Krakow is a city of stories, stories which reflect its rich, powerful and at periods deeply disturbing history. One of the many I heard was of the Trumpeter of Krakow, in which a 13th century trumpeter watchman in the Town Hall Tower on the Main Market Square warned the Krakowians of imminent attack. The invaders were vanquished, but it was only after much rejoicing that the Krakowians realised that the brave watchman had been killed by an enemy arrow. In remembrance of him, a fanfare is played every hour from the Town Hall Tower, in the heart of the city. However, before I’d heard these legends, I had one story embossed in my mind and my heart. It wasn’t that I wanted to go to Krakow necessarily, but that I wanted to visit Auschwitz. The way I saw it, Krakow was nothing more than a bit of light relief, in story terms it had no more appeal than a distracting magazine. When a tourist told me at the start of my trip that she couldn’t bear to go to the camps, I thought she had a glaring hole in her itinerary. However, the more I saw of Krakow, the less the city seemed to orbit Auschwitz and instead I began to see it as a remarkable European city to be experienced in its own right.
The 20th century was a story of intermittent triumph and strife for Poland. After over 100 years of partition between the Kingdom of Prussia, Austria and the Russian Empire, Poland regained independence in 1918. However, the country was invaded and occupied by the German Nazi Party in 1939, followed by post-war decades of Russian communist rule. Poland only regained independence in 1989. The only major Polish city to be spared of bombing in WW2, Krakow is blessed with a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, standing and sometimes leaning on cobbled streets. Yet there’s much that’s fresh and vivacious about it. It’s a university city, with bars, coffee houses and restaurants in abundance. The wide pavements, open squares and circumnavigating stretch of green are welcoming, while the Old Town (Stare Miasto) – at 10 acres the largest European medieval city – forms much of Krakow’s charm, comprised of the Main Market Square (the incorrect but widely used translation of Rynek Główny, which in fact means Grand Square) and Wawel Castle. The longest river in Poland, the Vistula (Wisła) separates the Old Town and Kazimierz (the oldest Jewish city in Europe) from Podgorze, the area of the former Jewish ghetto, and Plaszow forced labour camp. There’s so much to the place that immediately striking is how unexpectedly easy it is to walk around it, which perhaps accounts for the refreshing lack of cars and taxis in the Old Town. And when you’re tired, the trams, electric tour buggies, bike tours and horse and carts encourage further exploration, as well as emphasising the romance of the city and reflecting the seemingly typically Polish easy approach to life. Note that I visited in November however, perhaps the throngs of summer tourists that a few locals described to me might make for a more hectic experience.
Krakow will fill a week’s trip to the brim with ease, and most of my trip centred on the beautiful and lively Main Market Square in the Old Town. They call Krakow the City of the Hundred Churches, and so I began with its 14th century St Mary’s Church in the corner of the square. Its engravings told me tales, its pews asked me to sit and its height and stained glass windows above the triptych said to look up to God. The place invites one to be a part of it, appearing exactly opposite to the cathedral at Wawel Castle, a short walk south of the square down ul. Grodzka. The large, heavy structure, complete with its gold and its restrictions seemed aloof and intimidating (it was one way only and a sign at the entrance forbade entering dressed in shorts or a vest). I left feeling inadequate and suitably chastised! The castle itself is worth the trip for a nice slice of Polish history. Bear in mind though that guidebooks recommend a full day’s visit and there are art exhibitions besides. If you fancy just a walk, the panoramic view from the castle is a great one. For guided tours and essential trips further afield, Cracow City Tours (www.cracowcitytours.pl, ul. Floriańska 44) runs fantastically organised trips to Auschwitz, the Salt Mines and the Tatra mountains (which are reportedly unmissable. My five nights in Krakow flew, so I’ve left my mountain visit for my intended return next year).
