There are some days when you are traveling that you really don’t want to tour another church or visit another museum. There are some days when you travel that you just want to be in the moment. For us, Krakow was just such a place. Our goal for deep cultural immersion was abandoned in favor of a slower pace. What started out as sightseeing became a Krakow vodka tasting stroll – complete with several important life lessons.
Other cities have their pub crawls and beer tours and even their progressive cocktail mixology. But Krakow has vodka. And lots of it. But our initial objective was not exploring Krakow’s vodka scene – it was exploring the city’s rich history. I had previously visited Warsaw and was not tremendously impressed. Everyone has always said Krakow is so much nicer than Warsaw, so I was looked forward to seeing the city for myself.
Leaving our hotel and walking through the Planty, our mission was a self-guided Krakow walking tour of the Royal Way. We meandered through the Barbican and the Florian Gate, with its painting of the Black Madonna inside. We got no further than Florianska Street before our first unexpected diversion of the day – an extra-long morning coffee break at a local coffee shop.
By the time we reached St. Mary’s Church on the Main Market Square for the hourly bugling of the hejnal song, we were hopelessly off our schedule. And once we’d walked through the Cloth Market stalls shopping for souvenirs, all pretense of an educational self-guided walking tour was abandoned.
Instead, it was time to eat. We had a lunch at one of the places on the square. I had the Tyskie local beer during lunch. During lunch, Laura suggested we should try some of the flavored vodkas that are famous in Krakow. According to comments on the Internet travel forums, nearly every bar in Krakow has amazing vodka and can do a tasting for you. While we learned that every bar has vodka, their ability to do anything remotely close to a vodka tasting varies greatly (as does the quality of the vodka). For example, vodka at the lunch establishment on the Main Market Square was a shot of something vaguely reminiscent of gasoline. Clearly, not every bar in Krakow has good vodka. We were on a quest.
But before starting off on our Krakow vodka tasting, we stopped by the dark St. Francis’ Basillica. This was the home church of Karol Wojtyła before he moved to Rome and became Pope John Paul II – the hometown boy who made good. Or, The Greatest Pole, as the locals call him. I had seen John Paul II at the 8th World Youth Day in 1993. My interest in delaying our vodka tasting was to see the little gold plaque on the pew where he used to pray.
Emerging from the church into the cool air, we detected a faint odor. That odor could be only one thing: grilled meat. In a small square, we happened on a local festival. To this day, we’re not entirely sure what was being celebrated. There was a stage with music and dancing. There were some vendors selling all forms of delicious Polish food. But there was no vodka. We abandoned our Krakow walking tour and the festivities in the square in search of distilled spirits.
Walking into the former Jewish ghetto of Krakow, we found what we were looking for. At a simple intersection there was a bar. It was like so many other bars in that part of the city – empty in the middle of the afternoon with the lights off. Walking into the darkness of the bar Trojkat, a pleasant young woman welcomed us and began to discuss the distillation process. We sampled Raciborska flavored vodkas, which were all organic. This is what we were looking for. The raw vodka which tasted like gasoline at lunch was replaced by a subtle honey flavor. The vodkas were smooth and warming on a cool day!
Leaving Trojkat, our Krakow vodka tasting stroll continued and we found ourselves wandering some more. And we found another bar, this one featuring cocktails. We learned a lot about Polish vodka. We discovered a brand of vodka called Żubrówka – also known as bison grass vodka. As it turns out, bison are found other places outside of North America. A small herd lives in Eastern Poland near the Belarus border and feeds on a special kind of wild grass. Each bottle of Żubrówka contains a single blade of the Polish bison grass. And because of this, the U.S. government banned the original version from being imported to the U.S. (we get a “nearly identical” product). At the bar, we indulged in a drink they called Tatanka (yes, just like the American bison). Tatanka is a chilled cocktail of Żubrówka and apple juice – and it was very soothing.
Any Krakow vodka tasting will inevitably involve a visit to the tiny Wodka Bar. The bar has two tables and a couple of bar stools. Wodka Bar is microscopically small. But it packs a tremendous punch. Here, visitors can sample whole flights of vodka – dozens and dozens of different flavors. We tried the plum, black currant, hazelnut, pear, lemon and cherry vodkas from the Soplicka brand. The cherry tasted vaguely like Cherry Nyquil, but the plum, pear and lemon were very good. The Wodka Bar is decorated in gritty photos by Emiliano Chuck Perillo of transsexual prostitutes in Mexico, an odd decorating motif. But somewhere between the pear and lemon vodkas, it dawned on me how the day had really gotten away from us. But did the day really get away? Did we really waste an entire day in Krakow?
When we travel, we try to pack in as much as possible. We only have a handful of vacation days every year, so we try to make every minute count. But sometimes that leads to burn out. On this trip to Krakow, we had spent a long day visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp the day before. So maybe we were more inclined to take it easy.
But maybe Krakow was teaching us a lesson about how we travel. Thinking about it, we realized it is important to always have a plan – but to know when it is time to abandon the plan. Krakow taught us to follow our nose, because it can lead to unexpected treasures. But most importantly, our Krakow vodka tasting adventure taught us that Being can be sometimes be more important than Doing.
Thank you Krakow! Hope to see you again soon.
A few more Krakow photos: