Before we even arrived in Poland, we were offered free beer. After missing our connecting flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Krakow due to plane issues in DC, we waited in anticipation and exhaustion at the airport and made sure we ate something, expecting nothing on the quick jump to Poland. We should have waited. Instead of offering the usual complimentary water or soda on the plane, we were offered an entire bottle of traditional German beer, your choice of soda, and two different sandwich halves. We were full and content, but probably not a satisfied as the drunk stag party in the back of the plane who were having a blast cheers-ing every person who went to the bathroom.
We arrived in Krakow later than expected but still had time enough to enjoy dinner and an early bedtime to catch up on sleep. We went to a typical Polish restaurant, complete with wooden benches and tables with fur as cushioning, low candle lighting, and dried herbs hanging on the walls. The Polish cuisine was wonderful – herring in oil, meat and potato dumplings, and of course sausage and pork. They also have a beer and fruit juice drink. The beer with ginger is especially good! We went to bed stuffed and happy.
Polish Food: 2 bites and you're full.
The next day we met my dad’s friend Sylvia. She is originally from a small town in the country, but attended university and lives in Krakow. She took us on a walking tour to the oldest university in Krakow, Jagiellonian, which was founded in 1364. It is an urban campus with multiple buildings and beautiful gardens.
Main university courtyard
We then walked to Wawel Royal Castle, passing shops advertising amber and ceramic products, which Krakow is famous for. The biggest Polish castle sits around a garden on top of a hill rising above the winding Vistula River. The hill was settled in the 4th century and a the castle was built in the 11th century, with major revisions and expansions by the command of Casimir III the Great in the 14th century. It was the home of Polish royals until 1609 when the capital of Poland was moved from Krakow to Warsaw. The view from the castle is spectacular, overlooking the entire city and small mountains beyond. There is also a cathedral situated within the castle walls with incredible statues and detailed architecture.
Castle walls: Try to scale that.
Inside the walls: Cathedral behind us.
My favorite part was descending into the Dragon’s cave underneath the castle. A dark, winding staircase took us into a beautiful open limestone cave where a dragon once lived, terrorizing the new town of Krakow. Legend says the dragon’s would only be satisfied if it ate its favorite meal, a young girl, preferably a virgin. The town eventually ran short of virgin girls, except King Krakus’ daughter Wanda. The King was desperate and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could defeat the dragon. Knights came from distant lands but were killed. One day, a cobbler’s son stuffed a lamb with sulphur and set it outside of the cave. The dragon ate the lamb and became so thirsty it drank up half of the Vistula River, swelled, and exploded.
FUN FACT OF THE DAY: There is a statue of the dragon outside the cave that breathes real fire a few times an hour, or on command if you text a certain number.
Wawel Dragon: Don't worry Krakow, the kids will save you!!
Because I had to wait until I arrived in Prague to write this blog, the rest of the days in Krakow ran together a bit, so these are the highlights!
We visited the Jewish quarter, full of Kosher restaurants and synagogues. The Jewish museum in the Old Synagogue which featured Torahs, seder plates, yads, and other Jewish artifacts that are older than America. We had a drink at the Singer restaurant, named after the sewing machines that were once manufactured in Krakow. The tables were all original sewing tables, complete with the machines and foot pedal. We visited the Old Cemetary, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Krakow. During World War II, the Nazi’s destroyed the cemetery and used it as a dump. It was only during the restoration of the quarter that people collected the broken headstones and created a breathtaking memorial wall around the cemetery. We then took a tour across the river to the grounds of the WWII Jewish Ghetto where one original wall stands amongst high rise apartments. This little bit of my personal history, as a Polish Jew, was very emotional. The wall was a deathly gray shaped purposely like Jewish headstones. A few minutes away sits the Schindler factory, with pictures in the windows of the Jews that were saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. It was the last stop on our tour, leaving me thankful and hopeful that people witnessing any genocide will continue Schindler’s legacy.
Singer restaurant: Watch out for sewing needles in your cake!
The Old Synagogue
The Old Cemetary Wall: Broken Headstones
As always, we had to do some shopping. The main square is situated in the Old Town, a few blocks away from Wawel Castle. It is the largest medieval square in Europe surrounded by a couple Gothic churches and the 14th century Town Hall Tower adorned with marble lions guarding the entrance. In the middle of the square is the Cloth Hall, once an international trade center and now a more touristy market. However, underneath the Cloth Hall is a museum and current excavation of the 14th century grounds. Layers of cobblestone, dirt, and wood roads are visible as well as artifacts and bones from the many centuries the Cloth Hall and square have been used. Outside of the cloth hall, the square is dotted with stands selling fried cheese, jewelry, ceramics, candy, and more. There was a folk festival while we were in town and actors and musicians wearing traditional Polish clothes performed outside the Town Hall Tower.
Old Town Square: Cloth Hall on the left, Town Hall Tower on the right.
Polish Folk Music
Krakow was an incredible experience. Compared to the large, urban, and westernized cities I’ve visited in Europe, it was small with a unique character that I had never experienced before. Though my great grandparents town was demolished in WWII, it was incredible to see the culture that they grew up in and a city that they probably traveled to. It felt very relaxed and homey, and I would absolutely love to go back for a longer period of time.
P.S. – Yes, we did visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. I’ll be writing a separate blog post about my experience because this one is already giant.
Chocolate Town Hall Tower: 3 feet of heaven.