If you have been following me on social media you may have noticed that I recently went to Krakow for a few days. As you would expect with a foodie married to an architect, our breaks are often city based, since cities are usually good for both. We tend to go just outside of the summer season, but this time opted for a winter break. We picked Krakow because of it’s supposed to have a nice winter climate. Which is true, if only we would have been prepared for how cold it would be.
Yes, you are reading the right blog
First things first, you might be wondering if you are accidentally reading the wrong blog. After all, what does a trip to Krakow have to do with Recipes Made Easy? Recipes Made Easy is all about the recipes I cook at home, I get a lot of my inspiration from the places I travel to. At the beginning of the year I set myself the challenge to diversify my writing a little, and this trip to Krakow seemed a perfect opportunity. One New Year’s resolution ticked off the list!
At the end of this break I found myself wanting to share my experiences on this fabulous trip with my friends. Given that I consider you, my readers are friends too here goes…..
Why Krakow in the new year?
After I left school, I studied Home Economics at college where I met my best friend, Nicola, who now lives in Sydney, Australia. Although she may live at the other side of the world, we still remain the closest of friends. Over Christmas and the New Year she was back in the UK visiting friends and family, and we wanted to spend a few days together in Europe. We bounced a few ideas around and concluded that firstly we wanted to go somewhere cold and hopefully snowy and secondly, it had to be easy to travel to from our respective bases in London and Manchester. Thirdly we would try out a new cuisine. Krakow met all these criteria, and the decision was easy.
Arrival in Krakow
We left London together at a reasonable hour on a cold and frosty morning. It was about -5C as we walked to the station. Fast forward a few hours and we were approaching Krakow where the temperature was the same but it was snowing – jackpot! As there were four of us and Mr B is used to driving on the continent (a few years back he worked in the Czech Republic quite a lot) we had pre-booked a hire car to be picked up at the airport.
Having had the foresight to take the sat nav, the drive was pretty easy. Mr B thinks that Sat navs really have transformed driving in foreign cities from an almost impossible task into a breeze. We stayed in the old town where parking is limited but after only two full car parks we finally found a place to park.
It was the first time we had booked through airbnb and we were slightly apprehensive, but ended up in a lovely, modern, minimalist flat. Comfortable, good value at £70 for the four of us, and very well located just a short stroll from the main town square. We soon set off out and were delighted to find the Christmas market was still open. It gave us a chance to get our first taste of Polish food – smoked cheeses served toasted on a barbeque and served with redcurrant sauce. Delicious.
As the temperature dropped a glass (or was it two?) of mulled wine soon warmed us up. We enjoyed mooching around a bit and exploring the centre of the old town before eating an evening meal in a lovely brick vaulted restaurant fronting the square. We had a visit to Auschwitz planned for the next day so we decided to have an early-ish night.
It seems strange to say that I was looking forward to this trip, in not exactly an exciting fun thing to do, more in an interested and slightly apprehensive way. There are only limited tours and we obviously wanted an English speaking guide, so it is certainly advisable to do as we did – book in advance.
Auschwitz is about 1 1/2 hours drive out of Krakow and as we ate our Polish style cooked breakfast that morning we discussed what we expected from the trip. It left us all feeling slightly uncomfortable, as eating well and Auschwitz are a bit at odds with each other.
No words can explain how I felt when there, but I will try. To my mind, everything about it is completely unimaginable, the sheer enormity of it and what the place stood for. I think a part of me had thought the visit would make it more “real”, that I would have a greater understanding of what it would be like. Trust me, it doesn’t and, to be fair, it can’t! It was -12C when we did the tour, colder than I have experienced before, and I was wrapped up in several layers of clothes, coats, hats and scarves. What it would have been like to be there in the striped camp uniform, perhaps without shoes, certainly with barely any food in your stomach, in these temperatures is impossible to imagine.
The tour was divided into two parts. The first is of Auschwitz itself, built inside what was originally a Polish military camp. The buildings are brick and appear functional and unassuming, even though the horrors that occurred there are far from ordinary. The second part of the tour was Auschwitz Birkenau, a few kilometers away, which was initially built using bricks until they ran out and used wood. This part of the camp is enormous, and although most of the buildings have collapsed you start to see the physical size of the death camp it was. You also get a real idea of how the camp was constructed for maximum efficiency of killing those people arriving at the camp.
