Krakow is such a beautiful city. The architecture in the old town is intricate and lovely with lots of gorgeous details that are so lacking in modern buildings. The old town is surrounded by walls and inside are lots of meandering narrow streets full of quirky buildings, the beautiful Wawel Castle overlooking the river, and a fabulous main square with an indoor/outdoor market selling amber jewellery and lovely wooden boxes and sculptures and loads of other bits and bobs.
We first went to Krakow in January 2010 for S's 40th birthday and, on that trip, we visited Auschwitz which was a truly humbling experience and one that I believe everyone should make in their lifetime, if only to put their own superficial worries into perspective. I don't think I'll ever forget the rooms with the suitcases and belongings of so many holocaust victims so we didn't feel we needed to go back there a second time.
We went back to Zgody Square which is full of statues of large chairs. This is where all the Jewish families were forced out of their homes with whatever worldly possessions and furniture they could carry, hence the chair memorial.
So this time we decided to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines which are about 30 minutes drive away from Krakow city. These mines were created in the 13th century and they only stopped mining there in 1996 although they continued to produce table salt until 2007. We walked down 800 steps stopping at three different levels, the deepest of which was 135 metres under the ground. We saw 20 different chambers over about 2.5kms and, to put into perspetive how big the mines are, that was only a fraction as there are over 2000 manmade chambers down there! Nowadays they have a special air regulation system which keeps the mines at a steady temperature of 15 degrees which was weird as it was -15 above ground that day! Thankfully S had read the blurb on this before we went so we left the thermal undies off for that trip as it was pretty warm all that way underground!
A lot of the miners were religious so many of the chambers and carvings were of saints and biblical scenes. The fact that they were carved out of salt by the miners themselves is pretty awesome. The only part I didn't like was the fact that horses were used to turn much of the heavy mining equipment and because it was so difficult to get them down there in the first place they actually brought them down as foals and the poor creatures spent their whole lives underground never once coming up for daylight.
|Actual salt on top of the wooden supports in the mine (yes I licked my finger and dabbed at it for a taste!)|
Whilst we didn't have to climb 800 steps to get back to the surface I wasn't that relieved to hear we'd be taking a lift instead. A tiny little thing which 9 of us had to squeeze into (I made a point of hanging back so we could squeeze in last and be beside the door although it turned out that wasn't the door that opened to let us out) and the lift itself was a sort of cage with tiny little holes to look out of. There were a stack of 3 lifts so ours had to travel up beyond the point of exit to let both the lifts below our disembark first while we hovered above in the darkness before coming back down and being disgorged (awkqardly as the door opened inwards) into the relief of the fresh air.
As S will tell you, I am extremely claustrophobic but not because of enclosed spaces as such (being over 100 metres underground didn't phase me as the chambers and passages were wide and airy). It's people stealing my air and my space that freaks me out which is why I have to have an aisle seat on the plane (so poor S always gets stuck in the middle seat) and why I rushed S through the souvenir shop at the end of the trip to get back to the minibus first so we could get the same seats closest to the sliding door and not end up at the back of the bus with lots of other people hemming me in. My dad and sister are exactly the same so if ever we went on a family trip we'd all be sitting in aisle seats!
I have to say a massive thanks to S. He isn't a vegan. He isn't even a vegetarian. But, he plotted out all the veg-friendly restaurants and cafes that Happy Cow Guide advised were in Krakow. All 6 of them (count 'em Belfast, you have a long way to go!)
We went to all of them over the course of our trip. The Green Way was my favourite - their mexican tofu stew was out of this world and we went there three times for lunch during our 5 day stay and even S said how amazing the food was. Also incredibly cheap, as they all were, a massive plate of food and a drink came to approximately £3.50!! You couldn't even buy a sandwich for that in most eateries in Britain or Ireland.
I loved Cafe Mlynek for its quirky design - our table was an old sewing table and there were old antique relics dotted all over the place. They also offered to 'veganise' any meal that had egg or dairy in it.
|Me trying and failing to be all arty with my herbal tea!! |
(That's a fur coat hanging on the coat stand btw - in a veggie restaurant!!)
After lunch in Cafe Mlynek one day, we went straight on to Momo purely because they were both in Kaziemierz (the old Jewish ghetto area) and we wouldn't be back that way again. Momo was a real hippie hangout. Basic and simple but they did vegan cake! I had the chocolate and S had the apple pie (which I ate half of - so much for the healthy vegan diet!!) While we were there we met this adorable little dog who came over to our table and, completely unbidden, sat up on her hind legs and begged! So adorable (and I'm guessing other folk didn't mind as it was, after all, a vegetarian, pet-friendly establishment.
