Welcome to Kraków

When the alarm shattered the silence at 3.20am it felt as if we had only been asleep for 10 minutes, as we blearily opened our eyes in the darkened Travel Lodge room. Straightaway I put the kettle on and made some coffee; we would have to wait until we were at the airport before having any breakfast.

We got washed, dressed and packed, looked around the room to ensure we hadn’t forgotten anything, and left the hotel just before 4.00am. A light rain (what we call a ‘mizzle’ in the North, i.e. mist+drizzle) was falling and I was glad I’d packed my cagoule in my carry-on bag. We loaded our stuff into the car and drove the short distance to the long-stay car park. Dropping the keys in at the reception, we were just in time to get the shuttle bus.

We had never flown from or into Edinburgh Airport and we were surprised at how big it was; certainly a lot bigger than Newcastle. As we approached the airport building we could already see the one-way system in place and the signs everywhere advising people to maintain social distancing and wear a mask at all times whilst in the airport terminal.

The queue at the EasyJet luggage drop desk was quite short (we’d already checked in and printed our boarding passes before leaving home) so, once we’d got rid of our cases, we went through security until we were airside. At this point we decided we’d try and find somewhere that was open where we could get something to eat and drink, which was quite difficult as most places were closed at this time of the morning, and the ones that were planning on opening would not do so before 5.00am. There was a Wetherspoons which stayed stubbornly closed, a Burger King which was also closed and a depressing-looking series of vending machines selling water and soft drinks.

Eventually we found a Costa Coffee that was open and we bought ourselves the unlikely breakfast of Heineken beer and a millionaire’s shortbread for me, and beer and a cheese toastie for Trevor. I also purchased a bottle of water to keep myself hydrated on the aircraft.

Soon the call for boarding appeared on the departure board, and we made our way to the EasyJet designated gate and joined the quick-moving queue to board. We were exciting at our first trip away this year, very unusual for us when we usually go on holiday three or four times a year. 🙂

The aircraft took to the skies on time, and we settled back for the 2 hours 10 minutes flight. Once we’d reached cruising height the refreshments trolley appeared, which I was surprised at because I had thought they would not be serving food and drink on a reasonably short flight, in order to avoid passengers having to remove their masks. But we enjoyed a coffee each and a small canister of Pringles (strange breakfast indeed!) then, when the trolley made its return journey along the aisle we had a cold beer each, as we were now slowly getting into the holiday mood. 🙂

Before landing, we had to complete our Passenger Locator Form with our contact details, a mandatory chore without which we would not be allowed to leave the airport. All part of the Track & Trace system, where they are supposed to keep an eye on people’s movements around the globe and advise them if they come into contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19.

We touched down at Pope John Paul II International Airport, Kraków, 20 minutes ahead of schedule and taxied along to the arrivals gate. I was disappointed to see that it was raining (!) as the weather in Poland recently had been sunny and warm. It didn’t take long to go through security, and we arrived at the luggage carousel at the exact time our cases appeared, so no waiting around there either. A bit different from our arrival into LAX last October, which took just under three hours to process via the US immigration system. 🙂

Putting up the hood of my cagoule, we trundled our bags to the airport exit, where we met Mike, the Newmarket Holidays rep. Only one other bloke, who we later found out was called Frank, had also come in on our flight from Edinburgh, so the three of us were directed to a private hire car which took us on the 45 minute ride to our hotel, the Golden Tulip, in Krakow-Kazimierz.

The main entrance to the hotel (and the back entrance, for that matter) were only accessible by a gate, and you had to press the buzzer to announce your arrival, or use your room card. The rain had abated quite a lot by now, and the sky looked a lot brighter; the forecast was for it to be fair this afternoon (good!) 🙂

The hotel was in a fantastic location, walking distance from most of Kraków’s attractions, and in a street containing many bars, restaurants and shops. We couldn’t wait to explore this, our 90th country. 🙂

We checked in and had to wait in the lobby for 20 minutes or so before our second-floor room was ready, all the time wearing our mask. Looking around we could see the entrance to the dining room, as well as a cocktail bar. Each of the entrances had hand-sanitizer dispensers nearby, as did the entrance to the lifts, which only allowed one person at a time, unless you were sharing a room.

