It’s been a little while since I last posted on this blog, in some part due to the demands of starting a new job and home working, but also down to a general lack of motivation to write creatively towards the end of last year. Now, the promise and optimism of entering a new year has reignited my desire to write about the places I have travelled to prior to the pandemic, as well as the ambition to diversify my writing by adding a new lifestyle section to this blog (more to follow on this in due course!).
For this post, I will recount my time in the Polish city of Krakow, which I was lucky enough to get away to back in September last year during a brief hiatus in restrictions surrounding the pandemic. Krakow is a place I had been very keen on visiting for a while due to its vast and varied history – of particular interest to me were the events which took place in the city during the Second World War. While this was a large part of the reason I longed to visit the city, I was also intrigued in experiencing the feel and culture of modern Krakow; the food, the people, the beautiful architecture… as well as the beer, of course.
Here’s what I got up to during my four-day trip there, and the thoughts, feelings, and lasting impression my time in Krakow left on me.
Krakow main square (Rynek Główny)
Stepping out of Krakow main station, we were met by brilliant sunshine and almost tropical temperatures – a far cry from the colder, greyer surroundings I had envisaged would be waiting for us. In fact, I had hedged my bets that Krakow would be a fair bit colder than the UK, so much so that I had only packed jeans and jumpers in my carry-on luggage – a big mistake, as temperatures remained in the high 20s throughout the duration of our time there. A good lesson in always double checking the weather before you travel!
A short walk along the leafy pedestrian path and cycleway surrounding the walls of the Old Town and we arrived at our accommodation, located down a side street just off the Old Town’s main square, known by the locals as Rynek Główny. Dating back to the 13th century, the Main Square is the largest medieval town square in Europe. After dropping off our bags, we took a stroll into the centre and were met immediately by a hive of lunchtime activity.
Rows of restaurants, bars and eateries lined the edges of the square, kitted out with yellow umbrellas and Al fresco dining areas ready to welcome tourists and locals alike for a bite to eat. Dominating the centre of the square is the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) which was rebuilt in 1555 in a Renaissance style topped by a parapet decorated with carved masks. The hall is home to both traditional and tourist-geared market stalls and is definitely worth a walk through.
The Main Square is also home to St Mary’s Basilica, a 14th century church and stunning example of Polish Gothic architecture which looms 80 metres above the ground. The basilica became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, and a trumpet call known as Hejnał mariacki or “Saint Mary’s dawn” plays from the tower every hour on the hour, with the noon call broadcast to the whole of Poland via radio. Other sights of note within the Main Square are the Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa), the 11th century Church of St. Adalbert, and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, one of the best known bronze monuments in Poland.
Branching off each corner of the Main Square are side streets filled with more bars, restaurants, and shops, while the Old Town walls are lined with pop-up art galleries and various market stalls. The only street that leads off from the centre of the square is Grodzka Street, which connects the square to Wawel Castle – a 14th century castle residency which became the first UNESCO World Heritage sight in the world.
Spanning some 7,000 square metres, Wawel Castle is one of the largest in Poland and boasts nearly all European architectural styles of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. You can gaze for miles from different levels of the castle, which overlooks the Vistula River, and take in some beautiful views in addition to admiring the variety of architecture as you walk around the castle grounds.
With its many restaurants and cafes, the Main Square is a great place to grab a quick bite to eat, tuck into a delicious evening meal, and sample the local beer. We ate here once or twice, but found it a little busy and, for want of a better word, ‘touristy’, so we tended to venture outside of the main square for meals. As you would expect, eating in the square also comes with a premium, and although a decent evening meal will still cost you far less than it would in the UK, the closer to the centre you eat, the more you will pay.
The Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz)
Kazimierz is one of Krakow’s major tourist attractions and acts as an important cultural centre of the city. The northeastern part of the district is historically Jewish, however in 1941 its inhabitants were forced across the river into the Krakow ghetto in Podgórze by occupying German forces, as part of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews during World War Two. Many of them were later killed during the liquidation of the ghetto, or in various death camps across Europe. As a result, Kazimierz was neglected by the communist authorities after the war finished, however the area has made a resurgence in recent years.
Since 1988, a popular Jewish cultural festival takes place every year at the end of June to reintroduce the Polish people to Jewish culture, and is now the largest Jewish festival of culture and music in Europe. Kazimierz was also the filming site for much of Steven Spielberg’s well-known film, Schindler’s List, which drew international attention to the area.
As we walked around Kazimierz, we could feel its history all around. From the Old Synagogue, which now houses a Jewish history museum, through the market square, to the Old Jewish Cemetery, we spent most of the time walking in silence, wrapped up in our own thoughts as we contemplated the lives and fates of those who had walked the same cobbled pavements years earlier.
