POZNAN — We're in an old bar mleczny, a so-called "milk bar," a gastronomic remnant from Soviet times where workers could get fed for very little. The lunch at this dining spot, situated in the central city of Poznan, will capture the essence of what would be a two-week trip around Poland. Mind you, this is Day 1.
The young couple, waiting behind the bar to take our order, do not speak English and we don't speak Polish. My hesitation, however, seems to trigger some sort of sixth sense with the owner who employs one of the two words of English she has mastered and asks me if I am "vegan" (which I am, the other half of the traveling duo being simply vegetarian). And so our journey into the vegan and vegetarian world of Polish cuisine begins with two plates of gigantic, steaming pierogi, Polish ravioli, filled with lentils (the second word our host knows).
Poland, much to our surprise, is a vegetarian's and vegan's paradise.
Of course, every vegetarian knows that the term ‘paradise" is a relative one on the search-for-food front. You will not find a vegetarian restaurant on every corner but, considering the low percentage of vegetarians among the Polish population, it is amazing how many restaurants here cater to our needs. Warsaw, which is not part of this journey's itinerary, was awarded third place by the vegan website Happy Cow's list of "best cities for vegans worldwide."
The best thing about Poland vegetarian and vegan visitors like us is that you will be able to try traditional dishes. In most cities, from Paris to London to Copenhagen, vegetarian hipster cafés usually offer burgers of some description, or something vaguely Asian. But not here.
Although Poznan fed us well, there was not that much else to do and see, and we caught a quick train to Wrocław, which hits you as the perfect mixture between a small town with not much going on, like Poznan, and a lively center like Krakow. The scars of its long history are well hidden and you would not necessarily notice that Wrocław was once part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, called Breslau, and that it only became Polish in 1945, after World War II had ended. Nor would you know that a fierce and utterly pointless battle, in which 40,000 people died and which destroyed most of the city, was fought here towards the end of the War. It has been, mostly, restored to its former beauty and is filled with young people, who celebrate the present and future.
Not only soy milk, but also an amazing vegan chocolate cake.
Its center, like Poznan's, also offers a cathedral, a number of churches, a synagogue, a market hall as well as a good few museums. The FC Caffe serves not only soy milk, but also an amazing vegan chocolate cake, and coffee is served in half-liter mugs. The vegan restaurant Vega, right at the medieval market square, is tasty, though be aware that it closes at 7, like most milk bars.
But the much touted Krakow fails to impress. The historic city center as well as the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, are definitely worth a visit but are more reminiscent of a theme park than part of an actual city. Too many souvenir shops vie with restaurants that serve so-called "traditional cuisine." Normal shops are nowhere to be seen and guides in electric golf carts offer city tours, complete with generic audio guide commentary.
Its cathedral, castle and St. Mary's Church are overrun, though those who seek quiet and reflection among beautiful surroundings will find this in the Franciscan Church, whose walls were decorated in stunning Art Nouveau murals by Stanisław Wyspiański around the turn of the last century.
Its Soviet past is, however, also quite palpable when visiting the socialist "poster boy" quarter Nowa Huta, 25 minutes outside of Krakow's old city center. Despite the fact that there was no coal nor iron ore to be found in the region, the regime built this neighborhood to house workers of the heavy industries, complete with everything you need to live, except a church, since the people were supposedly being weaned off the "opium" of religion. Of course, this is also the capital of the adoration for Pope John Paul II, who served as archbishop, and you can visit the Lord's Ark church he had built in 1977.
We warm to Krakow in the end due its food and the vegetarian-vegan restaurant Veganic, whose atmosphere is the perfect mix between high-quality and down-to-earth, chic and relaxed. Its industrial surroundings belie its wonderful and fresh cuisine, their semi-freddo desserts being an absolute highlight.
The last stop on our Polish city tour is Zakopane, right in the middle of the High Tatra, the wild mountains separating Poland and Slovakia. Its beauty alone is worth the trip, though crowds from Krakow during peak season mean you should plan your trip to the High Tatra for spring or autumn.
But even Zakopane has its own milk bar — and yes, there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian dishes clearly highlighted on the menu.