Saturday, 5 May 2012

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

 world-map krakow
A little change from Japan for this week and the rest of the month as I publish, in stages, my fresh off the press account of my trip to Krakow earlier in the year with Mike. The year is 2012, and the European Championships are in Poland and the Ukraine. I’m off to Kiev in a few weeks time so the Ukraine will have to wait, but whilst it does, here’s Poland…

Keep Travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

Like this? Also check out the account of my travels in nearby Slovakia



Stoke City were playing their biggest ever European game in Valencia.

So I went to Kraków.

Make sense? Well, it did to me…

The moment that the Valencia fixture was announced I knew that I wanted to go. Mike, the Art teacher where I work also wanted to go and he had a mate with an apartment just down the road. Sounded perfect so we checked the flights. £100 there and back, yep, that would do. All I needed to do was book the days off work and…

… and grrr! We had a new boss and she’d put a hold on all leave being booked until she could “assess business needs”.[1] But following a football club comes under extenuating circumstances like funerals of close relatives or babysitting, surely? Strangely, she didn’t buy that argument. Obviously not a football fan or, worse still, a gloryhunting ‘supporter’ of Man Utd/Chelsea/Arsenal/ Man City/Liverpool (delete as appropriate). We were left waiting for nearly three weeks before she finally decided that an away day to Spain could be accommodated in her business strategy, but by then the flight prices had risen to over £200 each and I’m sorry, but I ain’t paying two hundred quid to go to bloody Spain! “We’ve a week of holiday that we don’t really want!” I complained to Mike in the pub. “What shall we do with it?”

“I’ll have a look for some cheap deals,” he replied. The next day he came back to me. “There’s Kraków for forty quid each way,” he announced. Kraków, Poland. I had never been to Poland before; it was a big empty box in my checklist of European countries to visit. And besides, isn’t Kraków near to both Auschwitz and Częstochowa, places that I’d long wished to visit, as well as being a nice place in its own right? And isn’t Eastern Europe cheap and am not I fascinated by anywhere east of the Berlin Wall? “Count me in,” I said firmly. “Besides, they’re bound to be showing the Stoke game in a bar there.”

[1] For Heaven’s sake, a prison is a service, not a business! Or maybe I’m just too left-wing for these franchised out days…?


I put down my book and looked out of the window. The book was one I had started as we took off with high hopes of a good read but these had been dashed as it turned out to be a rather annoying one instead. It had been bought for me by my mother as a Christmas present and was entitled Tales from the Fast Trains. It was by a journalist named Tom Chesshyre from London who takes a series of weekend breaks with his girlfriend on the Eurostar to see if this is a viable eco-friendly alternative to short breaks on the aeroplanes of the budget airlines such as the one I was sat in. The book managed to annoy me on several levels. The concept was good – I’m all for promoting green travel – but the execution was terrible. Firstly, it was by a Londoner. London is not a place that I am fond of; it is a blot on the fair face of England that both breeds ignorant tosspots and sucks decent folk in from elsewhere and then turns them into said tosspots. Worse than that though, these people are so ignorant that they never leave London and so assume that everyone else is a Londocentric arse like they are. “You can go for a weekend by rail to Spain: it does work,” enthuses Chesshyre as he raves about fast trains across France. Well actually mate, sorry, but you can’t, reply I, for in the real Britain there are no fast trains, we have to go to London before we can even get on one. Budget airlines on the other hand, can be found all over the place – I have Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and today’s airport of choice, East Midlands all within a fifty mile radius – but more importantly, there’s the cost. Chesshyre’s budget seems unlimited – and considering his job, it is probably not far off; the cheapest Eurostar ticket quoted is to Lille, which is £65 whilst to Spain it’s £191. We’re travelling over twice that distance for £80. No, laudably green they may be, but for the working man, and especially the working man in the provinces, budget airlines are a boon for they have made the impossible possible.

More annoying than all of this though, is Chesshyre’s travelling companion, his girlfriend, E who I assume he has not named openly for fear of reprisals. She is the London tossette defined. She goes to Belgium and drinks wine, (excuse me, beer capital of the world…), and indeed she seems to spend most of her time drinking wine in soulless wine bars designed for pretentious arses like, well… her and Chesshyre,[1] and when she isn’t doing this she is either a). moaning about hotel rooms being not chic, refined and tossette-friendly enough for her, b). making patronising and vaguely xenophobic comments about the locals, c). complaining about the lack of vegetarian options available, or d). turning her nose up whenever her boyfriend suggests doing something mildly cultural that does not involve wine.

