A Night Out In: Kazimierz
Piwa amidst the past
Hello and welcome! This is the 82nd issue of Place. We’ve done a few of the “A Day In” series, but traveling is hardly just about what happens in the sun lit hours. It’s the night with incredible music, bar hopping and the characters that you meet on an evening out that often provide the texture to a trip away. With that in mind, this week we’re going out in Kraków where the past collides with the present. Down your drink, and let’s head out.
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To go out in Kazimierz is to go out with its ghosts. Many of the candlelit cafes and bars in this Kraków neighborhood are reminiscent of old living rooms of half-abandoned houses: slightly peeling brocade wallpaper, white walls stained brown with years of cigarette smoke, sunken velvet couches lit by tasseled lamps, dotted with antique Singer sewing machine tables where patrons now rest pints of golden Książęce Weizen. Vintage sepia and black-and-white framed photos of families and friends are jumbled on every wall, gazing on the revelry from the past, static companions that may have once sat in the same place.
While spending a recent weekend in the city, I tried to look up why there are so many old photos in these cafes, but there’s little that explains it online. I asked our Polish companion while sipping beers over a sewing machine table at a bar named Singer, apparently in reference to its former use as a sewing factory. “These are photos of Jewish people,” he shouted over the bar’s playlist of raucous folk music – a way to remember those who first made the neighborhood a vital part of the city.
At one point, Kazimierz made up a quarter of Krakow’s population, with some 32,000 people living in the cobblestone-lined streets. However after the Nazis occupied Poland, most were forced to move to a ghetto across the river, and either murdered in the streets or sent to their deaths in nearby forced labor concentration camps. By the middle of the 20th century only 5,000 remained, with most emigrating out of the country due to the ensuing decades of anti-Zionist communist policies. The neighborhood lost much of its Jewish heritage and liveliness. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s that investment began to return to the area, with business owners buying up old buildings, furnishing them for cheap with secondhand furniture and opening bars for the university city’s bohemian class. Jewish festivals were established and museums dedicated to the area’s Jewish history opened, and today Jewish restaurants and cultural centers have returned (though not the population). The area is mostly packed with young people and tourists hopping between the candlelit knapjas and wódka (vodka) joints on late nights out even in the December cold.
There are few places that haven’t been touched by violence at some point in history, though perhaps not as recent, horrifying or visceral as the reminder on the walls of Kazimierz’s bars. While in some ways sobering, the reminder that no place is complete without its context. Here, even with a piwo, one must commune with the past.
Eszeweria. This is the first place we visit, pushing past a thin rickety wooden door with thin glass, the entry leading to the bar lined with small two person tables with slowly melting candles. There are small enclaves with old wooden tables and sinking couches where friends chat idly with cigarettes burning in one hand, hands wrapped around beers in the other. I notice there are no phone screens with artificial light glaring from the tables – one person is curled up on a couch reading, another with her feet up on the chair next to her sketching on an iPad.
Pijalnia Wódki I Piwa. Unassuming vodka bars are dotted around the city, some open 24 hours per day for whenever you need a quick pick-me-up. There are an assortment of flavors, from a typical cherry or lemon to chupa chups, a mix of lemon vodka, ginger syrup and black pepper that is reminiscent of Coca Cola. The latter is perhaps too easy to drink — we quickly throw the shots back and continue on our way.
Alchemia. Just down the street is Alchemia, an institution among the area’s bohemian bars. We walk in through an entrance of dried curled tree branches to a tiny bar packed people – immediately I hear Spanish, English and Polish, as this is a well known and loved spot to most of the area’s visitors. The first level expands into a cozy living room with a fireplace, another room featuring a bulbous sculpture from a local artist, and windowless backroom lit only with candles along a long communal table. Downstairs there’s a cave-like dancefloor with DJs pumping EDM to a sparse crowd, some still with their jackets on given the subterranean chill. A group of three young women take advantage of the space to show off their shuffling skills, while projected images that look like a 1996 Macintosh screensaver as designed by someone on psychedelics undulates against the wall. We down our beers and shimmy back into the night.
Singer. Around the corner, Singer bar is the place to go in the early hours as a cafe that feels like a chatty cafe turns into a party. The packed area in front of the bar turns into a dancefloor, and when that gets too crowded people simply step onto the tables and continue to groove to the bar’s playlist of Polish folk music from above. As we walked in around midnight on a Saturday evening, an old man with long white hair was pumping his elbows in rhythm. He yelled out in Polish, a jubilant smile on his face “I need to go home!” and continued to dance for another half hour.
The night ends with a zapiekanka from Okrąglak, a food hall in the center of a square. It’s tipsy food at its finest – essentially pizza bread, bread smothered in sauce, cheese and a long list of optional meat and vegetable toppings. Perhaps not the food choice I would have made without the help of a few beers and shots along the way, but at this point in the evening, it hits the spot. Na Zdrowie.
The end of Morocco’s Grand Taxis
Reminiscing about night tubes.
We’ll see you next week.