Pat Keenan is an enthusiastic admirer of this delightful Polish city
Cultured Kraków, Poland’s second largest city and once its royal capital is historic, beautiful and an enchanting place to visit. Thankfully it largely escaped destruction during the Second World War, possibly because the occupying German Nazis made it their regional headquarters, and so retains most of its former glory. It’s easy to see why this city is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Rynek Glówny, the largest medieval square in Europe
You’ll spend many enjoyable hours in the quaint Old Town, perfectly preserved cobbled streets surrounding the Rynek Glówny, the largest medieval square in Europe. Its massive centrepiece is the 14th century gothic St. Mary’s Basilica. Every hour on the hour a trumpeter on its highest tower will play the famous five-note Polish bugle call – the hejnał mariacki. It’s a sound that will forever remind you of Kraków.
The square is always filled with shoppers and tourists. The Cloth Hall in the centre hosts a massive market of umpteen crafts, clothes, souvenir and curio stalls. Be careful with the many city tour guide touts, they are genuine enough but only use if you’re a seasoned and persistent haggler. Along the entire edges of the square trendy cafés with seating indoor or outside under canopies serving every conceivable choice of Polish and pan European foods. Sit there and soak in the melee of activity, street performers, musicians and the finely tuned clip clop of the healthy well-embellished horses and their pristine carriages.
Beneath the square is Muzeum Krakowa stretching underground from the Cloth Hall to St Mary’s Church. Over centuries of time the floor levels of the market square have risen considerably, so this underground space takes us back centuries to see the foundations of cottages and objects from as far back as the 12th century.The museum liberally uses 3D technology and videos showing how the city evolved over the centuries. To descend into underground Muzeum Krakowa, enter from the arcaded gallery of the Cloth Hall on the side of St Mary’s. www.muzeumkrakowa.pl/en
The Cloth Hall also houses Noworolski, an opportunity for a break in one of the most famous high society coffee shops in Kraków. Relax surrounded by Art Nouveau mirrored walls, paintings and an array of some very good pastries and chocolates. Sit and enjoy those very ambiences enjoyed since 1912 by artists, intellectuals and writers. Reflect the best of time and perhaps some bad times past. During the Second World War it was requisitioned by the Nazis and access was restricted for Germans only. When the war ended the cafe was nationalised by the Communists. The good times only returned in 1991 when the Noworolski family regained possession and re-established the café.
While on the subject of indulgence, don’t miss a sampling of some century-old chocolatier recipes, indulgent desserts and hot chocolate at the E.Wedel Chocolate Lounge at 46 Rynek Głowny Street. Ok, admittedly founded in Warsaw and now owned by a South Korean-Japanese conglomerate. Don’t let that put you off, still the same recipes.
On the south side of the Old Town is Wawel Hill with the Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral. Worth a visit if only for the views over the city and the Vistula River. The castle itself housed Polish monarchs since the 11th century. It has been built and rebuit over the years, a mish-mash of architectural styles, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance. Explore the castle’s ornate state rooms with their complex tapestries and sizeable art collection.
As previously mentioned, the city largely escaped bombing during the Second World War but the trauma of Nazi German occupation remain, particularly in the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz. Today’s visitors will recognise the area from Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List . Before the war it was the centre of Jewish life, with about 65,000 residents, six synagogues and kosher markets. But after it remained for years a ruined empty place.
Today it has again emerged, bohemian in nature with trendy bars, cafés and nightclubs. Don’t miss the opportunity to try a bagel here at its very birthplace. It still remembers its Jewish heritage. Oskar Schindler’s factory is still there, now a museum devoted to recalling Jewish ordeals under Nazi occupation. The Jewish Memorial in the main square remembers the 65,000 Cracovian Jews murdered here in 1942. You will see the walled zone known as the Kraków Ghetto where Jews were forced to live and from where they were sent to Nazi extermination camps such as the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kupa Synagogue at ul. warszauera 8 is still open for religious services and visitors can stop in every day except Saturday.
Walk down Szeroka Street, lined by synagogues, art galleries, and cafés. Famed in the cosmetic business Helena Rubinstein was born here at 12 Szeroka, now part of a restaurant and hotel and across the road is The Old Jewish Cemetery beside the small 16th-century Remah Synagogue one of two still active synagogues in the city. Well worth a visit. Visitors to the Synagogue or cemetery are required to wear a cap, pick up a paper kippah at the entrance.
This was my second visit to Kraków, an invitation to a wedding took me here on both occasions and once again the bride was Polish and the groom, Irish. I suppose it’s not that extraordinary given that, according to our Dept. Of Foreign Affairs, 2.5 per cent of the Irish population is Polish and about 2,000 Irish live and work in Poland and to their credit they have created a very positive image of Ireland in Poland.
