Posts Tagged ‘destination’

Kraków, the old “new” Prague

June 26, 2008

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


“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 It was the capital of Poland until 1596, when Warsaw superceded it.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.


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.

Forget Florence, Pick Pisa

June 26, 2008


“She” has been on at me for ages to take her to Italy. Now usually that wouldn’t be a problem, it doesn’t take much encouragement to get me to throw some clothes in a suitcase and head off to the airport. A drop of a hat and you will find me in the departure lounge but Italy is one of those few remaining European countries I have yet to set foot in, that’s excluding a courier job I did once to Turin, but as I never actually left the airport on that occasion I still class myself in that rarest of species, the Italian virgins.


To make matters worse this wasn’t just a trip for two, our new son and his aunt, my sister, would accompany us on this trip. So, in a flash of inspiration I delegated the choice of destination to auntie, bowing to her self-proclaimed far superior expertise – little knowing that aforementioned expertise consisted solely of reading “A room with a view” and a penchant for anti-pasta.


With an unseemly lack of deliberation auntie spake. And so it was that I found myself making travel preparations for Belle Firenze or as you and I know it, Florence.


As our party consisted of one South Londoner and three Brightoneers airport wise there is only one choice and that is Gatwick. With Florence as a destination, airline wise again there is only choice, and that is the Italian based economy outfit Meridiana.


Meridiana have done well with their scheduling. With early morning and late afternoon runway slots secured in both directions business travellers can swoop in and out of Florence whilst the tourists can make the most of both arrival and departure days.

The leaning Tower


Our outbound flight took off on time and landed some 2 hours later. Punctuality being a prerequisite when you have a limited time frame – I can’t fault Meridiana there. However, I do object to not even being offered so much as a gratis cup of coffee or bag of peanuts as some recompense for spending two hours of my life sloughing the skin off my knees against the back of the seat in front of me.


Baggage retrieval at Florence is excruciatingly slow considering the size of the airport, making even the efforts of Heathrow’s newly opened fifth terminal seem speedy in comparison – fortunately the airport itself is only a 20 minute taxi ride from the historical centre of Florence – just long enough for the traveller to appreciate how linguistically advanced Italian taxi drivers are in comparison to our own and also how ordinary much of Florence is architecturally. Florence is certainly no Rome and is up there with the Coventrys and Dresdens of the world when it comes to post war-rebuilding failures.


This impression was reinforced when we arrived at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Minerva, and realised that the Piazza it is situated upon, Di Santa Maria Novella, is, like much of Florence currently undergoing renovation (at time of writing Apr 2008), and resembled more a building site than my expected site of antiquity.

Unlike Helena Bonham Carter’s room, our room at the front of the building did have a view and overlooked all the building works, now normally this would bother me but if you are travelling with a two year old obsessed with diggers, cranes, dumpers and tractors this soon becomes a positive rather than a negative, and as Forster says “I don’t care what I see outside, my vision is within”.


Bags downed we were out of the hotel and off to explore Florence, the Minerva had been chosen for it’s central location, and much if not all of what you would want to see in Florence is easily accessible from the hotel.


Although mum and dad had accepted auntie’s recommendation of Florence it was with some unvoiced reservations that perhaps it wasn’t the most child friendly city. These reservations were quelled by the thought that no child could do anything other than love a country known for it’s pizza and ice-cream. So that said some refreshments had to be first stop.


First stop for us was the Plaza Della Signorina and a chance to admire some of Florence’s better architecture, some great statues (Cellini’s “Perseus holding the head of Medusa” stands out) and enjoy an ice cream.


OK, now I am not going to quibble, “the boy” gets a very nice ice cream, but 10 euros nice? For that I would want it to be served to him by a living incarnation of Michelangelo’s David himself.


So with ice cream dribbling down the boy’s chin at a euro a blob we moved on to explore the city and take in some of Florence’s famed attractions. A job not made any easier by the apparent Florentine decree that a pavement width should be 20 percent narrower than the standard European pushchair median. Next up for us had to be the Ponte Vecchio –it’s Italian for “old bridge” apparently, and amazingly that is exactly what it is. The Ponte Vecchio spans the Arno River that runs through the heart of Florence, and has done so since the twelfth century. The original bridge has been rebuilt several times throughout history but was the only bridge in Florence not destroyed by the retreating Germans during the final stages of the Second World War.


Originally the bridge was a home to the local greengrocers, butchers and bakers and the like, but these were replaced by royal decree by jewellers and more latterly souvenir sellers. The term bankruptcy is supposed to have originated on the Ponte Vecchio so possibly they were selling extortionately priced ice cream in Florence as far back as the 13th century.


With the early Spring weather taking a turn for the wetter and someone’s teatime looming we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. I also wanted to make a phone call to my financial advisor regarding the possibility of a cash advance for a Margherita pizza that had earlier caught my eye. I also wanted to speak to the reception staff regarding train times to Pisa, which was to be our destination the following day.


