either clicking the play button above the picture or downloading the mp3 or the enhanced iTunes version. The iTunes version will play different pictures of what is being spoken about, some are my pictures and some other not.
Overall, it was a great experience and a great way to continue the work of spreading the word about the rewards of travel and specifically about Krakow and its vicinity! Check out my podcast and check out all the podcasts Chris has developed. It is an impressive list of destinations for which he has podcasts!
When preparing for my trip, I got asked a lot: “how will the food be?”. I honestly didn’t have a lot of awareness myself as I had not researched the topic. There was definitely no need to worry in Krakow!
First, let me say that eating out is cheap. I am not talking going to a hole in the wall or a mom-and-pops. I am talking even at nicer restaurants. On the top end of the scale, places we never visited since we felt the food we were having at mid level restaurants was outstanding enough and very low priced, a main entree could run up to $25 (at least, based on a non-scientific sampling from my walking around). At the restaurants I ate (most were recommended by the people who rented us their apartment), a main entree was no more than $8-10.
Now to the quality. Every meal was delicious. Whether the veal scallopini at Cherubino‘s or the pork knuckle in honey and plums at Polskie Jadlo, every dish was spectacular. House wines were not shabby either. I didn’t get to eat desserts at every meal simply because I was usually stuffed by then but I did have ice cream a couple of times and it was double-darn good ice CREAM! The real stuff.
Places we visited were:
- Kuchnia i Wino (ul. Jozefa in the Mazimierz district, http://www.cracow-life.com/eat/restaurants_details/61-Kuchnia_i_Wino)
- Cherubino (on a side street from ul. Jana called ul. Tomaszka, http://www.cherubino.pl/restaurant_krakow.html)
- Polskie Jadlo (ul. Jana, http://www.cracow-life.com/eat/restaurants_details/1272-Polskie_Jadlo)
- Miod i Wino (ul. Slawkowska, http://www.cracow-life.com/eat/restaurants_details/270-Miod_i_Wino).
We also enjoyed bakeries (“cukiernias“) around the Old Town and a cafe in a square in the must-see Kazimierz district called TeD (Plac Nowy 7) – very nice loungey feel to it.
The only thing that bothered me a little bit about restaurants is that, while they have a non-smoking section, it is practically non-functioning as you still get to breathe enough secondhand smoke to lose a little of the sense of smell…
So what is the Polish food I experienced? Well, lots of meat (especially pork), potatoes (fried or baked, of different shapes), little in terms of greens (unless you order a salad), bread (served with lard in the more traditional places I went to; yes, LARD but it had bacon to probably make it healthier ), etc.. A lot of the pork was fried which reminded me of my favorite Cuban dish but the pork knuckle was not fried (it was very tender!). I also enjoyed pierogis (many options as far as filings), and pancakes stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese.
Alright, vacation is almost over, I am on my last evening in Krakow prior to heading back home. Morning flight at 5:30 AM to Prague, then another to JFK, and then Atlanta. It will be hard but sitting down for a long time sounds good after all the walking I have done this week. I have eaten all sorts of delicious yet very fatty food (the whip cream here is REAL cream!) but I don’t feel my jeans are any tighter!
I need to write more about a few experiences from the trip but here I will recap some of the sights in Krakow itself.
The city is loaded with history. It used to be the capital and we visited the site of the royal palace, Wawel Castle (http://www.wawel.krakow.pl/en/), which sits atop the hill of the same name. Unfortunately, the royal residence was closed for a few weeks and re-opens on Monday. But we visited the crown treasure and armory museum in the basement of the palace and also toured the Cathedral (which is also in Wawel Hill) and the royal tombs underneath it. All very impressive (reading up a little Polish history before the trip paid off!).
We also got to see very different style churches and key sites in the life of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II). He clearly is still a big figure in the city where he lived most of his life and served as priest, bishop, and cardinal.
We have eaten very well and will write more about that later. Highlight of the day was finding a bakery with cream cakes, like the one I ate in Wadowice. Mmmm… cream cakes…
Today has felt very cold due to high winds. I learned from someone that it is the “halny” (winds from the Tatra Mountains http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halny).
I am guessing my next entry will be once I am home but have a few odds and ends to write about the trip. The trip, though short, has been well worth it!
Among the many great things to see in Krakow, many are actually OUTSIDE of Krakow. Wadowice and the Wieliczka Salt Mines are both great examples.
To get to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, a UNESCO world heritage site, one can take bus 304 from Krakow or a mini-bus (same prices, but less comfortable than the main bus and probably not as nice a view). Either costs 2,60 zl each way (less than $1). I always enjoy figuring out how to buy tickets; there always seems to be something new for me in a new country. Here, pretty straightforward: if you have coins, you can buy from the machine in the bus. Some bus stops have a machine that accept bank notes. Either way, don’t forget to stamp the ticket once in the bus!
