Visiting Krakow: Krakow’s Old Town and Its Horrible History

This week, the boy and I ran away to Krakow. Because if we must accept that winter is coming, we should probably do it in a city where the chills down your neck are as likely to be from a ghost as from the weather and where you can warm up of an evening in a cafe that sells vodka instead of tea.

Krakow is a big, gorgeous mess of a city with old and new elements vying for position in its streets, Italian Renaissance facades sitting side by side with stark Communist architecture, neon signs plastered on the front of grand, crumbling mansions, all framed by the most beautiful Autumn I’ve ever seen. Seriously, visit Krakow in Autumn. I’ve never seen colours like it.

krakow city centre autumn

I could have spent my entire holiday sat here watching the leaves fall like snow.

Things To See In Krakow

We decided to sink our teeth into the city straight away and joined a walking tour of the Old Town with Free Walking Tour. I’m going to rave a lot about these guys, I promise they’re not paying me. Their tours were just really awesome. We were shown around the city by Damian, who was quirky, entertaining and ridiculously knowledgeable about Krakow’s turbulent history.

We started in the main Market Square, which is dominated by an enormous indoor market building and the beautiful St Mary’s Basilica.

st marys basilica krakow

Every hour, on the hour, a trumpet player appears at the top of the tower and plays an unfinished melody. No one knows why the melody is unfinished, although there is a flagrantly untrue legend that the trumpet player was shot by a Mongolian archer while warning the city of an oncoming invasion. I really don’t know how Poland got a reputation for being stern and serious, they’re the most whimsical bunch I’ve ever encountered and I love it.

The tour continued through the streets of the Old Town, with a quick stop at Jagiellonian University to see the twisted chimney where the devil escaped from Dr Faust.

krakow jagiellonian university

We wound down at the beautiful Wawel Castle where we marvelled at the beautiful, chaotic cathedral and heard tales of a dragon slaying shepherd boy and a runaway king. One of these stories is a legend. The other actually happened, because Poland is the greatest.

krakow wawel castle

Wawel Castle was also the site of one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen, although it didn’t happen on the first night. It happened on our last night and I literally ran across the city to see it when I saw the colour of the sky starting to change.

krakow wawel castle sunset

During the tour, Damian stuck in a little plug for a tour that his colleague Jacek was giving that night: the macabre tour. The macabre tour took place after the sun had set, giving the streets we’d wandered during the day an undeniably sinister turn, and covered the more gruesome elements of the city’s history. We learned of the sickness that swept Krakow, creating real life vampires who subsisted on bloodied meat and couldn’t go out in sunlight for fear of their delicate skin. The skeletons of these vampires were found bound in their graves, often beheaded, sometimes with the fateful stake driven through their chests. We learned about mysterious serial killers who stalked the dark streets. We learned about the ghosts of tragic women who haunt the city squares. We learned about the life of the hangman and the cruel and unusual punishments meted out by a deeply religious society. I was put in an iron collar outside the church for being a woman of sin.

krakow st mary basillica

I’m a bit of a creepy chick. I like true crime. I like ghost stories. I once tried to take Niall on a date to a pathology museum. This tour was right up my street. Jacek was funny and frightening by turn and yeah, okay, he might have been a little bit handsome. Shut up, that has nothing to do with my positive review.

Having thoroughly explored the Old Town, we spent our next free day wandering the Jewish Quarter. The quarter is lovely, full of winding streets and cafes bursting with cushions and candles. Every house looks like it could potentially be the set of the Disney Haunted Manor ride.

krakow jewish quarter

It’s quirky and kitschy and a photographer’s absolute dream.

Where to Eat and Drink In Krakow

When I’m on holiday, I generally commit to eating and drinking myself into an early grave and Krakow was no exception. We found some brilliant little places to escape the cold and warm up with a plate of dumplings, a hot chocolate or a cheeky little shot of vodka.

