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Krakow; The City of Amber and Literature

Recently, I have been re-living my time in Krakow through subtle reminders in recent events. From cultural similarities found in a recent trip to Budapest to the series on BBC 1’s ‘World On Fire’ or news few weeks ago, where Krakow was named the best city break destination in Europe for a 3rd time running. I see why.

So I decided to re-live memories in the way I know how to do best.

We had arrived the former Capital mid-afternoon on a beautiful winter Wednesday evening. The sun was just setting in this cold winter city, South of Poland. The energy of the eastern chill biting in its usual welcoming pattern, translating shorter days to longer dark, cold nights. The solstice still a week away.

I said to Neil, “I cannot survive here”. He responded saying “you absolutely can”. I sighed wondering why I decided to come at this time of the year. We usually have these winter pre-Christmas European jaunts where we aim to visit Christmas markets in Eastern Europe. It’s become our couple tradition.

I wondered how I was going to survive this biting freeze for the next 4-5 nights. My health condition does not do well with adverse cold weather conditions. Temperatures had dropped to -16 to even -20.

We arrived our hotel, the Grand Hotel, Krakow, it was a welcoming embrace of warmth, away from the chilly bite of the evening.

The Grand Hotel is about a century old, beautiful and traditionally conserved. It had a post Victorian interior with low hanging grand chandeliers; very ornate and golden. There were a couple of vintage telephones in the lobby, other furniture persevered in form. The rooms were huge, classically decorated in a truly grand vintage style. The room had a comfortable lounge area, a queen size bed and a spacious bathroom. The windows were bay-like but not specifically, very high up the ceiling. They were huge. Each morning, I would sit on top of them and watch the world go by, peering through the window panes or just read a few pages of my novels right after breakfast.

It was so European.

It reminded me of my time in France and how much I adored Juliet Balconies especially in le Provence. Its become one of my little favorite quirks.

So after unpacking and getting warmed up, we wander into town, first into the Christmas markets. The market, Rynek Glowny, is the largest market square in Europe, so it appears. There were food stalls, cafes and coffeehouses, mulled wine stalls, shops, horse and carriages, arts and crafts, Christmas décor, everything.

It was so cold, I certainly couldn’t feel my face. The markets were well lit. It was beautiful. There were street lights, fairly lights, Christmas lights and candle lights. The varying colors of light illuminated against the stalls and this brought a lot of color and life to this cute town square. It was beyond magical.

After a bit of short lived wanderlust resulting from the biting chill, we stopped for some traditional Polish dumplings and some seasonal hot sizzling winter soup. The dumplings were one of the tastiest things I have ever eaten in my life. Too tasty I ordered some more. Blending with street food culture, we stood and ate in the freezing cold as there was hardly anywhere to perch. The town was buzzing. They were Europeans, Americans, and Australians, name it. It gave me joy that people still love travelling even to countries in the East of Europe notwithstanding the unpleasant harsh winter weather.

There was a light rain, some music in the background and the Christmas lights shone so brightly, contrasting against the cold nights. It brought everything to life. Neil warmed my palm - each at a time as I removed my gloves to take each mouthful of a very hot watering spoon of soup. And eventually some mulled wine.

Thinking about that moment, I would say it probably would make the list of best romantic travel moments between us.

The beauty of memories eh?

Then there was Auschwitz…

2018, 14th December, at 9:41 a.m, I am seated in the coach heading to Auschwitz, completely lost in translation and trapped in my anticipation which stemmed from a choice to go see what I read in the history books. Not knowing how to frame my thoughts, what to expect, how I would feel. I felt weak, cold and my heart raced.

Transported physically and lost in my own world as I travel through snowy roads, woodlands, empty fields and quiet towns from Krakow, headed west to the prisoner camps wondering what the journey was like for some of the Jewish Poles who may have traveled these roads and were deported to the concentration camps in thousands.

We arrived. We explored. We saw. We paid our respects.

It was jarring, absolutely goring, too dark to put into words.

It was one hell of an unfathomable day. I had no words. But in minus temperatures, the least I could do was walk those hours in the concentration camps of the innocent Jews, Poles, Gypsies and others who were tortured, murdered and exterminated for no reason.

It was the least I could do.

My heart was too heavy

1.3 million people – one country!




I guess we will never understand the depth of the heart of man.

Well, there lies the difference between reading the history books and experiencing or visiting these sites.

The reality is profound.

It’s a reminder that life is fragile and everything else is mundane as hell.

No words. It’s all too cold, dark, morbid and sobering.

I had to down lots of reds that night with Neil as we decided to try not to dwell on things we saw and heard and read.

So after getting all the morbid stuff out, the rest of our trip consisted of visiting the Grand medieval Royal Castle overlooking the banks of Vistula river, the National Museum, Schindler’s Enamel Factory, the Salt Mines, Florian’s Gate and the Defend Trail, St Mary’s Cathedral, more time at the Market square and the fascinating Cloth House. We also wandered the Old Jewish Quarters and stopped for snacks and a drink.

One thing I noticed was that there was a lot of Amber in Krakow. Beautiful Amber in shops, in jewelry stones, just everywhere in your face- whether it was Oskar or Baltic Amber, it’s embedded in an inextricable history of Krakow so I had to buy a little piece in jewelry for keepsake.

On our penultimate night, we decided to dine in style in a beautiful restaurant called Szara Ges. It was located bang in the middle of the market square; a restaurant termed ‘The Essence of Polish Cuisine’, apparently Michelin starred. We found it wandering the town the day before and thought we could try it for dinner. We did.

The food was absolutely divine. I had a candle lit, warm and cosy 3 course dinner with my buh, celebrating love and travel on a crisp white table cloth with beautiful wine, a bunch of perfectly cut and arranged floral red roses, superb for the winter vibe, dim lights, as the restaurant played a beautiful low-toned playlist of the dreamiest and finest Christmas Carols. God, it was one of the most elegant and romantic nights of my life. We marveled at the culinary excellence, the gorgeous décor and the perfection of fine dining.

We discussed visiting a beautiful town in Poland called Nysa but time was of the essence.

Did you know Krakow was listed as the European Capital of Culture in 2000?

Krakow also really reminded me a lot of Prague and a little of Reykjavik.

And guess what, even a fact closer to my heart is that the beautiful city is listed as a UNESCO city of literature, so says the hopeless litterateur.

But Krakow is not just the City of Literature, it’s got compelling history, its history on WWII and the occupation of the Nazi Germany. It’s got remarkable European architecture, a reputable streak of film on a local site and its call to Hollywood fame, the ‘Game of Thrones’, certainly a rich culture on film and theatre, poetry and the arts, history, art deco, and noveau, beer and Vodka, culture and food (especially those Pierogi dumplings and Polish sausages). We had some special tea and cakes brought up to us complimentary of the Grand Hotel on our last night and watched ‘Love Actually’ before bed and I was graced by the city’s beauty.

Thank you Krakow.

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copyright © 2020 june okochi