Bar Crawls: Kraków – The Jewish Quarter

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In recent years more cities of a certain size have had their bohemian neighbourhoods exposed to tourism, creating a dynamic where a hotbed of great drinking holes crop-up all within a very short distance of one another.

Inevitably, tourism is a curate’s egg, so once the community begins to feel under threat from confirmity and higher rents, those true bohemians up-ship and move away to new ungentrified fringes. This can take years, even decades, and during this gradual process there comes a sweet spot where the variety of options and inter-mingling of different types of people creates a wonderful, buzzing atmosphere around a neighbourhood, and a real, if transient, micro culture. Anyone who went out in Zizkov in the late 00’s or Distrikt VII (Erzsébetváros) in the early 2010’s will be familiar with what I mean.

In Kraków, Kazimierz represents Eastern Europe’s most archetypal example, as 1990s Westernisation gradually infringed on the anti-establishment types that had taken root in the great many crumbling townhouses and mansions in the district. Many of you will already aware of the grim history of the district that led to liquidation, then eventually anti-Germanisation and depopulation. Throw in a few decades of hunger and hardship until the Iron Curtain fell, and so by the time the 90’s rolled around, Kazimierz had been ravaged, with a small remaining Jewish population, poor Polish families around plac. Wolnica and gangs squatting in the empty buildings.

Once Poland picked itself up and dusted itself down, many Americans of Catholic and Polish descent discovered Krakow as a tourist destination and, they felt ancestral home, in part due to Pope John Paul II but also due to the Solidarity movement, a trade union that took on the establishment – and eventually became it – who won worldwide renown, partly expediently given that it fitted an anti-Soviet narrative, but nevertheless genuinely deserved their plaudits. Money rolled in, tourists arrived and Krakow has returned to life in a measured way, picking up the pace in the last decade.

Kazimierz is a gentle walk from the south of the old town boundary, past Wawel Castle hill and across a couple of intersections. These days it feels remarkably small, as there is no room to expand between the castle and the river, but the low-rise buildings and strong Jewish contingent give this neighbourhood a distinct character from the rest of the city.

Today, Kazimierz’s raison d’etre is shady bars with rickety vintage furniture, independent art on the walls, and brooding discussions held by candlelight. There are some fabulous beer gardens in the summer and a genuine centre, Plac Nowy, where a circular building dishes out late night snacks – most famously the Zapiekanki – from various counters, and crowds gather, often to enjoy live music performed on the street during the summer months.

Boiling down the options is somewhat difficult, but I have provided a list at the bottom for further inspection which are all either good or very good options.

We start on the verges of the Vistula – and Kazimierz – at 1. T.E.A Time (open 12pm Sat-Sun, 4pm Mon-Fri), an ‘English Pub’ that does everything it can to avoid falling into cheesy stereotypes and traps, instead being a fairly faithful devotion to a quiet, calm neighbourhood corner pub. On top of this there’s home-brewed (check out the basement) hand-pulled cask ale which is still incredibly rare in Poland.

 

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During a summer afternoon it’s enjoyable to sit outside and enjoy the river views, but if you fancy getting out of the sun and having a sit down and chat it serves its purpose without fuss or ego, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

Kazimierz’s next brewery tap comes in the form of 2. Ursa Maior, a craft beer place that does fall into a few traps that comes with trying to copy other styles, but in the main serves an interesting and well-brewed range of its own beers. The downstairs area is quite bunker-like but when it gets busy can drum up a bit of atmosphere. During the afternoon you may prefer the bar area or the terrace.

 

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Craft beer invites a kind of pretentious pseudo-studious appreciation of beer which is why I recommend doing this while you are sober so you can pretend this afternoon is anything other than a glorified piss-up. Such stuff as beer tasting is harmless unless it crosses over into snobbery, but there is never a sense this place is overly fussed about taking stances like that – they just want to serve you their beers and for you to like them – fine by me!

While you’re in the area, take a while to admire the bridge to Podgorze, riverside and the Catholic Church across the square, as this side of Kazimierz feels like a hinterland between the heart of the Jewish Quarter to the north east, and the city centre.

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One place that always feels the same, whether day or night is 3. Singer, a brooding red boudoir with an all-female cast of bartenders and cast of unruly locals slamming back shots even during mid-afternoon. It’s all fairly entertaining as in most senses this bar can serve as a genteel drawing room, but the general atmosphere always tends to tilt towards brooding and occasionally bawdy.

There may be a number of windows looking out onto the street but none seem to counteract the gloom of the indoors, so there is a timeless quality where you can walk out onto the street feeling like it ought to be 4 in the morning, where in fact the sun is barely setting.

 

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A seat in the back room is particularly atmospheric, but it’s fun if you can get seated near the bar and watch life at the bar come and go. Don’t expect all that many Polish customers, though they are there.

