Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A pleasant surprise behind the Iron Curtain: Poland - Wroclaw and Krakow

Poland is somewhat off the beaten path of places you hear people frequent in Europe.  I honestly had no idea what to expect from our visit to Poland, but it has become one of my favorite trips of our grand European adventures.  As a part of Eastern Europe, I was left wondering what we would find.  I kept my mind open and prepared for a trip to the unknown. Our entire stay in Poland left me pleasantly surprised.  The sights were beautiful and plenty, but we fell in love more with the feel of this country through the people, the food, and the culture.

We did this trip again by car as we continue to await the arrival of Baby C's passport.  Our destination was Krakow, and to break up the trip, we decided to stop in Wroclaw (or Breslau in German) for a night as well. The drive was pretty simple from our home near Bamberg.  We were lucky, too, that our kids tend to travel pretty well in the car - at least for now (moms out there realize this is a statement that can change with the seasons!).  I read all sorts of warnings online about how difficult it was to drive in cities in Poland.  I guess we are accustomed to driving in Europe because it really didn't seem all that bad (the Poles are no where near as erratic as the French).  

Our arrival into Wroclaw was a little crazy.  Baby C was done with the car, and we were facing a challenge trying to find parking near our hotel as we navigated the streets amidst the heart of the city with a screaming baby.  Oh, the joys of traveling with little ones! Having a car was a nice way to do this trip although it made finding a hotel slightly more difficult. We like to stay in the center of things because it's just plain easier with the kids that way, but that also means we need to find hotels or B&Bs with parking options.  We stayed at Hotel Duet, and it was exactly what we needed for our short stay.  If you are looking for an affordable, family friendly hotel just a short walk outside of the main square, this is a great location.  They also had parking available for a nominal fee in a monitored lot just outside the hotel.

After getting settled in, we ventured out to discover Wroclaw (we had the worst time pronouncing the name of this town - the hotel clerk said it for us and I kid you not it sounds like "ruff-ruff"!).  The Germans called this town Breslau when it was part of Germany (a little bit easier to pronounce, but not exactly proper to call it that anymore).  Just like the rest of Poland, it was behind the Iron Curtain until the Cold War ended. It always amazes me to see how well these countries recovered both from the World Wars and living under communism.  Wroclaw is a university town and it is thriving with life from tourists, students, and people that are proud to call this town their home.

The weather actually cooperated for us on this trip. If anything, it was a little on the warm side. I just love Europe in the summer. I think it's because Europe spends so much time in the dark and in the rain throughout the winter, that everything comes alive when the temperatures warm up and the sun is out for close to 15 hours or more a day.  There were several times on this trip where I would take a deep breath and appreciate the moment as the environment around me came alive with music, beautiful colors, laughter and conversation.

Here are some pictures to show how amazing the little town of Wroclaw really is:

The Ryneck or central square in Wroclaw - we loved all the color...

shops, restaurants, hotels, and cafes in Ryneck
Old Rathaus in Ryneck

We walked across the bridge into Ostrow Tumski, which is a group of islands on the Oder River where you walk along buildings that are hundreds of years old.  The highlight of the island is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Serene setting with jazz musicians and ice cream stands adjacent to a quaint cafe

The setting was so relaxing we stopped and had a glass of wine

Such a picturesque setting...

St. John the Baptist Cathedral

On our walk back to Ryneck and our hotel we took note of the buildings clearly illustrating the time of communism...

 And the amazing character of the local bars - a fun scene for university students...

Views from the bridge atop the St. Maria Magdalena Church of Ryneck and the cityscape of Wroclaw...

 If you look closely, you can see the bridge we were standing on between the two towers...

A final picture of the scene in Ryneck or the central square - summer was in full swing and you could feel it in the air...

It was tough to leave Wroclaw except that we were super excited about our visit to Krakow. Unfortunately we hit some nasty traffic from construction and toll plazas, so it took longer to get to Krakow than we had hoped, but finding our hotel was painless.  We stayed at Hotel Amber, and it was a very nice boutique hotel for a super great price just a five minute walk from the historic center of Krakow.  (The many hours I spent searching for the perfect hotel for our Poland trip paid off immensely!)  They upgraded our room for free, so little r had his own room - always exciting for the little man (and for the adults as well!).

