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Polish Charm

Posted on 30th April 2008. No Comment

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Blowing Off Steam
One of the biggest jokes in Durham University is that English students get a reading week – as if we’re doing anything else for the rest of the year. Some simply call it ‘drinking week‘, and use it as an excuse to storm all the college bars (y’know, to make sure they’re, like, still there). Others actually read (shock horror), and get stuck into weighty tomes such as Bleak House and Ulysses. Me? Well, I buggered off to Poland with my girlfriend for a few days of R&R far outside the Durham bubble. Now this may seem like an unusual choice, and admittedly the deciding factor was just how cheap everything is out there, but we were rewarded by four days in the fascinating city of Krakow, rich in history, culture, and more flavours of vodka than I even knew existed.

Krakow airport is admittedly a remote spot in the arse-end of nowhere, but once we had conquered the bus schedule we arrived in our chosen grubby suburb to find our youth hostel. This was yet another challenge, and within minutes I was being talked at in spurious consonants by a complete randomer who I think was trying to get me to take a ride in his taxi. I gracefully declined.

I have admit that the Polish language is a bit of a drawback. In fact it’s a complete nightmare brought to you in association with the letter ‘Z’. Fortunately, the majority of locals (aforementioned randomer aside) will speak English readily provided you ask with just the right amount of self-deprecating apology in your eyes. When we finally found our hostel, the frontage was a deflating sight, and we felt like we had stepped into ‘The Lives Of Others’. Once inside, however, we were greeted by a very friendly receptionist who spoke fluent English and encouraged us to help ourselves to breakfast whenever we wanted. The best news he gave us, however was as regards closing times. “I’m from England and most pubs close at 11pm” I anxiously said at 11:03pm. He laughed with pride and replied “In Poland, the bars close when the last person decides they want to go home”. Jackpot.

Drinking, Polish style
Galvanised by this great news, we set off in search of a cheapo vodka bar to toast our successful journey. As you might expect, the alcohol in Poland is dirt cheap, but fortunately it doesn’t taste like dirt – if anything it makes British booze taste like dirt. Forget Smirnoff, we chose from a wide range of Vodkas, flavoured with anything from Tangerine to Forest Fruits to Bison Grass. Add to this local draught beer and a whole range of cheap cocktails, and you’re onto a winner. Poland is often though of as falling between several cultural stools, and this maxim is most true in the realm of alcohol, but this is no bad thing. Whilst the beer isn’t quite German and the Vodka isn’t quite Russian, the Polish equivalents are well worthy of such comparisons. All in all, the nightlife in Krakow is fantastic: varied and exciting, with clubs playing everything from Jazz to Death Metal to Pop. The best spots are located in the vibrant Jewish quarter of Kazimierz which simply comes alive at night. The only major drawback is the sheer smokiness, which is really noticeable coming from a country in the grip of Tony Blair’s smoking ban.

The next morning we arose to a fantastic sunny day, and a whole city to explore, albeit with quite sore-heads and dry throats. Krakow wears its culture proudly on its sleeve, with street vendors selling Baltic amber jewellery, giant pretzels, and smoked goat’s cheese (oscypek). Other culinary delights include hefty lamb kebabs with generous helpings for very little cost, impressive cafés with delicious cream cakes and charming well-priced local restaurants (the best one we visited even had a live folk band!).

Troubled But Charming
The central square (Rynek Glowny) is undoubtedly the highlight of the city, second in magnitude only to St. Mark’s square in Venice, but with just as many pigeons. Spacious and relaxed, the Glowny boasts the Cloth Hall as well as St Mary’s Basilica: the Renaissance styling of the Cloth Hall, the city’s central shopping bazaar, is impossible not to love, whilst the Basilica’s bold Gothic architecture is simply breathtaking. Towards the south of the city, other highlights include the imposing Wawel castle which gives a clear impression of the city’s national importance, boasting an ornate cathedral and an impressive treasury dating back to the 12th century. Many who visit Krakow take the 40 minute bus ride to nearby Auschwitz (a former Nazi-concentration camp), but we decided against what would have been undoubtedly a sobering and overwhelming experience.

The overall feel of Krakow is one with a troubled history, and yet it remains composed and proud of its heritage. The old town is bordered by a green belt of parks where the medieval city walls once stood, providing a wonderful breathing space. Many have compared Krakow to Oxford or Cambridge, but this is terribly simplifying and you can’t ignore the proud Polishness of the nation’s second city. There are clearly two sides to Krakow: a troubled city ravaged by years of totalitarian rule and economic neglect, and a charming city, rich in Renaissance heritage and a strong cultural legacy. It is impossible to forget all the problems Krakow has been through and how it is still very much on the road to recovery, but somehow the charm of this wonderful city predominates all.

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  • narayani said:

    Great article, Chris! I loved Krakow – though I agree that
    as someone from Western Europe, one of the major draws
    is the ability not to live like a student for once.
    Being able to drink in hotel bars has never felt better! And
    never before nor since have I stayed overnight €4 a

    I did go to Auschwitz, which was one of the strangest
    experiences of my life (and not a lightly taken decision). I
    think it’s worth going to – it’s been declared a World
    Heritage Site for a very good reason – as it really does
    bring home the reality of the Holocaust which was never
    really communicated to me in several years’ worth of
    history lessons.

  • zaki said:

    Great article but I’m not sure about the photo at the top, it looks more like Hounslow than Krakow.

  • ChrisJ said:

    Fair point.
    All of these photos were taken on my 2 megapixel camera-phone…
    I thought of raiding a tourist site for some fancy shots, but I thought this gave it a more personal feel.
    For the record the last one was taken as I was being marched out of the closed city tower by a security guard :-)