K IS FOR KRAKOW
Not many corners of the world have experienced as much rapid change in the past 20 years as Eastern Europe.
What you’ll find is far from the Borat-esque villages and decrepit Commie cities where you fear your jeans might be ripped from your backside and sold on the black market, scenarios often imagined by our parents’ generation (or by that God-awful American film, Euro Trip).
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the younger generations have embraced Western culture and, in this century, all the so-called economic perks of being part of the European Union. And in the past decade it’s lost a lot of its mystery.
Now all the cheap European airlines have been established, many of its cities have also become the dirty weekend destination of choice for some Brits and Western Europeans who previously shunned travelling to the “dangerous” Eastern Block.
There’s no shortage of golden arches (i.e. – Maccas), Mango boutiques, Tesco’s and denim-wearing locals to be found. Kind of a shame, especially when you think about the way the globe is becoming more and more culturally homogenised.
But I digress… The spectacular architecture and fascinating history still stands and a roaring example of this rich majesty is Krakow, the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland.
While Warsaw was all but flattened, Krakow remained mostly intact after the devastation of World War Two.
Its crowning glory would have to be the magnificent Main Market Square (Rynek Główny - pictured), the largest medieval town square in Europe. Located in the Old Town, it’s lined with historical churches, palaces and colourful town houses in a number of architectural styles, plus a few interesting sculptures, buskers, street food carts dispensing ice cream and baked goods, and plenty of sky rats (otherwise known as pigeons).
Sitting pretty in its centre is the colossal Renaissance-style cloth hall. Once a major centre for international trade, it’s now occupied by a museum upstairs and souvenir and craft stalls down below.
A bugle is played from one of the church towers every hour, ending quite abruptly. This is an intentional move to commemorate the time when, centuries ago, a warning bugle was sounded and its player was shot in the throat mid-note by an enemy Tatar arrow.
Not far beyond this is the old Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz. Like most former Jewish Quarters emptied during the Holocaust, the precinct was populated by criminals, artists and the poor after the war. And like most former Jewish Quarters, it’s now the cool part of town.
It’s stuffed with Jewish-themed cafes, bars and restaurants so perfect for dinner followed by a pub crawl. Speaking of which, there is no end to the quaint cellar bars and restaurants to stumble upon in Krakow. Make sure you try the beer. This part of the world has what I consider the best (and cheapest) beer you can find.
A pint of Zywiec goes down real easy but if you’re after something stronger, zubrowka (traditional Polish dry herb-flavoured vodka) will put hairs on your chest.
A key attraction in Krakow is the massive gothic Wawel Castle on the top of a hill. Within its walls is also a cathedral, palace and other official structures.
Located on the edge of town is the ancient Wieliczka Salt Mine, which includes dozens of statues, chandeliers and an entire chapel, all carved out of rock salt by the miners. Don’t leave town without checking out this beguiling curiosity.
But once you see all this, it’s best to just take your time and go for a wander. From cavernous antique stores to lively bars set in medieval dungeons, you’ll stumble upon treasure after treasure.
- Another nearby must-see includes former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, a sobering reminder of humanity’s dark side. It’s only 50km away and should not be missed. The breathtaking High Tatras mountain range bordering Slovakia in the south is not far away either.
- Poland’s capital Warsaw pales in comparison to Krakow but this doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. Most of the old town was rebuilt in its original form after WW2. Unlike most Eastern European cities, the culinary scene is thriving and it’s also home to the spectacular Warsaw Uprising Museum.
- You will freeze your proverbial off but if you visit Krakow in the middle of winter when the city is cloaked in snow and wire angel statues glow with fairy lights at night, it is truly magical. You’ll also dodge the hoards of summertime tourists.
PIC CREDIT: telegraph.co.uk