Cracow is one of those cities that always succeeds in surprising visitors. It was, after all, the capital of Poland for 500 years, long before Warsaw became the seat of government. It has an immensely rich cultural and intellectual history, and became known across the world as the birthplace of former Pope, John Paul II. Above all, this is a treasure trove of splendid baroque and gothic architecture, miraculously spared from destruction during the Second World War, and which justifiably means the city is now known as The Rome of Eastern Europe. Then there is the fact that despite the proximity of some of the most horrendous Concentration Camps – Auschwitz and Birkenau – today sees a vibrant Jewish quarter in Cracow, Kazimierz, with not just synagogues and Holocaust museums, but a lively social scene ranging from orthodox kosher restaurants and kletschmer music venues, to avantgarde art galleries and funky late night clubs. But what struck me most about this disarmingly friendly and charming place, is that I don’t think I have ever seen so many bars in one tiny city centre. Poles take their drinking very seriously, and as it is easy here to meet the locals, be very careful when you start drinking with them. Although there are literary cafes, cool cocktail lounges and boozy beer halls, the preferred tipple here is vodka. In Poland, vodka is normally drunk neat, and regardless of the size of the glass, the tradition is to down it in one gulp -’do dna’, to the bottom. So after a few rounds, it can become quite dangerous to try and keep up with your new-found Polish friends. My advice is either to start drinking slowly, refusing some of the hospitality, and then locals tend to be more understanding when foreigners begin to sip their vodka rather than knocking it back in one. That way you will at least remember how to get back to your hotel at the end of the evening.
Every visit to Cracow begins in the magnificent Rynek Glowny, the medieval old town square, one of the largest piazzas in Europe, comparable with San Marco in Venice because nothing here has been built higher that the landmark Notre Dame Basilica. The Basilica is a stunning building, but the square is dominated by the Sukiennice, the ornate Drapers’ Hall, where since Renaissance times, merchants from around the world have come here to trade and barter not only textiles but spices, leather and wax from the Orient, in exchange for Poland’s natural resources of salt and lead. And you don’t have to look any further than right inside the Drapers’ Hall to find Cracow’s most iconic bar, the venerable Cafe Noworolski. This is the kind of place where you just step back in time and nothing seems to have changed. While it is tempting to sit outside on the cafe’s terrace beneath the vaulted arcade of the market, I always go straight inside, passing through the White Room, originally a boudoir reserved for ladies, and either choose a comfy brown leather armchair in the Bronze Room or settle into a curved velvet sofa in what was once the ‘fumoir’, the Green Room, and wait for a smartly-dressed waiter to take my order for a coffee or hot chocolate, accompanied by an irresistible slice of Sacher Torte. The decor is perfectly-preserved Art Nouveau, with gilded mirrors, crystal chandeliers and graphic stained-glass windows. Genteel ladies sit with their hats still on, deciding which creamy cake to choose, ancient gentlemen in crumpled suits avidly discuss politics over a glass of cherry vodka, while noisy young students sit around a table piled with empty Zywiec beer bottles. Close your eyes and you are back in Mittel Europa, with only a Strauss waltz missing, as the Noworolski is a place for talking rather than being disturbed by music.
The Cafe was founded in 1908, but its perfect location on the ground floor of the Hall has undoubtedly been the site of some sort of tavern since the Middle Ages. The first records, though, begin in the mid nineteenth century, when you need to imagine that this was a bustling, vibrant market, teeming with traders and stall holders. And what they wanted was somewhere rough-and-ready to take a break for a beer or vodka and hearty portions of traditional Polish cooking, like pork knuckle and cabbage, stuffed ‘pierogi’ dumplings or tasty pretzels – not unlike a modern gastropub in London or New York. All this was to change though when a certain John Noworolski, already a renowned baker and pastry-maker in his native city of Lvov, arrived in Cracow with big ambitions. After buying the premises on the Eastern wing of the Draperss Hall, he installed a bakery and laboratory for his famous ‘torte’, and transformed the rest into a cafe composed of a series of sumptuous boudoir salons.
As soon as it as opened, Cafe Noworolski became the favourite rendezvous for the intellectual and political elite of Cracow – politicians and bankers, painters, writers and musicians. This was a time when literary cafes were seen as dangerous, subversive threats to the ruling classes. Lenin used to be a regular here, when he was exiled from Russia at the begining of the First World War, and he used to hold court at the Noworolski, plotting the future Bolshevik Revolution. During the Nazi occupation, the Cafe was requisitioned by the Occupiers and only Germans were allowed to enter. And then, after the war, when Poland became part of the Soviet Bloc, poor Mr Noworolski lost his Cafe again, when it was forcibly nationalised by the State, and he died soon afterwards. But his son, Tadeusz, continued the family tradition of gourmet confectionary by successfully setting up business, first in Warsaw then back in Cracow, and finally, in 1992, he managed to buy over the famous Cafe, which today is still in the family, run by his daughter.
Cafe Noworoloski is not somewhere to party the night away till the early hours, but it is the perfect place to take the pulse of the city before moving on to some of Cracow’s more lively venues. Cafe Camelot is not to be missed, a cool bohemian hangout with alternative cabaret or gypsy music, while the hip Wodka Bar serves nothing but vodka, around 60 varieties in frozen glasses. U Muniaka is a great basement jazz club, hosting Polish and internationally renowned bands, and then after midnight, sample the vibrant clubbing scene, starting at Franctic where DJ’s play on two dance floors. But by this time, the Mittel Europa memories of Cafe Noworolski will have been long replaced by modern-day Cracow, more Barcelona or Berlin rather than turn-of-the-century Vienna.