I’m glad I went, it was moving and our guide was exceptional. Very knowledgeable and very compassionate. As we entered various parts, he would give us so much information that it was difficult to take it all in. He would then summarise and ask us to take away just one or two facts at each point to get the main details fixed in our minds. The overall effect is that, whilst I’m not sure anyone can really fully comprehend the horrors of the death camps, it does leave you moved and with an experience that you will not easily forget and must never forget. I have heard people say the place has a chill even in the heat of Summer, and I can believe that.
The Salt Mines
The next day was bitterly cold (-22C) and sunny but, fortunately for us, we spent a good few hours underground in the salt mines at Wieliczka. Opened in the 13th century, it is one of the world’s oldest salt mines . The mine has been a tourist attraction since the mid 18th century with its four chapels and dozens of statutes, all carved from salt as well as restaurants, ballrooms and shops, over a hundred metres below ground. These days the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and attracts around 1.2 million visitors per year.
The tour was about 3 hours long with a knowledgeable, albeit somewhat bored, guide. It certainly showed he had done this thousands of time before, and he was not really that interested. His English was adequate but those in our group who did not have English as their first language struggled to understand him. Some of his phrases made us laugh. His “Stay with us English tour at 11 o’clock” as he tried to hurry us along will stick in my mind for a long time. Despite these shortcomings the salt mines are quite extraordinary. They cover the whole of the town and in the 3 hours we covered about 2% of the tunnels that exist.
The old town, Wawel Castle and the Oskar Schindler museum
Our remaining days we spent exploring the castle and the old town and, to a lesser extent, the old Jewish area. The cold still air meant that pollution levels were high and towards the end of the trip we noticed several people wearing face masks. This is a very industrial area and you could almost taste the coal dust in the air.
We also visited the Oskar Schindler museum. Housed in his factory, the museum covers Krakow during the period of Nazi occupation. To be honest it didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know or that was not covered in our recent visit to Auschwitz but there were some interesting and thought provoking recorded “eye witness” accounts of what it was like to live in occupied Krakow.
And of course: The Food
I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the food in Krakow. Lets face it, Poland is not known for fine cuisine. Because of the cold we found ourselves eating a hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. The hearty casseroles – usually pork – hit the spot perfectly.
Trying to find a good restaurant in the evening proved a little tricky. For one thing the Polish tend to eat their main meal earlier in the day, so restaurants were usually busier at lunch time. On one occasion we dismissed a restaurant because it was completely empty in the evening, thinking it couldn’t be any good, only to pass it again the next day at lunch time when it was heaving. Spotting popular restaurants is also not helped by the fact that the older buildings are often narrow, but deep. The front of the restaurant would appear empty but as you go deeper into the building would turn out to be busier. Makes sense though, who wants to sit near the door and window in winter?
Because the Christmas Market was still there for the first couple of days, we got a chance to eat some street food which was really tasty. I loved the dumplings, and also started to develop a bit of a taste for flavoured vodka.
The best meal came from an Instagram follower who realised I was in Krakow and recommended Starka, near the Jewish area. It was a good 25 min walk from where we were staying but well worth it. In fact we walked there twice. On the Sunday night we checked on-line to see whether it was open, but didn’t book. That was a mistake, being a good, small neighbourhood restaurant it was full. So we booked in for our last night instead, unfortunately Nicola and Tony missed out as they went back to the UK earlier that day.
Starting with homemade flavoured vodka, this was the first and only time during our trip that we opted for a main and dessert instead of a starter and main. The main was similar to what we had eaten before – pork and duck – but the cooking was taken to another, higher level. There were lots of flavours on the plate. My pork was stuffed with apricots, served with vegetables, two sauces and a smoked cheese, all the flavours working well together. Mr B’s duck had a similar number of components.
The dessert I opted for was like a nutty tiramisu made from walnuts with some meringue and coconut thrown in. Again lots of elements and flavours which just worked together. Mr B opted for a cheesecake which was served warm. The meal is what I imagine modern Polish cuisine will become, and the pictures don’t do it justice. The basics from the austere past repackaged in a new, interesting, and delicious way.
We really enjoyed our brief trip to Krakow. It’s a beautiful city, which we enjoyed exploring. If you get a chance to go then jump at it. We found it cheap and the people very friendly. We were glad we hired a car as it saved us having to wait for public transport in the freezing temperatures, but I am told that the trams are efficient (there certainly seemed to be plenty) and it is easy enough to get around even without a car. I would love to go back for a few days in Summer, as I felt I would have like to spend more time just wandering the streets soaking up the atmosphere and architecture without being so cold. But I would want to go back again if only to have dinner at Starka!