Lawyer moonlighting as author of Polska Dotty; or, maybe the other way around.
Recently went on a summer break in Northwest Tuscany. That means all the famous sites: Pisa and its leaning tower, Florence, Lucca et al. But also the hills and mountains of the Alps and Appenines, and the intriguing Bagni di Lucca - the local town where we were based. "Bagni di Lucca" means the Baths of Lucca, and was always known for its healing spas. Bagni was a stop on the Grand Tour bar none. The list of luminaries who stayed there in the 19th and 20th centuries reads like a list of the great and good: Byron, Shelley - there's a plaque above the house where he stayed - the Brownings, Dumas, Strauss, Napoleon's family, a US President's family; Liszt played in the casino - the first casino in Europe where the forerunners of games like roulette were invented - and nearby Lucca's most famous son Puccini heard music there that inspired him to write Turandot. The English adored the place, and there's an English church (built in Gothic style to resemble a palace) and cemetery. But the church and cemetery give a clue as to why I describe this place as intriguing: the church is now a library that we couldn't seem to get in, and the cemetery can only be visited by appointment. For this is now a faded former stop on the Grand Tour. The grandest Bagni villa - Villa Fiori - where party-goers once revelled, is now boarded up. We couldn't get into the casino, either, or the theatre (yes, little Bagni also had its own theatre). None of this detracted too much from visiting the place, though you had to imagine how things used to be (other than for the cantilevered housing perched at the entrance to Bagni which remains at its impressive best). Just up the road is the spectacular Ponte di Maddelena or "Devil's Bridge", a structure whose shape has to be seen to be believed, and a chain and wooden bridge which was the foreunner of suspension bridges worldwide. All in all, Bagni and its environs make for a diverting and different vacation, as well as being beautifully positioned for visiting classic Renaissance Tuscany. You may wish to try them.
I call this article "Krakow Contradictions", but actually most of what I have to say about our latest trip to Krakow, from which we have just returned, is positive - more positive than ever. It seems most of the architecture in the city has been spruced up, maybe for the Euro football championship in June/July. In the main square or "Rynek", the red stonework of Mariacki church and yellow stucco of Sukiennice cloth hall shine particularly brightly. A new bar opened earlier this year on the roof of the Sukiennice from which you get a stunning view of Mariacki opposite. A year ago I peeked through a crack in the door of the ancient Adelbert church, also on Rynek, and saw it was being repainted. This year we took in a concert there by a quartet. Inside the altar was stunning in gold and black, and the rest of the church equally so in a motif of lime green, including the small but high dome, and organ, to be found on a balcony accessed by a romantic, corkscrew staircase.
Elsewhere Wawel Royal Castle also looks regenerated, and any building not so cleaned up is likely to be shrouded in plastic sheeting as it's worked on (including where we were staying - noise 'n dust 'n all - but that's another story...). The cultural attractions remain as bountiful as ever: as well as classical concerts in churches, there are on every corner Chopin recitals, jazz performances, and galleries. Having not visited for years, we took in the sweeping Matejkos on the first floor of Sukiennice. Matejko, one of Poland's most famous sons, painted massive canvases of seminal moments in Polish history.
But if you don't fancy anything that formal, just wander around Rynek. You'll see be-costumed folk dancers taking part in the International Folk Festival, resplendent in reds whites and blues - mime artists (one was hilarious, following passers-by and mimicking their gait) - stock still street performers, affecting a wink now and then - another defying gravity by apparently sitting on a seat supported only by a stick - even break dancers. Add to that youngsters walking around in cake costumes and the like, to promote this or that coffee shop or restaurant, and of course the ever present Dorozka (horses and carriages) trundling by, and you have a truly vigorous scene.
I mentioned a down side, and it is the economic backdrop that doesn't impact tourists strolling Rynek for a week. Unemployment is 12%. Two of our friends we met one evening - both social workers - have been made redundant this year. They say it's virtually impossible to find work. 400 teachers in the city will lose their jobs this month. 3000 newly-built flats stand empty, can't be sold. Property prices have lost 20% and continue to tumble. I read a lot about investment in Krakow, and it's the case, but there are also these gathering clouds.
But let's end on a humorous note. As those of you have read my account of 2 years in Poland - Polska Dotty - will know, cultural differences often produce amusing moments. At the aforementioned concert in Adelbert, inexplicably the four players filed in 15 minutes late, during which time we'd heard noises off. They looked like they'd just had a major bust up. The audience seemed to detect it, and a nervous ripple went round the hall. The quartet then proceeded to rattle through the programme. However, they got away with it because the lead violin was a veritable virtuoso. By the end the audience were rapt and shouting for more. They didn't get it, of course. I visualised the four musicians in the wings, in a pile on the floor, knocking eight bells out of each other.
