Savoring Summer in Krakow – Krakow, Poland

Savoring Summer in Krakow
Krakow, Poland

Visit Krakow in the summer, and your first word of Polish is likely to become lody, ice cream. To my knowledge Poland has earned no special reputation for its dairy products. But try, just try, to wander Krakow’s streets in summer and not crave a scoop of milky vanilla or girlishly pink strawberry while the sun brightens the old town square and the cobblestones are warm underfoot. Fresh-faced young Krakovians tilt their blonde heads to the side to lick errant drips. Chattering girls smile as they swing their sundresses past you to line up for soft serve.

You’ll turn to your companion in the afternoon warmth and say, “Isn’t it time for some lody?” Like that, a Polish word is part of your lexicon. You’ll join the many Poles that seem to be savoring every last lick of Krakow’s summer. The city’s atmosphere encourages it.

My fiancé and I stopped in Krakow for a few days on the way to a wedding in central Poland. We arrived on the night train from Prague, a little worse for wear after a thorough rattling from rusted Soviet-era railcars and repeated passport checks from both Czech and Polish border guards. The last of these barking interruptions left us squinting at the dawn. Four in the morning and the summer sun was rising over Poland. I watched mists float above verdant farmland outside the train window.

We arrived in Krakow at 5:40, expecting the city to be still at such an early hour. To our surprise, the streets were filled with commuters. The kiosks in front of the station were doing a lively business selling drinks, meats and fruit. For those who like to get their shopping out of the way early, some even sold clothing – stockings, underwear and flowered dresses.

The oldest part of Krakow is compact and well-preserved. Like all medieval city centers, a wall once encircled the old town, complete with gates that could be closed to keep out intruders and a moat to slow attackers. The wall is mostly gone now. In its place is a pleasant ring of parkland surrounding the old town, the Planty. Krakow’s modern streets – modern in the relative sense – seem to radiate in a jumble from the city’s medieval precursor. The Hotel Jordan was on one such street.

We had little trouble locating it. As we were promised by email, the travel agency adjacent to it opened at seven. In a scene that would play out again and again during our stay, a helpful young woman apologized profusely for her limited conversational English. “I can speak German,” she insisted, all the while going through the hotel’s paperwork in English.

“Your English is much better than our Polish and our German,” we countered.

She shook her head with embarrassment and continued in English.

Having been relieved of our bags, we left to explore city – and to find some coffee. Despite the activity around the station, little was open in the old town so early. But on the main market square, Rynek Glowny, we found one café open for business, Monika’s. Soon we were thawing from the morning’s chill at a sunny table complete with a view of the old town hall.

Rynek Glowny is one of the largest medieval market squares in Europe, and elegant facades line a peopled cobblestone expanse. At the center of the square stands the 16th century Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall – an indoor shopping market. Rynek Glowny’s grandest attraction, however, is St. Mary’s Church. The double-spired gothic structure anchors the square’s eastern corner. Its dark red bricks contrast with the yellowed ornamentation of the Renaissance buildings nearby.

Though it was barely eight, a Polish man nursed a beer while he read the newspaper. Beer is overtaking vodka as Poland’s national drink, and a cold one first thing in the morning is nothing unusual. Perhaps it’s because the winter is so bleak.

Fully fortified by our round of rich coffee and cream, plateful of scrambled eggs over a forenoon beer, we were ready to see Krakow. We started with Wawel Hill.

The hill rises above the twisting Vistula River which bisects the city. The crenulated silhoutte of Wawel Castle serves as a handy point of reference when walking the old town. It’s a steep walk to the top of the hill, but the rewards are commanding views of both historic and modern Krakow. The castle itself is mostly Renaissance in style, though Gothic and Romanesque elements remain in the maze-like cluster of buildings. Wawel housed Poland’s kings from the 11th to early 17th centuries. It’s now a museum filled with dizzying collections of art and tapestries.

Most of the museum can only be accessed by a special tour, but the castle’s riches are overwhelming. We toured the royal chambers and gazed at 16th century Flemish tapestries that lined the walls. Even ceilings were painted in delicate patterns. One exhibit off the main courtyard, the royal armory, housed room after room of silver swords, bejeweled crowns and goblets – jewels even embedded medieval saddles.

The adjacent Wawel Cathedral is no less bewildering – a dim maze of tombs, chapels and altarpieces. It was built in 1364, and since then, over 100 kings and queens have been buried inside its walls. After a morning on crowded Wawel Hill, we gave in to the mounting heat – and our lack of sleep. We left through the cool of “The Dragon’s Den” – a karstic labyrinth that twists deep below the castle and spits you out on the banks of the Vistula across from the old town.

Later, we strolled the old town square. The whole of Krakow seemed to be reveling in the warmth of summer. Rynek Glowny was crowded with tourists and residents alike – mostly the young. Krakow is home to about 100,000 university students and has the carefree feel of a college town. Teenagers congregate around a statue of the romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz in the square’s center – a popular meeting place. In the evenings, musicians perform at the many open-air cafes along the square’s perimeter, creating a festive atmosphere. As the sun slipped lower in the sky, pastel clounds created a soft background for church spires and rooftops. Swifts swooped in figure eights around St. Mary’s.

Restaurants in Krakow, with the exception of outdoor cafes, are empty at dinner hour. We were later told that Poles, during the 80s, especially, felt uncomfortable eating out (and, I suspect, couldn’t afford to). They felt they were being watched. So, for social evenings, they gathered at people’s homes. It’s been a relatively short time since the fall of Communism in Poland. Old habits die hard.

