BY ALEX WEBBER | PHOTOS BY ED WIGHT
Podgórze: Kraków’s left rump hasn’t always reveled in the healthiest of reputations. A friend of mine lived there for a while around about the start of the millennium and had a habit of calling it ‘the land of flying knives’. “It’s not so bad,” he’d add mischievously, “so long as you don’t go out after dark.” He was joking, I think, but the point was clear: this wasn’t the Old Town.
Yet while that once served as a deterrent, today it’s the district’s principle draw. With Kraków’s historic core fighting a losing battle against the effects of mass tourism, her Old Town has become not an area to enjoy but endure. But as with all fine metropolises, there’s more to the place than solely her heart. Rapidly gentrifying, blue collar Podgórze has become the city’s little secret: rich in history and curiosities, it’s evolved into the ideal antidote to the brigades of Easy Jetters plundering the center.
Warsaw to Kraków is just about the simplest journey in PKP’s canon. Trains run regularly with the new school Pendolino taking just over 2 hrs 15 mins. Older trains are substantially cheaper (approx. zł. 80), with some completing the trip in less than three hours. From Kraków Główny, taxis grind their way across to Podgórze for about zł. 20.
Bed & Board
In Podgórze you’ll find two places of note: the four-star Qubus is admirable – pristine and modern and crowned with a top-floor pool with views of the river. For a less homogeneous experience, then Lwowska 1 answers the call. Shaped like a cheese wedge, the rooms in this ultra-modern ‘apart-hotel’ are defined by their copious size and sleek-looking style. Shop around for the best deal: the Insider snatched a suite for zł. 175.
Food For Thought
In Kraków it’s often best to distrust any restaurant with anything Mexican on its menu – to Manzana’s eternal credit, they blow suspicions to smithereens with stonking burritos that would be welcome in Warsaw.
Go green at Zielonym Do Góry, a contemporary dining space on the ground floor of Lwowska 1: here, the menu makes a song and dance about regional produce and their commitment to nature. And visit Bal, a factory-style space with light snacky food and an arty crowd carrying unwieldy portfolios. Finally, Nad & Greg feels like it was born with sweethearts in mind. Run by a French / Polish couple, there are those who cross town to sample the waffles and macarons from this teasingly tempting neighborhood patisserie.
Thirty Seconds To Mars
Bristling with pointy, slender features, the Church of St. Joseph looks like it’ll blast into space at any given moment. Completed in 1909, it’s an act of pure Neo Gothic overindulgence: generously embellished with hideous, gurning gargoyles, it’s practically unassailable in terms of madcap decoration. Your challenge: hunt down as many saints as you can (images and reliefs of 67 can be spotted inside and out).
Art of the Matter
Uncomfortable Fact No. 1: art and gentrification like to skip hand-in-hand. But with Podgórze still years away from full-on commercialization, it’s possible to enjoy the former without the suffocating presence of the latter. The streets are a good place to begin with a number of walls surrendered to the mercy of the paintbrush: particularly prominent is Ding Dong Dumb (Piwna 3A), a controversial work by the Italian artist Blu.
Featuring a mass of minions staring up at what many construe to be a church bell, the work is signed with the message ‘Never Follow’. Onwards, and Cricoteka is a multi-functional cultural space featuring a theater and gallery. Primarily though, it’s the architecture that’s the standout: find a former power plant all but swallowed by a modern, glass-bellied structure that’s been built overhead.
A visit to Cricoteka can be condensed (specifically to the top floor cafe), but a trip to MOCAK can’t. Fun, witty, engaging and interactive, this modern art gallery is an accomplishment and a half. Temporary exhibitions such as Nonsensical Technologies amuse by fusing common old junk with scientific theory; designed by self-styled ‘technological hooligans’, the works are fantastical creations that leave the imagination running riot.
Then again, so do the other exhibits: step right inside a white cube covered in the black letters of the alphabet, or find yourself groping around another empty space simply bathed in a pulsating, reddish glow. Such is its disorienting, psychotropic effect, you don’t know where the room ends, where you are or why you’re even there. “This,” explains the blurb at the exit, “is an attempt to show the chaos the reigns in the minds of nationalists.”
For centuries, Kraków’s Jewish population existed in relative harmony in the Kazimierz district across the river. This connection was ruptured in 1941 when the city’s Jews were forcibly shunted by the Nazis to the newly-formed Ghetto in Podgórze. Liquidated in 1943, whilst its denizens found themselves deported to Bełżec and Auschwitz, the Ghetto itself survived largely in tact. That’s left the area which an array of sights, not least surviving stretches of Ghetto Wall (found at Limanowskiego 42 and Lwowska 25 to 29), as well as the Pharmacy Under The Eagle.
Overseen by Tadeusz Pankiewicz – one of a handful of gentiles allowed to remain in the Ghetto – his pharmacy served as a covert lifeline to the outside world. Now, his former place of work runs as a small museum documenting everyday life in the Ghetto. Outside, Pl. Bohaterów Getta is dotted with dozens of out-sized, empty chairs designed to signify the sense of emptiness left behind by Kraków’s vanished Jewish community.
Immortalized in print by Thomas Keneally, and in film by Steven Spielberg, the German industrialist Oskar Schindler was seen as an angel of mercy during the Holocaust years. Credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, his former factory has since been re-purposed as one of Kraków’s major attractions.
Tourism returns with a vengeance here, and such is the weight of numbers (tip: buy tickets online to jump the queue) it’s hard to fully appreciate the breadth of its scope. While the actual Schindler story is only awarded token lip service, the museum offers an in-depth examination of the city’s wartime occupation.
A significant number of Kraków’s Jews perished in the nearby Płaszów concentration camp, an area that now has more in common with a forgotten, windswept meadow. While filming Schindler’s List, Spielberg was refused permission to film on this site due to its historical associations, however, he circumvented that problem by rebuilding a replica of the camp in the Liban Quarry.
Set next to the ancient Krakus Mound, leftover bits of film set remain to this day: among them, fences, furnaces (which are actually thought to be genuine relics from the war), and an avenue built using mock Jewish tombstones. To the delight of urban explorers, all this is accessible to the public: just take a deep breath and plunge down a hazardous muddy path leading down from the foot of the Krakus Mound.
Miejscówka plays an almost ambassadorial role for Trzech Kumpli with its beer nozzles almost exclusively, but not entirely, given over to the service of this award-winning brewery. Ditching the industrial trimmings favored by its Warsaw counterparts, this tap bar succeeds in feeling cool and hip but pleasingly local – its dual function as a board shop keeps ‘dude factor’ high.
Across the street, Drukarnia is the elder statesman where nightlife is concerned. They do jazz, but you might not hear any if you opt for the foggy, battered side-room: on our visit, there’s a loony dancing on the bar urging us to join him and spraying beer on the unfortunates down below. This, we learn soon after, is the barman. Less feral, Krakó Slow Wines specializes in natural wines and cider from Central Eastern Europe: find it down the road from the Schindler museum.
Bridging The Gap
Despite the pickings to be had in Podgórze, there are those who remain unable to resist the allure of the city’s right hand side. Cross from ‘Kraków B’ back into ‘Kraków A’ by traipsing across the Bernatek Footbridge.
Opened in 2010, this gently curving walkway leads you straight into Kazimerz. Illuminated to showstopping effect come the evening, its become one of the defining features of modern day Krak – and yep, you’ll find it clad in love locks.