A certain tightwad attitude led my husband and me to Krakow last Easter on our annual spring holiday. The previous years, we’d vacationed extravagantly in Japan, spent too loosely in London and undertaken an overly ritzy tour of Switzerland, complete with $5,000 impulse watch buys. It was time to economise.
Poland, we’d heard, was mercifully cheap. While I wasn’t enthusiastic at first, worried the country would be grim with vestigial Communism and the scars of World War II, friends said they’d eaten there like kings. Hedonism cut with a little bleakness seemed an interesting mix. We settled on a week in Krakow, which the occupying Nazis had chosen as their Polish home and so not bombed to ruins. When our taxi deposited us at the edge of Krakow’s beautifully intact medieval Old Town, a bittersweet awareness of the city’s narrow escape was inescapable. Our hotel, on the oldest cobblestoned street of all, immediately made it clear, however, that this Polish version of “bargain travel” was going to be enjoyable.
The 5-star Hotel Copernicus, so named because the famed astronomer lodged in the three-story renaissance building when passing through town welcomed us with courtesy, austere luxury and crazily abundant sprays of pussy willows, 4 feet tall in simple glass vases. Spring has its fans at the Hotel Copernicus. Though our room only set us back around $200 a night (the exchange is not quite as favourable in 2018), it was vast, even echoey, frescoed, with a high, timbered ceiling and a beckoning, baronial oak bed. Two leather armchairs faced each other in the middle, almost lonely in all that space. Our tiny room in Tokyo, twice as costly, seemed a cruel joke in retrospect.
We would go on to have many frugal meals that week, paying as little as $4 for an ample entree of tender pierogi, $2 for horseradish beetroot cream soup, but that first night, we splurged. We went downstairs to our hotel’s renowned restaurant, the 22-seat Copernicus, having signed up for the formal seven-course spread with some trepidation, being more of an eat-takeout-pasta-on-the-couch-while-watching-cable-news kind of couple back home in Brooklyn. The first sign that something special was afoot: Our table for two was so big it could have accommodated six diners, eight if they were chummy. (This does not happen in New York.) The second sign: Besides our plates, along with the odd knife, our waiter ceremoniously placed an array of forks and spoons facedown. Then the courses began their parade—tarts, terrines, brûlées—more than justifying the roughly $75-per-person cost, especially since our impeccable waiter kept slipping in extra unofficial courses; I counted both a pre- and a post-dessert. Perhaps unwisely, I capped off this meal with a swim in the hotel’s pool, tucked atmospherically into a shadowy, catacomb-like stone cellar, and had it all to myself once two larking New Jersey tweens retired for the night.
As the days unfolded, this sense of luxury—angst-free because it cost so little—manifested in many ways. Above all, we had the luxury of time: hours to wait among joking Poles for the “best haircut in town” (about $14) at Butter Cut, a barbershop in the former Jewish quarter, Kazmierz, a still-down-at-heel hipster enclave; hours to chug along the Vistula River in a barely populated boat called the Peter Pan, wrapped in blankets as we passed a circa-1930s riverside police station, and a piped-in radio station played a song called, aptly, “It’s Easy to Be a V.I.P.”
Old Town doesn’t lack attractions—including the Planty, the picnic-ready park that rings it—but Easter’s imminence brought on a new level of splendour. A country that’s 96% Catholic isn’t about to downplay the holiday. All manner of eggs sprouted up: foot-tall white plastic ones in feather nests as décor at restaurants; 4-inch plaster ones tucked into the pussy willows at our hotel; basket upon basket of pisanki, the traditionally decorated eggs, at the Easter market in the main square. Before taking a proper wander through the market with its braided bread, toothsome iced cookies, T-shirts printed with ‘60s Polish cars, and edible “wrenches” and “hammers” rendered in chocolate, we stopped in at Café Noworolski for a beer. When the main square was forcibly re-christened Adolf Hitler-Platz during the war, SS officers took over this art nouveau cafe, and its faded opulence, all red velvet and Slavic filigree, still felt haunted.