Cafe Botanica

This little place is directly off the main market square and it’s brilliant. We ended up there for lunch by accident, having gotten lost in the lanes surrounding the square and liked it so much that we went back for dinner the next night. It’s a funny little nook, covered in leaves and wood panelling, with a stunning mezzanine level in the back that gives the feeling of sitting outside, without the wintry temperatures.

eat & drink krakow

They also served me the best hot chocolate I’ve ever drunk, not a word of a lie. Hot chocolate in Europe seems to be quite a different creature to our hot, milky cocoa. It’s thick and creamy and almost unbearably rich. I had mine with French vanilla but there were about 10 different options, at varying levels of booziness.

eat & drink krakow

And speaking of drunk, this is the size of their wine glasses, presented without comment.

eat and drink krakow

Cafe Mlynek

This was a little B&B that we stumbled upon in the Jewish Quarter and I absolutely loved it. Seriously, I’m so booking out a room for like six months and writing my novel here.

eat and drink jewish quarter krakow

We only stopped in for tea on our last day but a German couple across from us ordered two massive breakfasts and made us both insanely jealous. The food was traditional Polish fare, with a bit of a healthy twist. Or semi-healthy. Everything appeared to be covered in cheese. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up.

Marchewka z Groszkiem

Sweet Jesus, don’t ask me to pronounce this. I like to think that the Polish people in these restaurants were charmed by our hapless mangling of their language. This was another cafe in the Jewish Quarter that we went to for lunch. It was adorably chintzy and delivered on my touristy expectations of an authentic Polish cafe: little fringed lamps, embroidered tablecloths, gigantic portions of hearty food.

eat & drink jewish quarter krakow

Niall thinks I’m an eejit.

Studio Qulinarne

Another Jewish Quarter find, we booked this place after reading about it in the Guardian because apparently we’re middle class now. Niall was horrified at how fancy it was, but that really just means anywhere with candles and tablecloths. They let us in with me in a band tshirt and Niall in his Converse so make of that what you will. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was beautiful, with draping fabric chandeliers casting soft light and a pianist providing gentle background music. I was ludicrously happy here. It was the priciest place that we had dinner but the entire meal still only came to about £50, so I’m certainly not complaining.

eating in krakow jewish quarter

Wodka Cafe Bar

This place was so awesome, I’m gutted that we didn’t get to spend a whole evening here.

vodka bar krakow poland

Located just a hop (or a stumble) away from the Market Square, this bar boasts over 100 different types of vodka. And coffee, if you’re into that sort of thing. We were not. When I asked to see the menu, the bartender laughed and gestured at the vast shelves behind him. As our tourguides on the first day had suggested, I requested that the bartender choose for me. Apparently, he’s an expert on matching people to vodkas. My kind of expert. I’m a raspberry.

vodka bar krakow poland

The vodka is served straight from the freezer in iced glasses. The bartender’s horror when I asked whether you shot the drink or sip it came as a great relief – the standard measure in Poland is 50ml. Once we’d polished off our raspberry vodkas, we decided to order a couple of pineapples. It was the special of the day, after all. The vodkas were dangerously delicious, smooth and sweet enough to be sipped straight. I felt like I should be conspiring something. The bar also offers a tasting board from six to twenty three different kinds of vodka and liqueur and if I didn’t have a flight to catch that day, you can bet that I’d have been sipping my way through one of those all evening.

Krakow is a truly wonderful place, filled with beauty and chaos and magic. I’m already missing those golden leaves and crooked alleyways and daydreaming about returning to its crumbling beauty to live as a starving artist, subsiding solely on inspiration and vodka.

Up next: our Krakow day trips!

The Happiness Project: September 2015

The Happiness Project tracks my efforts to live a happier life by relishing in the little moments of joy. Inspired by Only Do One Thing, I’ll be doing monthly roundups of my favourite happy moments from the month. Part one can be found here!

I think we’re just going to have to accept that this is going to be late every single month. But it seems fruitless to make myself miserable about a blog being late because you were too busy doing the happy-making things that the blog is about. September was a bit of an odd month, to be honest. Lots of glorious highs, including my first ever cruise, but lots of wandering around listlessly and feeling a bit aimless. So I was very grateful for my happy things. They help me to put a little bit of sparkle in each day, even when I’d really rather sulk.

Here’s what September brought!

Cosy up.

