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krisek Krakow - A travel report by Krys
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Krakow,  Poland - flag Poland -  Malopolskie
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krisek's travel reports

One of UNESCO's first World Heritage Sites. Krakow

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When UNESCO created the World Heritage List, Krakow's old town was one of the ten first ever listed sites. And the Wieliczka Salt Mine, in its suburbs, was the the other one! Both dazzle visitors. In addition, Krakow's social life is matchless. report of the month contest
Mar 2011


The Main Square with the Mary's Church in the background.
The Main Square with the Mary's Church in the background.
Krakow, Poland’s third city, is probably the most significant spot on the country’s map. It used to be the capital of Poland between 1038 and 1596. Well, that’s what the Warsaw residents claim anyway. For from the formal point of view Krakow had been the capital of the nation until 1994, when the new, post soviet constitution of Poland clarified that Warsaw was the capital city. So, although the Sigismund III, the King of Poland, moved from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596, no document or decree was ever made to move the capital de jure. Whether officially or not, Krakow has kept its title as the capital city.

Nothing short of a miracle saved Krakow from total destruction at the end of the Second World War. The legend has it that Nazis wired explosives around the city, and in the last minute, the advancing Polish army from the south cut the leads. It is today a remarkable city with tremendous old district full of medieval structures, boasting the largest medieval square in Europe. When UNESCO created the World Heritage List, Krakow’s historic centre was listed as one of the ten very first sites, chosen from all other significant places from around the world!

The core of the Old Town is surrounded by a circular park, called Planty. It surrounds the Main Square and a couple of adjacent blocks of the old district. Just beyond the Planty, there is the Royal Hill with the castle and the dragon’s den. And right below the hill, slightly to the south-east is the famous Jewish quarter called Kazimierz. All on the same bank of the Vistula river.

I have been to Krakow countless times. Last time it was in late September 2010. The Main Square still did not reveal its new attraction – the underground museum. A few years back, archaeologists discovered fragments of pre-Medieval Krakow right below the level of the cobbled square. Now, a glass pyramid and glass pavement are the roof of the museum, where one can walk around and explore how the city looked some 13 centuries ago.

Favourite spots:
The Wawel Castle's courtyard
The Wawel Castle's courtyard
It is hard to choose a single favourite spot in Krakow. The city is so exciting and exceptionally wonderful. Yet, throughout the years, there has been this curious square called Little Square (Maly Rynek), almost a hidden one, nearly adjacent to the Main Square, which captivated me strangely. Perhaps the rounded back of a church that sticks out of the line of buildings standing on one of the square’s longer ends makes is so magical. It has always been painted deep red, which made an extra impact, as well. There is not that much on the square itself. Surely, the buildings and the layout of it remember Middle Ages, but there is something inexplicable about the spot that stimulates imagination and almost hypnotises. A truly magical spot.

What's really great:
Dragon's statute, which spits with flames every few minutes.
Dragon's statute, which spits with flames every few minutes.
The royal castle in Krakow called Wawel, one of the loveliest royal residencies in Poland, and its imposing cathedral house royal tombs and sarcophagi of Poland’s noble men and women. It is truly incredible to walk around the church and be able to touch tombs of the kings and queens dating back 800 years! One curious sarcophagus is of Saint Jadwiga, the only female king of Poland (16 October 1384 – 17 July 1399). Jadwiga was crowned ‘rex’ and not ‘regina’ in order to signify her title as the head of the kingdom, when her parents did not produce a male heir, and Poland was not willing to be taken over by another kingdom. She was a very kind person, who donated a fortune to the Jagilellonian University, giving up her personal jewellery.

The tower of the Wawel Cathedral houses Poland’s most important bell, the Bell of Sigismund. It is only tolled to mark the most significant events of the nation. The view from the tower is fabulous, revealing the layout of the old town.

Sights:
The Cloth Hall, dating back to the 14th century.
The Cloth Hall, dating back to the 14th century.
Krakow has a very long list of sights, and one should plan to stay at least four to five days to see them properly. The historic centre can occupy a visitor for three days alone. A visit to the Wawel Castle and Cathedral, the Sigsmund Bell and the Dragon's Den would take half a day.

The historic district has numerous unique sacral monuments, like Christian churches and chapels, and Synagogues. Many of which are true masterpieces in architecture. And their interiors make one's head spin. The unique 15th c. altarpiece by Witt Stwosz at the St Mary's Basilica is mind-boggling.

One should not miss the Jagiellonian University and its numerous chambers and houses, the Sukiennice (the Cloth Hall)in the middle of the Main Square is feast for the senses as well.

One of Krakow's unusual sights, however is the Nowa Huta district. It was built from scratch for the workers of the large Steelworks. It has a very special layout, architecture and ambiance, so typical for an early Socialist town!

Accommodations:
Old Town's panorama seen from the Wawel's Bell Tower, where the Sigismund Bell hangs.
Old Town's panorama seen from the Wawel's Bell Tower, where the Sigismund Bell hangs.
I once stayed at the Radisson hotel, right by the Planty park. It is just a regular, modern establishment with predictable amenities for which one is appropriately charged! It is a fine hotel, the personnel is knowledgeable and friendly (almost as any local Krakow person one meets in the city, in fact), helpful and attentive.