The Salt Mines tour is unparalleled for giving you clear Polish history in unique surroundings. 100PLN includes the coach to and from Wieliczka (ul. Daniłowicza 10), entrance fee and guide. The tour takes about three hours including the 30 minute journey each way. It’s a Unesco site and rightly so, the sublime 700 year old mines house lakes, a huge chapel and an entire ballroom which can be hired for events, as well as sculptures and religious scenes carved by miners. Our guide, Sebastian, told us tales of drunken German soldiers and soaked Nazi wives. I should say something about the Polish people now; without exception, all the people I met were spirited, talkative and helpful. I spent some time at Cracow City Tours talking to a Polish man (he wasn’t working there, just visiting a friend who was) about the Polish sense of humour, and he said that it’s similar to that of the British in terms of its sarcasm and dry wit. He went on to give me some good natured cheek, as if by example. There was comedy abound in the depths of the mines – at one point Sebastian said, ‘Right now, let’s go to see the toilet’, affectionately mocking us as tourists. Referring to the souvenirs sold there he exclaimed, ‘The prices are barbarian’! He went on to suggest that his wife sells souvenirs cheaply, so perhaps there was an ulterior motive. Comedy aside, the tour was loaded with information. I found it fascinating that in the Middle Ages the very precious salt was used for preserving army food and so became a currency, a means of wealth and export. Thus, the English word ‘salary’ derives from ‘salt’. We were told that the salt came from sea that was there 14 million years ago and that Copernicus visited in 1493 when he was 20 years old. We took in these stories whilst exploring the mines. The descending stairs and accompanying walk are considerable (the mines are the definition of cavernous at 54 floors down at their deepest), but there are stops in the various chambers. The good news is you don’t have to climb back up but it’s a bizarre and slightly scary theme park experience instead. About eight people are crammed into a tiny lift that goes up 4ft a second. We all laughed when it came to our turn, nervously.
Back in the city, the district of Podgorze, the former Jewish ghetto from 1941-43, bears signs of its tragic and brutal history. On Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterow Getta) an estimated 60’000 Jews were murdered and transported to labour and concentration camps. In 2005, a haunting memorial was installed in remembrance; its 70 bronze chairs alluding to the liquidation of the ghetto. It’s a powerful scene of the objects that outlived their owners. At number 18 on the same square, the former Under the Eagle pharmacy is now a museum. It belonged to Tadeusz Pankiewicz (1908-1993), a Roman Catholic Polish pharmacist who refused to leave his house and business when the ghetto was created. His pharmacy became a meeting point for Jewish intelligentsia, and through supplying the Jews with treatment, hair dye for disguising, tranquilisers to help calm children in hiding, food and shelter, Pankiewicz is thought to have helped thousands of Jews in the ghetto. Along ul. Lwowska part of the ghetto wall still stands in memory. Close by, the Oskar Schindler Factory (ul. Lipowa 4) is a hugely extensive, creative, interactive museum, and appropriately sensitive. Don’t miss this, using all manner of media it gives an account of Oskar Schindler’s life (Schindler [1908-1974], a German, owned an enamel factory from 1939-44 and in doing so saved the 1200 Jews whom he employed) and depicts the occupation from the perspective of the Catholic Poles as well as from that of the Jews. The recommended lower age limit is 14 years old and it costs 15PLN for adults and less for concessions.
Visiting the concentration camp of Auschwitz was initially the propelling reason for my trip to Krakow, the culmination of many years of thought and study. English Literature from the start of secondary school until my graduation from university was either peppered with references to WW2 or it was studied in great depth, and I’d wanted to go from a young age. So there was a big build up and as such the 1 hour 20 minute journey was a very nervous one. I even considered the feasibility of waiting on the coach for the day instead of going in. The coach showed a film, perhaps more to prepare us than to educate us, and it served to compound the reality of what we were about to witness. We arrived on a moderately busy day and there were a few school groups as expected. Our guide met us and was from the beginning sensitive and knowledgeable. She led us alongside the infamous tracks to the entrance to the camp. The barbed wire and fencing was in tact and the Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Brings Freedom) sign had been recreated after being stolen last year. The tour began with the lead up to the war, with artefacts installed in one of the brick buildings where the prisoners slept. It was as shocking as I’d imagined. The rooms had photos of the prisoners and displayed the uniforms they were given and their belongings. Extremely upsetting was the hair. Walking through the blocks, none of it seemed real. The unimaginable inhumanity that took place there seemed irreconcilable with the solid, tangible buildings standing around me. It was smaller than I’d imagined it to be, and this only exacerbated my distress. The question repeated in my mind – how could this not have been stopped? We were shown the torture cells, the reconstructed wall where entire families were shot, the place where prisoners had been hung and the crematorium. The tour ended at Birkenau, much of which was razed in a final Nazi effort to eradicate the evidence of their evil. On the coach journey back to Krakow I was left with the words that I read on a plaque at the start of the tour, a quotation which encapsulated why I wanted to go to Auschwitz: ‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again’, by Spanish philosopher George Santayana.
