Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski visited Krakow, Poland, to
reacquaint himself with the fairy-tale city's latest venues and
less-heralded charms. His report follows:
KRAKOW, Poland -- Watching a fashionable young couple embrace by
a towering Gothic church across the way, the English cafe patron
sighed and, gently setting down her cup of cappuccino, turned to
"Poland is Europe after all, isn't it?" she said, her verdict
betraying a hint of surprise. Her friends -- and I, at a
neighboring table -- nodded in vigorous agreement.
When I last visited this ancient seat of Polish royalty at the
foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in 1999, I, like that British
woman, was both charmed by Krakow's cultured populace and dazzled
by architectural wonders such as St. Mary's Basilica and Wawel
Who would have thought Poland -- to some still a flat, gray, sad
land -- was home to such an enchanting town, smaller kin to
historical Prague, Czech Republic, and elegant Budapest,
And, despite my ambitious itinerary, I suspected two days of
sightseeing were not enough to fully appreciate Krakow's
This summer, I returned -- with a doubtful friend in tow -- to
ferret out more of the city's underrated culinary and cultural
Arriving at Krakow's train depot, we lugged our bags to the
nearby Stare Miasto, or Old Town, where our hotel, the Pollera, was
Taxis are plentiful at the train station, but as the historic
quarter is both automobile-free and steps away, those staying in
its confines needn't bother with one.
The walk took us through the Planty, the aptly named and pleasant
park ringing the Old Town where long-gone defensive walls once
At the edge of the park, at the juncture of ul. Pijarska and ul.
Szpitalna 25, we were surprised to find a shiny new -- and welcome
-- City Information Point booth that hawks sightseeing brochures
and tourist guides seven days a week.
There we discovered the new Krakow Tourist Card, which offers
free use of the transit system and entrance to 26 museums, as well
as discounts of up to 20% in shops and restaurants, on some taxi
rides and with participating tour operators.
The card, priced at about $11.25 for two days or $16.25 for
three, is available at Balice Airport; the Malopolskie Centrum IT
in the Cloth Hall at market square (or, Rynek Glowny), and at
travel agencies, mass-transit ticket sales points and several dozen
A few steps more on ul. Szpitalna -- past the opulent Juliusz
Slowacki Theater, modeled on the Paris Opera -- and we were at the
Hotel Pollera, a 150-year-old inn designed in art nouveau
Scaling the central staircase to our double room on the second
floor (Be warned: there is no elevator), we admired the large
stained-glass window by Stanislaw Wyspianski, Krakow's 19th century
art nouveau master.
Our clean and comfortable, yet narrow, room was equipped with
private shower and toilet, television, telephone and small dining
set. Larger rooms and suites are available.
Square meals, appeal
After settling in, we headed out for a lunch in Krakow's market
square -- said to be the largest in Europe and ringed by several
dozen buzzing cafes and restaurants.
In general, limited menus of coffees, alcohol and light snacks
are available under the bright cafe umbrellas dotting the
Those desiring more substantial fare head indoors to
restaurants' medieval cellars, labyrinthine warrens that were at
street level hundreds of years ago.
We opted for Sphinx, a new Egyptian-themed eatery located at
Rynek Glowny 26 (at the juncture of ul. Wislna and ul. Sw.
While the efficient, young staff at funky subterranean Sphinx
(it also has a terrace) can serve up delicious sandwiches, burgers
and kebabs, gourmet pizzas appeared to be the real draw here.
Pepperoni and caper pies for two, with soft drinks, totaled
Heading south on ul. Grodzka toward Wawel Hill, we happened upon
the Wyspianski Museum at Plac Sw. Marii Magdaleny, across from Sts.
Peter & Paul Church.
With the Pollera's stained-glass window in mind, we decided to
learn more about the artist.
A contemporary of the better-known Czech Alphonse Mucha, artist
and playwright Wyspianski, too, blended Slavic folk motifs with art
nouveau themes in his paintings and sculptures, set and costume
designs for Krakow's burgeoning turn-of-the-century theater scene
and architectural reworkings of local landmarks -- all of which are
on display at the museum.
Visitors can complete the Wyspianski experience at the nearby
Franciscan Church on ul. Franciszkanska.
There, afternoon light filters through the artist's stained-glass
windows, dispelling Gothic gloom with colorful floral radiance.
Continuing south, we entered Kazimierz, the historic Jewish
quarter wiped out in the Nazi liquidation portrayed in the film
Overshadowed by more somber memorials, Krakow's Ethnological
Museum is an oft-bypassed treasure trove of Polish folk heritage,
housed in the early 14th century Kazimierz Town Hall.
