The first thing that strikes me about Karakow – apart from it’s size – is the varied numbe of languages being spoken. If Wroclaw was understated as a tourist destination, Krakow has gone into full visitor overdrive. On my walk from the tram into the Old Town there are instantly five or six people walking towards me with leaflets or gesturing me into the plethora of restaurants. This can be annoying at the best of times, but made more so when dragging a suitcase along cobblestones.
Thankfully the Hotel Floryan is towards the start of Fiorenska, a street running from St Florian’s gate towards the main square. The building has been modernised with just 12 rooms, giving the place a personal feel. The downside is the absence of a lift, meaning a steep 50 steps up a winding staircase. Even though my room is in the attic, it has loads of space – and for it’s location, is exceptionally quiet at night.
It’s therefore something of a shock when I walk back down the stairs and into a Friday evening teeming with thousands of visitors. Even at 6pm many of the bars are filling up, a stark contrast with what I witnessed in Wrolaw. And one of the most welcoming places is the Beer House – a bar nestled down yet another winding staircase in a cellar.
There’s immediately another key difference in Krakow – the prices. It’s hardly surprising given I’m in the busiest tourist area, and more bars here seem to veer towards the more expensive craft beers. But it’s all relative, and still cheaper than back home. And nestled around the many narrow streets are plenty of places offering a basic pint for less than £2.
The main square – or Rynek – is dominated by two key buildings; St Mary’s Basillica built during no fewer than three centuries, and the Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, which has been a place of trade from over 700 years. And as darkness falls, it looks stunning.
And yet, the vastness of the Rynek itself means that the many street lights hardly illuminate the area at all. At first this makes the whole experience disorientating with various groups of tourists on guided walks, countless electric bikes with delivery riders and E-scooters, many of which appear to have been hired this evening by drunk lads on stag dos. And that’s before the horse drawn carriages that suddenly appear from nowhere.
The night draws in in what can only be described as a spectacularly British way. The name of the bar – the Bull Dog pub – should have given it away. Signs inside were advertising a full weekend of Premier League football screenings, but on a Friday evening where there was either no sport or no licence to show it, a woman sings some pretty good cover versions. But not one of the customers seems vaguely interested. No applause, no reaction, nothing. They just wanted to down the cheap drinks and shout a conversation with each other.
And then I realise why. The Bull Dog is not one but two pubs, and next door the bar is rammed with hoars of people singing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. It’s karaoke night – and the proceedings turn from British to European. By that, I mean a diverse playlist that skips from The Scorpions’ Wind of Change to Teenage Kicks by The Undertones.
I add my own twist with Take on Me by A-ha. In front of a table of Norwegians. What they don’t know (until the chorus) is that I know I can hit that top “E note” with a certain degree of confidence. They are suitably appreciative. Yes, karaoke is completely tacky and yes, there were probably a dozen better places I could have ended up in. But it’s been a fun Friday night, with the illuminated Florian Gate guiding my back home.