We pulled into Krakow late on a Sunday night on the cheapest – and thoroughly overcrowded – train from Warsaw. Being a budget traveller means that you frequently find yourself on those routes that have ridiculous timings or with an inordinate number of transfers and painfully long waits.
Much of Eastern Europe, we realised that night, is still far behind in updating their trains. We’d spent the last few hours in a tiny compartment without powerpoints or wifi, knees interlocking with the passengers across from us and sandwiched too tightly to even be able to sit with a straight back. At the very least, I guess we could say that it was an authentic experience.
Lesson two for that night was that Google Maps did not know about Krakow’s public transport. I’d become so relient on using it to figure out how to get from train/bus stations to hostels that I felt lost and a little alone when it came up with ‘No Results’. Oh Google Maps, my old friend, why have you forsaken me now?
My backup option was using the directions my hostel had sent to me, but when I followed them to where my tram was meant to be, my tram line was not amongst the many routes listed. To add to our dejection we were then harassed by a hobo whose body odour was akin to that of a rotting piece of cabbage that had been defecated on by seagulls and then left to ferment in a sunny concrete parking lot. We gave up and decided to just walk.
Have you ever been so cold that you think your extremities might actually just literally freeze and fall off? That’s how cold I was during that walk. Although after a few minutes I was uncomfortably hot at the same time in the chest, back and butt areas. For future reference, I’d like to give this condition the incredibly creative name of ‘freezing-hot’. I was thoroughly freezing-hot and I was not loving it.
Despite the fact that the conditions under which I was making that walk were less than amazing, it was actually mesmerizingly beautiful. We walked along what I would later learn was a medieval moat that the Austrians, when they’d invaded Krakow, had filled with vegetation and turned into a park, beyond which you could see the ancient stone walls of the old city. It had a haunting beauty to it – the streets were deserted, the lights in all the buildings were out, and everything was covered in a thick blanket of snow and fog, so that the whole world seemed just black and white, with little fragments of light peeking out of the haze.
It was poignantly silent; not a dead silence, but just muted, like in the opening credits of a movie as you wait for the story to begin.
By the time we’d gotten to Atlantis Hostel it was almost midnight. But our rooms were cozy and warm and after cooking up some microwave rice and having long, hot showers (nobody wants to go to bed dripping in sweat) we curled up gratefully under the covers, excited about what the rest of our stay would bring.
We didn’t want to waste any time, so when we saw that the hostel was running a tour to the Wieliczka salt mines the next day, we paid straight away and got up at 8am to get ready for our hostel pick up. That was a mistake: When the bus dropped us off at Wielizcka, I saw that the entrance was 70zl, and I’d paid double that at the hostel. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that at least we got picked up from our hostel – I really should have looked it up, but I’d been so tired the night before.
The tour was fairly fantastic though. Wielizcka has been around since the 13th century and it’s huge. You only see 1% of it (or so the tour guide said), but there’s a lot in that 1% and it’s all impressive. They have salt carvings, a salt cathedral, salt chandeliers, reconstructions of age-old equipment that actually work and that you can try using, amazing art, original pieces of equipment, trippy videos, photo exhibitions and other parephernalia.
I didn’t take any photos because you had to pay for a special pass, which I refuse to do so on principle, besides which my camera is terrible in poor lighting anyway, but I’ve googled one for you here (and I strongly recommend that you do some googling of your own). Keep in mind that everything in this picture – those tiles, the chandeliers, the walls, the sculptures and freizes – they’re ALL made out of salt. Impressive, huh?
What was pretty rad was that they tell you that you can lick the walls of the mine too, but nobody in our tour group did except me and my brother, the two grots.
Anyway, we actually enjoyed the outing to the mine so much that we didn’t even feel bad at the end of it that we’d been charged double, especially since we’d had the best tour guide. Besides, I totally made up for it that night, when we went out for dinner to this vegan, gluten free place called Momo that Tess (from York) had told me about.