Our search for Polish restaurants with actual Poles eating in them was, for the most part, unsuccessful. Most Kravovians prefer eating on the go. They nibble on snacks – like lody – as they walk. Kebabs (the Turkish version of a Greek gyros sandwich, filled with roasted lamb, cabbage and yogurt sauce) are popular, as are slices of Sicilian-style pizza.

Most often, though, the street-eaters gnawed at the round bread Krakow is known for, Obwarzanki. Vendors sell them on nearly every street corner for less than one zloty, about 20 cents. The rolls are coated in poppy seeds or salt, resulting in a taste between a bagel and a pretzel.

We made our meals from these streetside snacks and found we didn’t miss the sit-down restaurant scene (and we saved money). We stood in lines with young Krakovians waiting for kebabs and exchanged chit-chat with smiling vendors. We ate on the move. Sometimes we shared a bench on the square with students or other travelers.

Summer is for school groups in Krakow. Legions of students crowd the city’s attractions. Seeing Wawel Castle and its cathedral was a lesson in patience. Teachers led their elementary school-aged charges through the various chapels and naves. At least 10 groups filled the church’s aisles – walking against the flow of kids was impossible. On our second day in Krakow, as we toured the regal St. Mary’s Church, several groups filled pews to await their teachers’ lectures.

St. Mary’s is magnificent. The interior dazzles – reds, rich blues and golds cover archways and vaulted chapels. The ceiling stretched high above is a sky of deep azure with gold stars. The church holds the oldest Gothic altar in the world – created over 12 years in the late 1400s – and one of the largest in Europe.

As we left the side door, we heard the sad wail of the bugle emanating from above. Every hour, a mournful melody echoes over the square to commemorate the destruction of Krakow in 1241 when the invading Tatars are said to have shot down the original trumpeter in the middle of his song. A local magazine recently threw out the idea that there had been a trumpeter, insisting it was fabricated by an American. In any case, we joined other tourists and gaggles of children craning their necks toward the church’s two mismatched spires. The musicians work 24-hour shifts, on loan from the local fire brigade. The 763-year-old lament – which stops abruptly, just as the original trumpeter’s tones did – sounds every hour.

Not surprisingly, the home of Pope John Paul II is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The depth of devotion exhibited by Krakovians was moving. The old town is peppered with dozens of historic churches, each with its own architectural style or mix of styles.

In the Gothic Franciscan Church, we marveled at art nouveau stained glass windows and wall decorations, taking it all in from a cool, quiet pew. We watched in awe as a group of university students entered through the side door. Some of them simply dropped to their knees to pray, right where they stood. Bare knees and bookbags thumped against the cold marble floor.

In the colossal Dominican Church, a long queue blocked the right aisle – Krakovians waiting to give confession in the middle of a weekday afternoon. On Sundays, congregations can be so large that latecomers must gather outside to partake of the service. Loudspeakers blare prayers and readings into the surrounding neighborhood, as worshippers shift their weight from foot to foot in churchyards.

In between church visits, we stopped for one of our only sit-down meals – at a small cafe opposite the ivy-covered buildings of Jagellonian University, where the astronomer Copernicus studied in the 1400s. The waiter, a student, offered doughy homemade pierogies in English, then turned to another table of tourists and joked to them in Russian. The traditional dumplings were some of the best we sampled during our time in Poland. Beet juice colored their mashed potato centers bubble gum pink. Later in the afternoon, we escaped the heat by strolling in the cool shade of the Planty to enjoy yet another ice cream cone.

On our last day in Krakow, we headed southeast from the old town to visit Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, and the Izaaka Synagogue. An exhibit, pieced together from Nazi-era documentary footage, offered a grim reminder of the moving of Jews into the Krakow and Warsaw ghettos. The pre-WWII Jewish community in Krakow numbered some 69,000 people and was arguably the largest such community in Europe. It’s estimated that just 150 returned after World War II.

Pre-war Kazimierz was home to eight synagogues. Most of these are now open as museums, like the Izaaka, serving as homes for exhibits about the tragic history of Poland’s Jews. But Kazimierz is returning to life, helped along in part by the filming of Schindler’s List in the early ’90s.

A vibrant arts and music scene is developing, and a number of busy cafés and restaurants are clustered behind one of the old synagogues. Posters advertizing Klezmer concerts and kosher food plaster the neighborhood’s walls and fences. We passed a colorful market in the center of the Kazimierz that sold clothes, fruit and artwork. It felt as though some of the gaiety of the old town was once again seeping into this adjacent neighborhood.

We returned to the old town along tree-lined streets, marveling at the layers of black soot that cover most buildings in Krakow. Environmental protection was of little concern to the Soviet-era industrial development machine. Some say the pollution is better than it used to be, but you wouldn’t know it. Black dust covers the detailed stonework on most apartment buildings – even some of Krakow’s historical monuments.

Surounded by this dark remnant of Communist production, an old woman peered down at us from between white lace curtains in a second floor flat. Below her, was a window box of bright red geraniums, and on her right, a satellite dish protruding from the side of the 18th century building – scenes to sum up the paradoxes of new Poland.

In the morning, we walked around the block from the Hotel Jordan to a sprawling open-air market. Shoppers swarmed the area, pushing through lines to select blocks of cheese and bags of apricots. Like the scene that fronted the train station when we arrived, clothes and accessories were sold next to fruit stands and butcher shops.

Each “shop” was housed in a wood and glass structure with a cashier’s window, the merchandise safely away from tempted fingers. We managed, with our limited Polish and a lot of pointing and gesturing, to acquire a big bag of cherries and two rolls for lunch. A group of older men armed with a guitar, an accordion and a couple of other instruments played music for the throng of shoppers. Even such chores can carry an air of gaiety in Krakow.

Lunch in hand, we marched to the station to catch a train to our next destination. On the way, we couldn’t resist – just one more lody.