Kraków

This is the 3rd destination in the Western Slavic Countries circuit as described in that Travel Planning post.

 

 

The route from Kosice to Kraków was mostly a 2-lane road with construction at many points along the way. As the main route, it handled all traffic including trucks, farm equipment, bicyclists and all vehicles imaginable. As such, it made for some interesting driving – the kind where keen attention is necessary as anything may come around the next curve in the road.

 

We broke up the four and a half hour trip with a stopover in a little ski village in the southernmost part of Poland called Krynica. It was so small that we walked its entire length in 15 minutes. We stopped for enough time to stretch our legs, and grab a little bite to eat – to satisfy ourselves for the remainder of the drive into Kraków.  

 

I noticed that the countryside changed once we entered Poland – from a rolling meadow in Slovakia to more of a woodland landscape, and trending toward mountainous. And as as we entered Poland, I noticed that we had climbed to a higher rung on the economic ladder in Central Europe. Gone was any leftover communist era construction. Most of the houses looked very well-kept, larger, more ornate, and located in remote areas. I guessed that they could have been weekend, or vacation homes for well to do city dwellers.

On entering the city limits of Krakow, I knew right away that we were in a much larger city than Bratislava and Kosice. Traffic was thick and slow. I had the GPS in the BMW programmed to guide us to a plaza close to where our apartment was located in the old town. Finding parking was a panic. We ended up at an attended 24 hour parking garage that would cover us for three days of parking for a mere 105 Zloty, the equivalent of maybe $30. A bargain given that it was staff operated 24 hours around the clock, and I wouldn’t have to worry about the BMW at any point in time.

 

Arrival

It was a short five minute walk from the parking garage to the pedestrian center of the old town on Florianska Street. I gasped as we walked through the gate into  the old town, having passed a McDonald’s in the process. I reflected on the lesson learned from my experience in Bordeaux, where our apartment there on Saint Catherine Street was within walking distance to a McDonald’s, and the location turned out to be too touristy.

Florianska street was definitely well touristed because it was part of the “Royal Route”, which starts at the Florianska Gate and works its way to Wawel Castle through the Market Square – passing right by our apartment. The route was taken by Polish kings as the preferred path to their coronations in the 14th through 16th centuries, and has many of the old town’s attractions along the way. So naturally, there were tourists. And a McDonald’s.

It was a good choice to have selected Bratislava and Kosice as the first and second stops on the Western Slavic Countries itineraries because they were good warm-ups for the grander, more visited Krakow.

 

Settling in

The apartment was fabulous. It was grand, spacious, and very accommodating for two people. While it had a single bedroom, it was capable of entertaining a dozen guests. It had ten foot ceilings, large doorways, and near floor to ceiling windows that faced on to Florianska Street. An unbelievable three night residence, priced competitively, centrally located, and less expensive than a hotel room within walking distance of the old town.

 

After settling into our new home for 3 nights, we were ready to stretch our legs and do some initial exploration in the vicinity of the apartment. The area is truly steeped in history, with consistent architecture from the 15th and 16th centuries throughout – with no damage from the wars that scarred so many beautiful European cities. I must have looked like country bumpkin on his first visit to New York City – wide-eyed as I walked around taking it all in.

We were famished after driving all day with a light meal for lunch. Fortunately, our lovely hostess left us several strong recommendations for restaurants focusing on local fare. She insisted we visit Ogniem I Mieczem (The Fire and Sword) first to set the expectation for food in Krakow, advising us to take a taxi, which we did. The meal was spectacular, and is detailed in the Food Scene section. The food was so good, and so filling that we did not take a taxi back to the apartment, electing instead to walk off some of the thousands of calories we just enjoyed. What a great introduction to the Krakow.

 

Walking tour

Normally I like to roll my own for this sort of thing, but there was an organized walking tour of the old town that met at 10:00 by the Barbican, which was very close to our apartment, so we joined them. I wanted to get the lay of land from a local. As it turned out, our guide was a graduate of the famous Uniwersytet Jagiello?ski (Pope John Paul II’s Alma Mater), with a degree in history. He was a tall, bearded man in his late 30s, called himself a BFG (big friendly giant), although his name was Calen. He was very knowledgeable, and entertaining.

