For those with a smattering of Polish, you may have picked up that I’ve just said hello. Or, if the pronunciation is wrong, I may have just insulted your garden!
We flew out to Krakow on Monday for three nights staying in the Hotel Senacki, on Grodzka and not far from the centre of the old town, the Rynek Glowny. I’ve never been to Eastern Europe and Krakow was described as a wonderful example of architecture. As Martin, our Krakow Shuttle driver, took us the 15km from the airport to the city, we seemed to be driving through the countryside of any country. I had seen lots of individual houses with colourful roofs as we came in to land, and they had reminded me of Scandinavian houses. Now, driving past them, I could see that some were built of wood, whilst others were of whitewashed stone. Many looked relatively new and a lot of what I would call luxurious. Between the houses were large flat parcels of land that didn’t seem to be fenced of or belonging to any of them.
Then we entered the suburbs and it could have been any city. But once through the traffic and across the River Wistula, I could see how Krakow differed from other European cities. As the centre of government for Greater Germany in WW2, it had escaped any significant damage and the remarkable architecture had survived intact. We drove down narrow, cobbled back streets until we caught sight of the hotel.
Hotel Senacki was situated opposite the church of St Peter and St Paul on Grodzka, one of the main streets of the old town. It was a small place and the staff were very helpful throughout our stay. Checking in was quick and after asking for a change of room, we had a great view out onto Grodzka and the church opposite.
Over the next two and a half days, we managed to cram in a lot of sightseeing, walking and eating! The fantastic summer weather made the walking most enjoyable, with lovely cool mornings and evenings and warm days. We walked around the old town and into the Market Square, the Rynek Glowny and it became our destination each morning before setting off on our planned trips. Early morning, before the tourists arrived, meant the square was quiet and empty, with only the cafe staff and delivery vans around.
On Monday night, we called in to the church of St Peter and St Paul, where a sextet of strings played a selection of classics from Vivaldi, Bach and Albinoni. It was a lovely experience, although the acoustics meant that some of the melodies were lost in the reverberation of the church.
On the Tuesday, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, two places that we had both wanted to see but had also felt apprehensive about going to. That visit is worthy of another blog, which I will write when I feel I can. In a long day, we also visited the Wieliczka salt mine before dining in one of the open air restaurants in the Market Square.
The salt mine has been producing salt for more than 700 years and only recently closed down. Visitors descend 380 wooden steps to reach the 1st level some 64m below ground. From there, 2km of passages lead visitors through tunnels and chambers, some dating back to the 16th Century. The mine is a museum and most of the chambers have displays of figures and machinery and some have fantastic carvings made from the salt that was being mined. Particularly spectacular are the three churches built below ground. The largest, the Chapel of St Kinga, is still used for services once a week and weddings are held here, with the reception being hosted in the nearby restaurant. Working in the salt mine was seen to be a privilege, as the salt commanded good prices and the miners were paid well. Conditions in the mine were good. We ended up in the deepest souvenir shop I’ve ever been in, at 134m below ground. From there, we made our way back to the stairs but this time we were able to take a fast and cramped lift back to the surface.
On Wednesday, we walked around the city and visited some of the churches. 98% of Poles are Catholics and the multitude of churches in Krakow reminded me of some of the cities we visited in Italy, where there seemed to be a church around every corner. We’d popped in to the Dominican Church early on Tuesday and noticed several people praying there before heading off to work. It struck me that this was so different to Britain, where people tend to worship as an act once a week, almost out of habit.
We walked into the Market Square and around, heading out to the north in search of the Church of the Reformed Franciscans, where beneath the church, the crypt has a micro climate that has caused the bodies lying there to naturally mummify. Although visitors can access the crypt by request, it wasn’t open when we were there. Instead, we stood and listened to a service going on.
Moving on, we reached St Florian’s Gate, the last remaining part of the old city wall. Krakow was frequently attacked and this wall gave the town some measure of security. To commemorate the attacks, a bugler sounds a call (the hejnal) on the hour from the taller spire of St Mary’s church in the square. The northern tower is taller because it was used as a watchtower and here, legend has it, the watchman was interrupted during his alarm call by an arrow to the throat. The bugle call that now sounds ends abruptly in memory of that event.
Inside St Mary’s church, the dark Gothic décor was striking, and set off with gold detailing. But the main reason we were here was to see the magnificent High Altar. It was started in 1477 and took 12 years to complete. It consists of 12 panels in the Gothic style depicting key events from the story of Christ. After swift coffee in the square, we c;limbed the old Town Hall tower to get a panoramic view of the Old Town.
Wawel Hill is the location for the old castle of Krakow, and Krakow Cathedral. Legend says that Krakow was founded when a local hero, Krak, defeated a dragon that lived under Wawel Hill. The cave is still there but the dragon is now a sculpture that breathes fire every so often. When Krakow was the capital of Poland the kings were crowned in the cathedral and lived in the castle. Today, it is open to the public and forms an imposing site overlooking the Vistula. One of the walls of the open courtyard in the castle is said to be one of the world’s sources of spiritual energy. I encountered one of these sites before, on Pen y Fan, and spent some time talking to a man who was completely convinced of this. With all the walking, our energy levels were dropping and no amount of standing next to the walls helped.
Suddenly and far too quickly, it was time to go and everything seemed to happen in a rush. One minute we were having breakfast, the next we were waiting in the departure area and then we were landing at Bristol.
I enjoyed Krakow, and while I wouldn’t want to go back there as a place to stay (I’ve seen everything I wanted to see in the city) I would use it as a centre to travel further.