Paris has the Mona Lisa but the Louvre Museum is evacuated definitely too often. Miami is like sweet candy, but a coconut can fall on your head during an innocent walk. Where to simply enjoy your vacation?
As an experienced traveler delighted in all the wonders of Old Florida and with great respect to the Hunchback of Notre Dame Cathedral – I advise you to visit Krakow in Poland.
This city has an atmosphere that you will not find anywhere else in the world. Have you heard of a town with a dragon, a spectacular castle, historic churches on every street corner, where you can get royal treatment in a taxi cab? This is Krakow.
In the Center of Europe
There are many reasons to discover Krakow. One of them is the location. The city is in the exact middle of Europe. This means Krakow is easy to reach by EasyJet. Just two hours flight from Paris, Amsterdam or London. You are landing at the quiet airport named after the famous Pope John Paul II who loved Krakow, too. If you live in USA there is a non-stop Dreamliner flight from Chicago. In nine hours you are in Krakow. There are also direct flights from New York, Seattle and Boston to Krakow.
If you are still not sure where Krakow is, look at the map of the safest cities in the world. The Foreign Office, a department of the Government of the United Kingdom (FCO) has recently updated its categories of terror threats in its travel advice for world travelers. According to their statistics, Poland is the safest country to visit for holidays.
Krakow inhabitants know this and enjoy a lot.
City of Legends
The Krakovians are calm and safe because they are guarded by their dragon. Wawel Dragon (called “Smok Wawelski”) had a monument in his honour unveiled in 1972. Is extremely popular – and not only with the kids you’ll find climbing all over it. It was once possible to send Smok an SMS message which would send him into fits of fire-breathing bliss. Now he does it without checking his phone first, so just be patient and don’t look down his throat. And yes, it is very real fire.
Kraków comes steeped in legend and myth, and evokes the most fanciful of images, from dragons under the catacombs of Wawel Castle, to Tartar hordes repelled at the gates and pigeon-knights waiting for their king to return. The centre of Krakow is acknowledged as one of Europe’s greatest surviving examples of a medieval city. The medieval Old Town, the Renaissance Royal Wawel Castle and the enchanting district of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues were added to the original UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978.
Adults admire the history and buildings in Krakow and children love the legends and stories of the dragon and pigeons. A common sight in the city is a happy family walking through the main square, with the kids each clutching a colorful plush toy dragon in their arms.
Enchanted Horse Taxis, Magic Trumpet
You don’t need a car in Krakow. The medieval city center is very well laid out. All you need are good legs to walk around. However, if your feet refuse to obey you, have a horse drawn carriage ride! The horse taxis are parked on the Main Market Square, just beneath the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica.
Before or after jumping aboard this magic taxi, you will hear the Hejnal. This short, melodious bugle call is played every hour from the east, west, north and south sides of St. Mary Basilica’s left tower. This tradition comes from another legend of Krakow. The trumpet’s “All’s Well” can be heard all over the Old Town section of Krakow.
It’s not logical, but every time you come back to Krakow from somewhere and hear the Hejnal you feel like you are coming back home. It doesn’t matter if you were born here or have adopted Krakow as your new home as a student at one of the numerous universities. You will quickly fall in love with this trumpet call.
You can even hear the Hejnal on the Planty; three kilometres of public gardens filled with trees, flowers, benches and historic monuments. This charming walking space that rings the Old Town is one more “only in Krakow” location you will love. They are incredibly clean and you can walk around at all hours of the day and night while in other cities most parks are closed at night.
Obwarzanek and Delicious Food
Another important reason to love Krakow is obwarzanek. Kraków’s streets are packed with vendors selling this round, twisted baked bread roll. They are a culinary symbol of Krakow. This bit of pure happiness and the fastest way to have breakfast costs only 1, 5 Polish Zloty or 0, 24 Euro. It’s a round, yeast bread with a hole in the middle, made from twisted dough. Before baking the dough is briefly dropped in seasoned boiling water. It is similar to a pretzel, but better.