So yes, I put that book down and instead looked out of the window and concentrated on the short break ahead of me. By my side, dozing away, was Mike. Was this the right person to be going away with? On the one hand he was not E – I think I should jump out of the plane if he were – but on the other hand he is another person and I am used to travelling alone. How would I cope with accommodating someone else’s needs and tastes after so long of not having to do so? That more than anything else was my big fear going into this trip. I knew that I probably wouldn’t be as sharing and accommodating as Mr. Chesshyre had been with E, but there again he was getting something out of it that I knew, or at least, fervently hoped, I wouldn’t be getting off Mike in the hotel room. I did however, want to share a few beers and still be on speaking terms at the end of week. I realised how very independent I had become.

I shifted my attentions from Mike back to the window. The clouds had cleared now and below me was a patchwork of snow-covered fields and forests. What would Poland be like? I imagined somewhere similar to Slovakia where I’d been on a similar winter break some three and a half years earlier.[2] Cold yet fascinating. I’d done my homework for this trip; I’d got the Lonely Planet from the library, talked to Paul, my Jewish friend, about Auschwitz and quizzed my Polish students on the local food and beers but, as with any new country, so much remains unknown until you actually get to the place and get a feel for it first-hand. What would my first impression of Poland be?

A couple of minutes later I knew. Despite not even having landed, I caught a glimpse of the Polish character and soul. A local farmer had planted trees/bushes in one of his fields so that they spelt out a massive ‘JPII’ to passing planes such as ours. John Paul II – or in Polish, Jan Paweł II – the Polish Pope deceased in 2005 and beloved by a billion. Even in Israel I’d only caught the religiosity of the country after we had landed.

My second impression was also a good one. The girl on the information desk in the terminal was a hauntingly beautiful blonde with that sexy Slavic accent that can reduce grown men to quivering wrecks. But she wasn’t the only one; most of the girls that milled about the airport were stunning, possessing a grace and elegance unseen on our side of the Berlin Wall. Mike’s eyes goggled. So did mine. In the bus to the station they met and we nodded with the feeling of brotherhood that men the world over will understand. “If only I was thirty years younger,” was all that he said.

The information board said that a fast train would take us to the city centre, but the train that escorted us from Kraków Balice to Kraków Główny never exceeded 20mph. Still, that wasn’t a problem since we’d fallen into conversation with Stefan who was an interesting chap indeed. He was a concert violinist who had just returned home from a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands. In Poland he supplements his income by playing in an ensemble in bars and restaurants, but he was more interested in asking us about where we come from since he has a sister who lives in Derby and he is planning to visit her soon.

Arriving in Kraków Główny, we bade Stefan adieu and went off to find our hotel. Using the internet, we’d booked into an establishment called Blue Hostel which was incredibly cheap at £8 per room per night. It was near the station and after we’d checked in we found it basic but clean, spacious and with free internet access it more than satisfied our requirements. We dumped our stuff in the room and then hit the town, heading into the Old City which lay only a hundred metres or so across the road from our hotel.

Kraków’s Old City reminded me strongly of Riga’s.[3] Large and generously laid out, at its heart is the vast expanse of the Rynek Główny (Central Market Square) with the Cloth Hall in its centre. We popped into the Mariacki on the eastern side, a fine cathedral church with bell towers that did not match and a plaque on the wall celebrating John Paul II – he was the Bishop of Kraków before he was Pope – that dated from the 14th century. Inside though, although beautiful, it was not to my taste having undergone a baroque makeover which resulted in an interior so sumptuously decorated that it cluttered the mind and caused an headache.

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Rynek Główny and Mariacki

We popped into a tourist office to enquire about excursions and booked ourselves onto a full-day tour of Auschwitz for the Thursday. I also asked about places to eat and to purchase paper money, and afterwards visited one of the latter picking up some bargains including some Pre-War and some Nazi Occupation notes to add to my collection.[4] We then continued our tour of the Old City heading up to the Florian Gate – the only remaining part of the city walls which were pulled down in the 19th century – and the Barbican, a mediaeval fortress which once defended the Florian Gate.

