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Krakow, Poland 72-Hour Vacation

Cracking Krakow
Into the Heart of Poland
By Dawn Turek

Krakow’s wide boulevards and vibrant pace seem at odds with the peacefulness of the nearby craggy Tatra Mountains. But, as any Pole will tell you, though Warsaw may by the capital Kraków is the heart of the country. Horse-drawn carriages still roam the cobblestone streets lining the enormous Rynek Glówny, Europe’s largest medieval square, though the charming conveyances now usually carry camera-toting tourists or cheerful newlyweds. Street performers entertain onlookers as men and women in business dress linger over lattes before rushing to work or into one of the posh boutiques lining the streets of Old Town. This one-time Polish capital and city of kings is today a mélange of old and new with a history as colorful as the city’s artfully restored buildings. Kraków’s past is rich in royalty, mystical legends, daunting tragedy and the steadfast faith of its Krakovian citizens.

The Royal Court of Poland arrived in 1038, but it wasn’t until 1257 that King Kazimierz established the city’s design (now the Old Town) and encircled it with the great stone walls that are in part still visible today. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once a trading mecca that has withstood invasions of Turks and Tartars, assimilation into the Hapsburg Empire, and Nazi occupation. Unlike other cities in Europe, Kraków was spared much of the physical devastation wrought by World War II.

Art, architecture, music and literature flourished in Kraków during the late 19th century, from historical paintings by artists such as Jan Matejko to evocative Art Nouveau-inspired works done by Stanislaw Wyspianski. In the 20th century two Nobel Prize winning authors called this city home: Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska. Despite rigid authoritarian regime rules, a dynamic cabaret culture and an avant-garde theatre community thrived and flourished during the Cold War. Today, Krakovians’ passion for art-house films makes this form of cinema nearly mainstream. You’ll also find a gastronomic revolution—combining the country’s staples of pierogis and kielbasa with diverse worldly flavors—taking place. As for the wódka (vodka), there are over 300 varieties; a scorching sip of Sliwowica, or Polish plum brandy, is sure to cure what ails you.

Multitudes of choices are available for selecting accommodations in Kraków. You can rent an apartment by the night (such as a sleek studio in the trendy Kazimierz District), stay in a cozy guesthouse or, if you want fabulous views and personalized service, check into a contemporary luxury hotel like the Sheraton Kraków Hotel. For a more intimate, European feel, and possibly a bit of local history, select boutique hotel lodging. Tsar Alexander I and Franz Liszt both enjoyed stays at the Hotel Pod Róza. The Hotel Copernicus is located next to the popular Wawel Castle, and the Hotel Wentzl on the Market Square is a former home from the 15th century.

The best way to explore this city is on foot. You can, however, purchase a Krakówska Karta Turystyczna (Kraków Tourist Card) either at the airport or at a City Information Point office in Kraków—there’s one at the Town Hall in the Rynek Glówny main square. With a two- or three-day card (at a cost of 65zl, or about $22.50 USD, for the latter), you’re entitled to unlimited travel during the designated time period on city buses and trams. You’ll also enjoy entry to as many as 30 Kraków museums, plus a variety of discounts at select restaurants and shops, and on some tours and excursions.


Cuppa in the City

Wander in the direction of Rynek Glówny to discover the heart of the city. As the locals do, follow the aroma of freshly baked bread to a street vendor selling Kraków’s specialty salt or poppy seed-encrusted obwazanki (a thin round bagel), and then sit and have a "cuppa". The coffee culture of Kraków rivals that of Vienna—in the old town, you’ll find over 300 cafes. Krakovians love to linger over a hot steaming cup of java and catch up on the latest gossip. If the weather permits, sitting outdoors is the perfect way to capture the sights, sounds and scents of the city.

