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The Pan and the Pope

Krakow, Poland
– shopping, dining & getting around

The title gives it away. Pope John Paul II, the city’s most prominent son, and Pan Tadeusz, protagonist of Adam Mickiewicz’s novel by the same title, are omnipresent in Krakow. You can hardly find a shop or café without the likeness of the pope, and Pan Tadeusz is not only available in handfuls of editions at every one of the many bookstores, but is also the name of half a dozen pubs. And indeed it is worth exploring Krakow’s many Pans and Popes, whatever they may stand for – shops, restaurants, pubs and clubs.

Shopping

Krakow is an excellent place to buy anything antique: books, artwork and old handicrafts. The old town is full of antique shops, where you can buy jewellery, gold and silver cutlery and accessories, china, and paintings. And of course the whole place is full of souvenir shops selling pictures and books of John Paul II, who was once Bishop of Krakow. Second-hand books are available in plenty, in both Polish and foreign languages.

The old cloth market, Sukienice, has a dozen stalls with handmade wood works. The bestsellers are chess boards and sets, anywhere from 50 zloty (£8 or €13) to 500, which can sell for five times that price back home. When I bought my first handmade chess board here, everybody at home liked it so much that I have to buy more every time I return to Krakow and its old market.

In Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, there are a handful of shops selling Jewish books and artefacts. Thus if an old Historia Judaica is missing on your bookshelf, again you will find it here.

Dining & Nightlife

The starting point for your excursion of Krakow’s nightlife may well be Rynek Glowny, the market square. Many of the surrounding houses host very old restaurants.

The most famous one, Wierzynek, 5 Rynek Glowny, was already feeding visiting aristocrats back in the 14th century. I have twice had a business dinner here, and it was good, but not so good as to justify the high prices, which equal those in the City of London. If you want to try it anyway, the grilled wild boar would be my recommended speciality.

The best choices for original Krakow food and nightlife are, however, to be found on Uliza Florianska, the street which links the market square with Brama Florianska, the Florian Gate. Here you will find the traditional cellar bars, almost all of which are a great experience.

These bars are called Kneipe, a German word which has remained from the times of the Austrian occupation in the 19th century, when the previously empty cellars were turned into cafés, restaurants and bars, and much of today’s Krakow lifestyle took shape.

The original Galician food can best be enjoyed in the Kneipe cellars, at very low prices. Many of them have separate restaurants. The food consists mainly of heavy meat dishes, served with all kinds of cabbage. Whereas during the summer months you will get fresh cabbage in all variations, the winter side dish is pickled cabbage, again with many different variations and tastes.

These pubs resemble very much the traditional student clubs in Austria and southern Germany, where they are linked to the history of the Student Corps, the old duelling fraternities. In Krakow, too, students from Krakow University (the Oxbridge of Poland) populate these pubs, but without the old-fashioned dustiness of the Austro-German fraternities. Instead, here you will find all kinds of lifestyles and faculties, all featuring their own bands.

Live music is offered on weekends, including everything from the charts to alternative Polish rock, and jazz. There isn’t much of a night-club scene in Krakow because that’s mostly covered by the pubs.

I have to blame myself for having missed out so far on what must be one of the greatest dining experiences in Krakow – the kind of kosher Jewish cuisine which is offered by Alef and Ariel restaurants, 17 & 18 Ul. Szeroka, at the centre of Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter. The stuffed carp must be fantastic, from what I hear. Definitely top of my list for my next visit.

Hotels

Only three international hotel chains have opened up operations in Krakow so far: Sofitel, Ibis, and Holiday Inn.

Sofitel Forum Hotel ****

28 Ul. Marii Konopnickiej, 30-302 Krakow

Before the arrival of HI, the Sofitel Forum was the only international business hotel in Krakow. Sofitel in 2001 acquired many of the former Inter-Continental and Forum Hotels in Eastern Europe, including this one. Rated at four stars, which I think is unjustified, the rooms in the Forum are still quite old-fashioned and have something of the atmosphere of ex-Soviet Intourist Hotels. But most rooms offer a nice view across the Vistula river to Wawel Castle, and the service is very friendly and attentive, as everywhere in Krakow. The Forum is situated on the opposite side of the river, a fifteen-minute drive away from the city centre. Prices start at around £70 (€100) per room per night, including breakfast.

Ibis Hotel **

Ul. Przy Rondzie 2, 31-547 Krakow

A more sensible choice for tourists may be the two-star Ibis Hotel. At prices from £35 (€50) per room per night including breakfast, it offers a more modern ambience in a very central location, not far from the old town and the train station. The rooms are tiny though, and scantily equipped (not even a mini bar). But you will find the typical reliable Ibis service which is standardised Europe-wide.

Holiday Inn ****

4 Ul. Wielopole, 31072 Krakow

The Holiday Inn Krakow only just opened in 2001 in the old town, a short walk from the central market square. I have not yet had a chance to test it, but judging from the performance of the Warsaw Holiday Inn which I know very well, I assume that this will do a good job for business travellers – at prices starting at around £85 (€125) per room per night, it had better.

Personally I wouldn’t bother any more about reserving one of these hotels in advance. I have had to do so when travelling on business, but as a tourist you may well find yourself a nice small hotel near the city centre. Krakow is full of privately run B&Bs, inns and hotels at prices of £30 and below per room per night. These can probably provide for a far more personal service in original Polish surroundings.

Getting there & around

By air

From abroad, Krakow can best be reached by air. The winter 2001/2002 timetable for John Paul II – Krakow Balice Airport (KRK) covers the following destinations:

Chicago (LOT Polish Airlines), Frankfurt (LOT), London Gatwick (LOT/BA), Paris Charles de Gaulle (LOT/AF), Rome Fiumicino (LOT/Alitalia), Tel Aviv (LOT/El Al), Vienna (Austrian/Tyrolean), Warsaw (LOT), and Zurich (Crossair).

For details visit the airport website at http://www.lotnisko-balice.pl/ang/index.html For the best in connections and service, I personally recommend the Austrian Airlines flight via Vienna.

The global downturn in air travel after 11 September has also left its mark on Krakow. SAS no longer serves Krakow from Copenhagen, flights to New York, Toronto and Gdansk have been cancelled completely, and Tel Aviv has been reduced from a daily to a weekly service.

Krakow Airport is quite far outside the city, and you should allow around 45 minutes for airport transfer by car, taxi or bus. The taxi fare is around 40 zloty (£7 or €10).

By train

If you are already in Poland, then I would recommend the train from Warsaw. It takes less than 3 hours centre-to-centre (faster than the plane if you take airport transfer into account) and is reasonably priced at around 60 zloty (£10 or €15) return. Treat yourself to a First Class ticket, which comes with much better seats, is far less crowded, and includes a light sandwich meal with coffee or tea. First Class return tickets Warsaw-Krakow come at around 100 zloty (£17 or €25).

The Polish Intercity and Express trains are the same quality as most British trains today, i.e. the standard of other Western European railways around fifteen years ago. That’s the interior. When it comes to punctuality and service, Polish railways are much better than the British. Sad, but true.

Public Transport

Once in Krakow, you can easily get around by bus and tram. The public transport network is very extensive – however, the trams and buses are quite old-fashioned. At 2 zloty per ride, commuting in Krakow is a real bargain. Taxis are also rather cheap, around one-third the price in the UK.

If you are interested, please read further through my other articles on Krakow. Enjoy your trip.

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