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.
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 numbers four and five myself -- next week, if the weather holds...
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 or don't go at all. 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.
This won't be everyone's cup of tea but it is a chance to get an 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 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.
Spectacular salt mine that extends to nine 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!
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is part of the HoliDaze epic 366-item Travel Blogger Bucket List (TBBL), a massive compilation of the most exciting, extreme, unique and offbeat global destinations and activities. Check It Out!
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 will 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.
Hire a horse and carriage just outside Hawelka restaurant (see my previous article on the Top 5 Restaurants In Krakow) 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: not in Krakow town centre!
Presenting the second of my three Krakow "Top 5" lists. Truthfully I'm looking forward to patronising these eateries again very soon myself, when I visit Krakow in 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):
On the main market square and as of the last few years now 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.
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.
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 garlicy 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. Poselska street. I believe there are sister restaurants dotted around the city.
A 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. Stolarska street.
The most well known restaurant in the Jewish quarter of the city, Kazimierz. Enjoy all the best Jewish dishes - chicken soup, chopped liver/herring, cholent - surrounded by Jewish paraphernalia. Listen to live Klezmer music. Watch life go by on Szeroka street, Kazimierz's equivalent to Krakow's main square.
Wildcard: the Rooster bar on Szczepanska street: 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.
Krakow is an amazingly beautiful, poignant city and as Poland's second largest city most foreign visitors will pass through here. This is how to make the most of a brief trip! Presenting the HoliDaze top five most entertaining attractions in Krakow: (And be sure to check out my other Krakow "Top 5" Lists, restaurants and excursions)
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).
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.
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.
Wander 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.
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 Wander out of Kazimierz to what remains of the concentration camp into which the Jews of Krakow were crammed during World War II. 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.