My Polish evenings were a time for reflection, but also for enjoyment. Each one started with fabulous, inexpensive food. Krakow deserves recognition as a culinary hotspot and its many international restaurants contribute to its cosmopolitan feel. Unlike many of its neighbouring Eastern European cities, Krakow experiments with its native Polish cuisine as well as exploring Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, vegetarian and particularly popular – Italian tastes. Note that most of my recommendations centre on the Main Market Square. For delightful Polish cuisine (and of course, fantastically tasty Italian dishes), Marmolada, on the Main Market Square (ul. Grodzka 5) is a must visit. With live Polish folk music every night, Marmolada is the newest of the Nasze Restaurant chain, following in the footsteps of Miod Malina (ul. Grodzka 40), Wesele (Rynek Główny 10) and La Campana (ul. Kanonicza 7). Here, I learnt that pierogi are little moreish dumplings filled with all things delicious. I ate my fill of the sauerkraut and mushroom variety for 18PLN a dish and went back for the spinach and cheese. Of the many vegetarian options, a salad of goat cheese, pear and walnuts for 23PLN was as good as they get and the pancakes with creamy garlic spinach and gorgonzola left me drooling well after my last mouthful. Apologies that I’m unlikely to get excited about meat dishes, being a vegetarian, but there are plenty of lamb, veal, chicken and fish courses at around 40PLN for a main. My companion’s fish soup was fresh and authentic and the chicken stuffed with sun blushed tomatoes was reportedly juicy. Another brilliant Italian option is Trattoria Soprano (Św. Anny 7). There are several vegetarian spots around the Main Market Square, but further out in Kazimierz a gorgeous place is Momo Vegetarian Organic Bar (ul. Dietla 49). Also selling vegan dishes, it’s a great stop for a cheap and healthy lunch. On a cold afternoon I took much pleasure in the lightly spiced warmth of the South Indian soup with red lentils and coconut, and then some wholesome if rather chewy vegan cookies. There are many fast-food options should you fancy them (numerous kebab shops, Asia to Go, KFC, Subway and McDonalds) and for a local snack there is a highly recommended 24hr pierogi café (Zapiecek Polish Pierogi, ul. Slawkowska 32) and krusczyki (a kind of Polish pretzel) stalls on every corner. Once satisfied by savoury, Krakow certainly looks after your sweet tooth. E. Wedel (Rynek Główny 46), on the Main Market Square sells the most indulgent, thickest hot chocolates you’ll ever try to drink, while Wentzl (the Wentzl Hotel’s café) at number 19 dishes up incredibly huge and very reasonable ice-creams. The Pizza Stagioni is a fruity, coconutty delight and is big enough for two bellies. I’m sure I’m being most British when I say that the tea isn’t great in Krakow. Coffee, however, is a pride of Poland and deservedly. I loved the luxurious Noworolski (Rynek Główny 1-3) coffee house; you might happen to sit right where Lenin once sat whilst plotting the Bolshevik revolution. Or nab a window spot at Bar Szara (Rynek Główny 6) for a bit of relaxed people watching and a wonderful view of the Sukiennice Cloth Hall, which at 700 years old is apparently the world’s oldest shopping centre. Bar Szara also serves good cocktails and is open late.
