St. Mary's Basilica in old town Krakow.

Continuing along my eastern travel trajectory, my next stop after Berlin was Krakow, Poland. I honestly didn’t know what to expect of Poland before I arrived in Krakow; growing up, all I ever heard about the country was its involvement in World War II, but I knew there was much more to Poland than I gave it credit for. The one thing I did expect to find in Krakow was a stereotypical “Eastern European” vibe full of old, damaged, or otherwise neglected buildings scattered throughout town. I was always told there was a distinct difference between Western and Eastern Europe and I hoped this was my chance to experience the latter. Much to my surprise, Krakow feels very much like the rest of Europe I’ve seen so far; it’s an absolute wonderful city full of history, delightful people, and absolutely incredible (and cheap) food!

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Krakow was how well maintained the entire area is. I naturally assumed the old city center would be better kept for the tourists, but I thoroughly enjoyed walking aimlessly through the surrounding neighborhoods. Just looking at the numerous old stone buildings, I could tell there was a great deal of history packed into this town and it made me happy to see each structure was either well taken care of or being renovated. It was a complete delight to get lost in Krakow until I realized the sidewalks here double as parking spaces for some absurd reason. In certain areas of town I was perpetually zigzagging around cars while simultaneously attempting to avoid oncoming traffic in the street.

I guess partly successful, but my quest for the elusive "Eastern Europe" requires that I go further east. 

Back in the city center, the Main Square of Krakow is a wonderful sight to behold. This old medieval square still retains the basic layout from when it was first constructed back in the 13th century and currently ranks as the largest medieval town square in all of Europe. In the center of this giant space lies the wonderfully ornate old Cloth Hall full of vendors selling souvenirs and to the west is the old St. Mary’s Basilica that, while sporting a deceptively humble exterior, contains a surprisingly ornate, colorful interior. If you don’t mind waiting around the plaza, you can even catch the trumpeter playing the Hejnał Mariacki from the top of the church at the top of every hour.

View of the main square in Krakow with the old Cloth Market to the left and St. Mary's Basilica to the right.

The old city center of Krakow is without a doubt the easiest place I’ve ever navigated. All of the roads surrounding the main square follow the basic grid pattern making it nearly impossible to get lost and the entire space is bordered by a beautiful green park at once served as the city's moat. In the heart of the city lies the main square lined with dozens of buildings wonderfully painted in vibrant colors. No structure is taller than six stories and the facades remain more or less the same as when they were first constructed. Unlike so many other cities that were either demolished or razed during Nazi occupation in WWII, Krakow was considered a German heritage site and was thankfully spared from any significant damage.

View of the old buildings lining the main square in Krakow.

When I first arrived in Krakow, the trek to my hostel was an arduous experience. Krakow itself is rather small in comparison to many of the cities I’ve visited so far, but I somehow damaged my foot back in Berlin. For the better part of a week I could only walk for 20 minutes at a time before my foot was consumed by an acute, searing pain. Thankfully, the issue resolved itself after a few days, but during my first few days in Krakow, I was sadly constrained to a five-block radius around my hostel. Not particularly conducive to exploring when you consider walking is my main form of transportation, but I didn’t really have much of a choice.

At least now I know my maximum range is capped at 18 miles per day. Anything over and I start hurting myself.

Time for some food! Can you believe this plate of happiness (called Kotlet Schabowy), vegetables, beer, and Zurek (not pictured) cost less than $6!

Once the pain subsided, I promptly began my exploration of Krakow. I looked for the usual walking tours to acquainted/orient myself with the city and I discovered a local food walking tour with a great guide full of recommendations. I can’t believe this is the first city I visit that does something like this. It is a brilliant idea for a tour! Who doesn't like a little history mixed with some food and liquor? God knows if my I would have paid attention more in school if my history classes followed this policy.

Hmmm, new business idea?

I realize now that much of my draw to Germany was the fact that everything was cheaper compared to the budget-crippling cities of Zurich and Copenhagen, but Poland has Germany beat. I haven’t cooked a single meal since arriving and my time in Krakow was almost entirely focused on eating everything I could get my hands on. From the incredible sour rye soup called Zurek (my personal favorite), to the fried pork chops or Kotlet Schabowy, the hearty "Hunter’s Stew” called Bigos, the perfect bagel/pretzel snack called Obwarzanek (don't you dare call it a bagel if you visit though), and the delightful crepe/pancake hybrid called Racuchy there was so much to eat! Also, if you get the opportunity try the he pickled herring and onion zakuski (think appetizer/hors d’oeuvres) with some vodka, it's definitely something that should not be missed.

Just don’t get close to anybody after - the taste is far better than the smell.

I still dream of these pierogi... they haunt me.

Naturally, one cannot visit Poland without encountering a few great pierogi shops and while most were quite excellent, there is one hole-in-the-wall shop called Pierogarnia is just exceptional. If you ever find yourself in Krakow, I highly recommend it. This tiny restaurant has only six bar stools and a couple tables outside for patrons, but it has easily the best pierogi I encountered the entire time I was in Krakow. I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of Polish food by any means, but I walked across town on two separate occasions just to get these delightful pockets of happiness. Just the perfect combinations of salty and savory with a dense, tender dough that was splendid. For less than $3 I could get a great meal and it was the best damn money I’ve spent on food thus far on my trip.

My only regret is that I didn’t bring any with me when I left Poland.

I am in heaven here in Krakow. All of the food was incredibly warm and hearty which worked out well since many of the days were cold, overcast, and rainy. While I’m a fan of good old mac and cheese and chicken noodle soup, I have to say these American versions of comfort food do not hold a candle to the wondrous delights found in this region of the world. The best part is that since Poland is so incredibly cheap compared to the rest of Europe, I could eat out as much as I wanted and try everything I came across! Just when Euros were beginning to feel like “real” money, I switched to the Polish Zloty and now instead of adding ~30% extra to the price of everything, I get to divide by three here in Krakow! Everything is on sale!

Interior of the old Cloth Market in the main square.

I absolutely love Krakow and wish I could stay another week or visit the nearby cities of Warsaw, Wroclaw, and Lublin, but unfortunately my time in the Schengen Zone has come to an end. I’ve officially reached the end of my 90-day visa, and I must now leave the region less I get marked as an illegal immigrant and banned from Europe for the next several years. I knew this day would inevitably sneak up on me and while I loved my random trips through Cologne and hitchhiking in Western Europe, I realize now I’m much further south than I was expecting to be at this point in my trip.

By now I thought I’d up in Latvia or Estonia.

Interior of the St. Mary's Basilica... just beautiful!

I find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. I could still visit Russia, but it would be a 30-hour trip just to get up to St. Petersburg and the logistics coupled by the fact that Ukraine and Russia aren't on the best terms right now, such a trip might not be wise. With a heavy heart, I am making a massive shift in my travel plans and cutting Russia out of my trip. I’m immensely disappointed since I already jumped through all the hoops to get my Russian visa, but I guess it isn’t meant to be during this trip. Instead I’m off to Lviv, Ukraine since it is the closest city to me not in the Schengen Zone. Given the fighting going on there I have some reservations, but all the travelers I talk to say it’s perfectly fine. Considering that my other option was to visit the capital of anti-Americanism, Moscow, I can’t imagine Ukraine being any more dangerous.

What’s in Ukraine you ask? Beats the hell out of me, but I’m about to find out. 

Here’s to constantly changing plans! Onwards to Lviv!