Thursday, 15 January 2015
Travel at 21: Kraków
In the spirit of making the most of the time I have left before returning to university, the husband and myself hopped on a Ryanair flight on Monday to spend two nights in Kraków, Poland [12th January to 14th January]. Add this to the three nights and four days I spent there in autumn 2011, and I've almost got a week's worth of knowledge of the city!
Kraków looks, to me, like a bizarre mix of the remnants of Communism alongside the most jaw-dropping architecture dating back to the city's 7th century beginnings. The main market square (Rynek Glówny) dates back to the 13th century, with its famous cloth hall reconstructed in 1555. A few hundred metres away stands the barbakan, built in 1499; you can still see the space where its moats once lay. There is also a castle and countless churches, all with their own unique histories. The domination of this ancient history against the more well-known twentieth century history of the city is endlessly fascinating to me.
The main market square is worth hours of your time. Whether it's shopping for watercolour paintings, souvenirs or flowers, or just doing as much shopping as hand luggage will allow in the multi-storey chains of Zara and United Colours of Benetton. St Mary's Basilica can be visited, as can nearby museums. On this visit, we spent a long afternoon in La Grande Mamma, an absolutely gorgeous restaurant looking out onto the square. I had the best vegetarian calzone I've had in my life, and on leaving the waitress handed us a paper bag full of cookies!
My second favourite thing about Kraków, after its year-round beauty, is its prices. A three course meal with drinks in a traditionally decorated restaurant just off the main square set us back 124 PLN. That's about £22. For two people. And it was delicious. Our hotel (booked in typical last minute fashion) was £50 for two nights including a lovely breakfast buffet. Located right in the centre of the city. I'm a big fan of going to this city for just a couple of days because I end up spending next to nothing.
Visiting Auschwitz is a once in a lifetime experience that I've somehow ended up doing twice, now. The museum of World War II's most famous concentration camp is located an hour's drive from the city, and we spent £40 for a minibus transfer including a guided tour. All in all, it takes about 6 hours (our alarms went off at 7am that morning) but I can't recommend it enough. Both times I've been, the tour guides have been informative, sensitive and patient. There's a huge feeling that they care a lot about making sure this history is not forgotten; educating visitors so that it never happens again.
The Wielickza Salt Mines are another unforgettable tourist attraction. The first time I went to Poland, I visited them right after visiting Auschwitz. Many tour companies offer this combination, and I'd really recommend it. You go from wondering how human beings are capable of such atrocity, to being breathtaken that human beings are capable of such unfathomable beauty. Once you make it down an anxiety-inducing 378 steps, (not to mention the claustrophobic elevator that brings you back to ground level) you spend a couple of hours marvelling at underground churches, sculptures and even a lake.
During my first visit to Kraków, I also went to Schindler's Factory, and with the Jewish Quarter of the city and stories of Polish resistance during the war, it's fully possible to have an educational historical holiday here.
I read The Happiness of Pursuit and How Many Miles to Babylon? during the three hour plane journeys. I'd recommend both, but not as much as I recommend this wonderful European city.
Facts and Figures
The second largest city in Poland, Kraków has its own airport: John Paul II International Airport Kraków-Balice (Pope John Paul II was Polish). You could also drive to Kraków if you find yourself in central Europe.
The currency used is Polish Zloty. 1 Zloty equals about £0.18.
You can travel from the airport to city centre (12km) on a 292 bus for 4 Zloty. 4! There's also a train which at the time of writing this was under construction so is unusable.
The main language is Polish. Spoiled as ever as an English speaker, I've never had any trouble.
Winter is cold in Poland. However, we didn't see any snow or rain. As long as you bundle up in winter wear, it's so pleasant to walk around and a great excuse to buy hot chocolate.