Once in our room we thankfully removed our masks and had a single thought; an hour’s nap to make up for the very early start. We emptied our cases and hung up the few items of clothing we had brought for our 4-night stay, then I set the timer on my phone to go off in an hour’s time, and we settled down in the clean cotton sheets.

When we woke up it was about 12.30pm and, looking out of the window, we could see that the rain had stopped and the sun was tentatively trying to peep through. I freshened up a bit and then we decided to explore our immediate surroundings and go and have a spot of lunch somewhere.

Off we went along the street, looking in the windows of the shops (one of which was a Spar, just down the road from the hotel) and we soon came to an inviting-looking restaurant called Pierwszy Stopien; it contained lots of greenery and exposed brickwork and contained wooden chairs and tables with glass candle holders. As we went in, we were greeted by a friendly mask-wearing waitress and we confirmed we’d like a table for two.

We noticed that they were offering a lunchtime three-course set menu, so we placed our order and decided to sample a Polish beer, ordering a pint of Tyskie each. I ordered a thick asparagus soup garnished with fresh cream and chopped pistachio nuts, while Trevor enjoyed a chunky tomato soup.

For the main course, I had delicious stuffed red peppers which contained barley, onions and carrots amongst other things, served with a mixed salad. Trevor tried the steamed Russian dumplings.

Then we had a traditional Polish dessert which was something like cake with a fruit puree on top. It was all excellent value for money, coming to just over £13.00 for both of us. Currently there are five Polish złotys to the pound, and everything we’d seen so far seemed remarkably cheap.

After our delicious lunch we set off to explore the area. We walked along the uncrowded street to the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, and came to a square containing Isreali restaurants and Jewish bookshops, as well as a synagogue; the iron railings separating the square from the main road had Stars of David contained within the metal work. We came across a life-size statue of a man sitting on a bench, a nearby plaque proclaimed him to be Jan Karski, an emissary of the Polish people in German-occupied Poland in 1940-43, who tried to prevent the Holocaust. He lived from 1914-2000 and was given the accolade of “Righteous among the Nations” and became an honorary citizen of Israel. Trevor sat down on the bench next to the statue and I took his photo. 🙂

We walked a bit further along and came to a large, cream-coloured building set back from the road among some trees; a path led to the entrance which claimed it to be the Kupa Synagogue. It cost 10 złotys (a couple of quid) each to go inside, which was classed more as a donation than an entry fee. We decided to see what it was like, as I had never been in a synagogue before.

The Kupa synagogue was founded in 1643, so it was over 300 years old. It was richly decorated with paintings, wall decorations and featured a fantastically ornate ceiling, painted in subtle browns, blue, cream, white and beige, which depicted scenes from the Bible. Around the edge of the upper gallery (from which you could enter the women’s section) were the 12 signs of the zodiac. There was also a large bima (a big centrally-placed pulpit for reading Tora scrolls) as well as a double seat next to the bima for the person holding the scrolls. In addition, there were several long tables and benches which were used for dining on feast days.

We had a good look round, spending about half an hour inside the synagogue. On the leaflet we were given by the lady who took our money at the door was the notice:

In Judaism the synagogue is used only for prayer, learning and religious purposes… it is forbidden to use the synagogue as, for instance, shelter against the rain or the sun or to visit it only to fill your curiosity. That is why visitors are requested to make a short prayer to the Creator of the world, the Host of this building, of whom they are guests at this moment.

