Gems of Eastern Europe – Krakow Castles, Amber, Bagels, Paczki!

Welcome to my corner……of the world! It’s a great pleasure to join The Travel Mechanic team as a monthly guest blogger!

I invite you to travel along with me through my blog articles and many pictures. My love for travel started at a very early age through the wonderful opportunity to live, grow up and go to school in England. The experience was life-changing, and it was the catalyst for my long-time passion of exploring the beautiful and interesting places that other people call home.

I’ve often said that I’m a Western Europe traveler – however, after a recent trip to Krakow and Budapest, I am expanding that statement! I have visited the Czech Republic and Austria in the past, but this was my first foray into Poland and Hungary. It was an eye-opening adventure into medieval cities, traditional cuisine (did you ever wonder where jelly doughnuts originated?), stunning architecture, world-changing history.

On arrival in Krakow, it was immediately evident that this was a unique city. Many people compare the city to Paris or Vienna or Venice, but Krakow has its own distinctive character. Our hotel was in the center of the Old Town on the main square which is a feast for the eyes. The largest medieval town square in Europe, it boasts the magnificent St. Mary’s Basilica church and the very expansive Renaissance Cloth Hall with seemingly endless stalls of Polish crafts, wooden dolls, lace and amber. Outside, there are flower stalls selling beautiful bouquets at very reasonable prices. Horse-drawn carriages line the square and provide an up-close tour of the Old Town. Yes, the first thing we did was to take a carriage ride! The square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes with cuisine ranging from traditional Polish to Italian to TexMex!

Here’s a hint – the locals must LOVE Italian food because there are three or four pizzerias on every block!

Luxury travel

DINING:

Polish cuisine was surprising and not at all what I expected. While the traditional foods are very popular, we had light-as-a-feather Pierogies with elegant fillings as well as delicate herbed Borscht. Yes, that’s still beet soup, but trust me, you will enjoy it! I didn’t think I’d ever have a jelly doughnut as good as one in New York. However, I found that this is where they originated! Known as Paczki, there are fillings of many flavors from lemon to chocolate to the most traditional one – rose jam which is dark red with a unique flavor. I guarantee that it’s delicious! The traditional topping is orange zest glaze although some have powdered sugar. I quickly became a Paczki-tasting expert! The other very popular snack is the bagel which is sold throughout the city at small carts, and the production of the bagel is as protected and regulated as the French baguette. It is a staple of the Krakow diet.

SHOPPING:

If you have wished for a piece of amber, you will find your heart’s desire in Krakow! Shops selling every type of amber jewelry are in each corner of the city. You will also find stand after stand of amber in Cloth Hall. There is, of course, wide variation in quality so you want to be a discerning shopper. I found very good quality stones at the Amber Museum and adjoining shop just off the main square. You can learn about the history and sources of Baltic amber while you are shopping!

SIGHTSEEING:

The 14th century Wawel Castle dominates the city. It is an architectural treasure with its many towers and cupolas of beautiful colors. It houses many Polish precious artifacts and is the cultural center of the city. St. Mary’s Basilica is adjacent to the main square and is an impressive Gothic structure. Its focal point is the magnificent 14th century carved altarpiece which is the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world.

About 20 miles outside of Krakow is the Wieliczka Salt Mine and a visit and tour is a unique opportunity. Be sure to book tickets in advance since the groups are highly regulated to minimize the impact of visitors to the mine. We made a reservation through Viator which included transportation from our hotel and all tickets which are strictly timed.

We knew that there were hundreds of steps down into the mine – about 600 total! – so be sure you are up to that.  It’s a worthwhile experience and a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the mine. There are also many beautiful salt sculptures that range from the classic to the whimsical, so it’s an artistic experience too.

One big surprise is that you can get married in “the cathedral” in the mine! The bridal party, however, does not need to walk down all those steps – there is an elevator. However, the elevator feels like being in a narrow mine shaft and, after riding it up out of the mine, I think I’ll walk next time!   You can also purchase many varieties of salt in the gift shop – I bought coarse salt with herbes de Provence.

I cannot fail to mention the fact that the Nazi concentration camp and Memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau is about 50 miles from Krakow. I did not visit; friends who did said it was a profound and wrenching experience. Traveling in Eastern Europe made me realize the inextricable link to the tragic history of the Jewish people in the 20th century.

TIP: the local currency is the Polish Zloty (PLN) and the exchange rate at present is approximately 4 PLN to the American Dollar or to the Euro. It’s definitely advantageous to have local currency since you are charged a premium for using Euros. The good news is that the cost of food and goods is not high in Poland. Two people can share a pizza and have two glasses of wine for under 50 PLN (about $12)

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