Ph$ Krakow 101: Food and Architecture
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Krakow 101: Food and Architecture

One of the best ways to discover a country is through its cuisine. As a lover of good food, I planned to take this approach when I paid my first visit to the glorious city of Krakow in Poland. With only two and one-half days to spend in town, my husband Tom and I set out to sample local culinary items, while giving ourselves a crash course in Krakovian history and architecture.

Arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, we left our hotel to find the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which has an art nouveau façade. We also wanted to explore the campus of Jagiellonian University on the western edge of the Old Town. We found the church beautifully lit by the afternoon sun, which accentuated the contrast between the red brick and pale limestone (features that we learned are a hallmark of Krakowian architecture). The art nouveau component of the façade was evident in the fine tracings on the stepped gable. While not of the same flamboyant style of art nouveau that one finds in cities such as Paris, Nancy, and Brussels, we found it to be appealing.

We then walked the short stretch of road to reach the university. Its name derives from King Władysław Jagiełło, who founded the University of Krakow in 1400. Jagiełło purchased the building that houses the current university’s Collegium Maius during that same year. We strolled past the entrance to the courtyard of this building, but felt compelled to return to view its elegant, 15th century architecture. We briefly explored the courtyard, and then found our way back to the edge of campus, where remnants of the old town wall traverse a long, narrow stretch of greenery called the Planty.

We ducked inside the baroque church St. Anny’s to admire its splendid interior, and then could no longer keep our hunger pangs at bay. So we stopped at one of the myriad obwarzanak stands in the Old Town to taste this Polish specialty. It is round, somewhat larger than a bagel, and sprinkled unevenly with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or even melted cheese morsels. We purchased a sesame seed obwarzanek, and a sesame seed pretzel for comparison. The pretzel was a bit dry (perhaps a reflection of it being the end of the day), but the dough was slightly and pleasantly sweet. In contrast, the obwarzanek was fresh and chewy. Both satisfied the rumblings in our stomachs so that we could carry on until dinnertime.

For our first evening meal, we selected a traditional Jewish restaurant called Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu. (Long Ago in Kazimierz). Kazimierz became the Jewish quarter of Krakow in approximately 1494, and remained so until the Nazis forcibly relocated the Jews across the Wisła River to Podgórze in 1941. For many centuries, Poles and Jews lived together in relative harmony in this district, and the restaurant’s theme recalls that time by recreating the atmosphere of artisan shops of yesteryear. We enjoyed our entrees of duck with cranberry sauce and knuckle of lamb, but were more enamored of the ambiance created there.

Our favorite part of the meal was the beverages. Poland is one of the few countries that still produces mead, and depending on the degree of dilution with water, this concoction can serve as an accompaniment for a meal. I selected a miód dwójniak (prepared from a one-to-one dilution of honey and water), and found it to be just sweet enough to provide a good compliment to the cranberry sauce for my duck. As for the vodka, neither Tom nor I is particularly fond of this alcoholic beverage. But Poland is known for producing over 300 varieties of vodkas, many of which are flavored, and we decided to try some of these in the spirit of epicurean adventure. That evening, we tried plum-flavored śliwowica (very strong) and cherry-flavored wiśniówka (very sweet). We sipped these drinks slowly (it is not necessary to down the shot in one gulp), and actually enjoyed them!

On Thursday morning, I set out alone to see “Schindler’s Krakow” (including the Podgórze ghetto, Oskar Schindler’s factory, and the abandoned Liban quarry). Liban quarry was transformed by the Nazis into a penal camp for Polish citizens. Steven Spielberg used it to recreate the Płaszów concentration camp for Jews for the movie Schindler’s List, not wanting to use the true site of Płaszów, which is not far away. Ruins of the movie set still exist there, including the fabricated drive made of Jewish tombstones. After braving the steep climb required to see the quarry, I decided to reward myself with a break at the Café Rękawka. It is touted as being THE café south of the Wisła River.

Krakow has a café culture that rivals those of Vienna and Paris. Tom and I planned to visit as many cafés as we could on this trip, and the Rękawka was an excellent beginning for me. I ordered a slice of carrot cake and a cup of lemongrass-scented green tea, and found both to be quite satisfying. The friendly service in a town that is rumored not to care about customer satisfaction was an added bonus. (In fact, we had no problems with service at any restaurant or café during our stay.) The cozy, smoke-free atmosphere, the modest prices, and the quality of the food made for a delightful pause in my busy day.

Leaving Café Rękawka, I headed toward Kazimierz to wander through the neighborhood where we had dined the night before. I made my way to ul. Jozefa (Jozefa Street), where I happened to walk by a corner café called Cheder. The entrance is on ul. Jakuba, while the façade on ul. Jozefa lies next to the Synagogue Wysoka, or High Synagogue. Serving as a Jewish cultural center, the smoke-free Cheder Café hosts lectures, screenings, and other events. It boasts an in-house library of Judeo-centric books, many of which are in English.