The first mention of obwarzanki dates back to the 14th century in accounts from the royal court of King Vladislaus Jagiełło and Queen Jadwiga. They have been protected from the Middle Ages: bakers had to obtain a named, royal permission to make them. Later a concession to make them was only given to Kraków’s bakers’ guild, which maintained strict control over not just consistency of recipes but who was allowed to bake obwarzanki until the 19th century.
In 2010 Cracovian obwarzanki has been awarded Protected Destination of Origin by the EU. Obwarzanki share the same roots as the more world famous bagels. This Jewish bread, baked in Kraków since the 17th century, joined Jewish emigrants on their cross-Atlantic trip to Manhattan in the early 20th century – and they made a name for themselves over there.
Krakow’s cuisine has more secrets than obwarzanek. There is a prądnicki bread ( with caraway seeds), and delicious lisiecka or krakowska sausage. Fans of culinary history will find something interesting in the cuisine of the old Polish nobility, combining the flavours of the Orient, local tradition, and… old French cooking. Dishes featuring game, wild mushrooms and groats are especially worth seeking out.
If you’re looking for distinctive regional flavours, try the famous Cracovian duck or maczanka krakowska – a sliced bread roll with pork loin or neck, and caraway sauce. It’s also worth trying Jewish delicacies – ideally in the Kazimierz district – including Jewish “caviar” (starter made with liver and onions) or herring dishes.
A leader among local desserts is Cracovian cheesecake with raisins and candied orange peel, topped with a characteristic criss-cross pattern of pastry. In small patisseries you’ll be able to get pischingers – originally from Austria, although now popular in Kraków, a cake made with wafers, milk, butter, sugar and cocoa. Krakow also has famous Wadowice kremówka (a cream and custard slice), owing its popularity to the late Pope, John Paul II.
South of Krakow are the large and impressive Tatra mountains. If you head to this area look out for Highlander oscypek – a distinctive, smoked ewe’s milk cheese (apparently without equivalents in Europe). It’s an excellent starter, especially grilled and served with cranberries. It’s also worth asking for mineral water from Muszyna or Wysowa, while lovers of fruit should try apples from Raciechowice and smoke-dried prunes from Sechna.
An old Polish proverb says, “Through the stomach to the heart”. In the most common translation it means that for Polish people, serving divine food is a sign of love.
Vodka and Traditions
Poland is famous for vodka, and with good reason. The first Polish vodka dates back almost 1,000 years! It was first used as a medicine, but now comes in many different flavors – including favorites of cherry and honey. Whatever flavor you choose, you will cure all your ailments or anesthetize any pain, perhaps even existential.
You will see vodka at every café and restaurant in Krakow. You can also buy it in the grocery stores and convenience stores. And it is not expensive – a small bottle (250ml) can be had for just 280 Polish Zloty, or about 0.60 euros.
City of Festivals
Another reason to visit Krakow and not Paris – or anywhere else, for that matter – is all of the festivals and events the city holds. Krakow boasts over 650 artistic and cultural events each year. With some of the best performers in the world, Krakow has something for everyone, and something is always happening. Yearly events include a dragon parade (featuring Smok, of course) a dog parade (featuring the “weiner dog” parade), multiple music festivals, an incredible Jewish Culture festival, a magic street theater festival, and even a soup festival. Of course, if all else fails you can sit in a comfortable chair in the main market square, order a glass of your favorite flavored vodka, and watch the magic horse taxis go by. Because in Krakow everything is simple.People are naturally nice and polite, and you can meet a famous writer on the market as if nothing ever happened.
Come to Krakow!
Krakow is in the safest European country, has a vast array of cultural events, and has fantastic food. So if you are looking for a safe place that is rich in beauty, culture, history and good food in which to take your vacation, come to Krakow! Smok, the dragon is waiting !
By Joanna Werynska