Well we made it back in one piece from our great European adventure to Poland and Holland. We walked a lot, saw a lot and best of all, ate a lot.
Now that we’re back in the States and are attempting to settle back into a routine, I wanted to share our adventures with you. I’ve been spending the week trying to fit the whole run down of all that we saw and did into one post, but it’s gotten a bit long winded so I’ve broken it down into two posts. One on Poland, the next will be about Amsterdam (out next week).
Why Poland? Well, it was Mike Wiz’s first time to Europe and since I’ve already covered a lot of ground in Europe, we thought it might be fun for us to go somewhere neither of us had been. Plus, with my new (married) Polish roots, it would be neat to explore. We’ve had several friends visit in recent years, so they shared their recommendations.
Our first stop in Poland was Krakow. A city relatively unscathed by WWII bombs, Krakow has a beautiful city center, boasting the largest Market Square in Europe, not to mention castles, cathedrals, cobbled streets and centuries of history. I especially loved the green spaces (the Planty) that replaced the old city walls, surrounding the city center.
Sleep: We stayed at the Orlowska Townhouse Apartments, which were recommended to us by friends. Cheaper than a hotel and more spacious, the apartments range in size and price. We stayed in the Poet’s Apartment, decorated and dedicated to famous writers. It was near the main market on a side pedestrian street so it was close to everything! They also have a French fusion restaurant on the ground floor that we hear is delicious, but we, sadly, didn’t make time for it.
Eat: One of our favorite parts of the trip was trying the street food that we came upon. Krakow offered delicious grilled kielbasa, toasted open-face baguettes, pretzels and more. Of course, we splurged on a few nice meals as well since the exchange rate was in our favor, making everything much cheaper.
We ventured to Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, twice for the amazing, zapiekanki. You can find this open-face baguette all round the city, but our favorite was at “Krowlewskie” at the little market square called Plac Nowy in Kazimierz. There is a central rotunda there housing food stalls along with some free standing grills nearby. The kielbasa in that same square was delicious. Great any time of day, lunch, dinner, late night. They were open, though depending on your timing, be prepared to wait in line.
A trip to Poland wouldn’t be complete without at least one order of delectable Polish dumplings, pierogi. We ate them several times over the course of our few days there, trying many flavors, the most traditional being sauerkraut, mushroom, and meat combinations. There were two pierogi spots down the block from our apartment, but of course you’ll find them all around the city.
On the restaurant side of things, one of our favorite splurges was Apertif. Mike Wiz and I both went with their Polish tasting menu that offered everything from goose livers in cherry liquor sauce, to pierogi, roast wild boar and even a vodka sample course. The wait staff was friendly, the atmosphere warm and welcoming. I would definitely recommend a stop there.
Sip: Of course we stopped at several bars and enjoyed a multitude of various libations, but the one that we loved the most was the Wodka Bar. I read about this as a recommendation from 36 Hours in Krakow in the NY Times and I’m so glad we stopped in. We arrived for a pre-dinner vodka tasting which was good timing since we had the bartender’s full attention. With over 100 different varieties and flavors to try, there was no way we’d make a dent in the options but our bartender did not lead us astray. We tried everything from hazelnut, to orange, quince to raspberry and more that I can’t quite remember. We learned about the herbal “Bison Grass Vodka” (Zubrowka) that is a big seller and tried “Matador” shots (plain vodka, cassis & a dash of tabasco = surprisingly tasty) thanks to an obliging (and sloshed) bachelor party.
Our friendly bartender, I think his name was Stephen, also gave us some great recommendations for other bars, restaurants and things we should try. Later that same evening, we explored his recommendations and found ourselves at Singer Bar which had a fun, local feel and where most of the tables were old Singer sewing machine tables. Needless to say, I loved this spot. The Singer Bar is located in Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, near a slew of other fun bars, and very close to the aforementioned street food.
> Wawel Castle &/or Cathedral: My recommendation here is to purchase tickets in advance, or get there first thing in the morning. We didn’t end up buying tickets to the castle because of long lines, but we did explore the beautiful cathedral, ascended the bell tower and were rewarded with great views of the city. We did walk the castle grounds and descended through the Dragon’s Den.
> Main Market Square (and underneath): The Market Square is in the heart of the pedestrian area. The square is lined with bars and restaurants of all sorts, with abundant outdoor seating and people watching. The Market Hall in the center had lots of souvenirs for your perusal, but I’d caution that they were cheesy and more pricey (though still affordable) than in other parts of town. I read that there is an underground museum under the square, but we didn’t have a chance to take it. Something for next time!