The following day saw us up early for an excellent hotel breakfast prior to departure for the train station, which is almost adjacent to Santa Maria Novella and shares the same name. The previous day’s mood was also lightened by the obvious adoration of the hotel staff for our son Charlie. In fact I felt as if I had fallen into an outtake of The Italian Job as Italian accented versions of his name echoed around the breakfast room. The old adage remains true “if the kids are happy so are the parents” and things seemed to bode well for the day’s activities.


Now I have never tried to purchase a train ticket at a station in England speaking only Italian but the ease with which the transaction was competed in English in Italy makes me sure it would not go as smoothly, and some 15 minutes after finishing breakfast we were comfortably ensconced aboard our train for the 89 kilometre, 1 hour journey time, second class fare approx. 2 ice creams.


Giardino di Boboli


Now this is where my title for this piece should really start to make some sense. The journey time between the two cities is inconsequential and is less than a lot of people’s daily commute. And what a contrast between the two cities. Where Florence’s streets are too narrow to comfortably manoeuvre a pushchair Pisa’s streets resemble more a Parisian boulevard. Pisa is the smaller of the two cities and yet you feel you have more space to enjoy. The roads aren’t so busy, in fact for most of the walk from the train station to Piazza del Duomo – the main historic centre, we actually eschewed the spacious pavements and sauntered down the middle of the road, hardly realising it wasn’t actually a pedestrian’s area.



It is a straight line from the train station to the Piazza del Duomo but it is well worth taking a deliberate detour, we did and found not only the obligatory Irish Pub but also street food markets, crammed with Italian sausage, tomatoes and fresh artichokes which, for me, really gave me the sense for the first time of being in the real Italy, whereas wandering Florence’s streets I just felt like I was a consumer in what could have been any one of so many European cities.


Arriving at the Piazza del Duomo one immediately looks for the Leaning Tower, and it is easy to miss the fact that the Piazza houses 3 other great monuments. As well as the tower the Piazza is home to: the Pisa cathedral, the baptistery, and the cemetery – all set out on a sward of manicured lawn.


My favourite was the cemetery, but then my wife believes we travel the world just to trawl around other countries’ burial places. Legend has it the Pisa cemetery was created in the 13th century to hold tonnes of soil brought back from the Holy Land, specifically the Calvary Mount, where Christ was supposedly crucified. Despite losing its roof and suffering fire damage during the Second World War many would have you believe this is one of the most beautiful cemeteries anywhere in the world.


We didn’t bother to enter the baptistery despite its claim to be the largest in Italy. Those who do visit recommend going first thing in the morning to really appreciate the amazing acoustics of the place.


We ventured off the piazza to grab a cold lunch which we then took back to eat at the foot of the famous tower, which we followed up with Pisa’s version of ice cream – equally good and like everything else here half the price of it’s Florentine counterpart. We could easily have killed more time just people watching – Pisa seems to be the world capital for humorous photo taking, but tore ourselves away to go and visit Pisa’s botanic gardens. A stone’s throw from the top of the tower these gardens were established in the 15th century and are supposedly the oldest in all of Europe. The gardens are home to species from all over the world and although Pisa isn’t a hectic place if you wanted room to unwind and grab a quiet moment here’s the place. We settled on just disturbing the peace of others and let “the boy” off the leash for an hour or so before making our way back to the train station and reluctantly taking the short journey home.


For our final day in Florence we had decided to do the art thing and planned an early morning visit to the Uffizi Gallery. The major drawback of doing this is the length of the queue to get in but someone had put me onto an advance ticket-booking site,, which cut our queuing down to minutes rather than hours. The gallery is made up of approx 40 rooms and has works of art by Michelangelo, Raphael and all the other ninja turtles.


For our last afternoon we had planned to head North across town to the Galleria dell’Accademia which houses the world-renowned sculpture of David prior to his battle with Goliath by Michelangelo. However, as the Sun was shining we decided instead to go South of the Arno River and let “the boy” explore the Giardino di Boboli. These are the largest gardens in Florence and are supposed to have inspired those of Versailles. The gardens are pleasant enough for a stroll, with copies of some of Michelangelo’s sculptures dotted around to break up the topiary. There is an admission fee of half an ice cream but personally I preferred the Pisa ones which also had the benefit of being free of charge.


Finally, tired and weary, it was time to head back to the hotel one last time to say our goodbyes, collect our luggage and meet our taxi taking us back to the airport. As we waited in the hotel lobby I took advantage of their wi-fi connection and my unexpired password. A brief search of the flight comparison websites showed a discrepancy between fares from Gatwick to Pisa and Florence. My random summary showed no frills Meridiana had availability for an average of £128, but no peanuts. British Airways had flights, with peanuts, to Pisa, for an average of £101. Sufficient difference for the train fare between the two. Take my advice if you are heading down this way forget Florence and pick Pisa.