I could have cried with happiness when this came up as a nudge. I hate the cold, dark nights but I absolutely love the chance to come home, light my candles and wrap myself in a duvet. Double points if I have a pot of soup on the boil. Triple points if I have a glass of wine in my hand. On this night, we went hell for leather and, inspired by that Edinburgh cafe that went viral on Buzzfeed, made ourselves hot chocolates with a big scoop of caramel ice cream in. Yes, you do have to drink it quickly otherwise it gets cold. Yes, it is delicious. Yes, you should try it. Get a spoonful of ice cream, dunk it under the hot chocolate and shove the whole melty mess in your mouth.

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Eat the most delicious thing you can imagine and enjoy every bite.

Oh, Only Do One Thing, you don’t have to tell me twice. In my house, virtually any disaster can be soothed with the question “Shall we make meatballs for dinner?”. Once, on a particularly bad day, Niall literally scooped a miserable me off the sofa and gave me a piggy back to the shop, chanting “Meatballs! Meatballs!”. Based on the Londoner’s lovely recipe, these meatballs are best eaten scalding hot on a huge hunk of crusty bread.

Not the most photogenic dinner but definitely the most delicious.

Not the most photogenic dinner but definitely the most delicious.

Love fiercely.

This nudge made me giggle because I read it while on a totally packed bus, which I had had to get on because I was running late, having run back from my front door to give Niall another kiss goodbye. I love him fiercely, with all of my heart, every single day.

Book tickets to something.

This was a good one! I love having something to look forward to, so booking things always makes me happy. We fancied getting a bit of culture about ourselves, so we booked to see a panel featuring Yanis Varoufakis speak about alternatives to austerity. I know, check us out. It was most excellent. The man can talk.

Practice stillness.

This nudge just so happened to fall on the day of my first yoga class in months. I’m planning a whole post about why I love this class, so I shan’t say too much, but basically it’s amazing to spend a whole hour really being present in your body. To go “Oh hey body, so that’s what you’re doing now. That’s great. Well done you. Well done us. That’s how far we can go? Awesome, let’s rest there for a while”.

Non-Only-Do-One-Thing Happy Stuff

These weren’t nudges, just things that made me happy!

Going on a friend date.

Me and one of the girls from work finally broke the office-friend barrier and went out and drank a frankly obscene amount of wine. We talked about vastly inappropriate things and laughed until my face hurt and when we got peckish, we ordered a baked camembert each and a bowl of curly fries. It was glorious.

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Going on a Fiona date.

Again, I’m going to post about this, so I shan’t post too many spoilers. But Niall went away for a long weekend to visit his family, so I got all dressed up and took myself on not one but two romantic dates. If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?

What made you guys happy in September?

Cruisin’

2015 has been a great year of travel for me: starting the year in Australia, paddling off the palm of Dubai, watching the Northern Lights dance in Iceland, and now, my very first cruise!

My mum had been threatening to take me on a cruise for ages so, with me having never been on one before and the Caribbean just a little out of our price range, we decided to hop on board the luxurious P&O Britannia for a two night taster cruise to Guernsey.

P&O britannia

Britannia, casually ruling the waves.

We had roughly a two hour wait in Southampton, following probably the most incomprehensible queueing system I’ve ever experienced, so that wasn’t the best start ever to our holiday. P&O, if you’re reading it, you guys might want to work on this one. Two hours is a pretty long time when you’re only on the ship for 48. By the time we finally made it through to the ship, I was feeling pretty grumpy.

Naturally, this evaporated within about three seconds of actually getting onto the ship and I immediately started squealing, photographing everything in sight and drinking.

champagne p&o britannia cruise

The Britannia is beautiful. Obviously, I’ve never been on a cruise ship before, so I don’t know if this is par for the course on a cruise but everything was absolutely stunning. Everywhere I turned, I was faced with opulent silks and chrome so polished I could retouch my lipstick in it. The central staircase spirals through the heart of the ship, following the patterns of a dazzling chandelier. I made a mental note to run down it pretending to be Kate Winslet at every available opportunity.

britannia cruise crystal room britannia cruise

We grabbed some lunch and the obligatory glasses of prosecco when we boarded, before heading to the cocktail bar at the back of the ship for sail away.

britannia p&o southampton

Those of you who know me well will know that I’m a total water baby. I might be a Capricorn but that’s only because I jumped the gun and arrived two months early…I suspect I’ve got a good chunk of Pisces in there. There is nothing that doesn’t seem better to me after a few hours of staring at the sea or wandering along a canal. So watching the sun set over the churning water, cocktail in hand, while Southampton melted into the distance was pretty near bliss for me.

britannia cruise sunset

We were feeling pretty sleepy after the early journey to Southampton to decided to retire to our BALCONY ROOM and get ready for dinner at a leisurely pace. With more cocktails. Obviously. We were tired, not dead.

