A Christmas Krakow
I like the idea of this becoming an Easter Sunday tradition: finally getting around to telling you what we did last Christmas. It worked well enough when I wrote about our Christmas 2008 Prague visit in Easter 2009, so let's try it with another Eastern European city for Easter Sunday 2017.
I've written elsewhere about most of the places we visited in Christmas 2016 - kicking off in Berlin, followed by two separate visits to Warsaw, and with very quick stopoffs in Cologne and Brussels on the way home. But here, finally, is the missing bit in the middle: the few days of proper Christmas that we spent in Krakow in between our two stays in Warsaw.
No BrewDog bars this time, I'm afraid. Quite a few other bars, though.
Once we're checked in, the rest of the evening is free. We take the short stroll into the old town, have a quick look at yet another Christmas market, and then head to the first one of the Krakow craft beer bars on our list. (Once again, the local guide Krakow In Your Pocket has been a huge help in compiling that list.) Viva La Pinta is the tap bar owned by the Pinta brewery, whose beer we’ve already encountered in Warsaw. Over to The BBG for a quick review: "I'm always keen to try local cuisine where possible. Poland isn't that great for a non-meat eater (although some of the perogi are veggie). But in Krakow, one particularly local speciality is the zapiekanka. Although more traditionally eaten from a vendor on the street, we took the opportunity to have one at Viva La Pinta. It's not exactly sophisticated - a half-baguette smothered in toppings, like a pizza - but it certainly helps soak up beers, particularly when served with a side order of chips or sauteed potatoes." For those of you keeping score of those beers - and we reckon we managed over fifty different ones during the whole of the holiday - we go for Modern Drinking and Atak Chmielu (literally ‘Hop Attack’).
Christmas Eve breakfast in the Black Duck, the restaurant attached to Hotel Wawel, is a fairly standard buffet but welcome with it. We can’t hang around there for too long, as today is the day that Christmas really begins – things will start shutting down round about lunchtime and stay that way until December 26th. So we take a walk around the town square, and then pay a visit to the Underground Museum before it closes for the holidays. Located under the Cloth Hall, it’s an enjoyable multimedia ramble through the history of the city, showing off its various archeological layers to good effect. It culminates in a series of rooms showing a collection of short films neatly summarizing the history of Krakow up to more or less the present day, which impresses me so much that I end up buying the DVD from the gift shop.
We’re back out at street level just before 2pm, in time to witness one of Krakow’s most famous traditions, the Hejnal bugle call (sometimes referred to as ‘hey now’ by Larry Sanders fans). Once an hour, a local fireman climbs the tower of Basilica Santa Maria and recreates the historical moment where a city bugler was interrupted partway through his invasion warning signal by an arrow in the throat – which is why the tune stops abruptly in mid-phrase. Krakow’s winding down at this point, so we grab lunch where we can find it: a few traditional perogi dumplings from the Christmas market, and a mug of fancy hot chocolate from the Pijalnia Czekolady E.Wedel shop on the square. As the city shuts down bit by bit, we make our own entertainment by taking a tram down as far as the river and walking back to the hotel via Wawel Royal Castle.
Our main plan for the evening has already been pre-booked: the locals will be at home having a twelve-course banquet to celebrate Christmas Eve, and we’re doing just the same at the Olive restaurant in the Sheraton Hotel (although quite a few families who don’t like cooking are doing the same thing with us). Here's The BBG again: "Another thing I've always been keen on food-wise is when the traditional Christmas dinner is one based on fish, rather than meat (see also Prague). In the case of the Polish Christmas dinner, eaten on Christmas Eve, it traditionally consists of twelve courses, none of which include any meat. The version served at the Olive - pike perch fillet, Baltic herring, clear beetroot soup, mushroom soup, salmon fillet Kulebiak, cabbage and mushroom pierogi, white cabbage and mushroom croquette, grilled trout fillet, gingerbread, kutia (basically special Christmas muesli), dry fruit compote and Christmas cookies - substituted the traditional carp with other fish, but it was terrific, all the same." The only bit of the meal that really confuses us is the fruit compote, which is a lot more liquid than we’d expected. We waddle back to the hotel and slump in front of the TV showing Four Weddings And A Funeral with a lone Polish narrator translating all the dialogue, which makes for hilarity as the first five minutes just involves him emotionlessly repeating the word ‘pierdolić’.
And then it's Christmas Day. There’s a reasonable number of people out and about in town by 1pm, and we join them in looking around the cribs in St Francis Church before heading outside for the local tradition of the live nativity show. Basically, it’s a nativity scene performed with real people and animals, with kids lining up to meet the Holy Family like they would for Santa. After that, we go back to the castle and take another leisurely stroll around its walls. We warm up afterwards in the nearby Café Ole for coffee and cake, and then pay a return to the live nativity, which is much wetter and muddier by now but still popular.
