The World’s Best Kept Secret, Krakow and Zakapane, Poland

As a former flight attendant, I’ve visited all European countries except Albania and Poland. Poland is Europe’s 5th largest country. Aside for Lech Walesa, Copernicus, slot xo true wallet ไม่มี ขั้น ต่ํา the Pope, and a decade of Polish jokes I never understood, I knew nothing of this land. However, my interest peaked because it will soon be hot on the tourist trail and because my Chicago husband’s family is from here. He accompanied me with a sense of delight in discovering his roots. I went to become educated and enriched by something new. We flew from Atlanta via JFK Prague escort and Warsaw to Krakow for a mere 4 days. No rest for the weary with a head-spinning itinerary. I prefer to visit cities in the off-season to mingle with the locals. It provides a more authentic and intimate atmosphere.

On airport arrival, we’re cheerfully greeted by Pavel who will be our driver throughout. He holds a welcome sign “Suza Davis”. I say, “Hi, I’m Suzy from Atlanta.” I chuckled when he responded, stephenkale “Yes, downstairs of USA.” We checked into Hotel Amadeus, a 16th-century posh inn in the heartthrob of the town center. Prince Charles once bedded in our room, I’m told.

We set out to hunt for dinner. The illuminated Old Town was stunning and filled with so many young people, it made me feel elderly. 150,000 students reside in this university town. Krakow is Europe’s premier party scene where they stay out until the birds sing. This historic district holds the highest concentration of bars and restaurants in the world. We suddenly discovered Pierogi Garden, home of the freshest Polish dumplings. They were stuffed with sauerkraut, lamb, beef, berries, chocolate, and even peanut butter. There were 6 types of soups, all with beets which I abhor. After a dozen dumplings, I had a melted ewe’s milk cheese pancake which was beyond delicious.

Poland experienced countless invasions throughout its history. After being ravaged by the Germans and then the Russians, it finally achieved independence in 1989 with the collapse of Soviet communism. Krakow was wired for destruction near the end of WWII by the Germans. They planned to blow it up once the Russians took over, fortunately, the war ended hours before the plan was carried out.

Today it remains one of the few cities remaining in its original form. With a population now of 780,000, it has morphed into a trendy international capital. Vibrant and modern yet somehow retains its traditional culture with regal architecture. It is in Krakow where one finds the spirit of the new Poland.

On day 2, we were greeted by Anna who was strikingly beautiful. We began in the web of cobbled streets in Old Town that was meant for walking. It was a maze of museums, chapels, galleries, cafes, and hole-in-the-wall pubs. Even in winter, there was entertainment with street dancers, mimes, and accordion players and on one corner, I watched a knight in armor break-dancing.

We entered Market Square, Europe’s largest medieval square where little has changed since 1257. It is crowned by the Bell Tower where a bugler plays at the top of the hour. It drives the residents crazy at night. A must-see is Cloth Hall where fishmongers, cloth merchants, and bakers have sold their wares since the 14th century. Now it’s a fabulous arcade of handicraft stalls.

We walked to the well-preserved Jewish Quarter which is now edgy with artistic character. Poland once held Europe’s largest concentration of Jews at 3.5 million. Poland’s kings during the middle ages noted they were being expelled elsewhere and invited them in to augment the economy. Here they thrived until the holocaust and forced communism after WWII. There are now only 180 left. We viewed the ghettos where Spielberg’s famed movie was filmed and looked across the river to see Schindler’s factory.

Rick Steves writes that one must visit a milk bar here. Anna escorts us to one of these government-subsidized cafes for the working class. They are a holdover from Poland’s communist past. Everything is astonishingly cheap. I ordered a bowl of homemade soup and cheesecake for $2.

We then visited Wawel Castle, a 12th-century masterpiece and defining icon of the city’s pride. There were no queues as we walked its corridors of history. This was the residence of kings for 500 years. Anna explains its legend of the fire-breathing dragon named Smok here who ate virgins for breakfast.

This was bolstered by the discovery of strange large bones in the 1400s. (The bones are whale bones as this area of Europe was once underwater eons ago.) The dragon thus became the symbol of the city and is omnipresent in souvenir shops. Anna then nudges us inside various beautiful churches, more info please visit sites:- for me always as boring as paint by numbers, however, they were exquisite. I ask if there are any Protestants here. She replied matter of factly, “Yes, one.”

The afternoon was spent on restaurant and hotel inspections. I loved the formal greetings and it’s always educational. I learn about local cuisine and accommodations in the best location for the best price. All hotels were fully booked. Jews and Catholics visit year-round on religious pilgrimages or come for roots tours.

Krakow was recently rated in the top 10 European destinations. I now see why. Americans continue to rave over Prague which I now find passe with inflated prices and lower standards of service. It’s become as expensive as Rome. Eventually, Krakow may do the same once Poland converts to the Euro in 2012. For now one can splurge at affordable prices. Europeans flock here for 50-70% savings. Germans and Danes in particular come for dental and optometry needs. Medical tourism including plastic surgery is booming. I met an Austrian flight attendant who flies in monthly for spa treatments at half cost.

At night we dined at Wierzynek Restaurant, the world’s oldest that has served princes to tourists since 1364. It was delicious peasant cuisine (organic) of wild boar, roast ribs, and heaping mounds of potatoes. I ask them to teach me some Polish, a Slavic language that is as impossible as a mouthful of alphabet soup. The word toilet has 5 syllables.

On the third day, we awoke to a gray, cold, and wet day which gave us the appropriate ambiance for what we would see. Pavel drove us 60 km to Auschwitz. We were greeted by Yuri, our brilliant personal guide whose sole passion was to enlighten us on the unthinkable tragedies that took place here from 1940-45. I once visited Dachau, but this was the largest of concentration camps. This death factory killed 1.4 million people of 27 nationalities. Most were Jews. The others were gypsies, Soviets, Poles, gays, political dissidents, and more.


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