Krak贸w the Brave

Krak贸w聽is a remarkably city. It’s the surprise card of a three-week trip through Central Europe. Elegant and stately 18th and 19th century buildings line the narrow streets while the huge market square dominates the center of the old city. The manageable size of the city, the ease of getting around on foot, and the palpable creative and youthful energy one senses makes Krakow a great place to visit.

Krakow. Market Square on a sunny Autumn day.

The main square, Rynek G艂贸wny in Polish,聽dates back to the 13th century: at 9.4 acres in size, it is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. This space is overpowering, hypnotic and graceful. It is irresistible at any time of the day, and with this size, never gets too crowded. Often main squares in European cities are best avoided in peak times, especially in the tourist season.

One small corner of Market Square, Krakow

The square is surrounded by historic townhouses, churches and the central Cloth Hall, rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style. The cloth hall today has small tourist shops selling Polish themed trinkets. The building is long, rectangular and graceful. Other buildings edging the square, include the Town Hall Tower, the 10th century Church of St Adalbert, and many restaurants covered by market umbrellas along with heavy-duty heaters.

Market Square, Krakow
Another beautiful building lining the Market Square, Krakow

Historically, Krakow has been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life. It enjoyed its golden era during the 15th century, with Renaissance artists and architects flocking to the city. Despite the horrors of WW2 and the Nazi occupation of Krak贸w, followed by Stalinist control of all intellectual life, Krakow has, in the 21st century, re-emerged as a place of culture and education. In 2000, Krak贸w was named European Capital of Culture. In 2013 Krak贸w was officially approved as a UNESCO City of Literature. There are 250, 000 tertiary students in the city. Music venues are thriving, as well as the arts and literature. You can feel the energy in the streets.

The central market square attracts excellent musicians and buskers at any hour of the day.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland at the start of 聽WW2,聽Krak贸w became the capital of Germany’s General Government. The Jewish population of the city was forced into a聽Ghetto, which was later walled in: from there, they were sent to German extermination camps, at the nearby Auschwitz聽聽and Birkenau. During that short period, 65,000 Jews from Krakow were murdered. The reality of this horrendous evil is reinforced through a visit to Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Krakow, a museum and exhibition of life in Krak贸w under Nazi occupation 1939-45, housed on the former site of Schindler’s factory. A visit to this display, which will take around two to three hours, is a must. Catch a taxi to the factory and buy tickets there. There is no need to go with a group or a guide. Warning: the exhibition is deeply moving and disturbing. The following photo collage is a media file, which opens as a slide show, depicting a few images from this museum.

There are also tours of聽Nowa Huta, a separate district of Krakow, and one of only two planned Socialist realist settlements or districts ever built and “one of the most renowned examples of deliberate social engineering” in the entire world.鹿 A tour with Walkative Tours of Krakow with a guide well versed in the history of Stalinism, and its application in Poland, was available. But in the end, we chose the food tour,聽a great way to learn more about the traditional foods of Krakow.

The gentle sound of clip clopping horses in the streets nearby the central square.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, modern Krak贸w is brave, proud, lively and welcoming.

Foods of Krakow Walking Tour, Poland

Let’s be honest about tours and their guides. Short tours can be either informative and enjoyable or drop dead boring. I’ve often noticed large, passive groups in city squares, churches and galleries huddled around a guide, and whispered surreptitiously how pleased I am not to be a part of them. A tour only works when the guide is not only knowledgeable but also engaging and open. A willing smile and a readiness to share a few jokes and inside stories also goes a long way. 聽The group needs to be small: dialogue is essential. The Food Walking Tour of Krakow, led by our guide, Nika, ticked all the boxes.

Nika, our guide who works for Free Walkative Tours in Krakow

Nika readily admits she loves her job and that’s pretty obvious from the outset. A graduate in Slavic languages and well versed in history, Nika grew up in the area. She’ll point our her primary school along the way, and often refers to her grandmother’s cooking, her love of pickles and her passion for Polish traditional food. With her love of language and travel and her passion for聽food, Nika makes a wonderful guide. As luck would have it, only three participants turned up on the day of our tour, and with Nika that made four in total, giving me plenty of opportunity to ask her lots of questions along the way. Most of her groups are much bigger but the company professes to keeping group numbers under 8.

