History is everywhere in the ancient Polish city, whose many cafes and coffeehouses are a perfect respite from the day's explorations.
By MIKE STEIN
Published May 25, 2003
When we approached Krakow's Wierzynek restaurant, I naturally assumed the bold "1364" over the door was the street address. Barbara, my Polish-born wife, relieved me of this notion, pointing out that the number denoted the year of the establishment's founding. So when we dined at Hawelka the following evening, I was only mildly impressed to learn the place began serving in 1876.
Old restaurants and coffeehouses, their dark walls and ceilings adorned with magnificent friezes, period paintings and crystal chandeliers, typify Krakow. Chartered in 1257, it emerged virtually undamaged from World War II, which left Warsaw in ruins. Tourist-agency blurbs make frequent reference to Krakow's "Old Town," an area in and around Market Square, the community's heart. But what the brochures generally don't stress is that old is everywhere in this city on the Vistula River.
Vast Market Square (laid out in 1257) with its surrounding cafes and 14th-century Cloth Hall arcade and medieval St. Mary's Church should be the starting spot for first-time visitors (of which few were American during my summer trip there). Barbara and her sister, Maria, who lives part-time in Krakow, had to almost drag me from Cloth Hall with its long stretch of booths featuring intricately made folk art, Russian dolls, Polish amber, silver jewelry and religious icons. I managed to come away with six finely-carved wooden boxes, three of which I reluctantly gave as gifts.
By all means, enjoy the pleasures of Market Square, including entertaining buskers and street artists. But ancient Krakow is made for leisurely strolling. At some point, wend your way from that center to the dozens of other picturesque byways to find historical monuments, architectural styles of past centuries, medieval cathedrals and small enclaves where Cracovians go about their daily lives. Once we chanced upon a little flower and vegetable market staffed by farm women, who shied away from my camera, telling us they were not dressed for picture-taking, thank you.
For contrast, Barbara and Maria guided me to stately Kanonicza Street whose ornate houses with Renaissance courtyards date from the 16th century. Around every corner there's likely to be a baroque church, charming square or museum. One of the latter, the Palace of Art in Szczepanski Square, is housed in a mansion owned by the Society of Friends of the Fine Arts, an institution that began in 1854.
The facade alone, with its busts of eminent Polish artists, is worth a pause as is the columned exterior of the Juliusz Slowacki Theater, modeled in 1891 on the Paris Opera. A cautionary note for your rambling: Many busy intersections do not have stop lights or signs, so time your crossings carefully. Also, wear well-bolstered shoes for Krakow's cobblestoned streets, and watch your step. As I said, old is everywhere, unlike Warsaw with its wide, modern boulevards, new buildings and re-created "Old Town."
As a longtime addict of European coffeehouses, I twice insisted on breaking up our meandering for coffee stops and atmosphere. The best was Jama Michalika on busy Florianska Street, an artists' hangout since 1895. Starbucks fans should prepare for something entirely different. The quiet, dimly-lit interior is decorated with old paintings and tapestries. Neatly aproned waitresses serve fresh-roasted coffee and assorted pastries, including the house specialties of Michalik or Barbakan tarts and cakes, all at reasonable prices. Tour the place if you like. Even the furniture is antique.
Looming over Florianska Street is St. Florian's Gate, the only remaining gate of the eight that made up the city's defense walls in medieval times.
From there, we returned to the Market Square, where the outdoor cafes were too inviting to pass up. At ours, a gypsy boy with an accordion wandered among the tables, played only a single tune at each one and then stoically stood to wait for his tip. No smiling, no thanks. In contrast, outside our awninged retreat, an elderly Ukrainian in a Cossack uniform cheerily entertained cafe patrons and passersby alike with his balalaika.
Maria, a former dentist who now runs a business enterprise in her hometown of Gorlice, suggested that we next stroll over to nearby Jagiellonian University, one of Europe's oldest learning centers. It was founded in 1364, the same year the Wierzynek opened, by King Casimir the Great. The king had good taste. The university's centerpiece, the Collegium Maius (Greater College) is an arcaded inner courtyard with vaulting in the Italian style of the period. Upper rooms include a splendid little museum with its collection of paintings and old instruments for the instruction of chemistry, physics and astronomy. A gift shop is on the main floor.
From the university it's only another short hike to Wawel Hill and Wawel Castle on the bank of the Vistula, once the residence of Polish princes. Under the direction of King Sigismund - ah, those construction-mad monarchs - the 16th century Renaissance castle was built mainly by Italian architects and German artists, including Hans Durer, who finished off the interiors. You can view the structure and the river from the comfort of a shaded beer garden on the grounds.
Castles and museums are fine but what drew me like a magnet in Krakow were the restaurants, cafes and coffeehouses, which themselves are laden with historical charm. At places like the Hawelka and Wierzynek, you are likely to dine to the strains of a string quartet. There's also Cechowa, a favorite of the city's intellectuals, whose paneled walls display the coats of arms of various Krakovian artists.
At the Piwnica U Szkota, the ambiance is a 14th century cellar with tables ringed around a fireplace. Entering the Villa Decius restaurant is like being invited to a private home because that's what it was: a Renaissance villa that has been beautifully restored in its park setting in Krakow's elegant Wola Justowska district. Expect candlelight dining accompanied by live music. In contrast, the Europejska offers an "English bar" and Art Nouveau decor.
Each restaurant and cafe has its own special charm and menu. Polish dishes may begin with zurek, a hearty white borscht (great!), which can lead to roast beef, cabbage pierogies, sausage in onion sauce, Krakovian duck with mushrooms (a specialty at Hawelka) and goulash, among other choices. Since Krakow promotes itself as a city with an international reach, you can also find French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. Alef, a highly regarded Jewish but not strictly kosher eatery, features gypsy, Russian and klezmer music.
Speaking of music, one of our most memorable evenings was spent at the cellar Jazz Club on Florianska Street, where a combo played both swing and Dixieland in true American style. Its $1 cover charge and 75-cent beer made it the bargain of the trip.
If you can tear yourself away from Krakow, there are several opportunities for day and overnight jaunts. Among them are Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site of the infamous Nazi concentration camp and gas chambers; a salt mine at nearby Wieliczka with its remarkable salt carvings (be prepared for extensive walking and climbing); the old Kazimierz Jewish Quarter (used for location shots of the movie Schindler's List) and its venerable, still-used synagogue; Czorsztyn Lake and the Pieniny Mountains in south Poland for a glimpse of medieval castles, ancient churches and an open-air museum.
Krakow Tours, the main transporter for these and other trips, has a desk at Orbis travel agency on Market Square.
The pleasure of your return will be in deciding where to have dinner.
- Mike Stein is an author and journalist based in Irvine, Calif.
If you go
These airlines fly direct from U.S. cities to Krakow, population about 750,000: LOT, the Polish Airline, Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France and American. Several European cities provide convenient train travel to Krakow. There is frequent rail service between Warsaw, the capital, and Krakow. Taxis are abundant and moderately priced.
Hotel and pension prices range from $60 to $200 a night for a double. Among the centrally located, upscale and moderate hotels are: