Sunday, 28 February 2010

Krakow: not so good for a play on words, but frickin awesome for a holiday

I visited Krakow for the very first time this weekend, however the chain of events that started the wheels of this visit in motion began in early 2004. In the Spring of that year, my first UK visa ran out and I was looking for something to occupy my time until I went back to the States to start law school in NYC. I was deciding between a field research trip to Bolivia, something else that I now can't seem to remember, or walking the Camino de Santiago. The latter ultimately won out and so it was I found myself in Vézelay, France about to walk the length of France and the breadth of Spain over the following two months (you can check out the map here - Vézelay is in the sort of middlish bit of France, not too far from Paris by train, and is incidentally a very lovely town and a quite nice place to visit).

Towards the end of my trip on the Camino, I met a man who later became quite an important figure in my life. I can't remember exactly when or where the conversation took place - if it was while we were on the Camino or after, but I remember having a conversation about a book called Salt. At the time, I couldn't fathom how anyone might find a book about the history of salt even remotely interesting, but then, as now, I'm still pretty good about following up on recommendations from people I respect and so I duly went out and purchased a copy of Mark Kurlansky's "Salt". Like most good stories, this one turned out to have a happy ending - of a kind - even though unlike a fairy tale, the closure came five years later instead of only two hours. I remember enjoying "Salt" at the time, but the thing that really captivated my imagination was the section where Kurlansky talked about the salt mine in Poland where the miners carved entire chapels out of salt caves that they had previously extracted all the salt from. I put the salt mines on my travel to-do list and then sort of forgot about them.

As part of my holistic package of un-ironic new year resolutions, I decided that I would try to travel at least once a month, even if it was only to Scotland. I'd just come back from Venice for NYE and was wondering where to go to next, when I remembered the salt mines and decided I had to go to Krakow. I booked the flights and in an extension of my recently developed policy re cultural events to not find out anything before the experience, just decided to rock up and wing it - not to read anything or to look at any pictures - nothing.

I haven't developed an especially articulate theory yet, but I'd wager a guess that there's some kind of equation to be made that goes something like expectation + experience = how good a time you have. I learned again last weekend that too much expectation can kill the experience itself stone-cold dead dead dead. But if you just rock up to the new experience open and ready for whatever, with zero expectations, that's when the magic happens. So up I dully rocked. And did Krackow kick ass? Hell yes it did.

What an awesome city! Take one part Stockholm, one part Berlin, and throw in a healthy dash of Paris for good measure: volia, Krakow. The food was AMAZING, the bars/coffee shops were quickly and plentiful, and the city is just stupidly lovely, like wandering into a fairy tale. Marvellous. My only complaint - and it's a rather small one - is that I couldn't find any place to listen to live music on Friday or Saturday that wasn't jazz. Don't get me wrong, I'm crazy about jazz, but sometimes a girl just needs to rock out a bit.

And low and behold (my, we're full of cliches today), I finally made it to the salt mines, which were every bit as incredible as I suspected/hoped they would be. If you want to know more, you can Wiki or read Kurlansky's fascinating book, but if you haven't been, what I really suggest you do is high tail it to Krakow ASAP. Marvellous place...