Poland 2016

Day 1
We arrive in Krakow with a couple of preconceptions, we all know it became a stag destination for Brits, plus of course we know about the climate, and the winter snow. One we wanted, the other we didn’t. But in the build up to the trip we’d watched the weather and knew that, unusually for the time of year, there was no snow. We weren’t prepared for the positively barmy 9 degrees we arrived in though, so were a bit overheated by the time we made the hotel, what with heavy coats, back packs and all. 

The main reason we chose Krakow though was the trip to Auschwitz on Wednesday, which we are expecting to be full of interest, so exploring Krakow itself will be a bonus, and the city has a great reputation for bars and restaurants. We explore the main square, one of Europe’s largest medieval squares, with its huge cathedral and other spectacular buildings. The Christmas markets are still in full swing and the smell of street food and mulled wine tempts us in for our first Polish foodie experience. Musicians playing, children singing, horses in their finery and plumage parading around the square with their princess carriages, so much activity, so much to explore. 

Colder air comes in as darkness falls and the first bar tour begins. The best is a wonderful, atmospheric cellar bar, Pivnica Pod Baranami (Beer Cellar Under The Rams), packed with unusual artefacts and quirky furniture. There’s a live gig room too and we wonder whether we’ll be lucky enough to catch a band during our stay.

We eat at Krakow’s oldest established restaurant, Wierzynek, in the corner of the square, and the food is superb, including some wonderfully tasty and tender goose. Nice Polish red, too!

Day 2

Funny how beer plays tricks. Walking back through the square this morning we realise we didn’t eat at Wierzynek at all last night, in fact we crossed over to Wesele, and it was there that we had the rather wonderful goose and not at Wierzynek at all! This trip could quickly become a real foodie indulgence, yesterday’s street food and gourmet goose followed by a traditional Polish breakfast today, an explosion of inspired fresh salads with a variety of pickled vegetables, herring in sour cream, delicious cooked meats. So many flavours and not a Western dish in sight. Tempted to graze there all day it was so good! 

As a precursor to the Auschwitz experience, we head today to Kazimierz, the historical Jewish quarter of Krakow, having been a destination for Jews fleeing persecution from all over Europe long before the Nazis became the persecutors. Once a thriving Jewish business community housing wealthy Jews in large houses, the area fell into decline post WW2 and descended into poverty and deprivation. Only since the 1980s has it seen a revival, now becoming a centre of celebration of Jewish history and culture, attracting visitors from across the globe. Synagogues are restored, the Jewish houses and history are proudly to the fore, there are museums to teach us the culture and the faith, and Jewish and kosher restaurants abound. We wander around this historic Jewish area with its beautiful buildings, interspersed with colossal Catholic churches incongruously muscling in to this very Semite community. Then again, these are maybe not so surprising given that we’re less than a mile from the Pope’s birthplace! 

We find a street with what looks like a row of old shops, wooden shopfronts, shabby wooden signs and exterior. At first appearance the row looks dark and closed. We peer in through the windows, it is dark but there is candle light, we go inside and the entire row is a bar restaurant. This is Dawno Temu na Kazimierzu (translation, Once Upon A Time in Kazimierz), the former Jewish workshops nowadays a kosher restaurant. There are wooden tables, all different, some conventional, others a carpenters bench, another a sewing machine rest. Our eyes adjust to the dim light as we tuck into Cholent, a traditional Jewish stew. The restaurant is to say the least unusual, relics from bygone Jewish trades adorn the walls and shelves, carpenters tools, a taylors dummy, old sewing machines, tins of unknown substances, old photographs. We love the atmosphere in this place and vow to return. 

We spend a few hours wandering Kazimierz, soaking up its evocative and peaceful vibe. The cultural museum is so well done, we learn virtually everything we ever wanted to know about Judaism.

Throughout the day it keeps trying to snow, then it rains, then a bit of sleet.

Judging by signs outside bars, the lack of December snow is both unusual and unexpected. We’ve got to grips with the tram network here, all very efficient and cheap; we’ve walked lots but the tram is of great use when you need to make up time. We’ve also started getting to grips with the vodka chasers with the beer, so many outlandish flavours, with bison grass vodka the local favourite. You have to do these things. When in Rome…

Tonight we return to Kazimierz, we revisit Dawno Temu as well as 3 other bars, and eat in Ariel, a Jewish restaurant, another establishment housed in one of the old merchant houses. The way Kazimierz brings together every aspect of Jewish culture is stimulating and interesting, and we love it. How great it is to be in the midst of a place celebrating its history with such pride. And it’s Jews, here, so close to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Respect.

After Ariel, a nightcap. The plum vodka works for Michaela, the honey vodka ticks Phil’s box.