The ride was pretty smooth and took about 20 mins. We got off the bus when we saw other tourists in the bus do the same but we didn’t know where to go. My thought was to follow them but unfortunately the two parties took an equal number of separate routes, placing us in a quandary. But with some confidence, we followed one of the parties and made it fine. But we got to see some of the area around the mines as we made it there!
At the mines, there are English tours available with groups starting every hour or so. We hadn’t checked ahead with the information office in Krakow (always a good idea, especially with so many info offices in Krakow!) so we got lucky that the next English tour was like in 10 mins. Taking the tour in English cost extra but was worth it.
The tour starts with a climb down a staircase that was maybe 25 stories. You then meander through tunnels between chambers in the mine, each chamber with different decorations (mostly religious and most all made from salt too). Since the miners used to have daily Mass offered down there, a few of the chambers are chapels. The most impressive chambers are at the bottom of the tourist route and well worth seeing. One hardly feels “trapped” while there as it is well ventilated. The salty air is actually quite good for you (which I undid later in the evening by going to a pub with all the smoking that goes on in such places – not by me). People with respiratory ailments supposedly visit longer for therapeutic reasons. The tour took about 2 hrs and the guide interjected the usual funny comments along the way. At the end of the tour, well over 100m underground, there is even a cafeteria in one of the big chambers in the mine.
Most of what you see here is made from salt! (Credit: http://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/visiting/pilgrims-route)
Most of what you see is made from salt here too! (Credit: http://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/visiting/pilgrims-route)
To go back up, we didn’t have to climb back up but were packed tighter than sardines in a lift about 2.5ft deep by maybe 4ft wide. Good thing the person right in front of me had brushed his teeth and wore deodorant!
The salt mines get a thumbs up, especially because they are so accessible from Krakow and they are simply an experience!
I am in Krakow! This blog post (and the next few) will be written during a trip. Nice change for me and maybe for the readers?? Just arrived in Krakow yesterday late afternoon local time.
Flying to Warsaw via Amsterdam with KLM went without a hitch aside from the possessed kid on the transatlantic leg. More than the screaming child, the screaming mother was the worse part. Where is flying Super Nanny when you need her?
Schiphol, as usual, a great airport to connect through. At Warsaw, much to our chagrin, passport control was closed (yep, I am a sucker for that passport stamp). I guess they are not concerned with who is coming (just keep coming?).
A bus ride
The Warsaw airport was quite small and very easy. The information desk was very helpful and pointed us to take a bus to the Warsaw Central train station instead of taxi (bus nbr 175; bought the 2.8 zloty single pass at the ever-present Relay shop). Outside of baggage claim, there was an ATM (why are these machines always tucked a way at the far end of the arrivals building in many European airports?) and money problem solved.
A train ride
In about 20 mins (a Saturday morning), we were at the station. It is a maze of alleys and shops and not quite like the train stations I am used to in Paris, Madrid or London. The ticket windows are not in one central area but there are numerous small kiosks called “Kasa” (cashier, I suppose) around. We walked past a couple before being comfortable that was where we needed to go. The lady did not speak English but between a printout I had of the schedule and my phrases for asking about price, etc., the transaction was done!
Then to grab lunch where, again, the person didn’t speak English. Between my broken Polish and hand signals, it was all good. We decided we were too tired and splurged for a first class ticket on the train. What sold us on the idea was how cheap it was: $40. The ride was smooth and uneventful. Two other folks shared our compartment and they didn’t say much until they left the train when they told us goodbye in English.
An automobile ride
Once in Krakow, though we weren’t far from the apartment, we were exhausted from lugging ourselves and our luggage around and chose to cab it. It also saved us from figuring out directions at dusk, etc.
Our host’s friend met us and gave us great advice for local things. He actually spoke almost perfect Spanish and pretty good English. Impressive.
Next time, I will write about the food (so far) and the initial impressions of the town and the Salt Mines at Wielickza.
Today is Sunday and this coming Friday, I am off to Poland as I mentioned in an earlier entry. A lot of final details to still take care of and, because I have a very loaded work week, for once I actually have to pack more than 2 days in advance (usually I pack in the 2 days prior to a trip, at most!).
One part for which I am ready is the cold. It will be very cold. But that is why we have coats, gloves, and scarves. I had to upgrade in the glove department but the rest was all good. Will be using my Gore Tex boots most of the time to handle any ice or snow though the area of the city I will be staying at is likely to be well kept in terms of snow and ice. However, the same may not be true elsewhere.
We opted to rent an apartment in Krakow as we realized we could make it our home base for the things we wanted to see and visit. This was a great decision as it would make a lot of things easier (no packing-unpacking moving from one hotel to another) and much cheaper than a hotel ($90 per night for a 2 bedroom which translated to $45 per night for each of us). It is located close to the city center. The owners wanted full pre-payment, which may be a common approach, but we settled for 20% upfront, the rest upon arrival. A few weeks later, they have been very helpful with many details so we are likely to go ahead and settle up before getting there to avoid carrying all the cash and for them the hassle of getting the money to them in the UK from their local contact.
