Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tour of Krakow and the High Tatras

We recently had an opportunity to travel to Krakow, the former imperial capital and Poland’s second city, for four days of exploring historic old towns, majestic mountains, and world-class museums.
 Wroclaw Old Town

Like Wroclaw, Krakow also has a lovely Old Town, but it is much bigger and busier than its little sister some 270 km due west. The UNESCO-listed market square, Rynek Glowny, is not only beautiful with the towering spires of the elegant St. Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall, a neo-gothic covered medieval market; it is also incredibly lively with numerous outdoor cafes, street entertainers, and art exhibitions. The compact pedestrianized streets, gorgeous architecture, and leafy park surrounding the city centre make for a delightful stroll around Krakow’s Old Town. 

After spending a few hours wandering around Old Town, we hiked up to Wawel Castle, perched on top of the hill of the same name. The royal complex is massive consisting of the impressive castle and cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of Krakow and the traditional coronation site of Polish monarchs. Be sure to allot ample time to wander around the grounds and visit the State Rooms & Royal Apartments, Crown Treasury, and the various museums. 

Then we continued south to Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Krakow. This gritty neighbourhood with peeling facades is full of charm and not to mention, steep in history. As an avid fan of history, a trip to Krakow was an opportunity to understand and pay respect to the millions of people who died in the horrific events of World War II, a topic we will write about in another post.

In addition to visiting several historic synagogues and the old Jewish cemetery, be sure to stop by 12 ulica Jozefa, the famous courtyard in which Steven Spielberg filmed his Oscar-winning movie Schindler’s List. While you will instantly recognize the famous archway and stairwell, today the courtyard has been converted into a restaurant and pub. Kazimierz may appear sleepy by day, but by night, it come alive as a hipster/bohemian hangout with atmospheric bars and beer gardens.  If you need a break in between sightseeing, we highly recommend the Beer Gallery on ul. Warszauera, which serves over 100 beers including local beers on tap, La Trappe, and Kozel.

When we travel, we always make an effort to sample local cuisines. Polish food is homey, simple, and very hearty. The food scene varies from cheap milk bars (Bar Mleczny), a Polish institution dating back from the Communist government in efforts to encourage milk consumption, to high-end Michelin rated restaurants. We had an enjoyable dinner of traditional Polish food at Chlopskie Jadio, a village-themed restaurant on ul. Jana 3 in Old Town. They serve a complimentary lard with a basket of bread, which we tried but didn’t like, but the adjacent table filled with Polish businessmen devoured their little pots of lard. We ordered Polish classics: beetroot soup, pierogi (Polish dumplings) and Bigos (Polish stew), all washed down with local draft beer.  The pierogis were a bit on the doughy side for my liking, but nonetheless delicious, and the stew was hearty and packed with flavours of Eastern Europe’s favourite spice: paprika. 

On another evening in Krakow, we were on a mission to find the best kielbasa in town. A bit a research and a short walk from the Old Town later, we found ourselves queuing behind a line of loyal followers at the legendary blue van parked outside of Hala Targowa. This place is run by two elder gentlemen who make their own kielbasa and is open 6 days a week from 8pm to 3am. Grilled to perfection over a makeshift open flame pit, the footlong kielbasa is served with a crusty bun and a splash of mustard and ketchup. This is by far the best sausage we have ever tasted. It puts Top Dog in Berkeley to shame. And at £1.55 each, I almost ordered a second helping, but refrained in favour of another popular street food: zapiekanka (Polish pizzas), a toasted open-faced baguette sandwich topped with a variety of toppings. The best zapiekanka stands are located in Plac Nowy in Kazimierz.

With Slovakia just 106 km away and with an opportunity to put yet another country under our belt, we decided to take drive to the High Tatras mountains for the day. Straddled between Poland and Slovakia, the High Tatras offers some amazing mountain scenery -- protruding peaks, lakes, valleys and waterfalls.

At Stary Smokovec, a little resort town in Slovakia, we went for a short 2 hour hike to the Cold Stream Waterfall. I was a bit alarmed initially as I was hiking through huge patches of barren land, but I later discovered it was the result of a massive windstorm in 2004 that uprooted a significant portion of the forest. It will take years if not decades for full recovery. The High Tatras is every hiker’s dream – lovely pine-clad mountains, fresh air, and small crowds. 

On our way back to Krakow, we stopped off in Zakopane, a busy resort town on the Polish border, for a very late alfresco lunch. The drive back to Krakow was pleasant – the sun was starting to set behind the High Tatras. It was the perfect way to end our time in Poland. 

Next: Day Trip to Auschwitz

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