My love for Poland, its food and history go back several years. I read Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel where one of the titular characters (Abel Rosnovski) is from Poland and have been fascinated ever since. Back in 2011, when I was a writer at a magazine in Hampstead, the only decent spot for lunch was a family run Polish cafe. Taking a break from the usual sandwiches, I decided to try the pierogis here and instantly fell in love. Pierogis are steamed, pillowy dumplings that are popular in Poland and Eastern Europe. Typical fillings for the savoury version are potato, sauerkraut, cheese, ground meat and mushroom. There is a fruit filling for the sweet version. The dumplings are served with a topping, such as butter, sour cream or fried onions. I also knew back then when I first tried these pierogis and experienced the hospitality of the staff that visiting Poland would be one of my most rewarding trips and it certainly was.
Every year in January, I have a tendency to book my holidays for the entire year during this month when everyone else is recovering from the Christmas break. I ordinarily have a quiet Christmas as I see my family over the summer and this is why I am able to save up a little for my trips. It's a sort of here's to new beginnings feeling, something to look forward to in the year ahead, no matter how it pans out. British Airways was offering flights for £65 to visit Krakow for a weekend. Naturally, I was very excited to book this right away, but the tickets were for early February which is not ideal weather to visit Poland but then again, I love travelling in the off-peak seasons as there's shorter queues, fewer people and better deals on hotels. I went ahead and booked my three day weekend trip.
My flight landed late on a Friday night, at 11pm and I had arranged a taxi to pick me up from my hotel beforehand. I met my taxi driver Miko at the empty, ghostly airport. He was perfectly amiable, however, as he led me to the taxi rank, the atmosphere outside the airport felt very eerie. It was a cold, clear night and the light from the waxing gibbous moon on the snowy empty streets felt very other-worldly. What snapped me back to reality was when Miko handed me some local (liqueur soaked cherry) chocolates (a welcoming gesture) before we headed to our hotel. To top it all, he played some jazz music to make the creepy, tall tree-lined roads appear less intimidating.
I booked my two night stay at the Hotel Grodek in Krakow's charming Old Town and as we approached the hotel, I caught a sight of the lit up Wawel Castle, standing proudly atop the Royal Hill. Miko bragged about its grandeur and double checked that it was on my list of places to visit in my short trip. As he handed my luggage when we reached the hotel, he said that the city would make me laugh and cry. I was puzzled by this remark and he said he'd return to drop me back to the airport at the end of my trip and that I would be able to relate to what he meant.
My itinerary was simple - Wawel Castle, Old Town tour, Schindler's Factory, Auschwitz and then wander on my own to have my fill of pierogis and some local vodka here. After a gorgeous breakfast with local cheese such as oscypek, twaróg and traditional sourdough rye bread known as Chleb Zwykly na Zakwasie, I headed out and walked along the slippery, snowy paths of the city to explore Wawel Castle. The exteriors and interiors of this castle are absolutely enchanting and boasts impressive views over the Vistula River. To my luck, there were very few people around, so I had plenty of time to admire the Gothic-Renaissance vaults, frescoes and their National Art Collection.
After a quick stop for a coffee, I walked in the light rain (I live in London, so the rain doesn't really phase me anymore) to the charming parts of the cobbled stoned Old Town. I had the main square to myself, which again, was a breath of fresh air than having to battle selfie sticks in the summer. In the central square, the elongated medieval Sukiennice Cloth Hall is a reminder of Kraków’s historical place as a hub of trade and commerce in Eastern Europe. Today, there are stalls of local tradesmen selling handicrafts and cloth products that echo the oriental imports that were once toted under its roof.
I noticed the difference in height of the two towers of St Mary’s Church in the square. I asked a local tour guide (who had just completed a tour) for a quick explanation behind the different heights of the towers and he kindly narrated the gory legend behind this. Under the reign of Duke Boleslaus, a decision was made to add two towers to the body of the church standing by the main market square. Two brothers embarked on the task. When the younger realised that his tower was much shorter, he murdered his brother out of envy, and the construction stopped. However, the murderer was filled with remorse and on the day that the church was to be consecrated, he stabbed himself with the same knife that he used to kill his brother, and dropped dead from the top of his tower to the ground below. Once again, I was left feeling eerie after this tale, still looking at the two towers and the tour guide sensing this, recommended that I try some local vodka before heading to the last leg of the activities for the day - Schindler's Factory.
