By Jesse Weber
Krakow is a place suspended in limbo between old and new. Here, in Poland’s second largest city, remnants of medieval settlements underlie sky-clawing towers of Renaissance castles and cathedrals, surrounded by historic walls, ramparts, synagogues, universities, and residences. As Poland steadily recovers from the recent economic crisis, new commercial and residential developments are made, and many centuries-old structures are now repurposed as chic cafés, boutiques, and nightclubs.
But the transformation is incomplete. In this city that is vying for progress on par with the rest of the European Union, second-hand trolleys from Cold-War-era Germany still clatter laps around town. Narrow streets that weave among the aged city layout become ever more clogged with cars and pedestrians. As a result, certain neighborhoods lag behind in development, choked off by inefficient infrastructure.
As Krakow perches on the verge of its next phase in development, officials, activists, and the general public must cooperate in paving the way to a reformed cultural and economic identity, while preserving the city’s historical integrity.
One man in Krakow has a vision for what his city should be, and he pursues this goal through a modest, yet innovative platform—his restaurant.
The Bike Like Café is Krakow’s destination for more than just the best-value pizza in town. The venue doubles as a full-service bicycle repair shop, and the owner doubles as an activist for bicycle transport in the city.
When you enter the Bike Like Café, Marek Wojcik’s greeting is only a brief hello. He serves you in deliberate fashion, preparing your drink and personally overseeing the baking of your pizza, exchanging few words as he efficiently handles the duties of his self-run restaurant. If you catch him at a rare time when he is free to chat, however, he will gladly open up about either of his two passions—music and bikes.
Marek started university to study acoustic engineering. He is well-versed in all types of music, but specializes in symphonic and melodic metal as well as vocalization. While pursuing study of his art, Marek also served on the board of the local bicycle advocacy group, Krakow City of Bikes. After a creative idea became reality, however, Marek invented a way to merge his personal interests, community service, and profitable business into the Bike Like Café. Although taking a break from school and stepping down from the board were necessary to accommodate the demands of his endeavor, this allowed him to shift his efforts into a brand new outlet. The startup Bike Like Café is now destined to become a unique cultural icon of Krakow.
Marek’s idea is to introduce a trendy new café to Krakow’s expanding market, and to simultaneously aid the city’s cultural and economic growth by encouraging bicycle and public transportation. Marek’s café/bike shop combination is the embodiment of his philosophy on Krakow’s ideal character.
I met Marek at his café two weeks after the official opening. When I asked about the grand opening event, Marek replied with laughter, “We have had several ’openings!’ The first was when we had just finished the [wall] murals, but I didn’t even have the bar built all the way… I am planning on a real ‘Grand Opening’ party soon, once I get a few more things finished.”
Located just a 15-minute walk, or 5-minute bike ride, from the city center, the new café already boasts a delicious assortment of pizzas and sandwiches, a diverse drink menu, and cozy but lively atmosphere that includes two dining areas and a lounge. The property also has a courtyard in the back, in which Marek is building a small concert/film venue and garden with outdoor heaters. This garden will be only the third of its kind in Krakow, and is scheduled to be open by summer 2014.
In the true manner of a self-made man, Marek built his business from the ground up, dedicating a sizeable loan to get started. He says, “At first, it was just me. Manager, pizza maker, delivery [by bicycle, of course], everything.” In only a few weeks, he has increased his staff to a crew of four friendly, English-speaking Krakow locals, and hopes to hire more in the future.
In addition to the bike shop run in the back of the building, the Bike Like Café is developing into a hub for bicycle activity in Krakow. On Saturday mornings, a guided bicycle tour departs from in front of the café to explore the historical sites of the city, which is rich in relics from medieval times all the way through German occupation and WWII. Krakow has long-established walking tours available every day, but these are confined to only the innermost attractions. Bicycles allow for more distance, more sights, and more fun. The tours are arranged in conjunction with a licensed tour company, Vintage Krakow Tours, and are by far the best value to be found in Krakow, offered at less than half the price of most other tour companies.
“Our idea came from the walking tours,” says Marek. “But with those, it takes maybe fifteen to twenty minutes to walk from the city center to the Wawel Castle, and you just can’t see everything. With bikes, though, we can see everything easily, and there are places just away from the main city, like the old Jewish Ghetto, that you cannot get to at all on a walking tour.”
The tours are only a small part of Marek’s vision for bicycle transport in Krakow, however. Although no longer on the board, Marek continues involvement with Krakow City of Bikes by volunteering to teach bicycle safety lessons in public high schools. About the association, Marek explains, “We are fighting for better bicycle and pedestrian transport in Krakow… The city [government] is very bad about [supporting] bicycles.” City of Bikes wants to see modernized transportation infrastructure that improves vehicular traffic flow while dedicating separate corridors for bicycles and pedestrians.
Marek and his fellow proponents cite the economic and health benefits of transport reform. Fewer auto lanes can actually reduce congestion by streamlining traffic flow. Introducing bicycle and pedestrian lanes will encourage these modes of transportation and make them safer. This means means people can get to work more efficiently, streets are more inviting to shoppers and tourists, and healthy exercise is easier to achieve.
Currently in Krakow, there are some bicycle paths, but they are poorly connected. A cycle share system is also in place, but stations are few, and many residents find the fees to be unaffordable. Thanks to popular support and City of Bikes’ activism, the city has agreed to allot 6 million zloty (2 million USD) to improve transport infrastructure and public parks in the next year. The plans include more crosswalks and sidewalks, more city train routes, and a park & ride system.
In the past, the organization has also been involved in conservation of park space threatened by urban development. In 2008, for example, a forested area surrounding an old stone quarry was scheduled to become apartment housing. This forest was valuable for public recreation, and was also known habitat for several protected plants and animals, including a certain species of butterfly. City of Bikes, for which Marek still served on the board at that time, organized a bicycle-themed protest called Critical Mass that gathered at this park once per month. Supporters adopted the butterfly as a symbol for conservation, and cyclists sporting butterfly wings and colorful costumes rode around the park to raise awareness.
This demonstration was successful and the park was saved. Since then, Critical Mass bicycle rallies have continued on the final Friday of every month, and aim to raise support for various issues concerning conservation and public transportation. The largest gathering occurred last year, with over 900 people supporting improved transport infrastructure in Krakow.
With other cities in Europe and around the world grinding gears and turning wheels in the direction of bicycle transport, Krakow may soon follow. Thanks to Marek and fellow activists, alternative methods of transportation are becoming more popular among the city’s nearly 1 million residents.
This movement echoes similar projects in cities like Amsterdam, Portland, Paris, and Copenhagen. The future of urban transportation may very well be cycle share programs, pedestrian streets, and bike lanes where cars used to be. This could happen in Krakow, but it will take infrastructural and cultural reform.
The Bike Like Café is forging this new culture. Delicious pizza, great music, cycling, and public activism find their communal home in Marek Wojcik’s creative contribution to Eastern Europe.
Marek has nearly all his time, money, and effort invested into his business at the moment, but is constantly looking ahead to what else he wants to accomplish. Along with continuing bicycle education in Krakow, Marek says, “In another year, I would like to return to my studies of music and singing, after everything [in the café] is finished and I have more staff. Right now I just have no time.”
Needless to say, any trip to Krakow should include a pizza and a bike tour at Bike Like, but even if you never travel to Poland, Marek and his café can be inspiration for taking a noble idea and running with it (or riding, as it were). With his help, Krakow can become a new example of innovation and sustainability. And good food.