Its re-creations of traditional homes, tools and musical
instruments, and folk costumes and crafts -- such as gaily painted
Easter eggs, towering Christmas creches and eerie, pagan straw
fetishes -- will come as a revelation to anyone who still
associates Poland with the gray face of socialism.
In honor of Kazimierz's Jewish heritage, we dined at Arka Noego
(Noah's Ark), at ul. Szeroka 2, where haunting, traditional Hasidic
tunes were interpreted by Di Galitzyaner Klezmorim, a trio of local
music students devoted to preserving the Jewish component of
Krakow's music patrimony.
Arka Noego's cheerful chef excels at Jewish-style carp; fluffy,
fruit-filled crepes; dumpling-like vegetable kreplach, and other
Jewish culinary specialties.
A four-course dinner for two with drinks and coffee ran about
On the town
Returning to linger in the market square by night, we popped in
at chic In Vitro, nearby on ul. Sienna.
There, pretty young models crowded the stainless-steel main bar,
sipping szarlotka cocktails (bison-grass vodka mixed with apple
juice) under the glow of neon and the din of the latest Euro-disco
We next headed to Loza, on the north side of the square. Alas,
access to the art deco cafe and bar -- easily the most attractive
venue on the square -- was reserved for members of the Polish
actors' guild; through its bright picture windows one could espy
Krakow's "beautiful people" at play.
However, the hoi polloi can and did partake of coffee, drinks
and an inexpensive menu at Loza's sidewalk cafe.
Rounding out the evening, we stopped for a nightcap at the sleek
Metropolitan Restaurant and Bar, round the corner at ul. Slawkowska
The picture of modish elegance in polished wood and brushed
steel, the Metropolitan is famed for its masterful cocktails, as
well as an eclectic continental menu that would do New York or
Before hitting the sack, we ducked into Klub Gabinet, hidden in
the courtyard of ul. Florianska 18, to check our e-mail
The following day, before hopping a 1-zloty (25-cent) shuttle
for the 20-minute ride from the train station to the Wieliczka Salt
Mines, we lunched at the amusing Rozowy Slon (Pink Elephant), a
self-service restaurant at ul. Szpitalna 38.
The restaurant serves pierogi, kielbasa, blintzes and other
Central European classics -- once the exclusive province of
depressing, state-run "milk bars" -- in colorful dining rooms
decorated in outsized comic-strip illustrations.
Returning from our subterranean adventure, we strolled down
Krakow's oldest and most picturesque street, ul. Kanonicza, which
meanders north from the foot of Wawel Hill, and happened upon the
city's most exclusive small hotel, the Copernicus, at No. 16.
Set in a Gothic monastery as old as the royal castle hovering
above, each of the hotel's 29 rooms and suites features modern
conveniences (Jacuzzi, satellite television, minibar) amid ancient
detail, such as painted wood ceilings dating to the 14th
A Renaissance-style restaurant on site serves up meals prepared
according to ancient recipes -- fare similar to that perhaps
enjoyed by astronomer and local university student Nicolaus
Copernicus, reputedly an early guest.
Next, we indulged in Poles' latest passion -- shopping.
While the Old Town is littered with bookshops, souvenir stands
and antique dealers, clothing shops predominate -- particularly on
ul. Szewska, where we snatched up U.S., French and Italian designer
labels at bargain prices from stores such as Sklep Lira (No. 22)
and Salon Sunset Suits (No. 7).
For well-made, reasonably priced casual clothing, shoes and
funky housewares, we browsed the new Galeria Centrum department
store at the corner of ul. Sw. Anny and ul. Wislna, across from
With an exchange rate of about four zloty to the dollar, and the
sharp discrepancy in average U.S. and Polish incomes, even budget
travelers can succumb to the splurge instinct.
And we did. For folksy souvenirs, the Cloth Hall offered the
most bewildering selection.
There, independent vendors peddle everything from intricate wood
carvings, chess sets and amber jewelry to folk costumes, crystal
glassware and lace tablecloths.
Weighed down with bags, we stopped for a hearty Polish supper at
the charming, peasant-themed Chlopskie Jadlo, at ul. Sw. Jana
The restaurant also has locations in the Stradom quarter south
of Wawel Hill, and the Glogoczow suburb.
To book the Hotel Pollera, call (011) 48-12 422-1044, fax (011)
48-12 422-1389 or e-mail [email protected].
The hotel Web site can be found at www.pollera.com.pl.
For the Copernicus, call (011) 48-12 424-3400, fax (011) 48-12
431-1140, e-mail [email protected], or visit www.hotel.com.pl/copernicus/english/english.htm.