Early start tomorrow for the Auschwitz trip. And we’ve booked dinner at Dawno Temu for afterwards.

Day 3

It’s not when you enter Auschwitz, that’s not when it happens. It’s when you move on to the second half of the tour, and you enter Auschwitz II – Birkenau, that’s when it all falls into place. The railway track through the arched building, the isolation, the remoteness, the endless regimented blocks of single storey buildings, all those things we recognise from so many stills over the years, it’s all here, at Birkenau. It is clear straight away that this is what we all know and recognise as Auschwitz, and not Auschwitz I at all. A total of 1.3 million people were murdered here, and a huge proportion of those came through that archway, on the train. As they disembarked, Nazi doctors would point them one way or the other, signalling left to work, if they looked useful, or right to their death, if they didn’t. 

Actually these days Auschwitz is a massive tourist attraction, and as a result, one’s emotions are impacted just a little less than expected due simply the sheer numbers of people visiting. Until, that is, you enter Birkenau.

We couldn’t do justice in this blog to the horrific holocaust story, enough written already, but in a way it is in any case the small details that bring home the true scale of the horror.

For instance, the sheer number of civilians employed here, people from surrounding villages, and ordinary Germans, working 9 to 5 in the business of mass killing, then going home for tea with their families. Or the fact that a whole industry existed supplying the tools of death; incredibly, the Company which knowingly built the gas chambers continued to trade, with name and logo unaltered, still building ovens and coldrooms, right up until the 1990s. Or the discoveries made by the Russians when they liberated the camp in 1945, including no less than 7 tonnes of human hair ready to be recycled into clothing, and mountains of shoes, clothing and private possessions taken from the victims. Or the fact that some of Josef Mengela’s cohorts, the ones carrying out horrific experiments on living humans, simultaneously ran GP practices in nearby towns; curing during the day and finding new ways to kill and torture by night. Unbelievable.

Surprisingly Hitler himself never visited a concentration camp, nor apparently did he personally sanction the gas chambers. All he was interested in was an unimaginably callous daily report on the numbers extinguished. Once use of the Zyklon B gas was commonplace, those numbers were high, with literally hundreds murdered every day at Auschwitz alone, at the height of the massacre. The shoe and possessions mountains are still there today, as are some of the horrific living conditions where the victims were held, six to a bunk, with no food or water, as they awaited their turn for the so called death walk. 
We tend to say it was the Nazis that did this. It wasn’t, it was the Germans. German industry supported it, German civilians took salaries for playing their part in the massacre. It’s only a generation ago. We shouldn’t have forgotten that. We should have remembered it instead of allowing them to run a union of European nations. Evil isn’t the word. “Lest we forget”? If only…

We look back at Birkenau as we walk away, it is silent, remote, and still depressing and desolate over 70 years later.

Returning to Krakow, we take a well earned beer in a huge bar beneath the imposing Wawel Castle; the beers are huge too, and some of the plates of food being delivered to tables around us are of unbelievable proportions. We opt for a starter only, our first taste of a local favourite, pierogi, which are Polish dumplings. Predictably they are still big portions despite being only a “snack”.

After another timely use of Krakow’s very handy trams, we are off and out for a second night in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. Since our first glance yesterday, we have eagerly awaited returning to Dawno Temu for tonight’s meal, and oh wow it doesn’t disappoint. The atmosphere in the dimly lit restaurant is brilliant, the Jewish menu, printed as it would have been presented decades ago, and the live music adding to the aura. There is something special, when travelling, about those nights when you find a place where the musicians play songs unfamiliar to us but clearly well known to the locals, who join in with every word of every song, singing, drumming the tables and enthusiastically applauding every number. It just makes you feel completely absorbed by your new surroundings and immersed in local custom and culture. The food is great, the Israeli wine and the Polish vodka slip down oh so well and we have a wonderful, wonderful evening. It feels all the more poignant given the rest of our day. The Poles and the Jews and the Roma gypsies were the first sent to Auschwitz; and tonight we have celebrated the culture of two and the music of the third. It feels very apt. 

Day 4

First off today we visit Wawel Castle, the heart of Krakow’s great history and a colossal building dominating the skyline. We enter the gates and the beautiful facade of the cathedral within the castle grounds appears set amongst the other grand buildings and gardens of the castle environs. Inside the Cathedral is simply stunning. So ornate, so much gold, so striking. We amble around this opulent place and find the Chapel of Pope John Paul II, a much loved son of this region, having learnt his trade here as the humble Karyl Wojtyla before gravitating to the Vatican. We climb the narrow and very steep steps up the bell tower, one huge heavy bell hanging at each individual 

level. At the top, the largest bell is Sigimund’s bell, it is said that if you touch this bell’s clapper with your left hand you will be granted eternal love. So of course we played ball, so that’s it, we have eternal love!! We take in the crypt and Royal tombs too, as well as the splendid views across the city, as the castle sits atop the highest point, yet central to the city. 

