Our pal Matt got there ahead of us and emailed us that the taxi ride was a convenient way to go, so we didn’t even consider any other methods, though there must be shuttle or bus service to the
Altstadt historic city centre.
We gave the trams a go just twice in the central zone. Both times we used them to get back to the city center from a dark visit to the Kazimierz neighborhood (more on that later). It was a treat to see the machines were modern with trilingual touch screens (and we’re pretty good at two out of the three languages they offered). It was quite cost-effective, compared to German prices: a single, adult, one-way trip inside one zone worked about to about 0.80€.
Bring a comfortable pair of shoes; you can walk all over the place in Krakow. We walked down into the Kazimierz neighborhood a couple of times. We never felt unsafe; though some panhandlers hit us up for a donation (and we saw the same group more than once on the same day). Even in the off season — American Thanksgiving Weekend — there was a pretty good mix of tourists and locals about.
Regional stuff to do
Wieliczka Salt Mines
Shop around for the best value or most convenient offer for your schedule. This site — one of the very first UNESCO World Heritage sites — is a big deal, and the local guides know it. There are lots of tour operators; some offer a combination Auschwitz/Wieliczka package. You might find your hotel has a package to recommend. We took them up on their offer. We walked over to the Radisson Blu across the main square from us, then boarded a bus for a 25-minute ride around the city to other hotels, picking up other tour guests.Hmm, why couldn’t they have picked us up at our hotel in that case? I hope the other guests were paying more for the same service…
Anyway, do the salt mine thing if you get the chance. And take pictures. Pay the 10 zł, and use a big, powerful off-camera flash if you can. I should have done that! The depths of the passages, internal height of the chambers, and displays of religious devotion in the mine are all pretty amazing. We were somewhat skeptical, having visited the salt museum in Lüneburg as part of WEBMU 2010. That was good and interesting and worth it. But not only is this site in another league, it’s a different ball game completely.
If you go in the winter, and you get the chance to drop your coat in the tour bus or elsewhere above ground, do that — it’s quite a bit warmer down in the bowels of the mine and your winter gear is just dead weight. You’ll probably be fine in a sweatshirt or sweater down there. There’s a lot of walking (fortunately, the stairs are all in the downwards direction), so make sure your shoes are comfortable and well-suited to a variety of surfaces: wooden planks, rock(salt) paths, and concrete.
We didn’t go there. It’s certainly an option if you’d like to, and if a visit to Krakow is your only chance to experience a concentration camp, you should do it. By all accounts, it will require the better part of a day and you may not be up for anything else after learning about what happened there.
We got along just fine with English, our native language. No one seemed interested in hearing any German (hmm, a surprise?). After giving it our best effort in other European countries, it sure felt like we were getting spoiled on the readily available excellent English in just about all service situations. Maybe the post office was the only place where English just didn’t leap out of the local mouths. We had a Russian-speaker with us. Turns out, we really didn’t need him for basic communication, but it was fun to watch him draw conclusions and note differences between Polish and Russian and fumble his way through smalltalk with natives in “Rolish.”
So many consonants!
I think, despite the dense Polish heritage population in lots of areas in the U.S.A., there is a helluva lot of “mispronunciation” (read: Americanization) of Polish surnames. At least I was pleased to independently verify my pączki pronunciation. Long have I wondered why it’s pronounced poonshki — where does that ‘n’ come from? It’s at least partially a typography thing, like my beef with sloppy Romanian printed materials — they often don’t bother with the correct letters, settling sometimes settling for ASCII approximants rather than allow an incorrect character to appear (see the S-comma article on Wikipedia). That’s fine for the locals, who grew up knowing how to pronounce the words before they could read them, but it’s a nasty trick for those foreign visitors taking a stab at the local language. Anyway, the difference is in the little tail: that nasalizes the vowel and gives it its ‘n’ sound.
Didn’t do our homework…
Normally we like to get a couple of polite basics down when we head to a new country:
- Thank you
- Excuse me
- Good Morning/Day/Evening
… but in this case, we completely flaked out. No locals seemed to mind, but we still felt like those tourists we try to avoid on the street here in Regensburg.
We were hoping for more music like this:
We even sought it out at a restaurant specializing in old-fashioned Jewish-style cuisine, only to find out that in the off season, the music performances are not every night (tip for next time: call ahead, even when the flyers at your hotel say “every night.”
Like pierogi? You better! Having lived in Detroit, with its sizable population of Polish descent, for 25 years, we knew a little about them. It feels like we’re intimately acquainted now: meat, cabbage, buckwheat, Ruskie, boiled, fried — we tried them all and though we tried, were completely unable to find a lousy one. We particularly liked the ones at the Bar No. 7, a somewhat swankier-feeling restaurant (the website makes no mention of their dining options) hidden on the edge of the main square. The three of us were torn about dinner plans, so as we walked past the guy on the street and he asked if we were looking for dinner, I said “sure, whatcha got?” and we settled in. It looked more expensive than it really was, and our waitress was very sweet, and the food (tip: that was a surprisingly good Caesar salad) was excellent. Easily the best pierogi of the trip.
Another place we liked was Grandmother Raspberry (watch out for the Polish Miami Sound Machine attack if you click on that link). It was our first and last meal in Krakow. The atmosphere in the restaurant varies wildly: at street level, it’s utilitarian bus-your-own picnic bench. Downstairs there are two decor styles in two different dining rooms: extra-fancy Victorian, and über-rustic woodsman chic. We opted for the woodsman; and after forgetting my cap there on Thursday night, I was pleased on Saturday afternoon to find they had saved it for me.
This may seem weird. It felt like there was Catholicism everywhere with echoes of Eastern European Judaism… and nothing else. No Mormons. No Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not even any Hare Krishna types parading around the square. We ducked into a couple churches over the weekend to sneak a peek and found them all to be packed beyond standing room only with locals attending mass. Sure don’t see that in Regensburg, and the current pope’s from here.
We spent a fair amount of time poking around Kazimierz, looking for synagogues. We only found one of the four on our maps, and it was above a Jewish bookstore. It contained a collection of several families’ memories from before the war, captured in photographs. Along the way, we learned that when Regensburg kicked out its Jews, many of them packed up and headed east — to Krakow.
Our tour guide through the Wawel Cathedral gave us the verbal cheat sheet to Polish History 101 over the course of the hour with him. He approached us as we were waiting in line outside the Cathedral to get tickets for entrance. We paid kind of a lot for the personalized tour, but it felt like it was worth it. We got the scoop on every single tomb in the Cathedral (as far as I could tell — and there were plenty of them), and learned about each occupant’s deeds and misdeeds and alliances and conquests and … you get the idea. If you’re a history buff, and Poland is new turf to you, dig in. It’s rich.