On a warm night, in the Rynek Glowny, the main square of Kraców, with the rain pouring down; lightning forming a cat’s-cradle over Wawel castle, the ancient seat of the Polish kings; the lights glittering on the surface of the Vistula; the great edifice of the cloth-hall lit up like some noble palace; skilled guitarists busking for a few złoty; flirting teenagers sitting on the base of the statue of the poet Mickiewicz; Kraców is a surreal place.
One could cite the architecture, the friendliness of the people, even the museums as a reason to consider Kraców one of the great cities of Europe. Personally, I would rather consider the foremost of those reasons the food, for the most surreal of places also proves to be a gastronome’s delight.
A great staple of the Cracovian diet is street food. On every street corner there is a temporary stall, set up every morning and dismantled every evening, selling nothing but large, doughy pretzels. Likewise, further out towards the suburbs, there are stalls selling flame-cooked sausages and black-puddings. One of these bore the legend “open: 20.00-3.00”. Moreover, the patrons of these establishments are not just visitors but locals too, demonstrating the sheer love of such things in this city.
Slightly less temporary is the rotunda (affectionately nicknamed ‘the saucepan’ by locals) in the Plac Nowy, the centre of the Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter of the city. Perhaps ten or twelve eateries operate from this small building, selling simple, warming food such as baguette pizzas no less than twelve inches long and blanched sausage in white borsch soup. The square has a wonderful atmosphere, hosting a small souvenir market every day, and a much larger one at weekends.
Another restaurant of note is U Babci Maliny, which possesses an easily recognisable frontage on the Ul Szpitalna (‘U Babci Maliny’, translated from Polish, means ‘the raspberry grandmother’, which is a small hint). Inside, this subterranean institute of the city is filled with boxing paraphernalia, and different rooms are decorated in styles varying from the interior of a late-renaissance ballroom to a thatched hut. The menu here is vast and all-encompassing, featuring such local classics as Goulash stew (served inside a stale loaf of bread), beetroot borsch and Pierogi, curious dumplings which resemble ravioli and are served either boiled or fried. Either proves delicious. Some odder items are also served, mostly on the dessert menu, which includes raspberry pancakes with walnut mousse (strange but wonderful) and hot Viennese cheesecake (curdled and not nearly so pleasant).
As well as pretzels and sausages, the cracovian is not adverse to conveniently-placed sweet treats. Small ice-cream shops abound, selling almost every flavour imaginable from Pistachio to Papaya. A blueberry ice-cream is well worth trying. Also common are small bakeries, such as those on the Ul Grzegórzecka and Ul Sławkowska. There are some curious combinations available in these small, shelved shops: some more eclectic examples are a Danish pastry with poppy-seeds, a coconut croissant with caramel and, perhaps the strangest, an iced bun containing apricot and rose-water.
However, the most notable thing about the food in Kraców is its price. A three-course meal for five people can cost only the equivalent of around thirty pounds. Fresh fruit is perhaps a tenth of the price it is in Britain, and relatively exotic meats such as wild boar, rabbit and venison only cost a little more than those which are more common.
Of course, the choice of restaurants is vast: around seven hundred are thought to exist within the city boundaries. Chata on Ul Krowoderska offers a wonderful highlander pork-chop, filled with mountain cheese, as well as décor resembling a Lapp hut somewhere near the North Pole. For the slightly less carnivorous, the Spaghetteria Penne on Franciszkańska is a charming little bistro offering plastic tubs of fresh pasta with such toppings as pesto and chilli. Starka on the Ul Jozefa serves a decadent breaded camembert with cranberries stewed in red wine and Cracovian potatoes, for slightly higher (though still miniscule) cost and slightly smaller portions. Interestingly, ‘Cracovian potatoes’ are a common side dish served in almost every restaurant, but there seems to be no definitive method for preparation: they can be boiled whole, fried in wedges or anything else, depending upon the establishment.
All in all, Kraców is a wonderful city, full of culture and of course good food. One would perhaps expect it, by its status as Poland’s second city, to be industrial and grey. Nothing could be further from the truth. The city has a wonderful coffee-house culture, and an atmosphere which few others can best. All year round, the centre is filled with children of all ages on school-trips, using the city as a base from which to visit Wawel castle, Auschwitz, Oskar Schindler’s Deutsche Emaillewarenfabrik factory. The strange thing is, none of these children whatsoever are British. Which raises the question: why don’t schools send their pupils to Kraców? It is a city of history and culture, and I can think of few places in the world better prepared to keep hyperactive children in food. The answer is, I think, only known to a few people, but I would be most interested to know it.