Turning back on ourselves, we headed south to the Wawel, looking for the restaurants that the tourist information centre had recommended en route. On the way we came across St. Andrew’s Church which was visibly older than the others we’d seen – I later learnt that it is 11th century and one of the oldest in Kraków – and I decided to pop inside in the hope of getting a glimpse of the mediaeval Polish Christianity that had been baroqued over in the Mariacki. Once inside though, whilst intimate and atmospheric, I was dismayed to discover that this church too had been subjected to a barrage of baroque and for me it was all too much.[5]

The question you may ask is what exactly is my problem with baroque? Well, with all the gilding and swirls it is just too much for my brain to take in; it’s a cacophony of splendour that I struggle to stomach. I prefer bare stone and the graceful architectural lines of England’s great gothic cathedrals and in contrast these churches seem far too cluttered and over the top. Maybe it’s the Protestant in me coming out, I don’t know, but it is there. More than all that though, baroque is Italian and outside of Italy – and definitely outside of the Latinate countries – it strikes one as something of a cultural imposition. I had come to Poland to see Poland, not some copy of Italy. I wanted to see how Roman Catholicism expressed itself here, in a cold Slavic country on the very frontier with Eastern Orthodoxy, to see if there was some blending of the two traditions. So far, I was disappointed.

We wandered down to the Wawel, the royal fortress from which Poland was once governed, (and not so long ago either, for the Nazis ruled their General Government of Poland from it during World War II). It certainly was an incredible sight, a huge fairytale extravaganza of turrets and walls from which, only a few decades before, dark forces had inflicted misery and destruction upon this land. What terrible discussions were held in the chambers behind those windows? How many murders were planned behind its walls? We both vowed to check it out closer a few days hence.

Feeling tired and with darkness creeping in, we turned back to our hotel. Below the Wawel Mike spotted a large beer hall that offered meals that looked good and we agreed to check it out later on. First though, it was time for a rest, a siesta to blow away that flight fatigue.

There are several reasons why it’s good to travel with someone else and one of them is that, if you pick the right person of course, they can offer something to your trip that you’d have never thought of yourself. So it was with Mike and Pod Wawelem.

I would probably never have gone to the beer hall below the Wawel if it hadn’t been for Mike. In fact, I’d have probably never noticed it. Which would have been a shame for Pod Wawelem as it was called, (the name literally means ‘Below the Wawel’), was the find of the trip. It was a huge place, loud and bustling, the type of place where one finds in films about the Second World War where there are German officers drinking and cavorting whilst the waiters and waitresses – members of the Resistance all – plot their downfall. Whether they were planning to overthrow the government or not I can’t say, but our service was by a bevy of pretty waitresses and efficient waiters in a green and white uniform based on traditional costume, and at one end a string quartet played. Beer was served in huge glasses but huger still were the meals, enormous kebabs and mixed grills with rice, cabbage and potatoes. It was, put simply, one of the finest eateries that I have ever had the pleasure to enter and Mike too was equally pleased. We vowed to return, although only when we had room in our stomachs to digest such an enormous platter again.


Pod Wawelem: recommended by Mike and Matt

After dining we toured the bars of Kazimierz, a suburb of the city where the majority of Kraków’s Jews had once lived. Prior to the war, Kraków was approximately a third Jewish, (circa 65,000), and most of these lived in Kazimierz. These days, thanks to Hitler and then emigration to Israel and the USA, only around two hundred remain although the quarter still retains something of its Jewish flavour with several old synagogues and kosher restaurants. We drank at a couple of small cosy bars, putting the world and work to rights over glasses of tasty Żywiec, Okocim and Leżajsk before heading back to our beds, pleased with our first day in Poland.

Next part: Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Flickr album of this trip


[1] Here’s an example: ‘ …we find the cosy La Douce wine bar, run by a friendly woman in jeans, who serves crisp glasses of Pinot Blanc and meltingly delicious crepe monsieurs. The place had an intimate, chic, laid-back feel with scuffed wooden tables, wooden floors, painted brick walls and gilded mirror… We could not have found a nicer spot. “It’s all very us,” says E.’ No shit.

[2] See ‘Slovakia and Hungary 2008’.

[3] See ‘Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Part 1’.

[4] Collecting world banknotes is an hobby of mine and I have close to a thousand from all over the globe.

[5] And I’m not the only one. A Bulgarian Muslim friend of mine working in Vienna once wrote that she had visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral, another Mitteleuropean cathedral subjected to a baroque attack and whilst it was beautiful and artistic, to her it was too much and God seemed absent.

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