A cabaret owner immortalized in stone sits outside.

A cabaret owner immortalized in stone sits on Krakow’s main square

June 11

Woke up in the Hotel Cristal, Bialystok and enjoyed yet another splendid breakfast buffet replete with fish patés, herring, potato pancakes and more. Diet be damned! I knew it was going to be a long day.

Caught an early train for the day-long trip to Krakow which involved several hours  in Warsaw. Arduous.

Arrived in early evening at the Tulip Hostel where I had booked a twin with private bath. Spacious, cool and super well-located, I wasn’t disappointed. I brushed off the manager who immediately launched into a sales pitch for a tour the following day and headed outside to orient myself and find food.

In a few minutes I entered Krakow’s glorious main square, Rynek Glowny. By that time, the outdoor cafes and restaurants were filling up as evening fell. Even though the architectural details were in shadows, I was entranced by the liveliness and sophistication of the swirling crowds. A jazz quartet drew crowds outside one café in the center of the square while one of the churches advertised a string quartet and a restaurant touted a Chopin concert. I immediately decided that it was the most beautiful and vibrant square in Europe. It is truly Old Europe at its best.

For dinner I ducked into Pod Aniolami descending into the vaulted cellar of this 13th-century establishment where I feasted on cabbage stuffed with kasha and topped with cream. The setting was as traditional as the food. As I was to discover, the medieval facades in and around Rynek Glowny were only part of the story. Wandering inside revealed the high arched ceilings emblematic of the noble residences they once were.

Unlike so many Polish cities, Krakow completely escaped destruction in WWII.  As the former capital of Poland, kings, counts and rich merchants gravitated there to show off their wealth in the form of ever-more elaborate and richly-furnished palaces. Most have been left alone, undefaced by glossy stores or glass-fronted pizza joints. Some of the classic restaurants on the square have been turning out pierogi and roast duck for several centuries.

June 12

I bought a booklet from the tourist office that outlined a walking tour of Krakow’s Old Town along with descriptions of the sights. Again, thanks to James Michener’s Poland, many of the noble names were familiar to me.

The Cloth Hall dominates the center of the square.

krakow-cloth-hallThe wealth of finely-carved ornamentation on the buildings was astounding.

krakow-buildingkrakow-building-detailkrakow-detailIt was hard to tear myself away from the main square. There was so much to look at! But there were other things to see nearby such as the former defensive walls

krakow-wallsand St Florian’s Gate

krako-florianJune 13

I had booked a combined tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau in the morning followed by the Salt Mines in the afternoon.

(Read more about the Auschwitz-Birkenau visit here.)

It was around 4 when we finally reached the Salt Mines and the four of us were still in a state of shock following Auschwitz so it wasn’t the best time to appreciate the Salt Mines which is, justifiably, a World Heritage Site.

The salt mines were very much the basis for Krakow’s wealth and had been in operation since the 13th century until 1996. There are some 2350 chambers to visit extending 350m underground. Our guide had a fun and informative spiel that took in the history, methodology and historical importance of the place.

Here is the church:

saltmineCarved out of salt!

carvingThis is where they take kids with asthma:

salt-lakeThe water is at least ten times saltier than the Dead Sea.

 June 14

With no space left in the Tulip Hostel, I changed to the Boutique Aparthotel around the corner and was very pleased. It was managed by a genial Syrian who had fled the fighting there.

After getting settled, I headed to Kazimierz, the former Jewish section and now a neighborhood for artists and alternative types. The weather turned too nasty for a walking tour however so I headed to Wawel, the former seat of power in medieval Poland until the capital moved to Warsaw. It is a vast sprawl of buildings including the mammoth castle and the Krakow Cathedral.

wawelI found it complicated to visit and ultimately disappointing. There are separate admissions for for about five parts of the castle and incorporated museums and some require appointments to keep visitor numbers manageable. I wound up visiting the royal apartments and private apartments but in the first explanations were minimal and the in the second the guide droned on and on. I prefer audiotours to do at my own pace. I would have liked to see more but because of the complicated visiting process that didn’t seem possible. The whole thing needs to be reconsidered.

June 15

Such an interesting day! Yes we’re back to WWII. The tourist office provides a FREE 3-hour walking tour of Krakow’s Jewish Heritage. The tour began in Kazmierz and finished at Schindler’s Factory in Podgorze.

The Kazmierz district has very different architecture from “royal” Krakow. The buildings are modest but tidy, sturdy and well-preserved.

kazmierzAlthough the Jewish community is tiny (now only a few hundred; 65,000 were murdered) there are still historic synagogues in remarkably good shape.

Here is the Isaac Synagogue:

isaacIn central Krakow the restaurants and cafés were elegant and ornate. Here in Kazmierz the vibe was whimsical and bohemian as this one:

kazmierz-cafeMost of Schindler’s List was filmed in Krakow. The harrowing scene where Jews are herded out of the ghetto was filmed here:

schindlistWe then crossed the river into the Podgorze district, site of the Jewish ghetto. In 1941, the Nazis herded the entire Jewish population of Krakow within these walls.

ghetto-wallOn “Heroes of the Ghetto Square” an imaginative installation commemorates the atrocities that occurred here from transportation of Jews to the concentration camp in nearby Plaszow to murders and mass executions.

hero-squareThe tour ended appropriately enough in Schindler’s Factory, now a fascinating museum devoted to Krakow during the Nazi occupation. There was also a display of the pots and pans produced by the factory although there was surprisingly little devoted to Schindler himself.

It was good to end my trip to Krakow on a high note but I began to think the end came too soon. There’s more to see!



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