It was going to be Gemma’s 29th birthday and we wanted to celebrate properly.
We’d never been to Poland before, or in fact anywhere this close to Eastern Europe, and we had no idea what to expect. All we knew about Poland was that the Polish people we’d met in England had always been nice, so we figured Poland would probably be nice. It was pretty simple logic.
Should we book a room in the big hotel with a pool and sauna? Or should we book the weird looking one with the themed rooms? This was our dilemma. One looked boring but had, and I can’t stress this enough, an inside pool in a cold country in winter, and Gemma does not like cold much. The other looked interesting and had… Well it looked interesting. They cost the same and we’d normally always pick the interesting one, but what if it rained on our 3 day mini break? A pool would be ideal! Then Becky, our friend, came round and picked for us.
We pulled up to our weird looking hotel with the themed rooms, and instantly knew we (Becky) had made the right choice. Our music themed room was spacious, the lady at reception helped us to pronounce some of the Polish phrases we’d learnt, and there was a restaurant in a cave downstairs that did traditional Jewish Polish food. Who needs a pool right? It was probably going to be sunny anyway.
Kraków is a delight to simply wonder around. We took in the Jewish quarter expecting the terrible history to dominate and loom over the area, but instead we found a real air of romanticism on every street. Music can be heard from most restaurants, the roads are mainly cobbled and narrow, and all the bars are that warm type of dark that feels lovely when it’s cold outside. There are monuments of the holocaust scattered around, and rightly so, but they serve as a remembrance in a now thriving part of town.
We tried on our first day to take a stroll in the medieval part of the city, but (whilst showing off to Gemma my amazing map reading skills) I managed to get us lost and we ended up at a castle. On the third day we had planned to take a stroll to the castle, but (again, whilst demonstrating to Gemma my impeccable sense of direction) I managed to get us lost and we ended up in the medieval part of the city. Kraków, I can only assume, was built backwards.
We never actually went into the castle. The whole city was freezing so instead we went back to the Jewish quarter where our hotel was for food and drinks. Food in Kraków is like food in London – amazing, but mainly because you can get different types of cuisine from all over the world. You can eat a decent Mexican, Indian, Italian, Thai or, of course, Polish meal in the city. Gemma’s a big fan of spicy food, which polish food isn’t, but it’s still pretty spectacular in my opinion. Pierogi are dumplings which are soft and meaty, kielbasa are huge sausages (perfect street food for the cold weather), and oscypek is hot smoked cheese which is hard around the outside and cooked in markets, and I loved it all. We also bought the biggest bagel I’ve ever seen for the equivalent of 40p. Kraków felt like winning.
And it wasn’t just the food, the flavoured vodka was something else. It was nothing like Revolution in England – each bottle of vodka had been made with the real ingredients (one bar in particular had a wall of bottles filled with obscurities in Vodka). Honey vodka was made with honey, pepper vodka had peppercorns in it, Whisky vodka may as well have been whisky, and I think the absinth vodka may have been the strongest thing I’ve ever tasted. They all sound horrible, but they’re made in a way which makes sipping a few shots all night really enjoyable. We also tried lemon, strawberry, orange, blackberry, blueberry and several others, but it all gets a bit hazy towards the end… Our favourite bar was the Singer bar, which had old Singer sewing machines on all the tables, and a warm fire to drink by.
Day 2 was a more sombre affair. You can’t go to Kraków without also visiting Auschwitz, or to be more accurate, you could, because Kraków is beautiful. But although we only had 3 days and a Nazi concentration camp didn’t sound like the most relaxing way to spend a holiday, we figured that the holocaust, and its victims deserve to be remembered. The trip takes an entire day and is absolutely heart-breaking. Even though we’d both been taught about it at school, we learnt an awful lot from actually being there. The museum is spread across the whole camp and is both informative, and horribly atmospheric. I won’t talk too much about the trip other than to say the extent of what happened there is completely unfathomable, and going there really makes you realise the scary reality of a great deal of Europe at that time. It’s also probably worth visiting Oscar Schindler’s factory which is now a museum… I say probably because we got there as it was closing.
Our last day in Kraków was Gemma’s 29th birthday and she was panicking. In a year she was going to be 30. It didn’t matter how much I pointed out to her that in another 71 years she’d be 100, she really did seem to only care about this 30 number. It rained all day (damn you Becky!!!) so instead of full on sightseeing we thought we’d do a cultured pub crawl in which, after every pub, we’d visit a museum or landmark of some sort. I couldn’t name the pubs we visited, but we did visit the Barbican (a circular building that I wanted to see because it looks like a dumpy monster), a chocolate factory, the market building in the medieval square, a little dragon guarding a castle and St. Mary’s clock tower when it hit the hour (this is exciting because instead of chiming, some guy runs around the top of the tower playing a bugle – it was odd, but something Krakównians (!?) are very proud of).
With every drink between the culture, Gemma kept remembering that she was 29. “You don’t do this at 29” she said, “I shouldn’t be day drinking at 29, that’s like half my life over” (which surprised me as I was expecting her to live well over 58. She seemed pretty sure though so I guess I’ll have to deal with it). She was struggling… And then, as we were in the Hard Rock Cafe, the rain started coming down harder than before. If only we had that pool.
But we didn’t. What we had was only a pocket full of change, a sprightly 28 year old (me) and a tipsy 29 year old (Gemma)… oh, and I had an idea. All up the Main Street in Kraków there were people dressed as butterfly’s advertising a butterfly museum and I’d been hankering to go since we’d got to Kraków. One person in a butterfly costume and I’m sold apparently. But now we had a reason to go, butterfly’s need warmth, and we needed warmth. It was basic maths really.
The word museum is a generous word for what I would describe as an office with a portable heater and a bug infestation. When we went up the stairs in search of the museum we ended up in someone else’s office space where a smiley man told us that the butterflies were next door. As he opened the door we were confronted with 2 manic ladies trying to catch an escaped butterfly. Once inside the only slightly warmer than it was outside room we got to see lots of butterfly’s (some were alive, most were dead) and shown around the singular room by a lady who didn’t really know enough English to talk to us (and fair play, we didn’t know any Polish either). At one point she put 2 docile butterflies on each of mine and Gemma’s hands and wondered off. We looked at each other, was it a trap? Now we couldn’t leave. Having persuaded Gemma to check out this museum, I felt like such a good husband. “Happy 29th!” I said with a half-smile.
Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly wouldn’t recommend the butterfly museum, but I’m glad we didn’t have the pool as it would’ve been an easy out, and if we’d never have seen that museum there’s a chance I’d have spent the rest of my life wondering what was in it (sadly, this is actually true). If you go to Kraków though, don’t be fooled, the best part of that museum is the people in costumes outside.
We spent the evening in Kraków’s warm bars, and enjoyed a celebratory birthday steak in a pretty fancy restaurant with a bottle of wine. Of course at the end of the meal we were given some complimentary vodka, and that got us in the mood to go to another bar… God I love Poland.
At about 3am I woke up to the sound of the bathroom door opening and Gemma coming out, “been sick” she said, “that’s not what you’re supposed to do at 29 now is it?”