> Kazimierz (Old Jewish Quarter): This neighborhood, just a short walk from the city center, is rich in history worth exploring but it’s also got a great Saturday Market full of antique knick knacks, handmade items from local makers and food. And as I mentioned, there’s great restaurants and bars in this area.
> Wielizcka Salt Mines: We found our way to the Salt Mines via the 304 (yellow bus to the suburbs) that let’s you off right outside the entrance. The tour has a bit of kitsch to it, I’d say it’s worth a visit. You visit underground chapels and chambers, learn the lore and history behind the mine. The main chapel alone is worth the visit, made of various kinds of rock and crystal salt. Plus, you can pick up some fun salts for future meals.
> Auschwitz & Birkenau WWII Concentration/Death Camps: While it’s tough to take, this day trip is worth doing. Definitely dedicate a full day to make your way to Auschwitz & Birkenau WWII Concentration/Death Camps. It’s a three hour tour and takes an hour each way to get there. Take a mini-bus from the Krakow Bus station (just behind the main train station).
> Salt at the salt mines. It comes in many forms. We bought a few different flavored cooking salt packets to bring back to friends. They’re small and travel well.
> Vodka! We brought back Bison Grass, Hazelnut and Quince Vodka. (Up to 1 Liter per person can be carried through customs for gifts or personal use, and if you’re 21 of course).
> Paper Stars, though they’re fragile, so be careful packing and traveling with them.
> Polish Paper Cut Images.
Zakopane was our next stop on the trip. We took a bus (about 2 hours) from Krakow and wound our way up into the foothills of the Tatra Mountains. You only need a day or two in this scenic folk village. It has a ski resort town feel to it and offers great hiking routes, stunning views and some good market shopping. We arrived on a rainy fall day and made a failed attempt to explore, only to stop off in a bar and warm up by the fire. Luckily, the one full day we had there was bright and sunny. Keep in mind, it’s in the mountains so it’s chillier.
Sleep: We stayed at Hotel Litwor which was just off the main pedestrian walk and close to everything. Our room was surprisingly large for the standard European size and the staff and common rooms were warm and welcoming. Breakfast was included, offering a wide variety of international staples.
> Smoked Cheese from the stalls and carts you’ll find every few feet. Being a Wisconsin girl, I had to give it a try. It sort of reminded me of cheese curds – squeaky, salty and delicious.
> Another culinary curiosity we found at the top of the nearby mountain was this spiral pastry that you pulled apart in a long strand as you ate called Kurtosz (I think). We tried one with cinnamon and sugar, warmed up in a neat toasting contraption. It was delicious, and the dough had a bit of a lemony flavor. Perfect for an afternoon snack.
> Potato pancakes were another street food we had no problem inhaling in minutes. Deliciousl
> The restaurants lining the main pedestrian street offered lots of traditional roasted meats, smorgasbords of salads, pickles, cheeses and more. Our favorite spot was Gazdowo Kuznia, where I fell in love with the wild mushroom soup and had a hearty portion of goulash.
Sip: One of our favorite discoveries in Zakopane was warm, mulled beer. You could have it simply with mulling spices, or add honey or raspberry syrup. We had it with honey and it was fantastic. I will definitely be making a few batches this winter.
> Walk the Main Pedestrian street and explore the shops, church, traditional wooden architecture (there’s a museum a little way from town).
> Take a hike (in the warmer months). If you’re not much of a hiker, take the funicular to the top of a nearby mountain to enjoy beautiful views, tourist traps and perhaps some lunch at the restaurant.
> Ski (if you’re there in the colder months).
> Shop the market stalls at the end of the Pedestrian Walk.
> Sheepskin rugs can be found at the market. They are unbelievably cheap and come in varying sizes, shapes and colors. Be sure to leave room in your suitcase! We only bought one for 85 Zloty (the equivalent of about $27 US)
> Wooly slippers, mittens, hats, you name it. I bought a pair of folk furry slippers, they promise to make the winter much more fun.
> Fruit preserves – many of the stalls that sell the smoked cheese, also sell homemade preserves. Just be careful getting them home!
Is that long winded enough for you?! We had such a great time and took in so much that I wanted to share as much as possible, should you find yourself planning a trip to Poland. In any case, thanks for reading and stay tuned next week for our stop in Amsterdam!