Eating vegan is always tricky since I can’t eat legumes at all and vegan food is pretty much mainly lentils, but there was a vegetarian green curry with brown rice that I got a gigantic plate of, and it only cost me about $2.35. Dylan, unfortunately, made the mistake of ordering their lentil pierogi, which, at $5.35 for a plate of 5, apparently tasted terrible and made for a pretty disappointing dinner.
I ran into some rather interesting individuals that evening in our hostel. There was this group of people, some of them Irish, some from another country that I couldn’t pick, having a ‘Happy Divorce’ party. They had cake and wine and everything, and kept singing a song “Happy divorce, happy divorce, the bitch is gone! Now that she’s fucking gone we can have some fun, happy divorce!” I’ve never seen a divorce party before, but if anyone of my friends do get divorced I’m going to throw exactly the same kind of party for them, song and cake included.
We switched hostels the next morning, and I woke up with the worst sore throat ever. I felt so awful that I didn’t want to get out of bed until Dylan pulled off my covers. I’d assumed he’d had the same virus I’d just gotten over, and had been sharing my food and drinks with him, thinking that I already had the antibodies to deal with it. He didn’t, and I didn’t. And so, after just recovering from the flu, I ended up being struck with a seriously awful chesty cough. Great.
I popped the last of my daytime pseudoephedrine and we walked to Greg and Tom’s Hostel. The receptionist was super friendly and said I partake of their free breakfast, which was perfect because we’d bought a huge box of Kiwis but they were hard as rocks and I almost broke my knife trying to cut one of them. This is one of my favourite things about Eastern Europe: hostel food is just a much higher quality than anywhere in the West or UK, and there was a huge spread of meats and cheeses and vegetables, as well as your standard continental fare – gluten free bread included.
I spent the entire rest of that morning on a free walking tour. I tend to avoid free walking tours because I usually don’t find them particularly captivating. Most of those guides are travellers who get their facts from Google and hearsay without factchecking so that a lot of what they say is complete BS, and their delivery isn’t especially engaging.
This was different though – the free tours in Krakow (and Warsaw, although I hadn’t done the tours there) were run by a bunch of incredibly charismatic Poles who’d all gone to university and then done a professional course to become tour guides. They really knew what they were talking about – the detailed history of Poland, all their traditions, their politics, what direction their country was heading in, and everything else we could think of asking them. My guide’s name was Goszia and she was so riveting that, although the tour took a few hours, I enjoyed it so thoroughly that it felt really short.
My favourite sight was Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral. For a certain period, you see, Poland had a monarchy but it was an elected monarchy! So of course, every king wanted to do something grand to leave their mark on the city, and Wawel, as their seat, was a key place to do that. Both the Castle and Cathedral are a bit of a manic hodgepodge architecturally as a result of that, with each king adding wings and towers in their own select style, so that you have these insane structures that look very postmodern because they’re a pastiche of all these different periods.
My other favourite thing was this metal fire breathing dragon. It actually, literally, breathes fire. Also cool was St Mary’s Basilica, which has volunteers play the trumpet from it’s bell tower on every single hour of every day, once in each direction.
My timing, as it turned out, was fairly fortuitous. I’d known that today was a public holiday (3 Kings, Poland being overwhelming Catholic) but what came as a pleasant surprise was that I got back to the main square just in time to catch the procession of the 3 Kings – 3 processions really, for each king, which met in the square – with lots of music and festivity and people in costumes and traditional dress. And of course, there was really good food in the square, incredibly cheap. I got everything with extra butter so that my food was swimming in it, the better – I told myself – to deal with the cold.
I’d decided to do the tour of the Jewish district later that day as the first had been so good. It was getting really cold, and our guide, Lek, told us to put our arms by our side and flap them like penguins, which looks ridiculous but works when you’re trying to warm up. I also ended up impulse buying what Lek told me looked like the kind of gloves you’d wear if you’re trying to go around killing bears, so by this point I was evidently far more fazed by the cold than by how I looked.