I don’t know many prayers off by heart, except the Lord’s Prayer, so I stood under the chandelier and recited that. 🙂

Once outside again, we walked along the pleasant streets, looking at the interesting architecture and the characterful shops, restaurants, bars and pavement cafés. The weather was bright and pleasant now, so we decided to have a drink at one of the bars, called Beer Street, which had some pleasant parasoled tables and chairs outside, at which small groups of (socially distanced) people sat.

Trevor ordered the drinks while I went to use the loo, and we spent a relaxing interlude sitting outside for a while, talking about the strange times we have been experiencing in 2020, and how we were lucky finally to get away on holiday somewhere, even if only for a short time.

Afterwards we walked back along to the hotel, stopping at the Spar to get some beer and wine to enjoy in our hotel room later on. 🙂

We then spent some time pottering around in our room, reading, watching TV (there was only one news channel in English, the rest of the channels were in Polish) and relaxing. At around 6.30pm I got washed and changed, and we decided to go back to the Pierwszy Stopien restaurant for our dinners; we had enjoyed it so much at lunchtime and we’d also seen some impressive-looking burgers being served, so we thought we try one of those. 🙂

We were greeted by the same smiling waitress (at least I assumed she was smiling under her mask) and shown to a table surrounded by lots of greenery, pot plants and glass candle-holders. There were more people in than there had been at lunchtime, and the atmosphere was relaxed and happy, that of family and friends breaking bread together. We each ordered the special burger and Trevor chose a Tyskie beer while I decided to have an Aperol Spritz.

The burgers were massive! They came in a triple-decker toasted bun and contained lettuce, tomato, onion and a special sauce, and were served with plump dill pickles and chunky chips. It was quite a struggle to finish the meal, and once again it was excellent value for money.

We then decided to try to walk off some of the calories by crossing the Vistula river and exploring further afield. We went across a bridge over what is a very wide river, as night was beginning to fall and the lights from the riverside buildings were reflecting on the rippling water. We saw a large boat that had evidently been converted to a restaurant and/or night club, and the sky was lit up by a large ferris wheel, the spokes and hub of which subtly changed colour. I can never resist going on a ferris wheel, so we each paid our 25 złotys and took our seats in one of the capsules.

Off we went, up and up, and enjoyed stunning views over the Vistula (also called the Wisła (pronounced Vizwa) in Polish) and the twinkling lights of Kraków. We had three revolutions of the ‘big wheel’ before we came to a stop and the sliding doors of our capsule opened.

As we walked along the riverside, we saw a large, interesting tethered balloon. It wasn’t a hot-air balloon and, at first, we thought it was just one of those advertising balloons you sometimes see, until we spotted a gondola underneath that was clearly big enough to hold people; in fact, a small queue had formed of people waiting to board. We stood and watched a while, then discovered you could buy tickets for the balloon at a nearby kiosk, it worked out at about 11 quid each for 10 minutes, but they stopped ‘flights’ at 8.00pm and it was five to eight now, and the last ascent was about to commence. We knew what we’d be doing tomorrow night! 🙂

As we watched, the balloon slowly lifted off; it was tethered by a steel cable which was wound around a revolving drum which allowed it to be paid out at a constant rate, leading to a smooth ascent. It went up to about 300 feet, glowing a pale blue in the darkened sky; from a distance it looked like a large, glowing moon, as you couldn’t see the cable.

We set off walking back to the hotel, as it was starting to get a bit chilly now, and we were still a little tired after our early start (and the hour’s time difference). We arrived back at the Golden Tulip around nine o’clock, and decided to open the beer and wine we’d bought at the Spar. I got washed and into my ‘jamas and enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine while reading my Kindle. I am reading the true-crime book Children who Kill by Carol Ann Lee; it is an interesting (although somewhat disturbing) anthology of child murderers (and murderers who are children), such as Thompson and Venebles, and Mary Bell.

At 10.30pm I could hardly keep my eyes open any more and we settled down for our first night in Poland. We had to be up at seven o’clock tomorrow for breakfast at eight, and we slept very well.

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