Thursday, July 12, 2012

Staying in Krakow

This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I've just been to Krakow for the last few days of the annual Jewish Culture Festival - the best party around. This year I did a couple of lectures to groups who were attending (and observing) the festival. It led to some reminiscing with friends who -- like me -- have been going to the Festival since the early 1990s.

One of the things we talked about what where we had stayed in Krakow in those early years -- because, until the late 1990s, there were very few if any places to stay in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter where the Festival now takes place. Nowadays, there is a wide variety of choices all over the city -- from top flight hotels to inexpensive hostels and rental rooms and apartments.

In the early years, the artists at the Festival used to be put up at the Forum Hotel -- I should say, the late Forum Hotel, because the Forum as it was then does not exist anymore. It is a hulking empty relic on the Vistula that serves as a prop for huge advertising posters....

I used to stay at the Hotel Pollera, an old-fashioned place in the Old Town near the main market square, or Rynek, about a 20-minute walk (or more) from Kazimierz.

For the past dozen years, though, I've stayed in Kazimierz itself whenever I've been in Krakow -- usually at one of two hotels that, I have to say (full disclosure), are run by friends.

One is the Klezmer Hois, operated by Wojtek and Malgosia Ornat, the couple who founded the first Jewish-style cafe in Krakow. I still remember vividly sitting with Wojtek in 1992 or so, at an umbrella-shaded wicker table, eating strawberries and looking out at the devastation of Szeroka street, the main square of Jewish Kazimierz, which then was a ring of dilapidated buildings.

The Ornats opened Klezmer Hois -- their third locale -- in the mid-1990s, in a building that once housed a mikvah. It evolved into a hangout for Krakow Jews and visiting Jewish artists and others -- and it still fulfills that purpose, at least for us older crowd. Sitting in the garden during Festival time, is a delight, a constant round of people dropping by, conversing, eating, drinking. Klezmer Hois is, actually, the one "Jewish style" cafe in Krakow that I go to. The Ornats also run the Austeria Jewish publishing house (which has published my book "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)") and the associated Austeria bookstore.

The hotel rooms are old-fashioned and up creaking flights of stairs -- and the breakfast is spectacular, a delicious combination of table service and partial buffet.

Breakfast at Klezmer Hois Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The other hotel in Kazimierz that I stay in is the Hotel Eden, on Ciemna street, a wonderfully friendly place, founded in the mid-1990s by the American Allen Haberberg, that started out as a kosher hotel. Though no longer kosher, the Eden still caters to Jewish travelers and has a mikvah -- which has been used for conversions as well as ritual baths. Each room has a mezuzah on the door, and there is also wifi throughout the building. I asked Allen not long ago why the Eden was no longer kosher (although it will still provide kosher food for those who ask) -- he told me one reason was that there are now good kosher caterers as well as an upscale kosher restaurant (the Olive Tree) in Krakow.

Rabbi Edgar Gluck and Allen Haberberg in front of the Eden Hotel. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Also on this trip though, for the first time in a long time, I stayed for a couple of nights near the Rynek, at the Hotel Saski -- where I think I stayed with my mother in about 1992.

It doesn't seem to have changed much -- but the Old Town has.... Krakow is the city that doesn't sleep ... at 3 a.m. the streets were as lively as in the middle of the afternoon.

Lobby of the Saski. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

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