Walking out of your hotel into the dark early morning of a Krakow winter is akin to walking through the wardrobe to the magical ice land of Narnia.
You almost expect to meet the faun Mr Tumnus as you pause to catch your breath in the icy cold fog. The centre of the city, with temperatures averaging three degrees below zero Celsius in winter, is a glacial parkland paradise.
Tramcars tinkle their way through roads bisecting the park landed Old Town, the open space showing elegant churches and other buildings to their best advantage.
The cold Krakovian winter and the warm summer means that this is really a tale of two cities. Tour guides tell you that in spring Poles come out of hibernation, as the ice melts and the trees and flowers spring to life. Then the party season starts. And Poles really know how to party.
But don’t let the sub-zero temperatures dissuade you from visiting in winter and early spring. For the ice and snow seem to lend extra romance to this most fascinating of cities. Poland’s principal tourist attraction, the city has been settled since the Stone Age, and boasts a myriad of attractions. The Old Town historical district in Krakow’s heart is actually the medieval city established in 1257.
Its well preserved original grid of streets with the huge central Main Market Square, or Rynek Glowny, is the epitome of medieval city planning, incorporating beautiful buildings and streetscapes that have led it to being declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Unlike Warsaw, Krakow managed to escape the second world war relatively undamaged.
Folklore and custom form an important part of Krakovian life. In Rynek Glowny, every hour of every day a golden trumpet appears from a window in the tower of St Mary’s Basilica.
The trumpet melody resounds over the city’s Old Town district, and comes to an abrupt end. This plaintive Hejnal Mariacki commemorates a brave bugler who warned his fellow citizens about a Tartar invasion in 1241, and whose tune was cut short when a Tartar archer shot him in the throat.
Nowadays the bugle call is a tourist attraction, somewhat confusing to tourists who arrange to meet at the church at a given hour, only to discover every other tourist in Krakow seems to be doing the same thing.
Wawel Hill, the residence and burial place of Polish kings, is reputed to contain a chakrah, one of seven stones a Hindu god threw around the world at the creation.
The Wawel chakrah is supposed to have ordered the young Prince Casimir the Restorer to choose Krakow as his capital when he became king, which he did, living in Wawel castle.
Today Wawel Hill is more famous for housing the cathedral where Pope John Paul II made a point of saying mass whenever he visited Poland; as a newly ordained priest, he celebrated his first mass in a crypt of the cathedral in 1946. Wawel royal castle and cathedral is an interesting place, well worth at least a half day visit.
Another king Casimir the Great, created a town, just south of the royal castle, where Jews, suffering from persecution in other parts of Europe in the 14th century, were free to practice their religion.
The Kazimierz was prosperous for many years, and represented a tolerant age in Krakovian history, as its splendid churches and synagogues testify. But World War II and the holocaust put paid to the prosperity of the district, as many of the 68,000 Jews living in Krakow were put to death in the near by concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. And Wawel’s royal castle, once the seat of tolerant kings, became the private domain of the Nazi governor Hans Frank.
The Kazimierz is now undergoing a revival as part of renewed interest in Jewish history and culture in Krakow, and has turned into an area rather like Dublin’s Temple Bar, with quaint and lively pubs decorated in a peculiar style with mahogany drawing room tables and velvet curtains.
We spent a charming night in a pub called Singer in December, where the clientele encouraged us to take part in a tradition where people drop melted wax into cold water to create a shape which would predict their fate for the next year.
In the vicinity of Krakow, there are places that are well-known – for entirely different reasons – all over the world. The most tragic of these is Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oswiêcim. At a closer distance lie the medieval Salt Mines of Wieliczka.
Both of these sites require almost a day to visit, and are easily accessed by public and private transport from the city.
Krakow provides a perfect base for side-trips to the scenic landscape of the country’s most attractive corners. The city lies only 100 kilometres from the rocky Tatra Mountains and Zakopane, frequently referred to as the winter capital of Poland.
Alpine skiing – for beginners and experienced skiers – and snowboarding are the most popular sports in this Polish-Slovak border resort, and the season can last until May.
Zakopane also boasts good cross-country skiing along beautiful marked trails. Also close to Krakow are the far smaller and by no means less beautiful Pieniny Mountains, the famous spas of Szczawnica and Krynica, and the uncrowded mountainous trails of the Beskidy Mountains. Local traditions are cherished throughout the Malopolska region, and it has a very well-developed network of agritourist accommodation.
People used to Irish prices will find their money goes very far in Poland, which is still outside the Euro zone. One Polish zloty (PLN) is currently worth about 26 cent. Taxis are very cheap, with five minute ride from the Radisson Hotel to the Kazimierz costing 10 zloty.
Cigarettes cost around 60 PLN (a little over Eu 15) for 200, and the very good local beer and spirits are cheap by Irish standards. Wine tends to be dear, as it is imported, and the quality might not be as good as we are used to.
Food is excellent, and Krakow is considered to be the gastronomic capital of Poland. In the Main Market Square, Szara restaurant is stylish and atmospheric, and a very convenient to the main shopping area; in the Kazimierz, several restaurants serve traditional eastern European Jewish fare, such as stuffed goosenecks and herring in cream sauce, beetroot soup, and dumplings. Dinner for two without wine tends to average 20 to 35 euro.
Shopping is mostly concentrated around Rynek Glowny, and the square’s Cloth Hall now houses stalls selling handcrafts such as sheepskin slippers, chessboards and amber jewellery. In December, the square has a Christmas market, where the smells of mulled cider and street stall food enrich the atmosphere.
- Ida Milne travelled with A er Lingus to Krakow. Aer Lingus fly three times a week.
- The municipality of Krakow has produced a series of very good tourism booklets available from the local tourist offices, including one at the Town Hall Tower on Rynek Glowny and at Krakow-Balice airport. Useful websites include www.poland-tourism.pl and www.krakow.pl
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