Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Interrailing, part 5: Krakow.

Krakow was a beautiful surprise for me and I fell utterly in love with it. Even though I knew that it was meant to have very high temperatures in summer, my preconception of Poland was of a cold, grey country, both in weather and attitude; probably formed by old war movies. And certainly my introduction to Poland was probably not the best- a stop off at Poznan train station at night: far out from the city centre, surrounded by stony buildings and populated by grumpy staff and rather dodgy looking customers. Not to mention the sweaty, rickety train which took us overnight to our destination. However once we found our way out of the highly confusing Krakow train station and made it to our hostel it wasn't long before we fell head over heels for the place. Krakow is a truly beautiful city, with a rich history whose bleakness contrasts the happy bustling streets of today.
St Mary's Basilica

Ok, yes we chose the hostel based on the name...wouldn't you?! Now, we stayed in the other branch of this hostel, the pub and garden however I've linked you to the first because when we dropped by it it seemed to be a bit livelier and was much closer to the city centre. We enjoyed our stay at Goodbye Lenin and probably could have had an even better time had we not been so exhausted out first night there. Don't worry if you get lost and go to the wrong one, as they're all (there's 3!) close together and the staff are very helpful; they made us a little map and we were at our actual hostel within 15 minutes. The washing machine at ours was broken but they let us take it to the other hostel where we were able to collect it the following day, freshly laundered and folded. Breakfast is free and there's a pretty good variety. Our hostel had a garden attached to the downstairs bar which was great in the hot weather and they run a regular free pub crawl, so it's a good place to meet fellow travellers. One thing I really liked in this hostel was that not only did they have free wifi but they had a small computer room, albeit with fairly ancient computers. It was great to not have to use my tiny phone screen for once! The rooms were a good size although I did have a number of ants on the window sill beside my bed. But really, it was a good place to stay even if I'd rather we'd chosen the one which was in the heart of the centre. 

Jewish Quarter
The city: There was so much to do here that it was hard to fit it all in. The main square is the largest medieval square in Europe. It's buzzing with activity, tours and a hell of a lot of birds. Some of the architecture surrounding it is positively gothic so it's quite haunting at dusk. But make sure you check out the square at night; some of the street acts we saw were amazing, including dance troupes and a singing act which stopped about 20 people in their tracks. The first attraction we went to was Wawal castle. You can pay entry to various different areas. It's pretty impressive even if the walk up to it is rather steep. It's home to the legend of the famous Krakow dragon which if you didn't know about before arriving you certainly will before you leave. The city is littered with dragon references- merchandise, street names, coins. After that I recommend you make your way down into the Jewish quarter of the town. It's nice to wander around and take in the history but really I've sent you here for the food. We experienced one of our favourite lunches of the trip in Hamsa Hummus and Happiness, an Israeli restaurant with an extensive hummus menu. I'm drooling just thinking about it. 

The next day took a more serious turn as we took a trip to Auschwitz. The tour lasts mostly all day as there's more than one camp to see and they're about an hours drive from Krakow itself. I highly recommend that you book a tour through your hostel/hotel or if you're staying elsewhere then through one of the tourist information shops. Our roommate in the hostel worked out that the price of paying a bus out to it plus the tour price (which is obligatory to enter) once there would be around the same as the organised trips, and the one we got picked you up from the hostel, which saved the bother of working out bus routes. It can be quite harrowing at times but the tour guides are passionate about teaching the history of the camps and very interesting speakers.

The following day we took  trip to another museum: Oscar Schindler's factory. This was something lower down on our list- just for if we had time- but it was one of my favourite parts of our stay in Krakow! The museum is very interactive and well laid out. We took a few hours to go around it but could easily have spent more, as there was just so much to learn. It's a bit of a walk from the centre but there are carts (yes carts, of the golf variety) which drive people out to it. However it's perfectly within walking distance- we just had the mistake fortune of trekking out to it in a thunderstorm. 

Tips: Krakow was the first place on our journey which started to be confusing money-wise- it's pretty much four zloty to a euro, which sounds easy but can get irritating when you're trying to split bills and make sure you're not paying ridiculous prices. A good idea is to work out how much you want to spend that day (in euros, convert that to zloty) take that out and just use that. Being left with too much at the end can  be annoying too as you might find you get a bad deal when you convert it into your next currency. That said if you're an economist just go ahead and do your thing as everything I've just said is for people like me who like to stick their fingers in their ears, close their eyes and pretend that we never need to understand money and exchange rates. 
Main Market Square at dusk
Now I've given you a real financial downer of a speech here's for the good news: Krakow is very cheap. Food, accommodation, drinks are all very affordable. For that reason you will probably be able to eat out a little more here than in other places and I highly suggest that you do- the food is great, and it's one of the few cities where you'll probably be able to afford eating on the main square. Always nice to feel a little fancy! Also check out the nightlife. We were in the middle of two of our big party cities at this point (Berlin and Prague) so we didn't get a night out here but even just a stroll down the main streets after dark was enough to give us a glimpse of the atmosphere. There's a lot of live music bars too, particularly jazz and you'll find free performances quite easily. 
If you're going in summer prepare for the heat. As I mentioned, there was a thunder storm while we were there and the humid weather beforehand was sweltering. Climate change was clearly taking it's tole here and even the locals found the heat unbearable- as a result air conditioning was less common than you'd hope so keep that in mind. 
Generally English isn't widely spoken in Poland but in the centre of Krakow you shouldn't have a problem. Learn a few words to be polite of course. Polish looks terrifying though so make sure you have access to an audio guide. 'dziękuję' is thank you- it's pronounced: "Gin-ku-yu(n)." As you can see you're probably best not trying to guess pronunciations unless you have some polish knowledge so just learn a few phrases and try your best not to butcher the language too much! (that's what we did....) 

Finally: Touch the bell. Just do it. It's silly, it's superstitious, but just.... just do it, ok? In the Wawal castle there is a Bell Tower and it is said to be very lucky to touch the largest of the bells at the top. After a number of things going wrong we decided a bit of luck wouldn't do us any harm so we trekked up the minuscule staircase to get to the bloody thing. Almost immediately our luck changed and genuine problems (transport wise mostly) fixed themselves. Now, I don't believe in luck. But it can't hurt! 

Next post: Prague

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