It is almost certain that a trip to Krakow will, at least for a first-time visitor, involve visits to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and to Auschwitz-Birkenau. These places merit a full examination of their own and cannot be crammed into a small piece about the city itself. This article will concentrate purely on Krakow.
Krakow may be synonymous with the above sites, but there is plenty to see in the city. The centre is enclosed by the horseshoe-shaped Planty Park, which makes it very easy to navigate. A river always helps, both in terms of adding something to the scenic aspects as well as for finding one’s way, and the mighty Wisła runs through Krakow to the south of the city.
The Market Square is the city’s heart, full of people and pigeons whatever the time of year or day. The centrepiece is the lovely Renaissance building, the Cloth Hall, still in use as a market, but mainly selling souvenirs these days. Overlooking the square is the giant Gothic brickwork that is St Mary’s Basilica. On the hour mark, look and listen out for the trumpeter at the top of the taller of the two towers. Legend has it that the curtailed call is in memory of the 13th-century trumpeter who was cut short in mid performance by a Tatar arrow as he sounded the alarm.
The upper floor of the Cloth Hall houses the Sukiennice Museum, comprising four grandiose rooms of 19th-century Polish art. The museum is part of the National Museum, which in reality is a collection of museums and galleries. The Historical Museum is similarly scattered and includes the splendid Florian Gate, a typically Krakow-style mixture of the Gothic and Baroque rolled into one structure.
On the hill at the southern end of Planty Park stands Wawel Castle, which is another collection of buildings that have a slightly patchwork appearance after much destruction and rebuilding through the centuries. The 14th-century Gothic cathedral – itself something of a composite affair – stands out and is the burial place for Polish kings and heroes, including Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz, who is also honoured with a bronze statue in the Market Square.
The Royal Chambers features a number of beautifully decorated rooms and halls. Keep an eye on the ceilings, particularly in the ‘Room of the Heads’, where 30 (there used to be a lot more) sculpted and painted faces peer down to keep an eye on proceedings to make sure the royals don’t get above themselves. The ‘Room of the Birds’ is another hall with remarkable decorations, chiefly in the shape of the Renaissance frieze featuring the aforementioned birds.
To the south east of the castle lies Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. This area has undergone a major revival in recent years. Much of the Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, was filmed here and a little row of shops created for the set has been preserved in tribute. Now, though, there are synagogues, museums, bars, cafés and restaurants of all kinds, including a very decent Indian.
Krakow does not lack for bars and restaurants and vegetarians are well catered for. It’s worth noting that food portions tend to be rather large and that Polish beer is pretty strong, so unless you have an extraordinary constitution, ordering the smallest option on the menu and the lightest beer is the sensible option. A ‘small cheese pie’, for example, is roughly the size of a medium-sized bungalow and may come with enough vegetables to satisfy one’s five-a-day ration in one go. Even Monty Python’s Mr Creosote might be slightly intimidated by the larger versions. For those who can’t manage between meals, there are legions of bagel sellers dotted around the town.
A glass of Polish porter is something well worth trying and for the truly adventurous, two glasses. Żywiec Porter is as black as the Ace of Spades and is so thick that you can almost chew it. At 9.5% ABV, it is a beer to sip slowly and has a kick like a mule wearing reinforced Doc Martens. It is, in fact, quite a pleasant drink with dark roasted notes and a hint of chocolate, but it is not a session beer.
Poles will argue the vodka is a Polish, rather than Russian, invention and don’t be surprised to find yourself offered a chance to sample some in a restaurant. The vodka may be pure or come in unusual flavours, and it is, of course, impolite to refuse the offering. If you’re visiting in winter, a small glass puts a rapid injection of warmth into the body.
One unusual Krakow feature is the corvid commuter run. Early in the morning, vast quantities of rooks fly in from the neighbouring countryside, accompanied by quite a few jackdaw outriders. In the evening, they all head off again. It’s a spectacular sight and while you see plenty of these birds in the parks and gardens, you wonder how the city accommodates such enormous numbers and where they all go.
Unfortunately, Krakow seems to have become something of a magnet for stag weekends, so a visit during the week is not a bad move. Still, nobody with any interest in culture (or indeed decent pubs) should find themselves on too much of a collision course. Life is too short to spend hours sitting in a faux-English pub drinking bad beer.