I’ve been living in Krakow, the jewel of southern Poland, for six months now. I thought it was time to take stock of what I’ve learned. This is not the first time I’ve lived in Poland, I spent a few years in Warsaw, so the ‘shock of the new’ wasn’t quite so great as it would have been for a complete newbie. I should warn sensitive readers that there may be a small amount of griping involved.
1. Krakowians are nicer than Warzsawians
Controversial I know, but it’s true. I was a bit apprehensive about coming back to live in Poland because my previous experience of the public face of the Polish people was not great. It’s a strange thing about Poles. Meet them in private and they are nearly always courteous, generous, good-humored souls. Put them in a shop, bank, office, bus, tram, or other public situation though and they mutate into grim trolls with the manners of Attila the Hun. I’m sure this seems like a monstrously unfair generalization to Polish readers, but I’m not alone in this observation so there must be something in it. There’s some kind of profound division between the public mask and the private face that I still fail to comprehend properly. Anyway, the point is that my general experience has been that Poles in Krakow are nicer, friendlier, calmer and more humorous than those on the mean streets of the capital.
2. It is possible to have too many pubs in one city
According to legend there are over 500 pubs, bars, clubs, gin joints, and other assorted dives where it is possible to buy a drink in Krakow. Or I might have just made that number up. There are certainly a LOT of them. The problem is that 90 percent of them are exactly the same. You go through an archway, down a set of perilous steps into a smoke filled cellar, and sit on wooden benches that look as if they should be in a garden center. I’ve been in dozens of pubs like this in Krakow. I don’t remember the names of any of them and I have no desire to back to any of them either. There are, of course, some great pubs in Krakow, and in the summer a lot of these cellar-dives put tables and chairs out on the street, which is fabulous. Warsaw, which has far fewer pubs (so it seems), actually has a lot of better and more individual ones.
3. English tourists stink, but the Irish are worse
Having lived in London for many years I was used to having tourists around so I didn’t think much of the habitual Polish bellyaching about ‘turyści’. Of course what I had forgotten is that London isn’t full of English tourists on EasyJet booze-cruises, it’s full of nice civilized Spaniards, Frenchies, Italians, Japanese and Americans (well, you know what I mean). English chavs on the booze in Krakow are an absolute nightmare. Fortunately they rarely wander further than the confines of the Old Town and Kazimierz, so they’re easily avoided, but when I do come across them I cringe with shame and pull my collar up around my ears. They’re loud, crude, immensely rude, and completely without respect. As far as I can see the only way they can cope with being in a place they don’t understand is to get very drunk and insult everything in site with hilarious turnip-and-tractor jokes. Having said that, whenever I’ve come across really bad cases of drunken stumbling around and bleary-eyed throwing up the culprits always seem to be Irish.
4. Most of Krakow is invisible
Krakow is a pretty big city. Ok, it doesn’t approach the scale of London, or Paris, or Berlin, but it is a big city with about a million inhabitants. From my point of view it feels like a medium-sized market town. This is because I have no need, desire, or inclination to visit the vast majority of it and therefore I don’t. Like dark matter in the universe, I know it’s out there but I’ll be damned I’ve ever seen it. Is this because I’m a lily-livered westerner who’s too scared to venture out of the safety of the Old Town? Not really, I’ve just never felt any particular inclination to see more tower blocks or grim industrial sites. I know there’s something called Nowa Huta out there to the east and I keep meaning to go and see it, honest, but somehow there always seems to be a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
5. Krakow needs more churches
Honestly, I walked down a street the other day and saw only three! Also more nuns, because sometimes it’s possible to walk for more than 20 yards without having to swerve to avoid a gaggle of them gliding down the street.
6. It’s true, there really is something special about Krakow
An awful lot of tourist sites bleat on about Krakow’s ‘special atmosphere’ and ‘unique ambience’ but you know what, it’s absolutely true. It’s not the pretty buildings of the Old Town, there are a hundred cities in Europe with similar architectural confectionary; it’s not the hundreds of bars and clubs (see 2); it’s not the restaurants and coffee shops, which are average at best; it’s not the ‘street performers’ (god help us); and it’s not the warmth and proficiency of the welcome (ahem); but it is something. Walking around the city on a warm summer’s day is truly a uniquely pleasant experience. I have no idea why but, somehow, it just works as a city in a way that very few other places do. Visit now and do your soul some good.
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