Shaking my brother Gareth awake, I told him that we had 15 minutes left to get some hotel breakfast. Groaning,  he staggered out of bed, threw on some clothes and then declared that his head felt as though ten elephants had moved in and decided to have a party. But then, that’s Polish vodka for you…

We had arrived in Krakow, the cultural heart of Poland  just the day before on a trip that would mark a change from our more usual choice    of somewhere-in-the-Mediterranean type of break. We fancied something a bit different and Krakow’s cathedrals, museums and artwork of the highest standard, together with hundreds of restaurants and bars, seemed to hit the bill. With the extremely favourable exchange rate (about 5.5 złoty to the pound) we also knew our money would go a lot further than in other major European cities.

As for a hotel, we found  ours at www.staypoland.com, the three-star Hotel Kosmopolita (€45-75 per   night depending on the room rented), located to the north just outside of the old town quarters. Small, clean and well kept, and with friendly, English-speaking staff, it was perfect for our purposes.

Spectacular centre
Many of Krakow’s streets still suffer from the effects of pollution from the post war steel mills built on the edge of town. During the Communist era it seems that the Party’s vision of paradise for their workers was allowing them to own an East German Trabant   – possibly one of the worst automobiles ever produced – and a cramped flat in a shoddily made tower block. Party big wigs, of course, somehow managed to procure plush villas and decent cars that were not prone to constant breakdown.

Protest against the Russian-backed regime became something of a Polish art form. In 1979, for example, a number of disgruntled working class Poles in Krakow decided to voice their discontent by blowing up a statue of Lenin in the bland post war quarter of Krakow, Nowa Huta. However, Lenin was tougher than he looked: the blast was heard for miles around, windows in the surrounding area were blown out, but the statue still stood    – minus a chunk of a leg. Taken down when the Communist regime collapsed in 1989, the statue of Lenin was eventually sold on to a Swedish entrepreneur in 1992. It now stands in a park near Värnamo. Diehard fans of Eastern Bloc nostalgia and Socialist Realism can take a ‘Crazy Tour’ of the Nowa Huta in a Trabant for about 120 złoty, with the deluxe package entitling you to a cabbage soup lunch.

The heart of Krakow has always been its ancient and bohemian main market square, Rynek Głowny. The Poles have put in a great deal of effort in clearing away the stains of pollution here and have brought its colours back to life – rather like the polishing up a brilliant gem that had been dulled by dust and time. Sitting proudly in the centre of the square is the imposing, but striking Sukiennice – the Cloth Hall. The building dates from the medieval period, although its appearance today is mainly 16th Century in style with a good deal of late 19th century reconstruction. Unfortunately for us, the top half of this magnificent structure, including its gallery, was closed for some 21st Century renovation. Thankfully, these works did not affect the outside of the building, so     we could still appreciate its splendid facade and wonderful gargoyle masks.

Inside the Cloth Hall two lines of shop booths allow tourists to indulge in buying the usual travellers trinkets, although most of the items here are quite expensive compared to other shops selling similar goods. It’s a great place to simply stroll through the crowds and soak up the atmosphere of shoppers browsing and buying.

At one end of the Cloth   Hall is the Town Hall Tower, a strange architectural mishmash that seems to have been added to over the centuries before construction was called to a halt. The Town Hall that is meant to go with it was pulled down to make space when the main square was being developed (many centuries ago) with the construction of Georgian-style town mansions.

Aside from the Cloth Hall, the main focal point of the Square is the stunning Church of St Mary, with its striking towers, walls covered with intricate illustrations and a ceiling laden with painted stars. The church is also the home of many legends. In fact one can be heard on the hour every hour from morning until night. While walking around the square we often noted the strain of a strange and somewhat mournful bugle call cutting off just before the tune was meant to finish. Apparently this is a historical re-enactment of a medieval trumpeter’s brave efforts to warn the townspeople that invading Tartars were attacking (the Tartars are just one of many invaders the Poles have had to contend with).

As he was sounding the alarm, a Tartar archer shot him before he could finish the call. His death was not in vain: Krakow’s defenders reached the ramparts in time and repulsed the Tartars. The city celebrates this incident by having a trumpeter from the fire department play the interrupted alarm from the window of St Mary’s tower.

Drinking etiquette
While not visiting the sites and shops, Gareth and I would sit at an outdoor table enjoying a cool beer, either watching the world go by, or making the heady intellectual conversation that brothers usually have, such as: “On pain of death you have to either kiss Margaret Thatcher of Barbara Bush. Which one would you choose?”

Gareth and I like a hearty evening meal and Krakow is the place to get one, but it’s best to steer clear of establishments surrounding the main square, as these are expensive and the food is not so good. Walking a few yards away from the centre you’ll find plenty of restaurants and bars all offering good fare at a range of prices. Searching for   a new place to eat out every night is one of the joys of visiting Krakow and with the pound stretching so far, most, if not all, restaurants were within our modest price range. Our favourite restaurant was Kawaleria on Gołębia Street; our favourite dish – pork served in apple sauce, with crisped potatoes on the side.   In the UK we would have paid £15-18 just for the main course. In Kawaleria we paid roughly £15 for the main course, the dessert and enough booze to sink a battleship.

Krakow is one of only a few places where drinking to excess at least once during your visit can be seen as a true cultural experience. Flavoured vodkas are a Krakow speciality and we found a shop next to the main square on Wiślna Street that sold nothing but flavoured vodka. What’s more, the owner was particularly willing to let us sample his wares – and double shots at that. Held in large bulbous glass jars that resembled Edwardian medical apparatus, the vodkas were racked high to the ceilings so there was more than enough to try out before buying. Prices start at around £6 for a bottle.

The variety of local beers is also plentiful, but apart from Lech, they are often unpronounceable, especially after sampling a few. So with some Polish friends as guides, we set about a little local integration, and had a good  bit of fun in the process. The greater the fun, however, the greater the body must pay to make amends the next morning as Gareth knew only too well the next morning.

Krakow could not be a more welcoming and wonderful place to have a city break. Its architecture astounds and most Poles are friendly and (if they speak a little English) always willing to talk about what sights and sounds you should look out for. But perhaps the greatest joy of Krakow is to explore the city and uncover its secrets at your own pace. From the sublime, to the tragic, to the ridiculous – Krakow’s history and legends make a heady concoction: rather like the city’s famous flavoured vodkas.

For more infomation on Poland – Click here

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Mikael Bishop is part of the Real Travel Mag Writing Team. He has a lot of experiences in writing about all varieties, facets and colors of life. Every article was written with joy.

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