Kayaking down the Wisla River immediately to the south of the old town isn’t the most popular activity in Krakow, Poland in the middle of May – but it is possible. After asking a few locals who spoke English about where I could rent a kayak and eliciting some strange looks, I was eventually helpfully directed to a nondescript building with a yellow sign with “K.S. Nadwislan” printed on it.
The building is a 10 minute walk from the old Market Square at the heart of Krakow’s old town, and very close to Wawel (pronounced “Vavelle” in English), Poland’s medieval royal castle that is a tourist destination. Simply walk south from Wawel to find the river and then follow the north river bank west until you get to a large Novotel. Then turn right and follow a path down to the waterfront, and a long ramp leading up to “K.S. Nadwislan” and an opportunity to rent a kayak. Along the way, be sure to stop and watch a statue of a dragon that actually breathes fire every couple of minutes or so.
Renting a kayak from this marina proved to be somewhat of a comedy. I made no attempt to learn any Polish ahead of my short trip, and the older gentleman running the place had no English vocabulary. So we were left to mime to one another. I said “kayak” and made use of an invisible paddle. He nodded understanding and pointed at my face, then drew a rectangle in the air with his hands to show he wanted my ID as a deposit while I used the rental. The fee would be 10 zloty, he said – equivalent to about $3.
The grey-haired, mustachioed proprietor may not have spoke English, but he was extremely patient and helpful. He led me to the storage barn full of kayaks and we picked out a boat, then he helped me carry it down to the riverside dock. He demonstrated the use of a skirt (explaining “no wet”) and gave me a life jacket that fit. He assisted me getting into the kayak and I must have been somewhat less than graceful, because he looked at me doubtfully and asked “swimming?” while miming the front crawl. I nodded and gave him the thumbs up, and I was on my way.
I chose to paddle east along the river, in the direction that would take me past the royal palace and give me some views of the old town from the water. The river serves as a sort of dividing point between old town Krakow and new town. On the north side, you spot centuries-old churches and remnants of an ancient river wall. On the south side, cranes dot the skyline and modern hotels, restaurants, and offices can be seen.
Along the river there are several restaurant boats. I am not sure if these always stay docked and allow patrons to enter and exti at will, or perhaps disembark for a cruise around the river during the warmer months as passengers dine. There were also several barges parked along the river bank, hinting at some commerce use for this river. I pretty much had the river to myself, except for the odd schooner that would motor by, giving people a more rapid tour of the riverside than I was experiencing.
The kayak I’d rented wasn’t the best quality boat. I found it difficult to keep straight, and zig-zagged back and forth quite a bit as I progressed down the river. Its seat was also quite uncomfortable, and the deck was flat to the water so that even a small wave would break over it and splash me. Good thing I had that skirt.
Paddling east, I travelled under several bridges connecting traffic across the river. One blue bridge with wire suspension was for pedestrians only. I noticed that thousands of small pad locks were on the fence of the walkway. I later asked a local about this, and he explained that its become a tradition for couples to inscribe their initials on the locks, and then place them on the fence as a good omen. The Europeans are so romantic.
How to do it
- Link: K.S. Nadwislan river side sports club
- Cost: 10 zloty (about $3) per hour
- Skill level: Beginner; flat water river, some boat wake
- When: May to October, prime season is June to August
I didn’t spot much wildlife along the river, but there was one section where a number of swans and pigeons congregated, waiting for children to throw them food from the river side.
When I returned to my departure dock, I found my miming Polish friend to be giving a kayak lesson to a group of children. Several boats were being paddled about by girls and boys that looked to be about 10 years-old. As I pulled myself out of my kayak and onto the dock, one younger boy looked at me quizzically and started speaking rapidly in Polish. I just shrugged and apologized, explaining I only spoke English. That was as far as the conversation went.
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The older man asked another adult woman on the dock to take over the class (or so I imagine that’s what he said) and then helped me bring the kayak back to the storage barn. I paid him 10 zloty and shook his hand, then went on my way.