Lek had a vast store of interesting anecdotes. There was this bar called Singer, so named because they have Singer sewing machines on all their tables; apparently they have really good music and a lack of floor space, so everyone just dances on tables there. I also learned that the ‘Jewish quarter’ has hardly any Jews in it so far, but also that there are a lot of Poles who don’t realise that they’re Jewish, and have been only finding that fact out recently as they trace their ancestry. I was especially amused by a friend of Lek’s who had found out he was Jewish but looked like the stereotypical Aryan skinhead and enjoyed dressing up in historical recreations of Nazi uniforms.
I highly recommend going on the tour if you do ever find yourself in Krakow. We learned all about the nightlife in Kamimierz, saw scenes from famous movies, heard about tram parties (where they literally rent out a tram, put in speakers, and have a party in them as they circle around town) and the club Alchemia (which used to get hit with bricks regularly because the locals didn’t want it raising the rent in the area), realised that Poland is crazily pedantic about fines for jaywalking (a few people on our tour and the guide himself had received fines) and that Schindler was apparently a massive opportunistic jerk. Also that John Paul the Second was a hero of the city, and they had pictures of him everywhere, and that they were into hot mulled beer, which is apparently very satisfying in the cold. I took their word for it (I can’t drink beer anyway because it’s full of gluten).
That night the hostel gave us free dinner. It had been traditional Polish food the night before, but tonight it was gourmet pizza, which smelled like heaven and looked insane. I’d chosen the gluten free option though, so I got given a salad. The hostel gave us free cherry vodka that night too, but I had one shot and was out, settling for watching Iron Man 3 instead. It was -11 degrees Celcius outside, which is not the most attractive option when you’ve just been reinfected.
Dylan and I were totally the most annoying people at the hostel that night. We were so congested that we sounded like zombies just by lying in bed and breathing, and it was all you could hear in our dorm. The receptionist was an absolute champ once again, and offered me pills to help soothe my symptoms when I woke up in the middle of the night. Poland, I tell you – some of the nicest people out.
Everyone had told me that when I visited Krakow I should really go to the Schindler Museum but I’d done the history of the Holocaust extensively at school and without sounding flippant, I had no desire to spend my day depressed after reviewing the history of something I was already aware of. Instead, I spent my morning at Cmentarz Rakowicki, which I realise may seem just as depressing, but old cemetary’s have so much beautiful and interesting architecture. Besides, I find it comforting to be reminded that once we’re dead we’re just a name on a piece of rock, so we really should take more advantage of life while we’re still living.
The cemetary was dead cold though (excuse the pun), and I couldn’t tolerate it for long before I retreated to Milkbar Tomasz, where for 18zl I got mushroom soup, meatballs, roast potatoes, and a whole assortment of salads. I’d been told the Polish Milkbars were the place to head if you were looking for cheap, good food, but everyone said that it was where students and the poor hung out and I’d been expecting something really dingy. This place had wifi, looked very hip, and was full of well dressed hipsters. I spent an hour there, slowly trying (and failing) to make my way through the incredibly large meal I’d gotten.
I did make an effort to visit the Collegium Maius, which was where Nicolaus Copernicus went to university. I’m not going to lie, that was the entire reason that I wanted to see it. The Collegium didn’t disappoint either – it was full of a plethora of unusual treasures and far more interesting, I thought, than a museum. My favourite little takeaway was learning that in ages past, people believed it was better for your heart to sleep sitting up – thus why a lot of old beds are so short. They also had a scroll on which the university kept track of who’d paid their fees, with Copernicus’ name on it. My favourite section, however, was the globe rooms, which contained ancient globes right from the 15th century with countries like ‘Arabia’ marked out on them in fancy cursive.
I don’t quite know how to express this about Krakow, but that was what I loved about it – there was music and art and history everywhere, all in close distance, and it could peacefully accommodate such a wide variety of each, in a way that just felt very lively and easygoing. Krakow as a city just had this fun, laidback vibe.
I had to run back to my hostel at the end, late as usual after succumbing to the allure of artists selling their paintings on the street. They’re so pretty I just can’t help but stop and look.
We eventually got to the bus station in time, had a bit of drama finding our bus, but eventually got on and managed to make it out of the city in one piece. “What an amazing city,” I thought as we pulled out. “Krakow, you’ve been seriously cracking.”