Absorbing Krakow

20:27, May 27 2013
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CENTREPIECE: Krakow's Cloth Hall was once the hub for traders from east and west dealing in everything from silk to salt. Today it is an always bustling souvenir market.

Timaru travel writer Jill Worrall takes in the sights, sounds and tastes of Krakow in Poland.

With medieval buildings mostly unscathed by bombing during the World War II, Krakow is justifiably Poland's most popular destination for visitors.

There's a castle crammed with treasures, Romanesque and Baroque churches, a Renaissance era cloth hall (a centre for trading goods from around the known world at the time) and legends of knights and dragons. More recently it featured in the film Schindler's List, the harrowing story of the city's Jewish ghetto.

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FEAST FOR THE SENSES: The coffee house interior is as elaborately decorated as its cakes and pastries.

It is also a great place for food as we discovered, more or less by accident, while spending several days exploring the sights. With no prior research into restaurants, we opted simply to wander and take our chances.

The day started inauspiciously wet and cold so the plan to have breakfast at an outdoor table in the main square (which dates back to the 13th century and is the largest medieval town square in Europe) was quickly revised. We dived in to almost the first cafe we found.

This turned out to be the Cafe Europejska. We felt as if we'd stepped out of Poland and into 19th century Vienna. The decor of dark wood panelling, green velvet upholstery, green-striped wallpaper is known as Secessionist, though the waitresses' uniforms of tiny black miniskirts were decidedly un-19th century. We sat in armchairs in the front window, ordered Polish and English-style breakfasts and watched the square come to life, the first visitors heading for St Mary's Church and the elegant horse-drawn carriages, which clip clop tourists around the old town from morning till late at night, arriving for work.

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TOWN HALL TOWER: If you like recreations of medieval torture chambers, this is the place for you.

Breakfast was perfectly cooked and served with more bread rolls than we could eat.

So we walked off breakfast by climbing up to Wawel Castle, the centre of power for the Polish nation for about 500 years and the place of coronation for most of the Polish kings. This is perhaps Krakow's most popular destination, for Poles as well as visitors. Expect large crowds. However, if you opt for the additional charged tour of the Royal apartments you'll escape the hordes. There are limited numbers of tickets per day for this tour so get there early or book ahead.

Mid-afternoon seemed a respectable time to go in search of another cafe. We found this on our way back to the main market square from the castle. Unfortunately, in the process of being so totally overwhelmed by both the array of cakes and pastries and the decor, I didn't note down the name of the cafe. It's definitely worth searching out in the vicinity of the St Peter and Paul Church.

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FEAST FOR THE SENSES: The coffee house interior is as elaborately decorated as its cakes and pastries.

Krakow coffee houses are legendary. Meeting for coffee and cake is a longstanding tradition but how Krakow natives do this without piling on the kilos when presented with this cafe's copious quantities of gateaux, profiterole, custard cream slices and ice cream is beyond me.

We sat at a small table near the display cases, which proved entertaining as customers old and young came in simply to gaze at the array. The long-suffering staff were clearly used to waiting patiently while customers went through agonies of deciding between Viennese sachertortes, Slovenian custard cream slices and Polish cheesecakes.

As all the cakes were labelled solely in Polish it was for us a matter of choosing on appearance alone. The mystery cake we shared was a slice of hazelnut sponge sandwiched with layers of chocolate and cream. Tea came in a flowered teapot and matching cups. Above us on the ceiling hung a forest of dried flowers. Miss Marple would have loved it.

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HIGH PRICE: St Mary's Church in Krakow's Market Square has two very different towers, thanks to a serious bout of sibling rivalry that ended in murder.

Slightly guilt-ridden, we then set off on a long trek into Krakow's Jewish quarter which proved a suitably sobering antidote to our cafe over-indulgence. We passed one of the last remaining original sections of the ghetto wall which imprisoned the city's Jewish inhabitants in a tiny overcrowded neighbourhood.

Before the war Krakow had a Jewish population of about 70,000. After the Germans invaded this was almost immediately reduced to about 15,000 who, by 1941, were being crammed into a ghetto in an area that was once home to a mere 3000 people. The Nazis "liquidated" the ghetto in 1943. Residents were shot on the spot, sent to labour camps or dispatched to the Auschwitz death camp.

Our walking guide also took us past old synagogues and through original Jewish neighbourhoods to the square, Plac Bohaterow, where he pointed out the Pharmacy Under the Eagle and told the story of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish pharmacist who, despite being ordered to leave the area when the ghetto was established, elected to stay. He and his staff helped many of the Jewish residents to escape, as well providing sedatives to keep Jewish children in hiding from the Nazis quiet, and hair dye for older people wanting to disguise their age in an attempt to avoid being sent to the death camps.

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POIGNANT: One of the symbolic empty chairs that comprise the Krakow Ghetto and Deportation Memorial.

"There is a story here even better than that of Oskar Schindler," our guide said "Unfortunately, Hollywood has not discovered him so much."

In front of the shop is a square with a haunting memorial of the Nazi nightmare: The Krakow Ghetto and Deportation Memorial. Dozens of metal "empty chairs" placed on the plaza symbolise "the missing".

We returned to the main market square at sunset and chose a cafe under the town hall tower for a restorative glass of wine. It's never cheap to drink in such prime locations but you're essentially paying for free entertainment plus the chance to sit down and admire the architecture in comfort. The tower beside us was built in the 13th century and is the only part of the town hall left standing. In the basement is a medieval torture chamber.

Wandering buskers, including a full jazz band, provided the musical background as hundreds of pigeons wheeled and strutted around the square and the last of the autumn sun highlighted the grandeur of the medieval mansions that surrounded it.

In one of the two towers of St Mary's church a bugler appeared to mark the hour. He always leaves out the last note - supposedly a tradition dating back to the time of a Tartar invasion in 1241 when the bugler who'd been sounding the warning of impending doom was shot. Beside us children played inside the giant sculpture known locally as "The Head" or, more properly, Eros Bound, the work of a Polish sculptor.

Another Krakow legend relates to the two mismatched church towers. The story goes that two brothers built them, each vying for the tallest tower. When one brother was away his sibling added to his tower, inciting a fit of murderous rage in his sibling. The sword used in the murder is, apparently, the one hanging in one of the entrances to the Cloth Hall.

As night fell we headed for Restaurant Kogel Mogel. It was time to taste the impact of the Soviet era. The restaurant's decor has a red theme; there are even red carnation chandeliers.

The menus arrive in the form of a Communist newsletter which encouraged us to "Eat in Peace, secret police is keeping watch" and to remember that "Healthy nutrition is the sprouts of communism".

After a starter of bread and lard, I began dinner with Song of Leningrad - salmon roe with quail egg and caviar - which, according to the menu, was "as tasty as a young Communist's breast just decorated with the Labour Competition medal". I have no idea how it compares with a young Communist's breast but it was delicious.

Main courses highlighted the Polish love of all things meaty, from Tongue of the Bull of Communism, the Friendship beef or the Red Soldat rack of rabbit. In the end I opted for Crakow duck, apparently made to the recipe of Lenin's wife using ducks bred in the garden of a local convent and flavoured with cranberries picked by political prisoners.

We ended the meal with the restaurant's namesake kogel mogel, a twist on a traditional Polish dessert and one "favoured among the working intellgentsia - the inborn, the acquired and the technical" as the menu explained. A complimentary Polish cherry vodka was delivered before we headed into the night.

We crossed the main square to the sounds of buskers' drums that were accompanying a troupe of fire-eaters.

The Timaru Herald