We head next to Podgorze, and once more we are drawn into Hitler’s legacy. Krakow was one of the first cities taken by the Nazis when Poland was invaded in September 1939 and was then an important German stronghold for the full duration of the War, not liberated until 1945. Around 1941, and before the holocaust, the Germans began the process of moving the sizeable Jewish population of Krakow into the restricted area of Podgorze, where they pushed 17,000 Jews into just 320 town houses, then built a wall around them, so creating Krakow’s ghetto. Living conditions were based, by the Germans, on 2 square metres of floor space per person, and food shipped in was based on 300 calories per person per day. Malnutrition and disease were inevitably rife. The reward after months or years of squalor, was Auschwitz and an even worse fate. Part of the wall, and many of the town houses, still stand to this day.

Within Podgorze stood Oskar Schindler’s factory, which we visit in the afternoon, but not until after we take lunch in a terrific little family cafe in Podgorze, and tick off the last local favourite on our list, the beetroot soup , and it’s delicious. Outside the cafe in the former ghetto’s square, a memorial stands; 70 chairs scattered around the square, a symbol of the move into the ghetto when lack of space meant that furniture and possessions were left in the street. Poignant.

Schindler’s factory is now a museum dedicated to Krakow’s war years and is packed with photographs and eye witness accounts from that time. 1930s Krakow was a real mix of political and religious factions, the wealthy bourgeoisie of a thriving city on the one hand, but also a vibrant and active Communist party within the large numbers of workers in heavy industry; a Jewish population of over 70,000 and a strong Catholic element, yet all this was linked by a huge interest in art and culture, with artists of all genres gravitating here. The city was well set for a colourful 40s. Schindler arrived as a Nazi appointee; despite the reverence now afforded to him, the man was an unscrupulous, amoral mercenary willing to exploit and hobnob in equal measure to achieve his one aim of personal fortune. What it was that persuaded such a ruthless man to have such a change of heart, and lead some 1200 Jews to freedom and safety, one can only speculate. 
For our last night in Krakow, we return to our favourite bar (Under The Rams) and our favourite restaurant Wesele, for another wonderful meal including roe deer and duck, then to Vis-a-Vis for our last vodkas, honey for Phil and walnut for Michaela.

Day 5

The only question you face on the final day of a city break is what best to do to bring it to an appropriate close. Krakow is a beautiful place, the Wawel Castle with its centuries of history sitting proudly above the city and the Wisla River, the quaint old town with its cobbled streets, the splendid and spacious square with the Cloth Hall strung across the centre, the two cathedrals and numerous churches and synagogues, the richly deserved reputation for gastronomy, make it a stimulating place to experience. We guess that because Auschwitz was the main focus for this trip, the associated subjects have kind of dominated, but we don’t want to leave here without singing the city’s praises. 

And so we set out for our last day after another stunning Polish breakfast – they really are so good – buy some artwork for home, then indulge in a tourist trap attraction, a ride in the oh so quaint princess carriage behind two dappled horses dressed in their finery. It may be touristy but it’s a good way to round up all we have seen. We also enter the colossal St Mary’s Cathedral in the square, the interior is sumptuous and cavernous, with intricate and ornate decor throughout. One of those cathedral moments that leaves you spellbound. Once out of there we have yet another terrific lunch in a grand old dining hall, then return to the cathedral to climb the tower at sunset. We stand way above this lovely city, watching the lights come on below as the crowds gather in the square, and bring another educational trip to a close. Our last walk around the square is almost sad – the stage is now erected, the additional lighting is in place, and the atmosphere is tangibly growing in anticipation of tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve party, and we have the inescapable feeling that we are leaving just before the party begins. 

But we have our own party to head to in the village pub back home, and thoughts turn to home as we board the airport train. And at that moment everything changes. A text lands advising us our flight home is cancelled! Unbeknown to us the south of England has become fogbound and there are no flights home; improbably this is the second time in a row – our flight home from Belfast was also cancelled. For a while there is confusion and chaos as EasyJet tell us there are no available seats until January 5th, and other airlines have limited availability and want up to £1600 for two seats. We look at rail alternatives, we look at hiring a car, everything is difficult, time consuming and expensive and for a while we are stymied. The breakthrough comes when we eventually get on line and manage to secure seats on an EasyJet flight on Sunday night, New Years Day. Had we chosen another airline or route, we would have had to fund it ourselves; now that we’ve accepted an EasyJet alternative, they organise two nights free in the airport Hilton and we can relax. Why they kept telling us we couldn’t fly till 5th but then had availability on line remains a mystery! We’ve no clean clothes and will miss our village pub party, but we have a bed and a flight home. The thing is, we are out here at the airport, and that party in the square which we viewed enviously a few hours ago, is a 20 minute train ride away, and there are no airport trains after midnight. 