We sensed the presence of Nazi ghosts, too, in the city’s main tourist draw, Wawel Castle, a grand pile of architectural styles atop a hill just outside Old Town. In 1939, the Germans ousted the castle’s rightful tenants and installed governor-general Hans Frank, who would go on to declare that it was “absolutely intolerable that thousands upon thousands of Jews should go slinking around” the city. In the castle, we experienced another of the luxuries Krakow’s relative freedom from crowds allows: a good five minutes alone with Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Lady with an Ermine” (stolen from Poland by the Nazis but since returned and, as of 2018, housed in the National Museum, elsewhere in Krakow).
After the castle, we stopped into Pod Nosem, one of the city’s top restaurants, the sort that would be well beyond our means back home. Flush as we were after a week in Krakow, it didn’t seem out of order to order caviar and, for $75 an ounce (a third of what the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan demands), we ate it with blinis and quail eggs and a decided lack of care.
THE LOWDOWN: A thrifty luxury-seekers’ guide to Krakow, Poland
Getting There: Most flights from the United States to Krakow require a stop in Warsaw, Vienna, Munich, Frankfurt or a several other major European airports. LOT Polish Airlines, the national carrier, operates one non-stop weekly from Chicago (aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner) to Krakow.
Staying There: For austere luxury, spacious rooms and a prime location in Old Town a few hundred feet from Wawel Castle, try Hotel Copernicus. The historic Renaissance building has undergone a chic, but respectful renovation with a glass-covered atrium and a glass elevator that shoots through its interior and down to the moody stone cellar, home to a lap pool and a full-service spa. The included breakfast features waffles on demand. From about $265 a night, copernicus.hotel.com.pl. Wentzl Hotel is more modest but well situated right on the main square; try to book a room with a balcony facing the square. From $113 a night, wentzl.pl/en. In 2016, the Hotel Indigo (part of the InterContinental Hotel Group), opened south of the Kazimierz district, putting a vividly modern spin on an early 19th-century building. From about $102 a night, ihg.com/hotelindigo
Eating There: Copernicus Restaurant offers high-end Polish-inflected continental cuisine and scrupulous service with 5-course, 7-course and 12-course options, starting at about $58 a person. Kanonicza 16, 33-332 Krakow, copernicus.hotel.com.pl. Café Noworolski, located right in the main square, is more about ambience and a glimpse of old-school Poland. Stop in for a beer and people-watching opportunities, Rynek Główny 1, 31-005 Kraków, noworolski.com.pl. For good, simple, extremely affordable, homestyle Polish food in a sweet setting, try Kuchnia y Dorota. Standouts include pierogi, potato pancakes and the cutlet mielony (ground port cutlets). Augustianska 4. For a romantic al fresco meal, La Campagna Trattoria, an upscale but affordable Italian restaurant, has a beautiful landscaped courtyard dotted with generously spaced tables. Kanonicza 7,lacampana.pl.For a special meal including accessibly priced caviar, stop in at Pod Nosem, Kanonicza 22, 31-002 Kraków,kanonicza22.com
Confronting History There: About a 90-minute drive from Krakow, Auschwitz – Auschwitz-Birkenau makes for an essential, if harrowing, day trip. To visit, it’s best to book a private tour. auschwitz.org/en. Oskar Schindler’s Factory (featured in “Schindler’s List”) is now a museum across the river from Old Town. It tends to be mobbed, unlike a lot of Krakow, but is a fascinating, sobering trip back in time. 4 Lipowa St., oskarschindlerfactory.com
Splurging There: For bigger budgets, Gwen Kozlowski at travel outfit Exeter International arranges high-end—but still high-value—itineraries for Krakow and throughout Poland. exeterinternational.com
Getting a Haircut There: Should you want to experience Krakow’s ritualised, jocular version of a hipster Brooklyn haircut, head to Butter Cut. Be warned: Avid, loyal clients start loitering outside the shop even before the doors open (as should you) and the wait, though managed via an honour system, can be an hour or two. From about $14, Kupa 2, 33-332 Kraków, buttercut.pl
Credit: Dale Hrabi for The Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2018.