Upon entering the Market Square, pay homage to poet Adam Mickiewicz at Pomnik Mickiewicza, a monument dedicated in his honor. A native of Belarus who grew up in Lithuania, Mickiewicz wrote the tale of two feuding families and the love between Tadeusz, the son of one family, and Zosia, the daughter of the other. What Shakespeare is to England, Mickiewicz is to the Poles. Considered the Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz is compulsory reading in schools and the most widely read book in the country. Mickiewicz himself never visited Kraków—until 35 years after his death in 1890, when he was interred at Wawel Cathedral.

St. Mary's Church is home to the largest Gothic wooden altar in Europe.

Around the square look for the grand gothic towers of the 15th-century Kosciól Mariacki (St. Mary’s Church, whose devotion to its namesake can be seen in its ornate carved interiors). Every night, sounding out from the church’s tower, a lone bugler’s call can be heard every hour. Local lore claims that this call was played to warn townspeople of invading Tatars. While the bugler succeeded in his mission, he met a sad fate when a sharp-eyed invader pierced his throat with an arrow. Each bugle call today ends as abruptly as it did centuries ago.

It’s hard to miss the centrally-located and spectacularly-spired Sukiennice (the Cloth Hall), designed in 1344 and redesigned during the Renaissance. Inside on the first floor, modern-day peddlers purvey their products—intricate woodcarvings and rows of decadent amber jewelry and rainbow-hued crystal—to the throngs of sightseers. Upstairs is the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Painting with its selection of turn-of-the-century art, including works by Jan Matejko.

Next door to the Cloth Hall is Wieza Ratuszowa (The Town Hall Tower), constructed in 1300 as a court of justice, jail, torture chamber and storage facility. Those sure of their virtue can test a local legend claiming that, “if virtuous maidens sit astride the lions flanking the Tower entrance, the lions will roar.” Proceed with caution. This all-in-one building was demolished in 1817, and now only the Tower and cellars remain with the Historical Museum being housed on the top floors. The views from the top are well worth the aerobic workout.

If you make it past the lions, or decide not to test your virtue, grab a bite to eat at Polskie Smaki (ul. Tomasza 5), a good, cheap, quirky, and quick luncheon spot for those in the know—a place packed with Poles is always a good sign.

At the end of your meal, head to the Czartoryski Museum - the Arsenal (ul. Sw. Jana 19/ul. Pijarska 8) to take in its collection of nearly 400 European works. Here you’ll see Leonardo de Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" and Rembrandt's "Landscape with the Good Samaritan," as well as ancient art works and various military collections.

Next, as you stroll towards Palac Kryzstofory and ul. Szcepanska, you’ll pass the monument to Piotr Skrzynecki (1930-1997), an erstwhile actor of cabaret and films who thrived on the Bohemian lifestyle—to the point of sleeping on park benches. In 1956, he began the Artistic Youth Club for young people with the motto: "In the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world". Skrzynecki’s famous cabaret can be found at Rynek Glówny 27, Palac Pol Baranami (House under the Sign of the Rams). Also on this street you’ll find the international cultural center, Kaminenica Pod Kruki (House Under the Sign of the Ravens).

Jagiellonian University, the second largest in Poland

Next, visit the campus of Jagiellonian University on Sw. Anny/Jagiellonska, founded in 1400 and famed in part for its medical school of alchemy—sorcerers in search of the secret to turning metals into gold. From Copernicus to a then-unknown future Pope, each day at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. you can see the great academics borne of these hallowed halls as their mechanical figures parade around the clock of the Golden Portal to the collegiate song and operatic favorite, Gaudeamus Igatur.

Should you feel the need for intellectual stimulation, head to the cozy English language bookstore, Massolit Books (ul. Felicjanek 4). Between its wide selection of books and chic café, you may never want to leave.

For an elegant evening meal, head to the moderately priced Pod Krzyzykiem (Rynek Glówny 39/40). The name means “under the little cross,” but inside you’ll find a bright eatery designed in Krakovian Art Nouveau that features international fare and Polish specialties ranging from liver to boar. For a chic cocktail and some jazz, check out the cosmopolitan Boogie Café Bar (ul. Szpitalna 9).

Continue to Day 2


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* Images by and Poland map by James Riswick.

(Updated: 05/29/08 HC)

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