Discovering Krakow – Part 1

12-15 August 2017

We travelled through Saxony towards Poland through scenery – and weather – reminiscent of England. Traffic was very heavy on the autobahn but we made it to Poland by lunchtime and found a village to stop at to make lunch. In contrast to Germany it seemed very down-at-heel and our monstrous van seemed a bit out of place on the small communal car park.

By late afternoon bumpy, narrow country lanes led us to Gora Swietej Anny (St Anne’s Mountain) where we had identified overnight parking. To our surprise the parking area was packed with cars – pilgrims. We hadn’t realised that this strange little village on a lonely hill rising from the surrounding plains, with a population under 600, is also the site of Franciscan monastery with a ‘miraculous’ statue of St Anne and a large calvary (no idea what the miracles were and if you don’t know what a calvary is then look it up- we had to). This place is apparently so famous as a pilgrimage that Pope JP2 visited and this particular weekend was a special one, with masses, music, and other religious events.

We couldn’t park up properly until the carpark had cleared so had to wait a couple of hours until enough pilgrims returned to allow us to park.  After a bite to eat we went for a walk and a beer at the local kebab shop which was full of locals and made for good people watching.

Polish sites don’t appear to take bookings so after a long hard look at the reviews for the 2 Krakow campsites we opted for Camping Klepardia and were there by mid-day. Our luck was running true – the campsite was full and we were directed to park on the car-park where we stayed until a pitch became available which turned out to be 5pm. The site is next to some flats and a large leisure swimming pool in the sprawl of urban Krakow, a higgledy-piggledy mix of tents and motorhomes of all shapes and sizes amongst the trees. It is also – major bonus – on the bus route into the centre of Krakow.

We felt unsettled – days of grey, cool and damp weather, 2 days of uninspiring and sometimes frustrating driving with too many diversions and motorways, we were missing the mountains, surrounded by city and Poland wasn’t really doing it for us yet. But we had great plans for the next few days.

Monday meant Happy Birthday for Danny who got a cooked breakfast for a treat. We dug out our glad-rags, packed a couple of rucksacks and a smooth 20-minute bus ride took us down to the city centre and the banks of the Vistula. The sun was shining and the view of Wawel castle above the river lifted our spirits.

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The Queens Boutique Hotel lifted them even more – very nice. The room was bigger than our van.

We were booked into Szara Kazimierz in the Jewish Quarter for Danny’s birthday dinner, a restaurant he, Wally, Jon and Alan couldn’t get into on their 2014 visit. The old Jewish Quarter is called Kazimierz, named after King Casimir in the 14th Century. Before WWII Krakow had a large Jewish population and Kasimierz was their historic centre, with several synagogues – the oldest still standing in Poland is there – and a Jewish cemetery. After the war it became neglected but in 1988 an annual Jewish Cultural Festival was started, including lots of music, which attracts people from around the world and in 1993 Spielberg shot a lot of Schindler’s List in Kazimierz which drew international attention. This plus the restoration of important historic sites and the growth in Jewish-themed restaurants, bars, bookstores and souvenir shops has led to a number of Jews moving in from Israel and America. It is a bustling place with lots of cafes, restaurants and attractive old buildings with a great atmosphere.

Szara Kazimierz is a very nice restaurant and we ate outside in the warm evening air watching the world go by and listening to the musicians in the bar opposite playing tourist-pleasing music such as the Schindlers List theme and Fiddler on the Roof. The meal was very good – fitting for a birthday treat – although Kate wasn’t concentrating and ordered steak tartare instead of carpaccio so ended up eating raw steak mince with raw egg yolk. An interesting new experience.

The following day after an excellent breakfast we left our luggage with the hotel and walked into the Old Town.  It was a public holiday for the catholic holy day ‘The Feast of the Assumption’ so the place was packed with locals mingling with the tourists.

The main square, with the old Cloth Hall at it’s centre, dates back to the 13th century and is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. It is also listed as the best public space in Europe due to it’s lively street life. We can understand why – it is surrounded by bars and restaurants, there are performers young and old, and horse-drawn carriages pass through with their drivers in traditional dress. And on this holy-day it was brightened further by people in traditional dress carrying sprays of flowers. We still don’t know what the flower carrying means – we also saw throughout our stay in Poland girls wearing circlets of flowers in their hair, for no apparent reason. Any ideas?

We wanted to try traditional food and at a square where traditional music was being performed and joined the biggest queue we could find for ‘pierogi’, Polish dumplings made of unleavened dough wrapped around a a filling to make a semi-circular parcel and boiled. The filling usually contains things such as minced meat, potato, soft cheese, spinach, cabbage or mushrooms. It took a long time to get served but it was worth it for the authentic pierogi experience. We picked a selection and although the Mexican filling wasn’t traditional it was our favourite.

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When we wandered through the tourist-centred stalls of the Cloth Hall we noticed a lot of toy dragons for sale so checked it out on our way up to the castle.

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Wawel is the name of the hill and the castle that stands on it and there is a legend of a dragon that lived in the cave beneath. There is more than one version of it’s slaying but somewhere along the way Prince Krak is involved. Every child we saw seemed to be carrying a toy dragon. The castle appears to have been largely rebuilt and was very busy, with  fees charged for visiting each part. We just took a general look around – noting the dragon shaped gargoyles – before wandering back down the cobbled access road and heading off for the old Jewish Quarter for a better look around.

We got a taxi back to site – Poland is great value for money – dumped our bags then walked back to the main road and the China Palace restaurant for our first Chinese abroad. Sometimes you just get a craving, and we had one. As we arrived a coach-load of Chinese tourists were leaving which we took as a good sign and we were right . Proper Chinese food that reminded us of Sichuan and hot enough to keep happy.

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