A Cracking Time in Krakow Old Town

Today’s post was written by James Rathmell. James is a Geography graduate currently working in Manchester as a Transport Planner. He can often be found city-hopping across Europe or gigging with his band at a venue near you.

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It was one of those surreal moments where you’re only half awake and not sure if you are dreaming or not. The door on the sleeper train couchette creaked open and my reluctant eyes gradually focussed on a shadowy figure, dressed in black leather and chunky motorcycle boots, slipping into the room and onto the empty bunk below. After nervously returning to my slumber, I was disturbed again about an hour later, by a stern voice projecting from the corridor, informing us that we were at the Czech-Polish border and that our passports would need to be checked shortly. At this point, much to my bewilderment, the mysterious visitor (still fully clothed and booted) leapt up and made the sharpest exit you’re ever likely to witness, out of the couchette and off down the train. Now I know some people get embarrassed about showing their passport photo but that’s just ridiculous!

There is something innately satisfying about waking up in a new city to explore, having saved precious pennies (or in this case Zloty) by sleeping en-route and thereby skipping a night’s hostel charge. Feeling slightly weary from the previous night’s stop-start sleep, but excited at what the next few days in Poland’s cultural hotspot may hold, I dropped off my rucksack at my temporary new home – the friendly ‘Mama’s Hostel’ in the heart of Krakow’s Stare Miasto (Old Town).

It doesn’t take you long to get your bearings in the Old Town, with most of the main streets ushering you towards the vast expanse of the Rynek Glówny (main market square). For the stats-hungry of you, the square is 10 acres / 200m x 200m / the largest medieval town square in Europe and is surrounded by the colourful façades of Krakow’s rich architectural mix, with St. Mary’s Basilica in the north-eastern corner of the square the pick of the bunch with its ornate exterior and lofty spires.

Well-suited to the budget-conscious (or skint) traveller, the Old Town is ideal for a casual wander and you barely need to disturb the moths in your wallet to get a feel for the place. As a starting point, I would recommend a walk from the Rynek Glówny down Floriańska to the 14th Century Florian Gate, followed by a saunter through the appealingly named ‘Planty’ park area that surrounds the town (don’t know if it is just me that thinks this ‘say what you see’ approach is a bit like calling the rest of the town ‘Buildingy’, or the Rynek Glówny ‘Big Squarey’)… Another highlight is the historic Wawel Castle and Cathedral complex, located to the south of the Old Town.

Having worked up an appetite, your best bet for a refuel lies underground, in one of the many cellar bars or cafés dotted around the Old Town. You can’t go wrong with the ground meat pierogi (dumplings) washed down with a Żywiec beer. Alternatively, for something a bit different, a bit less Polish and lot more cheesy (in the literal sense), I found the authentic Georgian cuisine served up at Gruzińskie Chaczapuri most satisfying.

Away from the Old Town, Krakow continues its sprawl outwards – further away from the Rynek Glówny geographically, and further away from its Communist past both socially and economically. These changes are increasingly evident in the Old Town, where a number of familiar western chain stores and restaurants now jostle for position along the picturesque streets. While aspirations of continued growth and prosperity are only natural following Poland’s adoption of capitalism, I only hope that this doesn’t result in a loss of the innate charm of the Old Town. Saying that, I have a feeling that it will take more than a few Big Macs to put a dampener on this essential stop on Europe’s backpacking circuit.

2 Responses to “A Cracking Time in Krakow Old Town”

  1. I agree completely about the feeling of waking up in a foreign (as in unfamiliar) city knowing that the day will be filled with fresh adventure and exploration. This is my first time to your site. You’ve really laid it out well.
    Great work. See you around.
    -Andrew

  2. This is a great story detailing your adventure from start to finish. The description of your couchete made me feel like I was there!

    Krakow sounds wonderful and I don’t know how you could go wrong with a pierogi and beer.

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