The tour hit some of the highlights of the old town – Main Market Square with St Mary’s church, Cloth Hall and Town Hall Tower, remains of Medieval city walls with Barbican and St Florian Gate, St Francis Church, Bishop’s Palace and “Papal window”, Wawel Hill with Cathedral and Wawel Castle, and the Wawel Dragon.

 

Discovery Trek

We did the “Royal Route”, which starts at the Florianska Gate and works its way to Wawel Castle – as mentioned previously, this was the route taken by Polish kings as the preferred path to their coronations in the 14th through 16th centuries. But we also criss-crossed the old town, and headed to the Jewish quarter – called Kazimierz. We then walked a good stretch of the Vistula River as we circled our way back to the old town.

The photo gallery tells the story. But the feeling I had as I walked the old town and the surrounding sights was that of a deeply historic city, untouched by the horrific bombings and battles of the wars of the 19th century. The city was in impeccable order, clean, and well preserved. The crowds were there, but they too were orderly, and generally lacked the tourist density everywhere I walked. Krakow was the Poland of old, the ancient seat of the Polish Monarchy, the pride of the country, and having heard Calen describe it over a period of several hours, the most beautiful and important city in Poland. I could not have argued. Krakow was one of the most beautiful immersive traveling experiences I’ve ever had. I hope the photos do it some justice.

 

Featured Video

The scene is the central square, which is busy with both tourists and locals. Some of the nicer restaurants are on this square, so it draws a lot of attention. Beyond the people congestion – there are horses. Now with that in mind, notice how neat and tidy the area is. Remember, there are horses here.

 

 

Food Scene

Ogniem I Mieczem

“Fire and sword.” Boneless pork knuckle, baby back ribs, fire roasted potato, and cabbage. Wow. What a meal. The ribs were fall off the bone tender, seasoned with garlic. No American style rib sauce. Finger licking good. The boneless pork knuckle was the center of attraction. Crisp on the outside, gooey, fatty, meaty on the inside. Best I’ve ever had. In addition to the high quality of the food, the service was superior. A great intro to the Krakow food scene. I would highly recommend this fine place.

 

Pod Nosem

This restaurant changes their menu monthly to keep their offerings fresh. Slow cooked bacon over radish slices. Baltic salmon, Zander (Baltic perch-pike caught regionally) with white and green asparagus, and a pesto style foundation. The salmon was beautifully presented, arranged as a rose, with very mild radish garnish, crispy, crunchy with no bite at all. That was very flavorful, and sliced rather thick to deliver more flavor per bite. The stuff that looked like black caviar was a garnish mix of black olives, browned bread, almonds, and olive oil. It added an unexpected dimension of flavor to the plate. The Zander main course was also well presented, with a combination of ingredients that worked together very well. Someone knows what they’re doing in this kitchen. Service was a bit slow, but impeccable . This was memorable.

 

W Starej Kuchni

Beef and pork Pierogi, Polish cuisine sampler, with white and dark sausage, cabbage roll, 3 types of pierogi, potato pancake with goulash, and cabbage. The dark sausage had a bland grain filling – not a highlight. The potato pancake was very crisp, with the spicy goulash was a contrast. The white sausage had a bit of thyme to add some flavor, but was not a standout. The beef and pork pierogi were crispy and meaty, but rather neutral otherwise. The entire meal was rather middle of the road.

 

Miodova – in the Jewish quarter

Pink Matias herring with beets caviar served with red onion, cherries, pan fried halibut with broad bean and pea purée, perch filet with young cabbage and sour cucumber foam. The herring was delightfully fishy and tangy. The cherries turned out to be beet hearts, and the caviar too were tiny beet jewels. The halibut was cooked well with crispy skin and flaky white meat. The pea and bean purée was not to my liking, the flavor combination wasn’t working. The perch was cooked well with crispy skin and flaky white fish. The young cabbage worked well in combination with the fish. The service was really slow which detracted from the experience.