Singer is close to Plac Nowy so it may be a good time to line your stomach with zapiekanki, about the stodgiest creation known to man. I can’t remember ever having finished one, but the combination of fresh bread, cheese, tomato and mushrooms will do that to you. Have a wander around the antique stalls and admire the ramshackle square with its peeling façades. You may notice that at this point you are surrounded entirely by bars and eateries.

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You could stretch your legs with a gentle walk to the core Jewish area which comes alive during the evening meal times with music, prayer and food, before turning back to 4. Omerta which, if it ever gets rid of the unnecessary Godfather theme would stand a chance of being the best simple down-to-earth pub in the neighbourhood.

 

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Still Polish at its core, this place carries a formidable range of beers, not all focused on craft, but with plenty of local options. There are 2 bars, handy when it gets choked. On some occasions I have found the place overly busy, with people looking around almost trying to wonder why they are all there.

However, when it’s ticking over nicely, the place is a wonderful, simple pub for a drink and a chat, while still sprinkled with some of that magic from the local environment.

If you prefer something with a little more pizazz, move on to 5. Opium, a bar with a garden courtyard and terrace with a view over the Jewish cemetery, which may not be everyone’s idea of glamour, but certainly drags you back to the roots of the area. Opium is faster paced inside – inoffensive and has had a bit of money spent on it, but I prefer a drink on the rooftop or at least in the comfortable courtyard.

 

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Beer is a little more limited, although there are some nice Belgian choices, so you may wish to begin mixing your drinks at this point if that’s not your thing.

The night should be in full swing at this point, leading to a visit to the centre of the action, and my personal favourite, 6. Alchemia.

This place, along with Singer sets the template for the area, with vintage furniture, candle-lit tables and windows slung open onto Plac Nowy. There is also a downstairs area with a notably funky bar area and a room which appears to be a little more music-focused, however without the live acts don’t expect anything too lively to be happening.

 

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Shady, clandestine, ungentrified, still atmospheric in its original intention despite being so well known, this is a place I dream about finding abroad. The drinks choices don’t seem to change as the years go by, but with most Eastern European styles covered – albeit mediocrely – there are at least options. The staff seem to be keen to exercise their cocktail making muscles, so you may wish to see if their training (or lack of it) has had any notable effect on the end product.

Alchemia opens its doors at the frankly absurd hour of 9am until very late, and it is a great place to end the evening. However, being right at the centre of the action, there is a pull to have a final drink…or shall that be two…before calling it a night.

Haul yourself out of there and head down Jozefa to 7. Strefa Piwa, a pub I wrote about HERE, which provides a break from the antiquery. Stocked with a genuinely thoughtful range of quality beers, the Beer Point is the most reliable option if all you desire is a plain, no-b.s pub. Atmosphere is entirely provided by the patrons, so there is no atmosphere when they are absent, however it feels really homely and buzzing when it’s busy.

 

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Décor is provided by the graph on the wall linking the world’s various beer styles, and the areas nearer the door by some breweriana. I love ordering a Czech pilsner in here as its simplicity and lack of pretence reminds me strongly of the general attitude of their pubs.

To end our evening we head to 8. Eszeweria, another antiquey bar that’s not at the centre of the action but is hot on the heels of Alchemia and Singer in style and popularity. It is one of my favourites and undeniably characterful and unique in its own right.

There are rooms to explore and find your spot to slump in and tune out, but pop your head into the buzzy communal back room which, when it gets going can revive your faith in the human spirit, or at the very least jog your memory of holding such fanciful notions.

The crowd gets younger as the night goes on, particularly in the lush back garden, which never seems to have suffered from over-use.

Beers are unfortunately Zywiec branded, so below-par by 2018 standards, but have a look at their small stock of bottles if that doesn’t float your boat, there sometimes can be decent regionals.

 

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Something about the Eszeweria experience seems to sum up the apocryphal and largely unchronicled period preceding Kazimierz’s modern rebirth – it hints at a past which may never have existed, and envelops you in a patchwork quilt of Bohemia, suggesting that the faded grandeur has surpassed what came before it.

Whether any element of it reflects a true era of Kazimierz, or even of Krakow, is somehow irrelevant versus the effect it achieves under its own steam. Speaking of which, you must be steaming by now after the day out, so all the better to take a while and immerse yourself in the swaying half-real ambience of Eszeweria.

Part of me feels that as culture builds over itself, in the decades to come, the memory of this bar, itself a set of unreliable memories will undoubtedly inspire successors. However, just as this place grasps around in search of those lost days, will the Eszeweria of 2050 fail even to achieve that? How do you pay homage to nostalgia? It’s an interesting thought, in a bar which provokes many of them.

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You may feel a slight melancholia that Kazimierz, with such a long and gravely profound history, has become bit of a party district, but in a way it feels deserved that such a terrorised neighbourhood can be happy and alive again…

Alternatives:

Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz  – Olde world Jewish Quarter decor

Propaganda Pub – Soviet ephemera and good atmosphere

Nowy Kraftowy – Modern but comfortable craft beer bar with surprisingly good prices

Mlezcarnia – A cousin of the likes of Singer and Alchemia in style and content