Whilst thoroughly enjoying myself in Prague, I got an invitation from my buddy Jon to visit him in Krakow, Poland. Jon informed me that he would be heading back to the USA in less than 4 days so since I wasn’t doing anything THAT important, I simply told him to expect me in Krakow that evening. The journey to Krakow started at Praha Hlavni Nadrazi (or just Prague Hln. train station), aboard a sleek EuroCity train. The EuroCity train was in stark contrast to the trains I’ve been riding in Asia. Smooth, fast (200mph) and comfortable, it was certainly the nicest train I’ve ever been on and upped the ante on my concept of public transportation worldwide. All the trains were impeccably clean, on-time and stops were announced clearly in a variety of languages. It was quite the luxurious 6 hour ride, the only hiccup happened when I crossed the border into Poland and stopped in Katowice for a train transfer. Katowice train station ranks very low in my list of transport depots, even compared to third world Asian countries. It’s confusing, dirty and full of unpleasant people. The attendants were rude and uncaring and it was glaringly apparent they hated their jobs more than the guy who cleans the portable toilets. Due to their inability to assist me, I relied on Polish arrival/departure lists (essentially my own intuition) to determine my next train platform. Needless to say, there was some confusion, but I’ll be elaborating on that in my next post.
When I finally arrived in Krakow, it was 2.5 hours later than I had told Jon. Unfortunately I had no way of updating him to my situation, since getting WiFi on the train was not possible. Luckily, the train station, Dworzec Glowny Krakow, empties into the giant Galeria Krakowska shopping mall where there was poor but serviceable WiFi. I messaged Jon and waited outside in the cool (frankly, COLD) night air for his arrival.
Reunited at last and both relived that i had finally made it, Jon and I set out for a celebratory beer and some renowned Polish food. After having my first half liter of Zywiec and exploring some nightlight, it was too late to find a suitable hotel or hostel for me that night, therefore Jon and I decided it would be a good idea for me to sneak into his dorm residence for the evening. This involved scaling a 10 foot stone wall, capped with broken glass to deter would-be intruders like myself, then shimmying 20 yards on top of the wall in order to drop down 2 levels into the courtyard of Jon’s place. All the while dong this in stealth mode to avoid security cameras. Mission-possible. Aside from a scraped palm i made it in no worse for wear and felt like a total badass. It wasn’t until the next morning when I was walking out the front door, that the security guard stopped me and asked for payment for the night that I had just stayed. Busted, epic fail. Luckily it was only 10 zloty for the night, gotta love student dorms. In fact, it inspired me to extend my stay there in lieu of finding another hotel. In my quest to experience as many different living situations during my travels, I certainly got the student experience in Krakow. For a week, my accommodations were the dorms in the middle of the city, just outside of the Old Town Krakow. I was back at UNC, sharing spartan quarters with a roommate and rubbing elbows with other students in the hallway and elevator.
Aside from the cool residence and getting to hang with my good fried Jon once again, there were 2 standout highlights in Krakow: the food and the EuroCup. The food speaks for itself, I believe Pierogies and sausage are world famous, but I sort of stumbled into the Euro Cup situation. Like any good soccer fan, I had been watching the games and following the action of the tournament, since I was in Asia, but chance would have it that I would end up in two of the host cities during the time of the games. Actually going to a game would have been incredible, but tickets were near impossible to come by so I was happy to settle for watching the games with the locals and fans in the authentic atmosphere. On game night, Krakow sported banners and tents galore, so we grabbed a seat on one of the beer hall benches in the main tent for this weeks round of games, most notably, the quarterfinal PK shootout game between Italy and England. There were tons of fans from each team inside the tent and only a spattering of local Poles and neutrals like me. The game was a tense match and despite the free flowing Zywiec, the atmosphere was amicable even in the end. Here is a quick video of Rooney’s PK make, just before the deciding miss by Ashley Young.
As for the food: after the hearty dishes of Prague, I wasn’t sure how much more my stomach could take, that is untill that first steamy plate of Pierogies was set in front of me. Jon had found the perfect spot: simple Pierogies, boiled, not fried, served by the dozen, for less than $5. Any number of delicious fillings were possible, shredded meat, broccoli, cabbage, potato, cheese, fruit or any combination. I enjoyed the traditional “ruskie” style of cabbage, potato and cheese more often than not.
Polish cusine also relies heavily on soups. Soup is supposed to be eaten with every meal and the Poles traditionally believe that soup is the cure-all for health. Got a cold? There’s a soup for that. Got digestive problems? There’s a soup for that. Got performance issues? There’s probably a soup for that too. I had many differnt soups while visiting, but my favorite was traditional Zurek soup, a sour broth with boiled egg and sausage.
There was also, beet soup, mushroom soup and their own version of chicken noodle soup. To my excitement and the dismay of my emerging belly, pancakes are also a staple of the Polish diet. Potato pancakes (Palcki) with onion and mushroom gravy as well as thin nalesniki pancakes stuffed with sweet or savory fillings.
Probably the coup de grace of my culinary adventure in Poland was when Jon took me to a Polish buffet. You simply load your large plate up with all manner of delicious looking cabbage, dumplings, sausages and potatoes and they weigh it at then end. A feast of epic proportions for dirt cheap.
The fortified entrance to the Old Town area. Old Town is surrounded by a large castle wall and encircled by a thin strip of green city park. Once you enter the gates you are confronted by tourists and typical tourist shops, but there are many hidden gems in between the cheap souvenir peddlers.
Walking up the hill to the Wawel Castle, the seat of ancient Polish kings and legend has it, the home to a dragon, slain by mythical King Krak. The Wawel was impressive, hosting a variety of domed churches and the remains of the original structure. Of course, there are numerous statues to honor the JP, the most recent Polish Pope. Poland is staunchly Catholic.
Krakow at night. The actual market building of the Market Square and a statue commemorating Polish victory outside of the city center.
My final days and nights in Poland were capped off with a rainy day trip to the mountains of Zakopane, a ski destination during the winter months and during the summer it is supposedly a great place for hiking, biking and hangliding. The weather kept us from actually doing any of these great activities, but we still managed to take the funicular up the mountain and the clouds gave way for a few good pictures. In a strange but familiar way, the vibe of Zakopane kind of reminded me of Maggie Valley, NC, or even Gatlinburg, TN. Lost of local hillbilly flair evidenced by the foods and crafts being peddled by locals.
It can be done people. Jon was relentless in his efforts and aided by YouTube we tried the shoe method as well as the pounding method, but ended up getting the cork out only halfway before deciding that we better not wake up the whole dorm with loud thumping sounds. So we resorted to the, “gouging with knife”, method. Our persistence was rewarded as we filled makeshift wine glasses and toasted to our time in Poland.