 

Jarema

Steak tartare, roast wild boar, veal pirogi, mixed green salad. The tartare came with sardines, dill pickle relish, chopped onion, pickled mushroom, a dab of butter, and a tiny quail egg. Really good combination of flavors, and different than any steak tartare I’ve previously had anywhere. Great appetizer. The roasted wild boar came in a mushroom sauce, very mild. No hint of gamey flavor, to my disappointment – tasted more like roast beef. Good but unexpected. The veal pirogis were simple, just filled with ground veal, and the dumpling pastry rolled out very thin, a light affair with a drizzle of olive oil. Hot apple pie with ice cream and a chocolate mousse for dessert. The service was fabulous. This place is memorable.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Kraków. I was sad to leave Kraków, even though I knew I had half the Western Slavic Countries itinerary in front of me. I wanted to stay and linger longer. I concluded that I could live in Kraków for a season, if not a year. Beautiful people, extremely gracious hosts, wonderfully good food, and drink. Architecture and history that spans the centuries, in the heart of Poland. This was a very immersive experience, and a memorable destination. 

Related Travel Planning

Related Destinations

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Travel Planning Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

 

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Motivation

This is about trip planning, but more than anything, it’s about an exercise of imagination, the expression of curiosity, and the definition of a theme. Imagine  approaching an elegant buffet with a great variety of food and drink, ranging from haute cuisine to more basic, but tempting dishes from far flung parts of the world. You’re hungry. How do you decide what to eat with so much variety? The problem comes down to choice, with an endless array at our fingertips.

Such is the challenge in trip planning. The explorable world is before us like an elegant, well organized buffet. We merely need to decide what’s next on our plate. It sounds easy, and it would be if we had hard constraints. Using the buffet analogy, if we were shellfish lovers for example, we could immediately eliminate a large portion of the menu and concentrate on what we like most. And so it is with trip planning. We need to know what we like, or at least what interests us next, either due to curiosity or the ongoing execution of a theme.

And that’s what I like to do – work on a broad theme, in this case it’s Europe. This particular theme has been unfolding for over a decade, with sometimes focused exploration of one country, and other times far flung meandering across a region. This trip leans towards the meandering, but with a connecting thread that binds the destinations together – mostly.

Slovakia, southern Poland, and the Czech Republic, a collection of Western Slavic speaking Central European countries, geographically contiguous, and explorable by automobile over a couple of weeks. All three share the same branch of the European language tree, and have culture and history binding them together as well. The food is hearty and the drink is strong, with the latter useful for warding off the chills of the long winter nights.

 

Itinerary

In short, the selection is as follows, to be navigated in a grand counterclockwise circuit by automobile over 14 days:

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – 3 nights

 

Kosice, Slovakia – 2 nights

 

Krakow, Poland – 3 nights

 

Wroclaw, Poland – 2 nights

 

Olomouc, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

I wanted to visit Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia because they are its main cities. I wanted to visit Krakow because it’s simply a must see in Poland, more so than any other city based on its history, culture, and architecture – and Wroclaw not only due to geographic proximity to Krakow, but because in addition, it’s worthy of a visit.  I wanted to finish the circuit with the exploration of smaller towns in the Czech Republic, since I’d already been to Prague on a previous trip.  Olomouc stood out a great opportunity for exploration with its history dating back to the 11th century, and as a lesser known, off the tourist path type of destination. I selected Cesky Krumlov as the final destination for very similar historic reasons, although it is as firmly part of the beaten down tourist path as possible.

I elected to start the itinerary in Bratislava and work my way east to Kosice, covering most of Slovakia over a 5 day period.  Then head north to Krakow, Poland for a 3 day exploration of the ancient seat of Polish Kings – which saw no damage to speak of in the major wars of the 20th century, and should be in pristine architectural shape. Continuing the counterclockwise circuit, I next selected Wroclaw for 2 nights as a compliment to Krakow in Poland. Also steeped in history, but did not escape the specter of war unscathed. And the circuit is completed in the Czech Republic with stops in Olomouc, and Cesky Krumlov, each for 2 nights, covering both the former kingdoms of Moravia, and Bohemia.  I thought the two cities would represent the Czech Republic well, although Cesky Krumlov is densely touristed, I had hoped I was early enough in the season to avoid the main surge.  I reserved a 1 night stay in Vienna to await the early return flight to Heathrow, connecting back to Atlanta.  Without this tactical accommodation, I would have had to drive from Cesky Krumlov to Vienna in the very early hours of a Sunday morning, like departing at 2:30 AM, to arrive at the Vienna airport at 6:00 AM. I shudder at the thought.