I finished my trek through Kazimierz and headed for the Old Town, where I met Tom for lunch. We selected the café Jama Michalika, lying just south of the medieval Floriańska gate, because we had read of its marvelous art nouveau decor and delicious Polish cuisine. Neither disappointed us. In a high-ceilinged room heavily accentuated by stained glass, we began with an appetizer of traditional Polish soups – żur (a hot and sour soup with sausage and poached egg) for Tom, and beetroot soup for me. This was followed by a large plate of pierogis, dumplings stuffed with ground meat or potatoes, and sprinkled with morsels of meat. A slice of orange, tomato, and cucumber, and sprigs of dill were served alongside. We forewent wine as an accompaniment and skipped dessert so that we could indulge in flavored vodkas without compromising our ability to continue sightseeing after the meal.

We selected żołądkowa gorzka – which contains orange, cinnamon, wormwood and other flavors – and żubrówka, or bison vodka. Zubrówka is made from an infusion of a special grass grown in the Białowieska Forest located on the border between Poland and Belarus, where a type of bison called wisent roam freely. While the thought of orange and cinnamon in vodka was not threatening, we were less sure about drinking a beverage infused with grass that had been fertilized by bison. Yet we were pleasantly surprised by the herbal flavor of this vodka, enhanced by a hint of vanilla. After carefully sipping our drinks, we left Jama Michalika fortified and ready to resume our exploration of the Old Town.

We visited the Barbikan fortification outside Floriańska gate, then went in search of a café that we thought might sell fresh-roasted coffee beans (as does Café Rewawka). We did not find one, but did see a woman on the street selling a locally-produced, sheep’s milk cheese called oscypek. Though we had read about this lozenge-shaped, highland cheese, we did not recognize it as such until we had walked well past the vendor. Fortunately, we would have the opportunity to sample some later that evening.

We found and photographed two art nouveau buildings, the Stary Teatr (Old Theater) and the Palac Sztuki (Sztuki Palace). The theater was the most striking example of art nouveau architecture that we had found thus far, and yet it still did not compare to the works that we are accustomed to in France and Belgium. Regarding the palace, we could only see evidence of art nouveau in its front doors, which were made of stained glass. We then explored the Sukiennese market at Rynek Glówny, listened to the hourly bugle performance at the Mariacki Cathedral, and enjoyed excellent hot chocolate at the Rynek Glówny café Pijalnie Czekolady.

We returned to the hotel, knowing that we would not be able to eat dinner that evening because we had indulged in so much food during the day. But we wanted to visit a Polish restaurant called Folwark that had been recommended to us, and decided to go there to have flavored vodkas to cap our evening. Our waitress graciously welcomed us and showed us the drink menu. Among the short list of bar snacks was the local cheese oscypek, which we gladly ordered. Served melted on toast rounds, it was delectable! Following the cheese, we ordered our vodkas. I chose a walnut-flavored vodka called orzechówka, while Tom selected the Rowan-berry-flavored jarbęziak. Once again, we were pleasantly surprised by the richness of the flavors in these spirits.

On Friday, I visited the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, while Tom visited the castle and royal acropolis on Wawel Hill. That evening, we visited the salt mine at Wieliczka, where we got our last taste of Polish culture. The mine is important for local history because rock salt was a major source of income for the area in medieval times. Its most amazing feature is its underground cathedral, carved entirely from salt, which features a trompe l’oeil reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper carved on one of the walls. A giant salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II is also found there.

We attended a gala dinner party in a vast underground chamber at the mine, and were surprised to learn, after being served a substantial three-course meal, that we were expected to partake of a buffet spread that was made available immediately afterward! This, we learned, was another Polish culinary tradition.

On our way back to the hotel, we spotted our first (and only) kielbasa stand. It was near midnight, and as we stepped off the chartered bus that transported us from the mines, we detected the unmistakable scent of grilled sausage in the air. As we walked down ul. Grzegorzecka near the Hala Targowa marketplace, we saw that a line of men had formed next to a van, where a man was busily turning spits of four to five sausages over an open fire. Though the aroma was enticing, we were too satiated from the dinner at the salt mine to even consider purchasing kielbasa.

We left Krakow at dawn on Saturday morning, marveling at all that this jewel of a city has to offer the body, mind, and spirit.

If you go:

Café Rękawka

ul. Brodzińskiego 4B

tel: 012 296 20 02

Café Jama Michalika

ul. Floriańska 45

tel: 012 422 15 61

Stary Teatr

ul. Jagiellońska 1 (corner of Plac Szczepański)

tel: 012 422 85 66

Folwark

ul. Sw. Krzyża 13

tel: 012 433 97 85

Wieliczka Salt Mine

ul. Daniłowicza 10

32-020 Wieliczka

tel : 012 278 73 02 or 012 278 73 66



Monique Y. Wells’ travel essays have been published in the anthologies Paris Insights – An Anthology by Tom Reeves, and France, A Love Story, edited by Camille Cusumano. Newspapers and magazines such as the International Herald Tribune, L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle, France Today and France Guide have also published her writings.


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