Despite its history, though, Kazimierz was not a sombre place to be, and in fact we ended up visiting the Jewish Quarter several times to frequent its authentic restaurants and try the delicious food on offer. I would definitely recommend trying the Jewish dumpling – magnificent!
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Although its not strictly in Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must-see while you’re in the area. Only a 40 minute train journey from Krakow’s main station, the salt mine was included on the first UNESCO World Heritage site list in 1978 (along with several other sites mentioned in this article) and dates back more than 700 hundred years.
Located in the town of Wieliczka, the salt mine saw more than nine million metres cubed of post-excavation voids drilled, with its deepest point reaching 327 metres below ground. Back when the mine was fully in use, it was the largest source of salt in Poland, and was crucial to the country’s economy. Today, the main purpose of the mine is to preserve it for future generations to learn about its importance and the tens of generations who worked in the mine, as well as being a place of worship.
For the equivalent of about £20, you can go down into the mine with a guided tour that snakes through the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. The mine itself is so vast that visitors can only walk through two percent of it, and even that takes a couple of hours. I was gobsmacked by the size of the underground chambers built by the miners, not just for salt harvesting purposes, but for underground chapels and places of worship, too. The miners built all of these themselves, and the craftsmanship and scale of what they created is truly breathtaking – you really have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate it.
If you can fit it in to your schedule, I would definitely recommend making the trip to visit the Wieliczka mine – you won’t be disappointed, and the town of Wieliczka is a nice place in itself to spend an hour or so exploring, or relaxing in the main square with a coffee and watching the locals go about their daily lives.
As someone who has always had an avid interest in history, this is one place I couldn’t come to Krakow without visiting. I won’t dwell for too long on explaining the importance and pertinence of this place, as I’m sure that most people are aware of the horrors that took place at Auschwitz, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers. Over 1.1 million men, women and children lost their lives here, many of them Jews, and today the sites of Auschwitz One and Birkenau serve as both a reminder of the past, and a memorial to those who were murdered.
There are multiple tours available to visit the camps, which I would recommend you book in advance of your trip as the sites can get incredibly busy during peak tourist season. As we went during the pandemic, the site was far quieter than usual, although our tour guide told us the site could see hundreds of thousands of people visit each day during normal times. I won’t go in to much detail about our time here, as it is something I believe you can only understand if you have visited the site and experienced it for yourself. What I will say, is that it is an incredibly powerful and important place to visit, and I spent a great deal of time reflecting upon what I had seen and learnt. This is a place I believe everyone should visit at one time or another in their life, both to learn, understand, and reflect on the events of the past, but also to keep alive the memory of all those who were victims of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Cuisine and leisure
In addition to the many cultural sights that Krakow has to offer, there are also a great deal of culinary delights to be had in the many restaurants and cafes that line the streets of the Old Town. Make sure to try the bigos, a traditional Polish dish of chopped meat stewed with sauerkraut and cabbage, of which there are many delicious variations. The Polish dumplings are also a must-try and come in many different forms. Many restaurants also have platters of traditional Polish meats and delicacies that are great for sampling an authentic taste of Krakow.
While most of the city’s sights are within easy walking distance, if you wish to go farther afield or to get around the city at a faster pace, Krakow is home to an extensive electric scooter hire network. Scooter operators such as Bird and Lime have multiple pick up points located around the city from which you can pick up a scooter with the touch of a button on their app. We used them a couple of times while we were in Krakow to whiz around the city when we needed to get to places quickly, and it was a really convenient (and fun!) way of getting around. An inexpensive and nippy mode of transport, in addition to Krakow’s extensive active travel infrastructure network, makes e-scooters a great option to see the sights, particularly if you’re short on time.
We managed to see and experience a great deal of what Krakow had to offer in the few days we were there, and I feel very fortunate that we were able to go at all in the grand scheme of the pandemic. While wearing face masks during all of the tours, the temperature checks, and constant hand sanitising made this trip markedly different to other city breaks we have been on, it made us even more grateful to be exploring a new place once again.
As a city, I couldn’t quite work Krakow out. The huge amount of poignant, and at times heart wrenching, history the city possesses seemed to be at odds with the lively, tourist-geared main square with its many restaurants and bars. While much of Krakow’s history, particularly concerning the Second World War, is on display and in many ways honoured, there are other elements of its history, such as its time under the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ that were almost visually non-existent. The main square in particular appeared to be a hub for partygoers and hen and stag dos, although venturing farther out from the tourist-clad centre did reveal glimpses of much grittier urban surroundings.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Krakow, but it seemed to me that the city couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to present itself as, and I myself couldn’t put my finger on it. I would absolutely recommend anyone to visit this city, as you will be bowled over by the incredible history it possesses, while also finding culinary and cultural delights each way you turn. And perhaps, you will be able to make more sense of it than I…