Kraków, the old “new” Prague

“Blah blah blah Prague, Blah blah Prague ad nauseum ad nauseum etcetera etcetera”.

Translation:

“I am a mindless sheep who would go anywhere an unimaginative travel agent reccomended”.

If I have already lost you then I suggest you close this page now and move on to something else, if you are with me so far then read on because, boy do I have a treat for you.

Before we go any further I should really clarify the above, don’t get me wrong Prague is a wonderful city with a myriad of  attractions and reasons to visit. However, by the time any city (outside the USA) has 7 branches of McDonalds and 5 KFCs it might be fair to say that said city has lost a certain element of the “Je ne sais quoi” which made it a tourist attraction in the first place. And don’t get me wrong fast food multiculturalism has already reached Kraków, but it’s impact has been far more restrained*.

You have probably already heard about Kraków. But in case you are not one of the 7 million tourist visitors who visit the city annually allow me to make the introductions.

Kraków lies in southern Poland, primarily on the Northern banks of the Vistula or “Wisla” River, with the Tatra Mountains to the South and the Carpathian Mountains to the north, and benefits from a temperate climate. It is one of the largest and oldest cities in Poland with a population of approximately 750,000. It was the capital of Poland until 1596, when Warsaw superceded it.

In 1978, UNESCO added Kraków’s historic centre, which includes the Old Town, Kazimierz district and the Wawel Castle to its list of  World Heritage Sites. Kraków received even more attention when it was named the European Capital of Culture for the year 2000 by the European Union, and when Poland was admitted to the European Union in 2004 the steady trickle of visitor numbers increased further.

When I first travelled to Kraków in the early nineties I was wowed by a city that although considered to be a secondary city in comparison to Warsaw, outstripped it’s larger neighbour in both attractions and architecture. The reason for this is obvious. Notwithstanding the atrocities endured by the population of Kraków during the second world war Kraków’s medieval buildings, unlike the majority of Polish cities, escaped remarkably undamaged. So much so that Kraków is widely recognised as Poland’s prettiest city.

Kraków is also twinned or maintains close relations with, more than 30 cities around the world, including: Bordeaux, Edinburgh, Florence, Innsbruck, Milan, Rochester (New York) and Seville.

 

Kraków Centre

Kraków has been divided into 18 administrative districts, Stare Miasto (I) once contained within the city defensive walls and now encircled by Planty park, Grzegórzki (II), Prądnik Czerwony (III), Prądnik Biały (IV), Krowodrza (V), Bronowice (VI), Zwierzyniec (VII), Dębniki (VIII), Łagiewniki-Borek Fałęcki (IX), Swoszowice (X), Podgórze Duchackie (XI), Bieżanów-Prokocim (XII), Podgórze (XIII) until 1915 was a separate town on the southern bank of the Vistula, Czyżyny (XIV), Mistrzejowice (XV), Bieńczyce (XVI), Wzgórza Krzesławickie (XVII), and Nowa Huta (XVIII) east of the city centre, built after World War II.

Of these 18 some of the older neighborhoods were incorporated into the city before the late 18th century. These include the Old Town (Stare Miasto), the Wawel District, which is the site of the Royal Castle and the cathedral; Stradom, Kazimierz and the ancient town of Kleparz.

Among the most notable historic districts of the city Wawel Hill is home to Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral; the medieval Old Town, dozens of old churches and museums; and the 14th-century buildings of the Jagiellonian University.

Within the Old Town district of Kraków there are said to be some six thousand historic sites and more than two million works of art. Its rich variety of historic architecture includes Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic buildings.

When I visit Kraków I am fortunate to be able to stay with a friend who resides in the Old Town (Stare Miasto), and that is where most visitors start. The Main Square is where the majority of visitors begin, and the towering castle above it acts as the landmark for anyone who need to get their bearings.

The Royal Castle is located at the top of Wawel Hill, which commands a view of the whole town laid out below it. Popular attractions here are the Renaissance cloisters of the castle and the beautiful royal chambers, decorated with tapestries manufactured by Flemish masters. The most impressive of these is the Chamber of Deputies with its original carved ceiling featuring the heads of Cracovian burghers.

