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Published: September 8th 2018
As a child my understanding of Eastern Europe was prejudiced by reading books like Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”. With its Gulag drudgery and cabbage soup, it was a pretty grim picture. After decades of BBC propaganda, I was expecting dreary concrete box slums, and grey citizens; it was all they showed on tv. Yet any of those shots of miserable housing blocks and people could have been filmed in north Manchester. When you actually go to Eastern Europe you realise the ‘border’ between east and west is a more a political construct than anything else. Krakow at least is a cracking place and the people smile in plenty.
Cheap flights and cheap beer have made the city a bit of a stag and hen party destination and there were several parties on our Ryan Air flight from Manchester. It was heart-warming to see them drinking at 6.00 in the morning; swearing and falling about. My heart swelled with pride to know these were my fellow countrymen. They were really funny. The groom, now you won’t believe this, was dressed up for the trip; but not as a man... he was dressed as a woman! Such
Honestly! I couldn’t stop laughing. We were sat next to one of the ‘staggers’ on the plane and it turned out that he had been to Krakow before and enjoyed it.
“Are you going to Oscar Schindler’s factory?” he asked me
“It’s not on my list.” I replied wittily… not even a titter.
Anyway, Krakow (like Prague) is very pleasing on the eye. The old town has the biggest medieval town square in Europe. It is colossal, grander than the Piazza Navona in Rome and more authentic than the Plaza de España in Seville. In the middle is the Sukiennice, it looks like a pricey hotel, but it was once the market hall. With superb architecture spanning several centuries, stunning churches, teeming with restaurants and bars, Krakow caters for tourism without being overwhelmed by it. It’s a class place. The weather in June was fabulous and as it was a bank holiday weekend the town was buzzing with vitality. The few stag parties with their oafish drunks were invisible in the crowds and had no impact on the wonderful vibe of the city.
We stayed at the Hotel Jan
which was a mere twenty-yard
stroll into the town square. It’s supposedly three stars but it felt more like a four. We got a very big room; maybe they secretly upgraded us. I recommend staying at the back of the hotel where it’s bizarrely quiet, the main street outside is busy and noisy. If your plans only involved strolling around sightseeing, eating, drinking and people watching you could just stay in the old town for a few days, but there’s other things to do. Wieliczka Salt Mine
is close by, it’s very popular, and we went to see why. The tickets are just short of £20 per person, book your visit as otherwise the queues can be long in the busy season. Entering the mine involves walking down a wooden staircase of about 400 steps to get to the first level which is 64 metres underground. It was crowded, and we kept having to stop. Dozens of people above you and dozens more below. With a fear of heights and mild claustrophobia I was really in my element here and resorted to muttering curses under my breath. However, the feeling dissipated once we got down. The tunnels and caverns are spacious, and I enjoyed the trip.
It’s all good and the grand church 135 metres down is very impressive. An agreeable 3 hours passed by quite quickly. Thankfully, you don’t have to climb hundreds of steps to get out. There’s a lift, though it’s the size of a sardine tin. It would comfortably hold 3 people, but they squeeze 8 into it; effectively turning everyone in the lift into an involuntary sex offender. It’s mercifully rapid and a great way to make intimate friends.
We had a driver for the day, he was a useful source of information and booked us into an excellent, and inexpensive restaurant for lunch. Irony wasn’t his strong point. On the journey he regaled with his list of people (entire nations) that he hated. The Germans (for WWII), the Russians (for communism and political interference), Churchill and Roosevelt took some flak (traitors). He also hated Muslims, though he admitted there were none in Poland. Then he dropped us off at Auschwitz to learn about the consequences of intolerance and racism...
Have you come across the story that there is no birdsong in Auschwitz and no birds fly over Birkenau? It is as if the evil that took place there
was so profound that nature has voluntarily exiled itself out of respect for the murdered. I have always said I ‘wanted’ to visit this place. Not, I hope, out of voyeurism though that would be a natural instinct. And not that a tour could change my views on racism and intolerance, but it did sharpen my disgust and anger. I don’t really know why I wanted to go, but I’m glad I did.
Most people have a moment where the concentration camp and its exhibits ‘gets them’. I did too, but I don’t think this is the place to air my thoughts. But the story is a myth; birds do fly over, and birdsong can be heard, maybe there’s a message in that.
Krakow is a city with a long history, it has a medieval, walled, centre and there’s a lot to explore. Wawel castle and cathedral are on a hill just outside the old town, it’s really a collection of stately old buildings offering a grand view of the city and the Vistula River. We wandered through and would have popped in the Cathedral, but it was Sunday morning and mass was being said. There’s plenty of Churches around. St Mary’s Basilica in the main square is stunning, and Corpus Christi Basilica in the Kazimierz district has a dazzling altar.
Though there was more to see we didn’t linger on Wawel hill as we were on our way to the old Jewish Quarter. We had a nice wander round there but missed some of the better parts due to incompetent map reading. The Galicia Jewish Museum was good, it tells of the fate of the Jews of Krakow and those of the surrounding countryside. It’s a poignant exhibition and very informative. It inspired us to want to learn more.
Should you go?
Krakow old town has dozens of great bars, superb places to eat (Luna Siciliana
and the food market were excellent) and fascinating places to visit. Flights from the UK are very reasonably priced as is accommodation if you look around (we use Booking.com). I’d like to go again, and I’d like to explore Poland more as a result of this trip.
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