Sunday, June 26, 2011

An open-air architectural museum: the Krakow Diaries, Part I

Years ago, I promised my husband Rick that we would celebrate his 70th birthday by taking the Trans-Siberian railroad. When I made that promise, seventy seemed so far away. As the time drew closer, I realized that was a promise I just could not keep.

There are only two ways to do the Trans-Siberian railway: the regular Russian train, which is hard traveling, or the high-end tours such as the Golden Eagle express at 25K a person. The latter was definitely out of the question, and given our experiences with Russian trains, we didn’t want to risk the former. I convinced Rick that the mosquito infestation in the Siberian summer would be intolerable and he agreed that maybe taking the Trans-Siberian wasn’t such a great idea after all.

I asked Rick if he could think of any other place he’d like to see that weren’t on my list, so it really would be a birthday gift for him. He said Poland and Berlin. Rick has always had a strong interest in the languages and history of Eastern Europe. His father and all of his grandparents were born in Eastern Europe and he began his academic life as a Slavic Studies major. I’ve always been drawn to Latin Europe and probably never would have gone to Eastern Europe if it hadn’t been for Rick. We went to Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the summer of 1989, right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, to Russia and Estonia in 1990 and gain in 2003. We never managed to fit in Poland and this seemed the right time—definitely a gift for Rick.

In some ways I’m glad we waited to go to Poland. Krakow is now an international tourist destination filled with fantastic restaurants and trendy boutique hotels. We tried to make reservations in April for some of those boutique hotels, but we were too late. We managed to get a reservation in one of those old-fashioned 19thc. hotels we both have fondness for—-an opportunity to travel back in time to old Krakow

Krakow is an open-air architectural museum with one of the most beautiful old town squares in Europe—-right up there with San Marco in Venice, St. Peter’s in Rome, the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Old Town Square in Prague. We spent a lot of time hanging out in the cafes around Krakow’s Rynek Glowny.

Krakow’s restaurants were a pleasant surprise. When we traveled in Eastern Europe in 1989, we couldn’t find anything other than horribly heavy food—-the same meat and potato dishes appeared in every restaurant, and salads were unheard of.

The culinary landscape in Eastern Europe has changed. Our first night in Krakow we went to a wonderful little restaurant which specialized in Polish (and--surprise-- Italian!) dishes. This combination appears to be a popular one in Krakow, with several very good restaurants specializing in it. It worked out very well for Rick and me. For Rick, Polish cooking is comfort food, grandma’s cooking, but at some of these restaurants, comfort food at a very high level. So Rick could have a herring appetizer and a sauerkraut and sausage main dish and I could have an arugala salad and a pasta dish.

Some restaurant recommendations for anyone planning a trip to Krakow:

Miod Malina: One of the best of those Polish/ Italian combinations that worked for Rick and me.

Aqua e Vino: Aqua e Vino: Not just one or two Italian options on the menu, but a real Italian restaurant.

Szara Kazimierz: Refined Eastern European soul food in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz Szara Kazimierz:

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