We head back to the hotel for a bit, and then off to our scheduled evening meal at the Hotel Legend (magnificently, it appears to be owned by a guy called Jacek Legendziewicz). Eating on Christmas night is always an awkward affair, so we chose this as it was one of the few places which would allow us to book. It ends up being a fairly functional buffet of hot and cold dishes, but it does the job. At a bit of a loose end afterwards, we head back to the market on the assumption that we may be able to drink some hot wine on the street. But instead, we come across a genuine surprise – a craft beer bar that’s open to the public on Christmas night, albeit with a very small amount of the public inside. Tap House is the brewery bar owned by Pracownia Piwa, and we get to try three of their own beers (Puszka Pandory, Hadra, Black Wind) plus one from Podgorz (Cud Malina). It’s fairly quiet, but the novelty of being in a bar at all on Christmas night is fun enough.
On Boxing Day, we have our earliest start to date (breakfast at around 9.30am) so that we can get the tram out to the Jewish quarter - specifically for the Oskar Schindler factory, which closes early on Mondays (but has free entry that day, so yay). The exhibition inside is painstakingly detailed, looking at life for Poles in general and Jews in particular during the German occupation of Krakow. Schindler's involvement - the bit we all know from the film - is effectively relegated to a sidebar, covered by a half hour film of interviews and a couple of his old office rooms dedicated to a retelling of his story. A lot of thought's been put into the presentation, using artistic devices to delineate the various exhibits: changes in lighting, typefaces, even floor textures. There are even a couple of pieces of installation art which fit perfectly into the structure. As The BBG says, it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience, but it’s excellently done. Just be aware that they stop selling tickets 90 minutes before closing time, which came as a surprise to some people arriving around 12.35 on early closing day.
We have a quick lunch next door at the café in modern art museum MOKAK (local pretzels with cheese), then 75 mins rushing around MOKAK itself. There are two major exhibits – a fun collection of the work of conceptual artist Jaroslaw Kozlowski who worked in the communist era, when even a simple bit of mail art prankery could get you nailed by the authorities: and collage artist Daniel Spoerri, who specialises in tabletop views hung vertically. Downstairs, there's loads more to see, including the apartment set of a play about Andy Warhol, and a room full of sea-related digital art. It’s easy to miss some of the smaller details, like a general collection of pieces held in a room with 'kunst macht frei' written in fairy lights over the entrance.
We walk from there to Kazimierz, only to find that on a cold wet Boxing Day evening it's not much different from anywhere else in town. We were toying with visiting the Jewish museum there, but feel a bit museumed out after everything else today. Instead, we start off with beer at Strefa Piwa, looking incredibly quiet as it’s only just opened for the day, and have a slightly disappointing time with an overpriced imported Golden Gate Gose and a less expensive local weizen. That’s followed by an excellent dinner at Hamsa. Another review from The BBG: "The events of WWII mean that Kazimierz isn't really so much of a Jewish quarter these days, but there are a few pockets, and it was good to eat at modern Israeli hummus restaurant Hamsa. The hummus was excellent, as was the muhammara pepper dip, large bowls of both served with warm, fresh pitta bread. Spank's beef kebab was interestingly spiced, and my stuffed gilthead bream was huge and delicious." The mulled beers they serve us on entry are also welcome after a couple of hours of wandering around in the cold.
The rest of the night sees us wandering back into the main part of town to track down two more bars and keep that local drinking thing going. House Of Beer seems almost too generic a name to be any good, but it’s got a lively pub-type feel and enjoyable beers like Space Sheep and Roo Ride. Meanwhile, hiding above some shops on one of the main streets is Multi Qlti Tap Bar, an altogether edgier proposition with graffiti art on the walls and beers with names like Fuck, The Xmas Tree Is On Fire!!! That one’s a 10% stout made more gluggable by a nice citrus edge, so obviously we have one of those, paired against the less offensively-named Porter Baltycki Wedzony. At least, we assume it’s less offensively-named.
The day after Boxing Day is where we have to wrap up in Krakow. We check out of Hotel Wawel to discover that the weather’s taken a turn for the worse - rain, occasionally turning into snow. We pop into the Cloth Hall and view its 19th century Polish art collection, watching Poland as a nation take painting far too seriously until almost the end of the century. Downstairs in Café Noworolski – a former favourite of Lenin, apparently - they overcharge The BBG for an apple pie, which makes her want to enforce full communism as much as it did him. We wrap up our visit with a quick pop over the road to Basilica Santa Maria, and pay the ten zloty to look at the admittedly stunning altar (plus another five to take pictures of it). Then it’s a tram back to the station, and a train back to Warsaw, and you know how it goes from there.
I still think Warsaw gets a raw deal from tourists these days, but you can see why Krakow is so popular, even if they don't have a BrewDog bar. Although, ironically, I'm writing these words on Easter Sunday using the wifi of another BrewDog bar. But that's a story for another time. (Given the way things get delayed around here, probably that time will be Christmas 2017.)