So, will we spend New Years Eve in an isolated Hilton, or will we find a way to join in the revelry back in the square in Krakow? The first option doesn’t fit with our sense of adventure somehow….

Day 5 + 1

We awake to bright sunshine and a frost of winter wonderland proportions, still in Poland instead of in our own bed. Seeing in the new year in an airport hotel has no more appeal than it did last night; we check on line and there is one room left back at our previous hotel in the city. So we snaffle it, load up the back packs and head back into Krakow for party time. We genuinely appreciate Easyjet’s help with a room, but life’s too short….

So here we are back in Krakow, in bonus time. It’s the brightest and coldest day since we arrived; we take a stroll around a different part of the city and inevitably end up back in the square. Everything is ready for tonight’s party, including how hard it is to get a table for lunch! We actually end up in a Georgian restaurant, and it turns out to be really good. When we emerge, darkness is falling, and the whole facade of the rather wonderful Cloth Hall is flooded in coloured light and lasers ready to form a spectacular backdrop for the gig later. There is an air of excitement gathering pace which has increased considerably by the time we return around 8pm.

It’s surprisingly hard to get a drink anywhere around the square; there are no temporary bars set up, and the main bars are rammed and charging an entry fee – the most we are asked is £40 per person just for the privilege of buying a beer! So we go straight to the stage area ready for the gig. There is some weird mime theatre, followed by “Charlie” who we had mistakenly thought to be a pop star but who turns out to be a club DJ and the square is turned into an outdoor night club. A big one! A band called XXANAXX take the stage at 11.30 (big in Poland apparently), and the square is rammed by now. Midnight is an appropriate crescendo, the light show on the Cloth Hall brilliant, fireworks, ticker tape showers, all you would expect. We grab a quick bite of zapiekanki, a street food which the Krakovians love, it’s large amounts of meat or onions, or both, in a huge open sandwich, but what we didn’t realise until we bought one is that they use dripping instead of butter, and oh do they spread it thick. 

So with the bars still wanting big entry fees, we head home. It’s been a great night but we’re just a tad disappointed to be quite so sober on a New Years Eve, our thoughts turning to the party back home in our village pub. Hopefully the hotel bar might still be open. The reality is rather more than that; the bar is most definitely open! In fact, we hear the hotel from down the street, the bar isn’t just open, it’s cleared for a dance floor and the whole place is rammed with revellers in posh clothing, dinner jackets, dickie bows, posh frocks, the lot. We race upstairs, smarten up, dash back down, and join in. And so begins one of our funniest New Years ever as we down beers and vodka, dance the night away and have hilariously disjointed conversations with very drunk Poles! It’s a brilliant night, and by the time we down our last vodka it’s 4am and we trudge off to bed, laughing all the way up stairs at how adversity has become such brilliant fun.

Day 5+2

One small joy of the extended stay is being back here at the Europejski Hotel and the opportunity to have one more of those delicious Polish breakfasts. Sadly though last night’s revelry takes its toll and we don’t wake up until just before 10am, too late for breakfast. Gutted!! And so for the second time we have a “last day in Krakow”, revisiting some favourite haunts and taking a stroll along the banks of the Wisla. 

We eventually end up back in Kazimierz, and after looking at a couple of other places, we decide it’s fitting for our last meal to be back at “Once Upon A Time”, the Jewish restaurant where we ate on Wednesday after Auschwitz. This place is utterly charming, the dim candlelight, the quirky furniture, everything laid out like a Jewish household, or workshop, back when. The Jewish food is again lovely, and we notice just how many Jewish dishes have a sweet element in with the meat; fruits and fruit sauces are commonplace, raisins and cashews feature in our main course today, Cymes, a Jewish stew. Time then for one last tram ride back to collect our bags and we set off for the airport hoping and praying that this time we’ll make it home.

It’s been another fascinating trip and once again we’ve learnt history, experienced a new country, and indulged in both Polish and Jewish cuisine.

Pivnica pod Baranami (the Rams cellar bar) wins our best bar award, though the fun music soundtrack at Bar Absynt makes it well worth a visit; Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz wins best restaurant, with Wesele a close second. Best new drink is the honey vodka (Phil) and hazelnut vodka (Michaela). 

It’s been both a fun and educational way to end our travelling for 2016.