We were anxious to see Krakow especially after being stuck in traffic for hours, so we wasted no time getting settled and heading into the historical center.  We were super hungry and surrounded by cafes at every turn. It's times like these having too many great choices is almost a detriment.  We parked it at a a great cafe under a huge umbrella, and not minutes after we ordered our drinks, the sky unloaded a flood of water.  It was incredible!!!  Our server was a huge sweetheart. He even tried to find a jacket for me. Now that is what I call service!  And this amazing attitude was indicative of our entire stay in Poland. The people everywhere were incredibly friendly, willing to speak English, and seemed to understand the importance of treating visitors kindly.

Some of the highlights of our trips were (1) the food (Oh, the absolutely amazing food! I never expected to love Polish food, but I really think it might be one of my favorite cuisines now.  So incredible.  We did not have a bad meal the entire time we were in Poland.); (2) Cupcake Corner Bakery (Ok, so this is food again, but these cupcakes were worth their own shout out and two visits during our quick stay in Krakow); (3) The beautiful Old Town Square; (4) Wawel Castle and the Royal Wawel Cathedral (Archbishop John Paul II preached here before becoming the Pope); and (5) Kazimierz (we loved losing ourselves in the tight streets of the Jewish quarter.  These are just a few of our favorites, but really, the city has so much to offer and to see.

There is too much to tell, so I'm going to let the pictures tell the story:

Rain, what rain?!  A glass of proseco was a perfect partner for the storm

A visit to a beautiful city is never complete without a horse and carriage ride to discover the sights...

little r taking it all in on the horse and carriage ride through Old Town
The horses and carriages were beautiful in Krakow - unlike any we'd seen before
The Cupcake Corner was one of our favorite spots in Krakow - delish! It was so good we made sure to go back for more the following day...

The Cupcake Corner with delicious eats and FREE HUGS!
we tried to take a picture of the yummy cupcakes, but little r couldn't wait!
Here are some photos that illustrate the beauty and the mood of Old Town in Krakow...

Historic wall of the Old City is now covered with colorful artwork
Typical scene at a Polish cafe in Krakow on a summery Saturday evening
I made Big R sneak this photo of these two deep in conversation - love this photo
Did I mention the food?  Oh, the food!!!  I'm still craving some perogies and other yummy awesomeness.  This place, the Chlopskie Jadto was incredible authentic Polish food recommended by our hotel.  It was so good, we seriously almost went back again for dinner the second night...
The food in Krakow was incredible! 
After dinner we went for a stroll around Old Town to discover the amazing city by night.  We decided to duck into a cafe for a night cap right before the sky opened up with the most incredibly storm.  Even the locals said the storm was pretty severe even for Krakow.  We were so thankful for our timing.  Big R was able to capture how beautiful the square was after the storm.

Our second day in Krakow, we explored Wawel Castle and the Royal Cathedral.  The grounds were so colorful and alive.  Big R took so many amazing pictures, but these are a few of my favorites from this spot...

A view of the Royal Wawel Cathedral
Big R using special effects on his camera to create this masterpiece!
A photo of the fortified walls of Wawel Castle
We left Wawel Castle, got a snack on a boat on the river, and then walked along the river to Kazimierz. We loved our stroll through the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter.  All of the old buildings had a story to tell.  It was quiet yet somehow also full of life.

One of the many cathedrals scattered throughout Kazmierez

Streetscape in Kazmierez

More street views in Kazmierez

I truly love something about this picture - it is simply a dilapidated building but it tells a story of so much more

The old Jewish library in Kazmierez
We stopped for lunch in a bustling square in Kazmierez.  Again, the food was incredible.  Little r insisted on having fish.  Not fish sticks and french fries, but smoked trout in true European style with eyes and all.  Believe it or not, he absolutely LOVED it.  Who knew?!

Big R and Baby C taking it all in during lunch

I love fish, mommy!

A photo of me and my boys in front of the cafe where we ate lunch
Here are some more photos of the square in Kasmierez...

We took the street car back to the Old Square...

Back in the Old Town...

Baby C and me in front of the Cathedral in Old Town

More cupcakes, of course!

Me and my sweet little man

Enjoying some jazz to round out a perfect day

And ice cream for dinner at a street side cafe

The usual sights in Old Town, Krakow

Love that smile :) 

I thought this was a great symbol of Krakow's relaxed nature
This was by far one of our favorite European adventures.  Poland is an amazing country full of friendly people, fabulous food, and beautiful sights.  I made Big R promise to bring me back as one of the places we revisit in Europe when the kids are older.  Definitely put this country on your bucket list.


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