 

Logistics

There are no direct commercial flights from the US to Bratislava. It’s easy to check this with Google Flights using the Explore feature while filtering on direct flights only. Given that I had to make a layover, I selected London Heathrow because of the broad selection of connecting flights, which gave me a reasonable connection time, as well as good prices due to competition among carriers. I chose a direct flight to Vienna from Heathrow to complete the outbound air transportation part of the trip. The Vienna airport is serviced by many more carriers than Bratislava’s airport, which drives up competition and reduces prices. And the Vienna airport is an easy 45 minute Uber ride to central Bratislava.

With so many cities to connect to, I definitely wanted to drive over taking trains and public transportation. It’s the connection time that elongates travel using public transportation. And nothing beats the convenience of going on your own schedule to wherever you need to on any given day. Can’t do that with public transportation. Driving is more expensive to be sure, but I’m optimizing for time, not budget.  And there will be plenty of driving, to be sure.  I estimate about 2,000 kilometers of driving with 3 to 4 ½ hours between the destinations planned, which is a golden opportunity for discovering the countryside, and stopping in little out of the way places in between.

With so many interesting, steeped in history, smaller cities to explore, I definitely wanted apartments over hotels on this trip. And I was focusing on apartments that were centrally located, within the confines of the  pedestrian-only parts of the old town. This allows for convenient exploration with no transit time to get to the historic and interesting parts of town. And there’s nothing more immersive than stepping out of your own door and being in the heart of the historic part of town.

 

Resources

Google Flights is my standard tool for research, and planning airfare. There are plenty of others, and I’ve tried most, but find that I really don’t need to save the very last nickel at the cost of spending more time chasing that nickel.

Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb were used to book all of the apartments for this trip. My preference is to avoid Airbnb because they’re not transparent with property locations, and do not promote the size of their properties in their standard description.  But I do use them if I can circumvent their deficiencies.  It’s interesting that I booked no properties with Homeaway on this trip, especially considering that I explore for apartments there first.

Google Maps is absolutely indispensable for planning purposes. I shudder to think what trip planning would be without it. I download the maps for the countries I travel, to avoid being out of cell range (highly unlikely in Europe), and to navigate should I exceed my daily data allowance.

Google Translate is installed on my phone with all of the languages I need on this trip already downloaded. This way I can translate on the spur of the moment even if I have no data left for the day, or if I’m out of cell range (a huge improbability in Europe).

In Your Pocket guides were useful for getting a background, and some history of Krakow and Wroclaw in particular, but also good for an overview of Olomouc. The quality is very good, and I hope they do more cities.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a BMW 520d. An excellent automobile for the exhilarating driving possible on European roads.

Uber is what I planned to use to get to central Bratislava from the Vienna airport, as well as return to Vienna from Bratislava after dropping off the rental car to spend the night before the return flight to Heathrow.  It also comes in handy for getting around from point A to B once I’ve had enough walking for one day (which sometimes, but rarely, happens).

 

Epilogue

Reflections on this trip.  The itinerary in general was very good, but I am disappointed as to how densely touristed Cesky Krumlov was even in early June, the time we were at this particular destination. CK was interesting, and I liked the destination, but found it impossible to blend in, and have an immersive experience. There is no such thing – it was like trying to be immersive at Disney World.  In retrospect, I would have chosen Telc as the second city in the Czech Republic, and bypass CK, because it doesn’t fit my criteria for Immersive Travel. Otherwise, I would consider this trip epic, with many fond memories of the destinations visited.

 

 

Related Destinations