I decided to have some local pierogis instead and walked past an unnamed cafe that had a drawing of pierogi on a board. This appeared to be an 18th century quaint house that was converted to an eatery. There was no menu, only a blackboard with about three options for pierogi. This was the ideal, no-frills local place right up my alley. There was a friendly woman and her grandmother who talked about Polish food and said how much they would love to try authentic Indian food someday. I also couldn't help but admire the various old family photos on the walls which added such a personal touch. I had the potato and mushroom pierogis and they were absolutely delicious. Given my love for these dumplings, the plate of about ten pierogis garnished with chives and sour cream felt like a hug on a plate.
After my lunch, I was ready to take in everything Schindler's Factory had to offer and was keen on walking through an integral part of war history. The factory tells the gripping history of Krakow during World War II – the Holocaust, the inhabitants who were fed Nazi propaganda, the Jews who were forced to live in a ghetto and all the victims of the war terror. The factory managed to capture many levels of difficulties that people had to deal with at that horrifying time. After a stroll through the Jewish quarter, I knew I had to be stronger and come to terms with what to expect the next day on my trip to Auschwitz.
It felt inappropriate to venture into town for a drink that night, but the receptionist Agnieska at my hotel said that I need to stay in the present and take the best of what Krakow had to offer and this meant embracing the old and the new. She recommended a fantastic family run bar nearby specialising in local vodka. Now, I'm not a vodka person at all, but I also believe in trying the local tipple. I had tried the Palinka in Budapest, Pilsner in Prague and the Killepitsch in Dusseldorf, so off I went to the small, yet airy, modern Wodka Bar (Vodka is spelled Wodka in Polish). The bartender/owner and I had a chat about me being a tourist and his smile turned into a frown when I told him that I live in the United Kingdom. "Please don't tell me that you are here for a bachelorette party!" he said, almost worrying that I was going to say yes. I assured him that I was merely a history buff, travelling solo which both he and his wife found fascinating. They offered me sweet, fully flavoured vodka flights such as fig, wild rose, elderberry & pear. This was a new experience for me and he said that vodka is meant to be enjoyed slowly much to the contradiction of many consumers who take it as a shot. I echoed this sentiment as a whisky drinker, I drink my spirits slowly and in very limited quantities to enjoy and savour them properly.
Just as I was finishing my last sip of the fig flavoured vodka, a group of six loud girls barged in and demanded a table. The couple very politely told them that they were fully booked and that this bar was not a place for bachelorette parties. This conversation happened outside and seemed very animated as the girls from the hen-do were clearly inebriated and not pleased. As Krakow is relatively cheaper than many of its European counterparts, it's a hot destination for many stag and hen-dos.
After a good night's sleep I headed to Auschwitz the next morning. The drive was an hour and when I arrived, the skies were dark and moody and the grounds still filled with snow as I passed through the gates of Birkenau, a part of the concentration camp. This was a life-changing experience for me and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Krakow. It is haunting, but absolutely necessary for people to learn about the nightmares of the Holocaust and the events that unfolded less than a hundred years ago.
As I walked passed the gate across this huge, bleak stretch of land, a cold wind whistled by somewhere in the distance and it honestly felt like there were ghosts all around. It was a faint but unsettling feeling that can drive anyone into introspection and I couldn't help but think how man can be incredibly innovative and send a person into space, yet can be awfully destructive too, especially in times of conflict. What made it even more disturbing was reading the phrase 'Arbeit Macht Frei' meaning 'work sets you free' at the entrance, leaving so many questions unanswered. As the wind howled past the barbed wires and over the ruined buildings, I was filled with tears and was deeply mournful. All I can say is that walking through those gates of Birkenau also known as the death gate, sent a shiver down my spine, yet made me grateful more than ever, to have been born decades after the tragic war. I prayed for those millions of souls and left with a heavy heart and an experience that I know I can never forget.
Poland as a country, has endured some of the most difficult times in modern history, yet the locals are the friendliest people I've met and have immense respect for. As I prepared to depart from this beautiful country, I narrated my bittersweet experience to the same taxi driver Miko, understanding what he meant when I first met him. I promised myself that I would return someday, to have more fruity vodka, more pierogis and perhaps include a visit to the legendary salt mines and Bialowieza forest.