So that leaves me looking forward to an invite to a third wedding in Poland. This time the difference was in my preparedness. Polish weddings last two days, involve waves of food, beginning with ‘zakąski’ a sort of tapas of chicken, pork, lamb, beef, salads, paté, pickles and other peculiar concoctions which, out of politeness I eat anyway. Then there is a ‘ceasefire’ maybe lasting an hour or so. Now that the truce is over, the waves come larger and in earnest; a traditional bowl of ‘Rosól’ (a sort of broth) followed by the main courses. The dancing too is relentless. It seems everyone dances with the bride and everyone dances with the groom. Later in the evening the indoors eating was interrupted by a garden barbecue. And everything is washed down with endless vodka shots
This time I came fully aware of the infamous vodka shot and the knowledge that no self-respecting Pole would sip a vodka. How we Irish survived that first Polish wedding remains unanswered. Clueless we supped away at our pints and pausing every now and then to toast something or other with vodka shots. This time round I realised that Poles know not to mix their drinks and just slug down the shots followed by fatty food to absorb the alcohol. You’ll stay sober for longer they say. The second day of the wedding, called ‘Poprawiny’ is usually held in the evening and is less formal. It’s supposed ‘to correct’ or ‘improve’ on what you might have got up to the day before. No, It’s just another booze-up.
Outside the city
If time permits, two places outside the city that might be of interest, a day would have to be set aside to visit, one or both. The Wieliczka Salt Mine, 13 km (8 miles) southeast of Kraków produced table salt from the 13th century until it closed in 2007 and Auschwitz – Birkenau concentration camps 66 kilometres (41 miles) west of Kraków.
On this occasion I didn’t visit Auschwitz – Birkenau concentration camps but I did on my previous visit. It is a powerful moving experience, one you will never forget, and I would recommend a visit. It is hard to imagine such horrors happened not that long ago and I suggest best left toward the end of your trip so as to separate and departmentalise happy and harrowing experiences. I went on an organised trip. If you make your own way there, Auschwitz is free to visit, but queues can be long, so best book in advance. www.visit.auschwitz.org There are many ticket sites online and many that you can book while in Kraków.
Value for money
Kraków is cheap compared to most European destinations and you will marvel at the low cost drinks and food on offer. Prices in cafes and bars are generally very reasonable but there is a group of Bania Luka bars where the prices are ridiculously cheap. You will notice a number of these bars around the city.
Despite being a member of the European Union, the Polish currency is still the złoty. In Kraków, ATM machines are everywhere and have English instructions and they accept all major credit and debit card types. Roughly 100 zloty is 21 Euro. I would advise you buy perhaps €100 worth of zloty for initial small purchases (available in any post office)
Kraków is a safe and enjoyable destination, the war in nearby Ukraine seems very far away. And yet there are Ukrainian flags everywhere. Over a million refugees have crossed into Poland since the Russian invasion. Poland, despite a right-leaning government, has been treating the refugees with respect and decency. It wasn’t always so, toward the end of WW2 Poles and Ukrainians ethnically cleansed one another. Perhaps the common experience of Russian oppression which spanned much of modern times from the 18th century partition to the fall of the Soviet Russian backed communist regime in 1989. Perhaps for some, the shared inherited memory of standing alone against the Nazis in 1939. Today in the middle of the main square you will see Ukrainians gather peacefully singing and waving flags around the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, regarded as the national poet of Poland, Lithuania Belarus and other Slavic countries.
Where to stay
It is preferable to stay near the Old Town which is in its the heart of the city. Normally city centre accommodation might be the expensive option but generally accommodation in Krakow is priced reasonably. We stayed at Residence 9, 31-009 Kraków, an unpretentious hotel less than a hundred yards from Rynek Główny, the main square; 12 minute’s walk to Wawel Castle; same to National Museum. Includes: modern lift to all four floors, free WiFi, mini fridges and an easy-to-use en suite shower. Some rooms with sloped ceilings, I can live with that. There’s a large bright reception and dining area for breakfast and other meals and also acts as a bar and meeting area. Outside there is comfortable shaded terrace and courtyard. The owners Beata and Marek Wawrzeniec were marvellous hosts and since I travelled independently and paid for my accommodation, they had no idea I would write this article. They advised that it might be noisy at night and suggested keeping windows closed. As it turned out, it seemed quiet enough to us. All the rooms are fully air conditioned. Family rooms can sleep up to four guests. You can also have an upgraded apartment units with kitchens and living areas. Highly recommended.
The Residence 9, Szewska 9, 31-009 Kraków.
Telephone: +48 12 429 15 97
Ryanair fly direct daily from Dublin to Kraków. Flight time is approximately two and a half hours.
For further information on Krakov, accommodation etc. contact the Polish Tourist Office in London.
Tel|: 0044 7747701806