A couple of days later I took an early tram to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, to return to a leather shop where I'd spotted a briefcase I needed for work. I made the mistake of going on my own, as my wife Marzena prepared the kids for a train ride out of town to meet her family: I'd meet them at Krakow Central later that morning. Instead of going 3 stops on a tram and then walking for 5 minutes - as I later discovered would have been the quickest route - advised by someone I asked on the street, I embarked on an 11 stop marathon which would apparently deposit me outside the leather shop itself. After a while, deprived of sleep by the workers renovating our building from the early hours - I drifted into light sleep. A clunk awoke me, and I opened my eyes to find myself crossing the mighty Vistula on a high bridge and heading out of town. My heart skipped a beat. I had visions of arriving to po-faced guards at the Ukrainian border in The Tram That Got Away. As if things couldn't get any worse, at that moment the gent in the seat in front of me jumped up, announced he was a ticket inspector, and demanded tickets. They do this in Poland, plain clothes assassins. Fortunately I had mine, but it didn't exactly calm the nerves. The tram continued on its merry way, and then took a left and another left, and before I knew it I was returning to the centre over the adjacent bridge, to be dropped at the leather shop. So, never mind, I just had time to make my purchase. Except the shop didn't open til 10 am, at which time I'd be on a train out of Krakow with my wife and kids, en route to visiting the family ...I walked the mile or two to Krakow Central to meet Marzena, nervous the next tram I took might really make it to Ukraine.
Again, based on my experience visiting Krakow and its environs over nearly 20 years, here are my Top 5 Krakow-based exursions. Some you'd expect, some surprises. Am looking forward to 4. and 5. myself next week, if the weather holds...
1. Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish) - this has to come first, for obvious reasons. It's impossible to describe it in a couple of sentences. I devote a chapter to it and the so-called "Jewish Question" in my book. Three tips: be in the mood to visit. I'm one of those who thinks everyone should go there, but if you're on a short city break to Krakow to unwind, well, you may not get out of it what you should. Secondly, be sure to visit Birkenau, too. Thirdly, attend with a good guide.
2. Wieliczka - spectacular salt mine that extends to 9 levels underground, inluding a cathedral and ballroom! Also a must-see. Tips here would be take a jumper, and be prepared to descend many steps at the start, and walk several kilometers. A scary but quick elevator ride back to the top!
3. Nowa Huta - won't be everyone's cup of tea, but this is a chance to get some idea of what life was like under Communism: endless monolithic concrete blocks laid out as plazas - soulless and depressing but impressive in their own way. Take a tour with Crazy Guides, and that way travel around in the old cars from that era - I went in a yellow Trabant - and see the main sites such as the steelworks (outside only, I'm afraid) and a Soviet era tank.
4. Blonia bike ride - hire a bike on or near Planty, the shock of green that surrounds Krakow's old town. Cycle through the Planty, an oasis of calm and cool, until you reach the Vistula river near Wawel castle. Head along the banks of the river behind the castle, turning in eventually to the large recreational area Blonia. Follow cycle tracks towards the end of Blonia, furthest from the town. Return to the old town via the student town, around Reymonta street. All this'll give you a real feel for Krakow, and you'll be amazed how much green and tranquillity there is just outside the heart of Krakow.
5. Dorozka ride - hire a horse and carriage just outside Hawelka restaurant (see my previous blog Top 5 Krakow Restaurants) on the main market square. Not the cheapest, so take the half hour (as opposed to one hour) option, asking to go on the Grodska/Wawel castle route. Feel like royalty for half an hour, and relax: it's really comfortable! Unique and enjoyable way to see the old town.
Wildcard: Krakow zoo. Some way out of Krakow. Unusual because set in thick forest, and therefore very pleasant to visit. Good display of animals. The huge bison most impressed me. Bison roam free in another part of Poland. Don't worry: it's not Krakow town centre! The zoo might get very popular following the choice of Citta the elephant to predict results in Euro 2012 - even if she didn't do too well!