In terms of planning, there is a lot of info available on the Internet, as you can imagine. Plenty of resources from the local and the national tourism websites: http://www.krakow.pl/en/turystyka/ and http://www.poland.travel/en-us/pot_front_page. Also, the following interactive map has been an excellent Krakow resource: http://www.cracow-life.com/map/map.php. Finally, the following link will be very helpful to plan train travel (what I was able to Google in terms of train travel was not as good as this link sent to me by the apartment owners): http://www.intercity.com.pl/?page=home_page.
We are likely going to be visiting Auschwitz, Wadowice, Czestochowa, and the Salt Mines in Wieliczka in the 5 days we have in town and then, of course, explore Krakow itself for which we are allowing ourselves a couple of days. We also have received recommendations in terms of restaurants from the apartment owners and from perusing various websites. We are ready for good food!
Finally, though we expect we will find enough English speakers, I have been trying to learn basic phrases and words just in case we find ourselves lost in a small town. It is a curious language for me and some words remind me of Latin – whether a real or imaginary connection, I don’t know, but it makes remembering some of the stuff easier.
I am ready to get there and explore a new place! I will be blogging about my trip as it happens so stay tuned. (Click here for my first post about planning this trip: http://ilivetotravel.wordpress.com/2009/01/20/planning-a-trip-to-southern-poland/.)
Any final advice?
Well, this entry will be different than the others. Why? Because it is not about a trip taken but about planning a trip to be taken. I have to admit, I enjoy planning a trip a lot. It is as if the trip has almost begun as I begin to plan, imagine, and make more concrete what the actual trip will be.
Decision to Visit Poland
As a friend and I were discussing that we should travel together for a weekend or a week, we began randomly talking about what could we do. Talking about possibilities TOTALLY energizes me! EVERYTHING is possible at that early moment in planning. In talking, we decided that instead of a weekend in the U.S. or nearby, perhaps we ought to take the entire week and go further.
Where to go then? Immediately we narrowed it down to Europe or Latin America just due to the constraint of a week max. Our mind went to the big capitals of Europe. We ran through countries like Portugal, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Germany, France. We ruled out Italy as we had both been there a couple of times (doesn’t mean we don’t love Italy, we do, but we were feeling like exploring something totally new). We ended up narrowing it down to Ireland and Poland. So it was either going to a place known for its beauty, friendliness and pubs or a place we didn’t know as much about and knew nothing about the language.
We began throwing around that maybe seeing where Pope John Paul II had been born may be interesting (we are Catholic, this line of reasoning may not apply to others ). So, we decided to study that area of Poland to see if there was enough to explore. I had a notion that Krakow was a place to see but I don’t know that I could have explained exactly why. Never fear, some Internet searching, some visiting local bookstores and checking out a few books and we got the info we needed. There was so much to see and explore in Krakow and its vicinity to fill a week and not get it all done. We also felt that we might as well go out on a limb now that we are relatively young (late 30s, early 40s) whereas Ireland seemed an easier place for later in life. So, with perhaps not the best set of criteria but criteria we felt good enough with, we chose to go to Poland. The fact that we are going in winter is not scaring us. We will just bundle up and enjoy low tourists fighting with us to enter places, etc.!
So what a realistic itinerary for a week in Poland??
Destination settled. Not quite… So, how much of Poland should we aim for? How much was realistic without being too aggressive? How was the transportation network? Well, we didn’t know enough nor people who had gone. Again, the resources mentioned above plus posting questions on the Internet answered our questions. Southern Poland, in fact just one part of southern Poland, would easily fill a week and more if we really wanted to. Krakow and the nearby salt mines would fill a couple of days at the very least. We realized Czestochowa would be an interesting day trip. We obviously knew we had to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We clearly were going to see Wadowice to see where JP II was born. We realized we may be able to even squeeze in a day trip to ski at Zakopane. Wow! So much to do and so many other places we probably would not have time to go see!
Well, the rest is planning details. Fly to Krakow, or fly to Warsaw and take a train down? Stay in Krakow as our home base or move around these towns? So many possibilities. We haven’t nailed it all down yet but we think we will fly to Warsaw and take the less than 3 hr train to Krakow and at least get a glimpse of the countryside in winter. We will not be able to see anything outside of the south except perhaps for a day in Warsaw on our way out of the country (which may not do it justice but Warsaw may be an easier place to return to than Krakow). We are likely using Krakow as the home base and we are looking at renting an apartment since then we don’t have to be lugging stuff around – plus it is cheaper and more comfortable.
So, that’s where we are. Enjoying the questions, details, and unknowns about the trip as we continue our planning. I will be writing about this awesome trip soon enough!
Anyone have any tips about Krakow or any of the places we are considering visiting? Does anyone else enjoy trip planning as much as I do??