karohemd: by LJ user gothindulgence (Beer)
Friday
Around 2, I went over to [livejournal.com profile] raggedyman's where his mother picked us up and drove us to Stansted. There we waited at the Krispy Kreme stand for the others ([livejournal.com profile] mansunite, [livejournal.com profile] razornet, [livejournal.com profile] devalmont, Graham, [livejournal.com profile] robinbloke and finally Jon). After a few donuts and checking again we had everything we made our way through customs where [livejournal.com profile] razornet was the unlucky one to be picked for special treatment but we made it through in one piece. A quick "pizza" and a couple of shots later, our flight was finally called and we trekked to the far end of the airport (Gate 54, where no handy train thing goes). We waited in the queue for what seemed like ages but miraculously, when things finally got moving the plane actually left on time and arrived in Krakow 10 minutes ahead of time. The two hour and a bit flight was relatively painless and was spent chatting and reading.
Going through customs and arrivals in Krakow was OK, too, although there was quite a queue. The airport is tiny so while some of us got money out of the cash machine (exchange rate was 5:1), others went for a smoke and [livejournal.com profile] raggedyman even found a flask of vodka for [livejournal.com profile] robinbloke. After looking for the nonexistent hotel shuttle and asking a helpful member of staff we decided to take two taxis to the hotel which worked out quite cheap for the journey (our hotel was at the other end of Krakow). We got to the hotel just after 10, checked in and were told that the bar would close in a few minutes' time so we quickly dropped off our bags and then proceeded to make a good dent into the bar's stock until around midnight because we had an early start the next morning. Nobody asked us to leave and they kept serving us so I guess their opening times are arbitrary (as are other rules as you'll see later).
Getting ready at the airport Hotel bar Hotel bar

The hotel rooms were basic but functional and clean (two beds, wardrobe, desk, two chairs, bathroom with shower, loo and sink), all we needed for a weekend.

Saturday
The breakfast buffet had hot sausage and "scrambled eggs" and lots of more continental style items like cold cuts and cheeses, rather good bread and bread rolls, boiled eggs, salads, cereal etc. perfect for providing the base for the day's (drinking) activities.
Our first item was a Crazy Guides tour of the communist legacy of Krakow. Our guides were Yoolka, Kielbasa and Nyzio and we were driven around in the Red Devil (standard Trabant), The Frog (Trabant Kombi and the Polski Fiat. How they managed to fold [livejournal.com profile] devalmont into any of them, especially the Fiat was a miracle. We visited Nowa Huta, a huge part of the city build during the Stalin era to house 100,000 steel workers. For communist architecture. this was quite beautiful (if all covered in soot from the pollution) and positively huge and still the biggest district in the city. All communist trappings like the Lenin statue in the main square have been removed so it all looks quite pleasant. In an old restaurant which was the main attraction during the communist era and still makes a lot of business we had a drink (two different shots of vodka) and a bit of a history lesson of the years after WWII until the late 80s. As a centre of heavy industry, Krakow was also one of the major centres for Lech Walesa's Solidarność trade union.
The steelworks itself we didn't visit, just the main gate as there was some celebration going on (some anniversary related to Solidarność. After the steelworks, we stopped at a random street corner where an old Soviet tank was parked which we had a good look around and posed with.
Tanktastic Communist Krakow tour Tanktastic

We were dropped off somewhere in town (at the Square of Ghettos Heroes as I now know) from where we wandered around a bit until we found a small restaurant where we stopped for lunch. We had two flavours of pierogi (pork and sauerkraut), breaded pork neck and other delicacies as well as a couple of beers and more vodka (I held back a bit there as I can't drink much during the day without falling over). After finding out where we actually were, we made our way into the old town proper. Apparently because Hitler loved it, Krakow was never destroyed during WWII so there is a lot of historical architecture from all eras, mostly Central European so not much different from, say, Berlin or Vienna. We walked around, watched the fattest pigeons we'd ever seen, visited the very impressive cathedral which among other lush features has a huge altar piece by Veit Stoß, a German sculptor who also worked in Nuremberg and Bamberg and then had a couple of drinks before wandering more to find The Wodka Bar where they didn't serve food so we went around a couple of corners until we found a restaurant where more excellent food and cake for little money (by UK standards) were had. The menu mentioned mushrooms on my veal escalopes that turned out to be girolles so that was nice. This was also when we discovered that tax often isn't included on the price shown on the menu but the added surprise wasn't that big. The rest of the evening we spent at the vodka bar sampling a variety of vodkas guided by [livejournal.com profile] robinbloke and the very helpful barman. Having had quite enough around 10, we got taxis back to the hotel where we propped up the bar for a bit until midnight or so.
8 do Krakow Cathedral Cathedral Wodka Bar