We went to Vega for dinner one evening - this time I had vegan goulash while S had a typical Polish dish of Pierogies - stuffed dumplings.
Cafe Karma was an organic coffee house which also offered vegan cake - we went there for soy lattes and banana cake one evening - lovely!
Finally, we went to Glonojad - this is the name of a type of fish that eats algae in case you wondered why there was a picture of a fish on a veggie restaurant sign!! It was lovely there too. We didn't have a bad meal the whole time we were in Krakow.
The only thing I couldn't quite get my head around was the people (usually ladies of a certain age) who came into the veggie restaurants wearing real fur coats. They were everywhere in Krakow maybe the different culture or generation means that the ethics and cruelty involved doesn't register with older women for whom fur is both functional in such a cold climate and also for whom it perhaps still has that misguided appearance of wealth. Even S couldn't believe how prevalent it was. But to wear fur while abstaining from eating meat just seemed beyond strange to me.
Water off a duck's back
The temperature was between -9 and -19 while we were there and we were very glad we'd packed the thermal undies, I can tell you. The river was frozen over with only a small area left unfrozen and this is where all the swans, ducks, seagulls and other birdy wildlife congregated in a great noisy, feathery, mass of feathers and beaks by the banks while kind folk came along with bags of bread. I think it was what they call a feeding frenzy!
Back at the main square there were stone seats all around the square and at two of them there were vents that hot air blew out of. All the poor pigeons were huddled round these vents trying to keep warm.
Photography and frost bite
Because it was so cold and despite, I might add, the expensive 'wind proof' gloves that S bought me before we went, I was only able to use my camera for a couple of minutes at a time (with my gloves on) before my fingers felt like they were going to fall off! The cold also drained the batteries in a similarly brief length of time so I constantly had to change them and warm them back up in my pocket to use them again later.
This made it very difficult to mess about with the settings to try to get the professional shots we'd been shown at the photography workshop. Mind you, even indoors I still couldn't manage to get the wonderfully artistic compositions that I had in my mind to make the leap to my camera. So, for the most part I stayed on auto point and press after all.
S however is made of sterner stuff; his fingers managed to rebuff the cold for longer and he obviously paid more attention in photo class as he knew what settings to use and got some really fabulous shots, some of which I have borrowed for illustrative purposes and have credited him for so you can see how much better his photos were than mine!
We came across a bridge with hundreds of padlocks attached to it. I'd heard of this before - they're called 'love locks' and couple inscribe them with their names and lock them to the bridge and throw away the key. Apparently it's been happening on bridges all over Europe since about 2000. Would you believe the best photo I managed to take all trip was of these padlocks and a snowball!!
There's a restaurant/bar in the main square called Sioux. We spent a lot of time there on our first trip and nearly as much time there on this trip, I even had their veggie fajitas twice. The main reason for our frequent visits this time though was for their hot mulled wine. S asked them how to say it in Polish (it's Grzani) and the closest approximation we could get was Johnny Wine and so, that's what it became known as.
It's probably a gazillion calories a mug because it was so sweet but it was the perfect thing for warming us up from the inside out and thawing our frozen fingers cupped round the gorgeous wee clay mugs they were served in.
In fact, we loved the wee clay mugs so much that, after searching every shop for them to no avail, we asked our waitress if we could buy some from them - we ended up with four!
Thursday was my birthday and the day we flew home. We had a last breakfast (which was really quite good if you eat meat and eggs). However I was really glad I brought my vegan margarine with me although I'm not sure what the folk at other tables thought as I lifted it out of my bag along with my fruit tea bags and vegan parmesan sprinkles every morning!
It snowed a lot that last day so we went out into the square for some final photos before being super efficient and allowing lots of time to get to the airport. We were there 50 minutes before the check in desk opened. Then when it opened the cold kept making the conveyor belt break down. We then had to get on a bus to travel to the plane even though it was close enough to the terminal to hit with a snowball!
Once on, the doors were left wide open while they refuelled. Bear in mind it was -16 outside so we all sat chittering and shaking with our hats, coats, scarves and gloves still on. Then they discovered that the mechanism to lock the back door for take off had frozen so they turned the heating on full blast and got a blow heater directed at the door to thaw it out!! After an hour of being first freeze-dried and then parboiled on the runway they finally got it sorted and we were able to take off.
So that was our second trip to Krakow and it was every bit as lovely as the first time we were there. We both agreed that somehow the cold weather adds to the wonder of it. That's not to say it wouldn't still be a lovely city in the summer but there's something a little bit magical about Krakow in the snow.