When I visited, in November, it was dark at 6pm and the evenings stretched ahead. However, this is definitely not a problem in a city with as much to as Krakow. There are worthy bars and a few clubs in Kazimierz, but most what you need in terms of evening entertainment lies in the Old Town. There are classical concerts almost every night of the week, taking place mostly in churches across the city. I went to listen to the Orchestra of St. Maurice at the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (ul. Grodzka 54) for 50PLN. The church provided a simple, perfect setting for the music, a five-piece group playing Tchaikovsky, Bach, Saint Saens, Chopin and Bizet wonderfully. The Krakowians love their jazz too, another sign of the embracing of other cultures. Piano Rouge (Rynek Główny 46) is a fun bar and restaurant with live jazz downstairs most evenings. Drink menus are extensive in all restaurants and bars, and vodka is the national drink with almost every fruity flavour conceivable. Cocktails in Krakow came in the form of Wiwa (Rynek Główny 18, also a hostel). It was a pleasure to have a Naughty Boy (a vodka and amaretto combo) and I thought it only right to end the night with some Sex in Krakow (more vodka, with juice). I couldn’t bring myself to ask the barman so I made my mother ask for it instead. At 20PLN, drinks at Buddha (just down an alley at Rynek Główny 6) are pricier than at Wiwa (working out to be just under a fiver, they were actually more expensive than some of my dinners) but the place is chilled enough for you to unwind. The Buddha staff told me that clubbing gets underway from 11pm most nights at the spots around the Main Market Square, with Prozak (Pl. Dominikanski 6), Frantic (ul. Szewska 5) and Cien (Sw. Jana 15) being great venues. Visit http://www.cracow-life.com/info/clubbing for nightly listings.
Krakow’s heritage is respected by its shops; its beautiful facades are left intact with high street stores slotting into the town discreetly. If you walk through L’Occitane on ul. Grodzka, there’s even a shopping centre that you could almost miss it’s so subtle. There are souvenirs at the Sukiennice Cloth Hall and for jewellery lovers there are amber shops in abundance, and much cheaper than in Britain. I bought some silver and amber earrings for 26PLN at the Wawel Castle gift shop, and you can probably get them even cheaper elsewhere. Again, the arty and Asian influenced clothes shops indicate a city that’s proud to be part of the world as well as Poland.
Before my visit, I wasn’t sure if one could enjoy a city like Krakow truly. I thought it wouldn’t be without a pervasive sense of unease because of what had happened there 70 years before, and the occupation years that followed. I imagine many tourists view Krakow as a base from which to visit Auschwitz but there’s so much more to the city. Honour the lives lost by going to Krakow, walk the cobbled streets, know what happened in and around the city but relish its precious present and drink vodka towards its future. Experience the magic of Krakow sooner rather than later; it may unexpectedly become the chapter you return to again and again.
My flight with Easyjet from London Gatwick to Krakow Airport cost £90 without checking in luggage and took two hours and 30 minutes (www.easyjet.com). At the time of travel (November 2010) the exchange rate was 4.5PLN to 1 British pound sterling. On arrival, I took the free airport shuttle to the nearest train station and from there it was a 10 minute train journey to Krakow’s central station (Dworzek Główny) – you can buy the tickets from the conductor on the train for 4PLN. Less than 10 minutes walk south-west and we reached the Main Market Square (Rynek Główny). On our return to the airport we decided on the ease of a taxi, costing 50PLN and taking 20 minutes from the Main Market Square without traffic. There are innumerable accommodation options in and around Krakow from high-end luxury to hostels and apartments. I stayed at the Nordic House Apartments (www.nordichouse.pl) just off the Main Market Square, costing 199PLN per double room per night. The location is excellent, the staff are friendly and helpful and the rooms are spotless, spacious and have a simple modern elegance to them. In fact, they are suites more than apartments; they serve breakfast in the basement and will clean your room each day. If you’re on a shoestring budget, I heard of a fabulously accommodating hostel called Greg and Tom’s (www.gregtomhostel.com), from 55PLN per person per night. The couple I spoke to said the price included a substantial and lovely (if limited in choice) breakfast and dinner.
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