Below the sunny squares of Poland’s royal capital lies a shadowy world of legends and fantasy, music and cabaret… vodka and beer. Nick Hodge is your guide as we delve deep into the five best cellar joints in Krakow.
Beelzebub comes in many guises and, according to local legend, the Dark One once lurked beneath Krakow’s Market Square. Besides being a midget, this fellow was clearly bad news for, as chroniclers recounted, he sported a treacherous mix of Spanish and German garb.
It’s not surprising that ye olde Cracovians were a little jittery about what was going on down under the cobbles, because the city boasts an entire subterranean kingdom, an agreeable hang-out for ghouls, gremlins and other gobblers of the soul. Most of the cellars were once ground floors, yet due to the repeated rebuilding of houses after fires, and the constant laying of new roads, they eventually disappeared beneath the earth’s surface.
Since the coming of the free market in 1989, these delightful dungeons have enjoyed a new lease of life. Entrepreneurs have resurrected the spaces as bars, galleries and even swimming pools in the case of a few swish hotels. A trip to Krakow would be incomplete without a saunter down into one of these caverns. But remember, steer clear of vertically-challenged chaps promising pots of gold, especially if they’re wearing German-Spanish togs….
If the immortal Dr. Parnassus decided to spend a few decades in Krakow, and he felt inclined to open a salad bar, this is how it would look. Chimera is pure Gilliamesque fantasy, with charm oozing from every brick. Chairs are constructed from antique bedsteads, and the walls are awash with murals of mythical beasts. Even the lampshades come emblazoned with vampire prints. It’s all done with such panache that everything feels in place. On the gastronomic front, peckish punters can take their pick from a wholesome array of salads, whilst there’s beer and wine for the bibulous.
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This is one more quiet spot before we up the tempo. “The Gallery of Nature” is a little off the beaten track but all the better for it. Descend the stairs and find yourself in Captain Nemo’s Cracovian pied-a-terre. This is a non-smoking venue, so no seaweed cigars from the Captain’s table. Still, the aquaria provide plenty of oceanic eye candy, and there’s a royal roster of teas on offer from all corners of the globe. A recent addition is an enticing range of bottled Belgian beers. All-in-all a perfect place to go for a quiet chinwag.
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The newest on the list, Łódź Kaliska was spawned by an eccentric art collective, hailing from, you guessed it – Łódź (that’s pronounced Wooodsh for all you linguistic sticklers). Whilst the previous entries are pretty much OK for all ages, this one’s aimed squarely at the hip, twentysomething contingent. No one’s going to give you a funny look if you’re completely trolleyed here. Spread across a maze of expansive caverns, the decor boasts Puff Daddy style fake baroque furnishings, and mirrors galore. Oh yes, and scores of pics of people with no clothes on. More tea vicar?
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You won’t spot any knights here, nor holy grails for that matter. But it’s certainly worth going on a quest to track down this venue. As it goes, the ground floor cafe and the gallery above both merit medals, but let’s stick to the nether regions for now. Camelot has a beautifully restored medieval cellar, and at weekends you can catch top calibre concerts by some of Cracow’s finest acts. Jazz and Klezmer are regular grooves, and for Polish-speakers, legendary compere Kazimierz Madej leads the wittiest cabaret in town.
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It wouldn’t be fair to bypass Kazimierz, and Alchemia has long led the pack in this part of town. Again, the upstairs rooms have plenty of allure, with their strange blend of alchemist’s lair, gypsy caravan and rustic Polski kitchen. But it’s in the cellars below that all the live action kicks off. According to the owner, unexploded WWII ammo was found here when renovation began in 2004. Thankfully though, these days explosions are purely of the sonic kind. Head downstairs for some musical mayhem, courtesy of cutting edge Polish and international acts.
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