Sunday
After the previous night's heavy drinking, we had a bit of a lie-in before breakfast. The historic part of the day was Wawel, a castle complex that has been in use since the 9th century and continuously rebuild and expanded over the centuries in a hodgepodge of styles (quote [livejournal.com profile] raggedyman, "When you become king, you just stick on another bit to live in"). The whole complex is huge and you can walk around the outside areas and most courtyards. Various inside areas are ticketed but separately so you can pick the things you're really interested in. The weather was rather grey and rainy so we just picked up tickets for everything. We started with a guided tour of the royal apartments which were very impressive and lush. Some walls still had original, unrestored murals around the top edge of the walls. Other items like huge tapestries and furniture were equally well preserved. Our lovely guide covered quite a bit of history during that good hour and I learned a lot I hadn't known about Poland.
The armoury was equally impressive. As Krakow used to be the seat of kings, there were the crown jewels and other items from that era in one part of the building and the armour proper with a huge selection of weapons, armour and artillery in the other. Photography was prohibited in all the inside areas so sadly you'll have to take my word for it how interesting and fascinating all the items were, like the gunblades (short thin swords with double barrelled guns built into the handle) and firearms with intricately carved and/or inlaid stocks. One of the rifles looked like a Dwarven blunderbuss from Warhammer and there was a double-action wheel lock handgun, too. The most surprising aspect to me (remember I didn't know much about Polish history other than 20th century) was the strong Central Asian influence especially in the armour. The day before we'd seen a number of people in armour and uniforms wandering around the city center and posing for tourists who looked almost like Mongols to us which we found strange but was then made clear that it was actually local.
We took a break from all the wandering around the castle and then visited the oldest part of the castle (the "Lost Wawel"). For the most part, this is a walkway suspended above excavated walls and ruins as well as cases with items found in the ruins from arrow heads to shoes.
When we came out the sun had come out and on the way to the baggage area (you couldn't take bags into most of the inside buildings) I retook a few photos as things looked even more impressive. Then we climbed up Sandomierska Tower from which we had an impressive view over the city.
We exited through the Dragon's Den, a natural cave underneath the castle, said to be the legend of a great beast that was slain by Krakus, the legendary founder of Krakow. Randomly, as we came down the winding staircase into the first chamber, a short old bearded man in chainmail came the other way who very much like the old Knight Templar guarding the grail in the third Indiana Jones film and pretty much all of us thought, 'Did I just see that?'.
Outside, beautiful weather over the Vistula greeted us as well as a multi-headed statue that actually breathed fire every few minutes. This was a bit hard to photograph in bright sunshine but I got a reasonable shot, even on the G10. There were enough parts of Wawel we didn't see so could easily have spent another day there but we wanted to see some more parts of Krakow and were slowly getting hungry again so we made our way into town again.
Stepped privies Wawel Wawel Fire-breathing Dragon!
Wawel Fancy gargoyle Wawel

We wandered back into the old town and then found a veritable heaven of meat in the shape of Miod i Wino. The menu outside had things like veal shanks and pork knuckles but we went for the Hunters Feast for 8 which included wild boar, deer pierogi, poached venison roulade, breaded pork, red cabbage, pearl barley, ghoulash, various gravies and potato dumplings. As a starter there was bread and lard with crispy bits which amused my Brit friends greatly but was something I was perfectly used to from Germany (we call it Griebenfett). The whole meal was like a journey into my youth in Germany as I couldn't actually remember the last time I had roast wild boar. Suffering from the meat sweats ([livejournal.com profile] raggedyman tweeted "We have managed to give ourselves meatpoisoning by having a "Hunters feast". Currently we are sweating gravy.") we staggered back past the cathedral to the Southern bit of the Jewish Quarter to Singer, a bar [livejournal.com profile] raggedyman had found during his research. It was dark and cosy and the smaller tables were all antique Singer sewing machines. Many a vodka, beer and Slivovitz (damson brandy) were had before we got taxis back to the hotel and ended the night in the hotel bar (which again stayed up a lot longer than advertised). I turned in around 11 as I wanted to pack in peace, shower, rehydrate and write a couple of postcards and was in bed just after midnight.
Bread and lard with crispy bits Hunters Feast Hunters Feast
Singer Singer Singer

Monday
Up at 6:45, I crawled out of bed and dressed and stumbled downstairs as I felt the weekend's excesses in my bones. Seeing an ambulance outside made the feeling even worse but thankfully none of us needed medical attention and everybody was ready when the taxis arrived to take us to the airport. Tiny as it is, getting through security/customs was rather quick and painless (although the guard looked at my passport/me a lot longer than the others') and as we had been early we had to wait for quite a while. Getting on the plane was more annoying as there was only one bus and by the time the other half of us got on there were seats but no space in the overhead compartments left so I had to squeeze my bag and jacket between my feet. However, we left on time and got to Stansted ahead of time (that fanfare is really annoying). Getting through passport control with a chipped passport was quick as well and we ended where we started at the Krispy Kremes stall until everyone had made it (the queue for standard passports was much longer). Then we split up again, Andy and I got a lift to Cambridge and I collapsed at home, catching up with internet and TV, reheated dinner and processed photos.

A very good weekend indeed and I definitely want to go back to Poland to discover more of this wonderful country. There are many more photos on flickr.

April 2016

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