Poland was our last stop along the road to our new home in Ukraine and the first country which was brand new for both of us. I was super curious to see what this country is like, as I have quite a few Polish friends and acquaintances back in London. In fact, London is said to be the third biggest Polish city, so I had some idea of what to expect from Polish people and culture (hint: they’re awesome), but I wanted to see the country of piwo and pierogies for myself.
Krakow isn’t the capital of Poland (that’s Warsaw, guys), but it’s considered the best city to visit and we can see why. Well, from our first impression of the city we couldn’t quite see why. We drove in late-ish after a long trip from Brno, and found our way to our hostel (less than £20 per night for a private double room) where we realised that the woman serving at the desk wasn’t exactly smart, to put it politely. Although her English was fine, she took about ten minutes with a calculator to work out that three time 100 zloty is 300 zloty. She then told us that parking on the street was free on Fridays. One 50 zloty fine later, we realised it wasn’t. Then it was time to walk into the city for some food. Public transport in Poland isn’t exactly self-explanatory if you don’t speak Polish. Even in a relatively tourist-friendly city like Krakow, trams are not designed for non-residents to understand. There’s a complex system of maps with strange Polish names which doesn’t make it very clear where anything is or which tram to get on. It’s also a tough job buying a ticket unless you have the 36 zloty needed for a 3 day ticket on you in coins (you can buy using cash from the machines on the trams, or using cards from an automat at a central tram stop.) We didn’t know where to get off and wandered around some quite unfriendly-looking suburbs before we found the centre. At this point we weren’t exactly fans of Krakow.
But from then on, we realised that Krakow is actually pretty darn awesome. Once you make your way into the centre, things become a bit clearer. The central square of the city is a buzzing hub of fun and activity: the whole thing is surrounded by restaurants with outdoor tables and umbrellas, with impressive churches and other buildings dotted around, and a huge fountain in the middle. People are everywhere, eating, drinking and chatting. You might think that eating in the tourist heart of the city is a bad idea, but we were starving and in need of some Polski cuisine, stat, so we decided we’d risk the tourist trap for the first night. In fact, we were very pleasantly surprised. The waiter at the Polish-style place we sat down at (I can’t remember its name but it was Polski something…) was very professional and efficient – he even managed to bring us a proper coffee with sambuca at the end of the meal. The food was great (we had 2 litres of Polish beer and a dish of mixed pierogies, and I had some amazing apple pie afterwards) and the price was really not bad at all in the end (certainly under £20 for the 2 of us).
Now, I know that Krakow gets quite a lot of tourists, but unlike other cities such as Prague, you don’t really feel it to be very touristy. Perhaps because many of the tourists come from surrounding countries rather than Britain or Italy, so it doesn’t have that Brit-abroad feel that makes my skin crawl. In fact it has a great balance between doing just about enough to make your stay as a tourist manageable, without losing too much of its dour Eastern European attitude. Generally, menus are translated into English at any semi-central spot, and there are tourist tours and so on. If you want to visit any famous sights such as the Jewish Ghetto, Wawel castle or Auschwitz, you’ll certainly find English-speaking guides, maps, tours and so on. But the tourist aspect hasn’t taken over like it has in Prague. You’ll still find some aspects of the city quite unfriendly if you’re used to visiting more popular destinations that are really geared up for British visitors. But if you’re a little bit adventurous you’ll soon start appreciating the Polish lifestyle. We met up with a friend from Prague and soon started catching up with various other travellers, expats and old friends. Looking for somewhere to have a drink we simply wandered into a random place which was packed out with Polish people all drinking insanely-priced drinks (if I remember correctly all drinks were 4 zloty, which is below a pound/euro). Simply wander into any drinkery in the centre and you can’t have a bad night in Krakow – we certainly didn’t.
Maybe we were lucky, but we just happened to be in Krakow during Wianki, the festival of the crown of flowers which is held every year to welcome summer. Girls make crowns of flowers and then float them down the river. There were things going on all over town, with several different stages playing Polish bands of different genres, various food and drink stalls going on, and a huge fireworks display over the river. Poland actually has the surprising rule that you can’t drink alcohol outside unless you’re sitting at a designated bar. So watch out for the British habit of carrying a few cans down to the river etc – that’s not allowed in Poland. However, with huge mugs of beer going for less than a quid a pop, you don’t really need to worry about having a few at any of the bars, pubs or outdoor drinking areas in the city. Polish folk love a party, and plenty of the younger generation speak English, so you won’t have trouble making a few friends and joining in with the festival atmosphere. Although take into consideration that many people don’t speak English, and if you wander off the beaten track you could come across some strange situations. We went into an American-style place where they were holding auditions for a part in a movie, which led to some confusion when people who entered the restaurant thought we must be running the audition. We also ordered three plates of pierogies, and were eventually brought one plate of pierogies and a huge burger. I decided to eat the burger anyway though, as it did look pretty good.
The only massive downer on our trip to Krakow was the weather. It rained enough to make any Londoner feel at home. I’m assured this isn’t normal though. Anyway, our visit was still pretty great and we give a big thumbs up to the Polski life.