Adjacent to the castle is the Wawel cathedral, the origins of this magnificent structure date back to the year 1000.  The Wawel cathedral has witnessed royal coronations and funerals, and holds the tombstones of many Polish kings, national heroes and poets of the Romantic period, every visitor to Kraków should see the cathedral. The showpiece of the interior is the Renaissance Sigismund Chapel. At the western edge of the hill is the entrance to the Dragon’s Cave, where the legendary Wawel Dragon lived.

Below Wawel Castle is Kraków’s Main Market Square, which was the largest medieval urban centre in Europe. Lined with magnificent houses, the Main Market Square attracts crowds of tourists day and night. After long and successful rounds of shopping, they can sit and relax in the many restaurants and cafés located here; they can also enjoy savoury meals in the ambience of their original interior decorations.

 The Market Square is dominated by the Sukiennice, the large cloth hall at its very centre. A construction from the turn of the 12th century, the Cloth Hall was originally designed for the cloth trade. The Hall topped with gargoyles, acquired its decorative appearance in the 19th century, when arcades were added. Today, the ground floor continues to be a trading centre for crafts and souvenirs, while the upper floor houses the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Painting. The Cloth Hall also plays host to Kraków’s primary religious building,the sky-scraping St Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki) and the  Wieza Ratuszowa, a seventy-metre tower that is the only remnant of the 14th century town hall. The Town Hall Tower dominates the western section of the square; its basement containing a well preserved medieval torture hall, a theatre and a café. Both tower and church offer excellent views.

The Gothic St Mary’s Church is also referred to as the Basilica of the Virgin Mary and is  a symbol of the city and was built in the 14th century and features the famous high wooden altar carved by Veit Stoss. This  altar is acclaimed by some as the greatest masterpiece of Gothic art in Poland. A trumpet call, “hejnal mariacki”, is sounded from the church’s main tower every hour. The melody played ends unexpectedly in midstream. According to legend, the tune was played during a 13th-century Tartar invasion by a guard warning citizens against the attack. He was shot by a Tartar archer while playing, the melody breaking off at the moment he died.

In the southern corner of the square is the small, domed St Adalbert’s Church. A good example of Romanesque architecture in Poland and one of the oldest churches in Kraków.  

Head south of Wawel hill and you come to Kazimierz. This district has always been the home of the local Jewish population. Today Kazimierz is increasingly lively and a great place to eat out of an evening. Here you will find the main square Ulica Szeroka lined with restaurants offering Jewish cuisine. Be warned though you may need to book ahead or wait for a table, but the wait will be worth your while.

Eating/drinking

At the time of writing four Polish Zloty equates to approximately one British pound or two US Dollars so eating out in Kraków is an easily affordable treat.  I’m not going to go into a restaurant review here, but look out for the following treats on Cracovian menus: goulash ,maczanka Cracovian style ( pork stewed with onion and cumin), roast duck with mushrooms served with kasha. The only two original Polish sheep cheeses are made near Kraków. Cracovian  cheesecake is a tasty finish to any meal or you might want to try Papal cream cake.

Alternatively, for a light meal or snack try the traditional “jadlodajnia” – basic eateries  that traditional Polish food like potato pancakes (placki) at bargain prices.

If you fancy spending a little more over your meal, the Old Town is dotted with mid-price eateries (not just of the Polish variety). As a rule of thumb the nearer the castle you eat, the dearer your bill.

Those seeking a little alcoholic refreshment will hardly struggle to find it in Kraków. The Old Town is home to countless bars, and with a beer costing approximately three zloty (.75 pence) there is little risk of you running dry. I seem to say it in every piece I write but look out for the ubiquitous Irish Bar. Wherever you go the vodka is excellent.

Many places stay open way into the night. If you want to drink with the locals rather than fellow holidaymakers get yourself back to the Kazimierz district.

In the early part of the 19th century Kraków replaced much of the old city walls with a series of small gardens which now link together to form Planty Park. The gardens are in a variety of styles and augmented with sculpures and monuments.The park is a popular place to walk for Cracovians and has an area of 21 hectares (52 acres) and a length of 4 kilometers.

