Drink vodka. Eat pierogi and barszcz. Struggle with some Polish pronunciation. Walk your feet off. Listen to music in the streets and cafes. Allow your tears to flow. These are things you must do in Kraków.
They are the things that my memory conjures when I reflect on my first visit to Poland’s most beautiful medieval city. Kraków wears the mantle of Poland’s ‘second’ city, after the capital Warsaw, but be assured that’s only about size and population.
Any exploration of Kraków should start in the Main Square (Rynek Główny), where the 13th century doesn’t seem so far away when the sound of a trumpet rings out from one of the towers of St Mary’s Basilica on the edge of the market square. Tourists turn their faces up to glimpse the brassy gleam of the trumpet in the small window of the tower. The tune is called the hejnał, the hymn to Our Lady, which for centuries has been played every hour of the day and night. It is played four times, once each from the four faces of the tower … but always ends abruptly on a broken note.
The legend of the trumpeter intrigues me, and adds another layer of sorrow to the history of a city steeped in sadness as well as beauty. The broken note is an enduring tribute to the original 13th century watchman who saved the sleeping city by warning of the invasion by Tartars but was silenced by an arrow through his throat.
As I listen, the final quatrain sounds and on a lighter note, the hand of the trumpeter reaches out of the window and waves to those gathered below. There’s nothing unusual in this, as I see on other occasions when I’m in the square; it’s a ‘thank you’ to those who stop and listen in respect.
Resilience is one of Kraków’s many fine attributes. Renowned for its elegance, it’s an increasingly popular spot for European revelers on weekends away, borne by cheap flights and cheap vodka. There’s a lively nightlife, markets, shopping, good food and plenty to see and do.
Kraków is a wonderful introduction to Poland as it is one of the few major European cities to escape major damage during World War II, making it something of a time capsule.
Start with the impressive Wawel, the castle that dominates the city centre. The ancient seat of power in Poland since 1000 AD, the Wawel is an impressive complex: the castle is still surrounded by medieval defensive walls and towers, and includes a treasury, armoury and several small museums. At the base of the Wawel, near the river, a sculpture of the mythical dragon Smok Wawelski guards the entrance to his cave, intermittently breathing real fire to the delight of passing tourists.
Bordering the main square, the archways of the Renaissance-style Cloth Hall lead to stalls selling amber jewellery, leather goods, painted Russian-style dolls, embroidery and linen, carved religious sculptures and more. Visit in December to be swept up in the crowds browsing in the Christmas markets, where fragrant Polish sausage and other delicacies are on offer. Try Poland’s classic folk dish, pierogi, dumplings filled with pork, beef, potato, or even something sweet. Soup is popular too, and perfect in winter; barszcz is a thin beetroot soup served with tiny dumplings floating in it. If you prefer a more formal setting (even just for coffee and cake), the smart Noworolski restaurant in the Cloth Hall has a wonderful art nouveau décor inside and deep leather sofas outside (apparently it was a favourite haunt of Lenin when he lived in Kraków from 1914 to 1916).
Wander the cobbled streets of the Old Town. Horse-drawn carriages laden with tourists compete for business with faster golf-buggy style tours, but shanks’ pony is the best way to get around if you’re not going too far. Traffic is banned in some parts of the Old Town, allowing pedestrians to wander at will.
You’re likely to stumble on some surprises; in my case, it was the former home of this deeply Catholic country’s most famous son, Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 became Pope John Paul II. The importance of his elevation to the papacy – the first non-Italian to be elected for 400 years – can’t be understated; John Paul II’s second visit to his homeland in 1983 triggered the lifting of martial law and five years later the path to democracy and a better standard of living was assured for this former Communist nation.
The Old Town is encircled by the Planty, a ring of parkland that creates a green space in the heart of the city in the place where the city walls once stood. Walk across the pedestrian bridge that spans the Wisła (Vistula) river, linking the districts of Kazimierz and Podgórze, and linger to admire the 10 sculptures of acrobats suspended from its arch. Created by renowned Polish sculptor Jerzy Ke˛dziora, they are called Between the Water and the Sky and provide plenty of interest as you cross the 130-metre bridge.
Kazimierz brings home the terrors of World War II, when Poland was under German occupation. A Jewish community that had existed here for more nearly 500 years was wiped out and reminders of that time are found in major attractions such as the Old Synagogue – the oldest in Poland – and the Galicia Jewish Museum. Today, Kazimierz is making a comeback, with bars and cafes bringing vibrant new life to the area.
But it is the district of Podgórze that will make you weep. This was Kraków’s ghetto during World War II, where 20,000 Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and forced into an area of 320 houses. A three-metre high wall was built around the ghetto; some of it remains. Ghetto Heroes’ Square is dotted with 70 bronze chairs, representing the furniture left in the street after the residents were rounded up in 1943 for the ‘final liquidation’.
On a corner of the square is the Museum of National Remembrance, housed in the pharmacy run by the ghetto’s only non-Jewish resident, Tadeusz Pankiewicz. Take time to watch the film about ghetto life, and learn the story of how the pharmacist hid Jews facing deportation to concentration camps and used his pharmacy as a secret meeting place for members of the underground movement.
Then there is Oskar Schindler, the factory owner whose story gained worldwide recognition with the 1993 movie Schindler’s List. The factory is now a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, with a permanent exhibition that covers not only Schindler’s role in saving 1000 Jews from the ghetto, but the wider story of life in Kraków under Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945.
Other places, too, bear reminders that Kraków is a city that has known great pain. A 20-minute walk north-west of the Old Town is the historic Rakowicki Cemetery, established in 1803 and covering 42 hectares. It is full of ornate statues and memorials, to famous Poles, ordinary people, and victims of war. If you are in Kraków on All Saints Day (1 November), a national public holiday also known as ‘the Day of the Dead’ as many people remember departed family and friends on this day, the candlelit cemetery is a sight worth seeing.
In the Main Square, tour guides tout for day trippers’ business to Kraków’s most visited tourist attraction, the former Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, about 50 km west of the city. But be warned that this is a harrowing and disturbing place, where 1.1 million people died.
Sorrow and hope go hand-in-hand in this beautiful city. Kraków is a place that will make you contemplate the injustices of the world and the resilience of humankind. It will make you think and reflect. And it will make you want to return to see more of Poland, to experience again the warmth of its people and their appetite for life. •
Photography by Lee Mylne and Glen Cameron.
Several airlines, many of them budget carriers, fly to Kraków from London and other European destinations. Airport taxis operate on a fixed price system.
• British Airways: britishairways.com
• EasyJet: easyjet.com
• Ryan Air: ryanair.com
When to go
Summer temperatures (June–August) range from 12 to 24°C, while winter (December–February) can offer snow and temperatures as low as –5 degrees. Weather tends to be unpredictable, but it’s fair to expect plenty of grey, overcast days during Spring and Autumn.
Where to stay
• Hotel Polski is an elegant and comfortable three-star hotel, located about 400 metres from the Main Square. hotel-polski-krakow.hotel-ds.com/en/
• Hotel Rubinstein is a 27-room boutique hotel in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. rubinsteinresidencekrakow.com
• Kraków Tourism: krakow.travel/en
• Info Kraków: infokrakow.pl