Oscypek cheese from the Tatra mountains. Salty, smoky and very addictive.

The tour begins at the Old Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. The streets bordering this area aren’t as busy or as touristy as the centre of Krakow, which makes this tour more authentic. The tour includes visits to small businesses, a hidden farmer’s market, eateries and local vodka pubs, without the tourist markup. We start with a small sample of red and white Borscht, the latter called Zurek. Zurek is made聽from a聽starter (similar to a sourdough starter) made by fermenting rye bread, or rye flour with water for three days. The soup includes potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, with optional meat, and then the starter is added towards the end.

Fermented Rye and sourdough bread, the sour starter for white Bortsch. This is a commercial batch. Home made ferments are easy to make and were also on sale at the market.

At the farmer’s market we sampled generous portions of pickles and salted, cured聽cabbage. At the traditional sausage and smoked meats shop, the lone carnivore in our group sampled kabana made from horse meat, as well as a slice of fat sausage made from blood studded with barley. The local cheese, Oscypek, was my favourite, a smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk from the Tatra Mountains 聽of Poland.The cheese is pressed into beautiful wooden molds and is often served with cranberry sauce. It is a bright yellow semi-soft cheese, with the salty flavour and texture of Haloumi and the addition of smoking from forest woods.

At some point we stopped for a little Polish plum drink and then it was off to the famous Przystanek Pierogarnia聽corner shop, home of Krakow’s best Pierogi. People queue to eat here, though there are only a few stools inside and some wooden tables and chairs outside. We tried three types of savoury Pierogi, one sweet one stuffed with fresh blueberries and cream, and an apple pancake. I had eaten Peirogi 聽in fine restaurants in central Krakow before this food tour. The delicate little pierogi ruski at Prystanek were by far the best.

Beautiful woman in the Peirogi shop
The team at聽Przystanek. Smile!

Following Nika through the suburbs, we then land in a glittering cake shop with tempting displays of sumptious layered cakes, reminding me of my first taste of layered Polish cake as a six聽year old child, a very vivid food memory. We sampled some rolled poppy-seed cake: the key to a successful poppy-seed cake is the delicate flavour and 聽moistness of the black centre.

Polish rolled poppy-seed cake.
Lovely girl in Polish cake shop. What a great tour.
Polish cakes. Cheesecakes too.

By late afternoon, the cold was setting in, a perfect time to sample a vodka or two. We visit two bars, both very different in style. At the first stop, we downed our Vodka, after learning the most important Polish word of the tour-聽Na zdrow矛e ( pronounced Naz- droh- vee- ay ), followed by the traditional accompaniment, a small slice of rye bread with a slice of pickled herring, onion and dill cucumber. Nika stressed the importance of clinking of glasses, whilst toasting- Na-zdrowie- and simultaneously looking directly in the eyes of all drinkers. Failing to do this will incur seven years bad luck.

Inside Bar Trojkat, Krakow. Organic Vodka in many flavours. Try the quince one.

Glowing inside and feeling more bonded, we marched on to bar number two, a great place offering organic Vodka with delicate flavours of elderflower, lemon, quince and caramel, to name a few.

Remember the toast!

Reaching for my third sample, a heavenly quince Vodka, my mind searched for that key Polish toast, but oddly, all I could think of was Perestroika or Lubie jezdzi膰 na s艂oniu ( I like to ride on an elephant), crazy random words that seemed to suit the occasion, whilst meeting the direct gaze of all!

This walking tour of Crakow was run by Free Walkative Tour of Krakow. The Foods of Krakow Walking tour costs 50 PLN (13 Euro) which includes samples. Private tours can also be arranged. The tour lasts for around 2陆 hours. You’ll learn a lot about Krakow, history and Polish traditions along the way. After all, food opens the door to a country’s culture.