Here's the second of my three Krakow "Top 5s", which I prepared for fans visiting Euro 2012 Poland Ukraine, but which is just as pertinent now; indeed, I'm looking forward to patronising these eateries very soon myself, when I visit Krakow end August - a nice time of year, the "Polska Zlota Jesien" or "Polish Golden Autumn". So, here are my top 5 characterful and affordable Krakow restaurants, based on 20 years visiting the city (and most of these have been there during all this time):
1. Hawelka - read more about this one in my book Polska Dotty. On the main market square, and since a few years includes an outside terrace. But it excels inside: a large square room, sweeping Matejko style pictures on the walls, elegant tables and chairs. Polish food, but with a variety of influences. Try Pierogi Ruskie (ravioli filled with white cheese), or Kotlet Hawelka (the House pork cutlet, huge but delicate), not forgetting the mushroom soup served in a breaded urn! Superb service whenever we've been.
2. Da Pietro - again, wonderful terrace on main market square, but also atmospheric cellar downstairs (the building is 14th century). Very decent quality Italian. Try the carpaccio to start. Pizzas very light and crispy. Service can be patchy, but all in all a reliable Italian out of the overwhelming choice in Krakow, and an A1 position to watch life on the square as you munch.
3. Taco Mexicano - Poselska street. We've been meeting our Polish friends here for years. Good value, tasty Mexican fare: fajitas, enchiladas, burritos and the like. They used to accompany these with salad in very garlicky sauce, which worked well, though last time I went this wasn't on offer. Functional but cool decor, dimly lit - Taco Mexicano ticks all the boxes for a cheap and cheerful Mexican. I believe there are sister restaurants dotted around the city.
4. Pimiento - Stolarska street. Recent discovery for me, this one. Not only succulent Argentinian steak, but an idyllic courtyard at the back second to none. Foliage, large canvas parasols, comfortable chairs, all tightly enclosed. At once atmospheric and relaxing.
5. Ariel - Szeroka street. The most well known restaurant in the Jewish quarter of the city, Kazimierz. Enjoy all the well-known Jewish dishes - chicken soup, chopped liver/herring, cholent - surrounded by Jewish paraphernalia. Listen to live Klezmer music. Watch life go by on Szeroka, Kazimierz's equivalent to Krakow's main square.
Wildcard: the Rooster bar on Szczepanska street will work well during Euro 2012: burgers, burritos and the like, all served up by statuesque Polish girls in orange hotpants, whilst TVs show football on every wall. The top floor is an attractive terrace, perfect for summer. Confess this is a somewhat sentimental choice: I remember when this used to be the chicken bar, a rather shabby joint serving staple but succulent chicken with chips - perfect for penurious students.
Here are are my Krakow Top 5s, beginning with Attractions. Look out for further Top 5s, including Restaurants, and Excursions - soon!
1. Rynek/Grodska Street/Sukiennice/Mariacki - I start with a bit of a cheat, covering 4 items in one, but that's because they're all in one spot. They are the main market square (Rynek) and surrounds - the very heart of Krakow. Catch the Rynek as often as you can as events are always taking place there. Stroll down Grodska street and check out the objets d'art. Surprisingly tasteful trinkets are for sale inside the cloth hall (Sukiennice), but also along its sides. Visit Mariacki at a time when they display the stunning carved wooden altar, and for sport, try to take pictures of it without paying an earnest usher a few zloty for the privilege (having already paid to get in!).
2. Wawel - visit the royal castle from the days when Krakow was Poland's capital. Tour the royal apartments, keeping an eye on the spectacular ceilings. Don't miss the Cathedral crypt where the Polish Kings are buried. Take the steps (and kids) down from the castle mount, through caves, to a metal dragon that breathes fire every few seconds.
3. Kazimierz - tour the atmospheric old Jewish quarter, visiting some of the half dozen or so synagogues. Remuh is the most famous, with a large cemetery, and a wall made up of gravestones ransacked by the Nazis. Tempel synagogue was recently renovated and is very beautiful. Lunch on chicken soup and chopped liver in one of the many Jewish-themed restaurants, and dine whilst listening to Jewish Klezmer music, which can be at once lively and poignant.
4. Collegium Maius - tour this stunning Krakow University college, taking in where Copernicus studied, and some of the earliest astronomical instruments. If you're lucky you'll catch the cute figurines in the quad that chime the hour.
5. Sukiennice Museum - it's been a while since I visited this museum, but I'll never forget the sweeping panoramas by Matejko, which help define Poland. In the end it's personal choice, but I'd recommend this museum, on the first floor of the cloth hall, in preference to the new attraction under it which uncovers the city's archaeology, but I thought left a little to the imagination.
Wildcard: Plaszow concentration camp. Off the beaten track; wander out of Kazimierz to what remains of the concentration camp into which the Jews of Krakow were crammed during WWII. You can still see a small section of the ghetto wall, the house from where camp commander Amon Goethe shot at Jews, and one remaining gravestone of an immortalised Chaim Abrahamer.