However, I would highly recommend Hotel Polski pod Bialym Orlem, right at the Florianska Gate and inside the old city walls, less than a minute walk from the formidable Barbican, two minutes walk from the Main Square, and about five minutes hike from the main train station. This grand building remembers a number of kings and queens of Poland still reigning in Poland. The staircase is one of the evidences of that for sure. For what it offers, the hotel is actually reasonably priced and the location is simply unbeatable. Right in the heart of the old town and literally, a crawling distance from many clubs and lounges!

Nightlife:
One of many bars in the Krakow's Jewish Quarter called Kazimierz.
One of many bars in the Krakow's Jewish Quarter called Kazimierz.
Krakow has Poland’s liveliest night scene, matchless on the European scale. The large student population (Krakow’s Jagollonian University established in 1364 is one of Europe’s oldest) provides sufficient attendance at hundreds of bars, clubs, lounges and discos. Just around the Main Square there are over 200 of them. Delightfully, those venues occupy half a millennium old or older cellars, halls and mansions. Many of them have recently been discovered by the thirsty British hordes of stag night revellers behaving like a swarm of locust. Consuming or destroying everything that finds itself on their course. Yet, Krakow manages to salvage a number of excellent venues for more sophisticated clientele by introducing a strict door policy. Fortunately, as the number of the venues is almost infinite, there seems to be enough room for everybody. Clubs and lounges go out of fashion regularly, so it is best to ask waiting staff at one of the restaurants for the trendiest and current spots.

Hangouts:
A very old church seen from the end of Krakow's oldest street, Kanonicza Street.
A very old church seen from the end of Krakow's oldest street, Kanonicza Street.
The Kazimierz quarter has been climbing up steadily, improving its reputation and becoming one of Krakow’s hippiest districts, full of funky cafes, bars and clubs. Some of the buildings with thoroughly weathered facades still require much renovation, but the atmosphere is unique and so unforgettable. Its shows most of its potential in the summer, when it is great to sit at pavement tables (some complete with ancient sawing machines), sip cold beer, gossip with friends, and watch people how they wander about admiring the surroundings, the old synagogues, warehouses, shops... It is hard to describe the atmosphere that dominates Kazimierz. There is something mystic in the air. The fact that it once was a Jewish quarter has little to do with it. I think it could be the relaxed attitude of proprietors of the restaurants, bars and little hotels there, which appears to be practically horizontal that makes this part of the city this special.

Restaurants:
Fancy a ride? But careful - the horses' ends smell... These can be found on the Main Square.
Fancy a ride? But careful - the horses' ends smell... These can be found on the Main Square.
Although not cheap, I would highly recommend the Wierzynek restaurant. It is the oldest restaurant in Krakow, which opened its doors for the first time in 1364, when the University of Krakow (originally called the Krakow Academy) opened. Saint Jadwiga of Poland, was not even born yet, and the notorious Knights of the Teutonic Order kept ravaging the northern parts of the country. The restaurant serves traditional Polish dishes, with the game meat being its speciality. The personnel wears 15th century traditional attire, are very professional and attentive. Surely, this venue has been designed for the nobility.

If one looks for something more rustic, equally traditional with dishes also dating back to the end of the Middle Ages, there are a number of eateries called Chlopskie Jadlo (peasant fare), definitely designed for the less fussy eaters. Their decor is also styled appropriately. They are delightful places serving superb pierogi, golabki, cutlets, breads and soups.

Other recommendations:
The Mary's Church interior.
The Mary's Church interior.
When in Krakow, one should not miss Wieliczka, the incredible salt mine, unique on the world’s scale. It was listed as one of the fist ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites ever. Back in 1978. Until very recently, it had been operating continuously for over 700 years. It has over 300 kilometres of corridors and passages, some 1 kilometre below Earth’s surface. The mine’s wonder are the sculptures, reliefs and decorations left on the walls underground, all made of salt. There are exceptionally beautiful chapels, concert halls and chambers, so richly decorated in salt sculptures and chandeliers that those venues there put to shame many of their counterparts on the ground. One of the Wieliczka’s halls is so big, that a Guinness record was broken there when a full size hot air balloon was flown there – some 600 meters underground! The mine is a true phenomenon, which is visited by masses of tourists. It is wise to book a visit ahead of time. Queues are very long.

Published on Friday March 18th, 2011


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Sat, Mar 19 2011 - 05:47 PM rating by mistybleu

I love this city and you have captured it well. Thanks

Sat, Mar 19 2011 - 12:30 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Another useful and wonderful of your reports

Fri, Mar 18 2011 - 02:22 PM rating by eirekay

Worth 5 stas for the pictures alone, but I am charmed by your description of Little Square

Fri, Mar 18 2011 - 11:47 AM rating by pesu

Your report really makes me want to visit Krakow!

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