Krakow's twice as nice the second time around

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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 her companions.

"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 Castle.

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, Hungary?

And, despite my ambitious itinerary, I suspected two days of sightseeing were not enough to fully appreciate Krakow's pleasures.

This summer, I returned -- with a doubtful friend in tow -- to ferret out more of the city's underrated culinary and cultural delights.

Getting acquainted

Arriving at Krakow's train depot, we lugged our bags to the nearby Stare Miasto, or Old Town, where our hotel, the Pollera, was located.

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.

Krakow's italianate Cloth Hall, built in the 1550s, now peddles a host of other souvenirs in addition to its traditional linens. The walk took us through the Planty, the aptly named and pleasant park ringing the Old Town where long-gone defensive walls once stood.

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 area hotels.

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 style.

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 Renaissance streetscape.

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. Anny).

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 $13.

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.

The unequal Gothic towers of St. Mary's Church loom over Krakow's market square. 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 "Schindler's List."

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 $30.

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 hits.

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 3.

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 London proud.

Before hitting the sack, we ducked into Klub Gabinet, hidden in the courtyard of ul. Florianska 18, to check our e-mail accounts.

Classic experiences

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 century.

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 Sphinx.

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 3.

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.

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