We got dressed for dinner, I nearly peed my pants when I remembered that all the food was already paid for so I could have steak with absolutely no qualms and we headed off in search of some entertainment.

After a brief stint at the casino, which saw me win exactly nothing on the roulette wheel (must have used up all my luck in Australia), we found ourselves in the Crystal Room – the ship’s sumptuous onboard ballroom. The band were incredible, working their way through a gorgeous range of covers, including a soulful Material Girl, which was probably my favourite thing ever. But what I loved about this room were the dancers. Every so often, a young couple would get up and strut their stuff and I love watching people who can dance. It makes me so very jealous. More often, though, an older couple would take to the floor and put us all to shame. I was bawling my heart out.

p&o britannia crystal room

I am very proud of this photo, so if you recognise these folks, shout!

At this point, we were both flagging a little, so we decided to hit the hay, rocked to sleep by the motion of the ship.

By the time we woke up, we had dropped anchor at Guernsey. I woke up before my mum, so dragged my duvet out onto the balcony and watched the shuttle ships taking people to and from the island. To be honest, I think I could spend two days doing that and be happy. Once mum woke up, we enjoyed a leisurely room service breakfast on the balcony, because we so fancy.

p&o britannia balcony

After breakfast, it was time to go see Guernsey! Again, the queue to get onto the shuttle boats was a bit of a nightmare. P&O, my darlings, you are bad at organising and queueing. You are very, very good at everything else, but the actual logistics were a bit of a nightmare. Fortunately, Guernsey was worth the wait.

p&o britannia visit guernsey

Having grown up on the rocks at Troon, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous harbour and Guernsey certainly didn’t disappoint. The stunning seaside disappears into beautiful, chintzy lanes, a lot like Brighton.

guernsey lanes guernsey shops guernsey harbour

We started at the sea front where, I’m not even kidding, there was a DOG FESTIVAL on. There were dogs everywhere. I nearly signed a lease then and there. Then, to avoid me being arrested for foisting myself on innocent dog owners, we wandered up to the stunning Candie Gardens.

candie gardens guernsey candie gardens guernsey

The gardens were an absolute eruption of colour – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many beautiful flowers in such a small space – and if you climb to the top, you can look all the way down to the sea. Seriously, I’m so moving here.

All too soon, it was time to head back to the Britannia. We bid Guernsey a fond farewell and promised to come back again soon. At this point, we realised that it had been at least 10 minutes since our last cocktail, so we found some ridiculously comfortable bucket chairs and had another.

p&o britannia deckI’d just like to point out the perils of taking someone like me on a food-inclusive holiday. I literally couldn’t stop eating. I was so overcome by all the options and so excited that I wasn’t being charged for any of it that I had a slice of pizza, a burger and a box of chips for my lunch. And I’d do it again.

The second night was formal night, and I jumped at the chance to get all dressed up in my Cinderella dress from the White Party.

britannia crows nest

p&o britannia crows nest

Ladies who lounge.

Dressed in our finest finery, we headed back to the restaurant for an utterly magnificent dinner. Between courses, we were treated to a champagne sorbet palette cleanser which literally made me giggle in delight and I even managed to tick off an item from this year’s bucket list – eating my first ever baked alaska!

p&o britannia restaurant

After winning yet more nothing at the casino, we wandered up to the Crow’s Nest to listen to the ship’s pianist play a variety of film and musical tunes. Sitting there, watching the sea go by, with a glass of champagne in my hand and genuinely fantastic music…I don’t think I could have wanted for anything.

p&o britannia crows nest

p&o britannia library

The rare spotted Fiona in her natural habitat.

I genuinely don’t know why cruises are an old people thing. They are awesome. I plan to drag Niall on one as soon as I have the available funds. The Britannia was absolutely brilliant and P&O looked after us like royalty. If you get the chance, get on this ship.