 Kraków has 28 museums and public art galleries. Among them are the main branch of Poland’s  National Museum and the Czartoryski Museum, the latter featuring works by Leonardo and Rembrandt. The city has several famous theaters, including: National Stary Theatre, a.k.a. The Old Theatre,  Bagatela Theatre, The Ludowy Theatre, and Groteska Theatre of Puppetry, as well as Kraków Opera and Kraków Operetta.

For those visitors who might prefer a spot of retail therapy to the delights of the Theatre of Puppetry and were not sated by the arcades of the Cloth Hall they should try the streets that lead off the main square (especially Ulica Florianska, which runs off the north-east corner), where boutiques and high end clothes shops offer rather more choice for your zloty.

Outside Kraków

Surrounding Kraków there are a number of attractions to visit – these range from excellent ski resorts to some of the blackest most God forsaken places on the face of the planet. All, time allowing, should be included in your itinerary.

The Wieliczka salt mine

 South of the city  is the town of Wieliczka, famed for its salt mine which has been in operation for at least 700 years. Like parts of Kraków, Wieliczka has been honoured by being included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Here you can see how salt is being mined but the highlight of the place, however, is the part of the mine open to visitors. Created partly by nature and partly by the very capable hands of Wieliczka miners, the tourist route of the museum takes you through an eerie world of pits and chambers; hand-hewn from solid salt are chapels, with altarpieces and figurines, statues and other adornments, all carved in salt! Here, there are even underground lakes. The mine is renowned for its microclimate and health-giving properties; therefore, an underground sanatorium has been established, where respiratory tract diseases, motor problems as well as rheumatic conditions are treated.

The Death Camps

Not for the faint hearted, I have seen stronger men than me made physically sick on visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau. These two former concentration camps are some 60 kilometres west of Kraków in the town of Oswiecim (trains leave regularly from Kraków central station, journey time 1 hour).

Believe me when I say you will be heartened by the hospitality of the people of Kraków, but I believe there are few greater examples of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man than this day trip. That said I strongly recommend this trip.  

To dispel the melancholy of the Death Camps I recommend a visit to the far side of the River Wisla.where faith in the better side of man’s nature can be found with a visit to Oskar Schindler’s Emalia factory.

Zakopane ski resort

Nestled at the foot of the Tatras Mountains, approximately 100 kilometres south of Kraków, Zakopane is the most famous mountain resort in Poland and the winter sports capital. Tourists continue to flock to Zakopane all year round, as they did in the second half of the 19th century. Time allowing any visitor could do worse than take a twin centre break in Poland, and I would strongly recommend a week stay in both Zakopane and Kraków.

Other attractions

 Despite the Polish performance in the 2008 Euro Championship Football fans are well catered for in Kraków. Attending a game is cheap by EPL standards.  The main teams are Cracovia Kraków and  Wisla Kraków. If those two are playing away from home look out for Hutnik Kraków, Wawel Kraków, Gabarnia Kraków and Juvenia Kraków.

The Cracovia Marathon, with over a thousand participants from two dozen countries annually, has been held in the city since 2002.

Other annual events include:

·                     March/April: Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival

·                     June/July: Jewish Culture Festival

·                     August: The International Festival of Mountain Folklore (the town’s leading cultural event).

·                     December: Cracovian Christmas Nativity Scenes Competition and my personal favourite Kraków’s New Year’s Eve Festivities in the Market Square (complete with “Champagne” available at £3 a bottle.

Kraków  also hosts many other festivals (check the calender for details) :

·        Sacrum-Profanum (contemporary music)

·        Kraków Screen Festival (popular music)

·        Festival of Polish Music (classical music)

·        and the Festival of Short Feature Films.

Kraków airport, (John Paul II International Airport is 11 km west of the city. Direct trains cover the route between Kraków and the airport in 15 minutes.

What else can I say, I dare you, in fact I double dare you to visit Kraków rather than take your travel agent’s first offer.

* For the record and the purposes of journalistic accuracy I should mention Kraków now has 5 branches of McDonalds and 4 branches of Pizza Hut.

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2 Responses to “Kraków, the old “new” Prague”

  1. Daniel Says:

    Very thorough look at the city. Thanks. Will have to get there soon. Until then, I’m at http://www.bentpage.wordpress.com.

  2. Ian Jones Says:

    Pisa is much better and more fun

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