Sunday, 27 September 2015


Kraków - Old Town

For most visitors to Kraków, the first port of call is the Rynek Glowny. This is the vast medieval central square which dates back to the 13th century and is reportedly the largest of its kind in Europe. It's centre is dominated by the huge Renaissance Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) which is in fact a large market hall. Guides will tell you it is 700 years old and stands on ground that housed a market for many hundreds of years before that. Today the scourge of tourism means that the principal wares on sale inside are endless stalls of tat. However, it still for me harbours the feel of being in an eastern bazar. What is really worth visiting is the wonderful Rynek Underground museum underneath it. On display are artefacts unearthed by archeologists proving that this spot was a very important hub of trade for many hundreds of years. That probably sounds quite dull, however the brill audio-visual technology used throughout brings past existence back to life. 
In addition, the Cloth Hall also has an impressive art gallery on its upper floor.
If you need a wee sit down after this, retreat to the terrace cafe above the cloth hall. Cocktails are great value here!
Cloth Hall Arcades
The next most dominant structure on the Rynek is the imposing gothic Church of St Mary's Basilica. The rather drab brick exterior disguises the wonders held inside. The decor quite simply has to be seen to be believed! Truly awesome! What is jaw dropping is the very famous alter by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz in Polish. It is an incredibly elaborate wooden carving of vast proportions and quite a festival of colour. However, the best time to view this masterpiece is at 11 50am on weekdays. Up to this time, the altar is enclosed by colourful wooden shutters. However, at 11 50am, to a Disney style fanfare, a nun swishes her way from a side door, brandishes a very long iron pole and dramatically hauls the shutters open with much pomp, ceremony and "oohs" and "ahs" from the gathered crowd to reveal the great intricacy lurking beneath. This has to be seen to be believed! Tickets to visit the church can be purchased from a ticket office opposite the side entrance. The front door of the church is for worshippers only.
 St Mary's Basilica, the Old Town Square
e other notable ceremony performed from one of the huge church towers is the legendary hejnał. Every hour, on the hour (even in the middle of the night) a bugle call is sounded 3 times from windows at the top of the tower by a real, live buglar (apparently there is a bed up there and the buglars do the call in shifts). The origin of this is along the lines of in the 13th century an invading army of Mongols were approaching the city with ill intent. A buglar managed to raus the town by blowing out the hejnał loudly. It gave enough warning for the city gates to be closed and the Mongols to be repelled. However, poor hejnał man was shot through the throat by an arrow half way through his performance hence the reason the present hejnał call stops abruptly half way through in his honour.
Waiting for the Hejnał
Another dominant structure on the Rynek is the Town Hall Tower. It just looks like a clock tower but at one time was part of a great town hall structure which was hauled down in 1820. What is interesting about it though is that it leans, and therefore is Krakow's answer to the leaning tower of Pisa.
Town Hall Tower
Other structures of note on the Rynek are the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, the greatest Polish romantic poet of the 19th century. This statue is often draped in teenagers posing for selfies. There is also the rather quant miniature Church of St. Adalbert which is apparently almost 1000 years old!
The Rynek is bordered by numerous bars and restaurants, many of which also sport expansive medieval cellars. Cafe culture abounds! Although prices for drinks and food charged at the outdoor seating on the square are steep by Krakow's standards, it is lovely to while away the hours people watching, soaking up the clip cloppy ambience of the endless parade of horses and carriages. However, if you are unlucky, you may find this idyll soiled by the crude, loud, drunkeness of British stag and hen doos!! 
A wonderful hostelry, especially on a nippy winters day is the Europejska CafeYou will feel you have walked through a time tunnel back to the 1930s. Old gramophones, opulent decor and a warm, chatty atmosphere make this a charming essential for visitors to the city. The cakes are beautifully served, the mulled wine is super yummy and the selection of teas and coffees is huge. My personal favourite is the Dragon Pearl Jasmine tea.
After your cuppa, it is worth a stroll up ul. Florianska to the Florianska Gate and the medieval fortress of the circular Barbican beyond. This will give you good feel for how medieval Krakow would have been with its extensive city defenses. Additionally though, the Florianska gate doubles up as gallery area for the artwork of some very talented locals (art students, art lecturers etc). Even if the style of some of the paintings are not to your taste, you can't help but admire the skills on display. If you like one, haggle the price down.
On your way to the Florianska gate, a top tip is to make a pit stop in the wonderfully quirky Jama Michalika cafe/restaurant. This is a "must do" experience and a real throwback to a bygone era. It is a feast of art nouveau and is where "Mloda Polska" was born (the Polish Art Nouveau movement). The walls are adorned with artist's work who used to gather here and enthuse over their heroes such as Mucha and Klimt. To enter, walk straight through the main door, past the cloakroom area and front cafe, and enter the door on the right. You will find yourself in a very large piece of authentic art nouveau heaven. Meals, cakes, coffees or drinks are served.

Jama Michalika

Don't miss taking a peak into the Maly Rynek (small square) next to the main market square. There is quite regularly concerts, markets, wine stalls set up alongside barbecues and beers served at wooden tables.
Maly Rynek

Leaving the Maly Rynek, ul. Stolarska has a small souvenir shop with some unusual crafts on offer. There are some nice cafes here also, but the real draw is the Polish Poster Art Gallery at numbers 8 - 10. This place has the most amazing selection of Polish postcards and posters of all natures for sale. Some are collectors items, some are just plain bizarre. However, they do offer a wonderfully unusual and unique souvenir to take home with you.

Returning to the main market square, cross it to sw. Anny, then take a left down Jagiellonska to the Collegium Maius. This lovely, hidden square (enter through a very plain, wooden floored passageway) is one of the Jagiellonian University's original buildings and now houses its museum. However, the main draw for many is the clock! Every 2 hours (1pm, 3pm and 5pm in the summer) it puts on a marvellous, entertaining clock display to Gaudeamus! Wooden figures of kings and well known professors wiggle their way between two clock windows (Youtube Clock Footage) Whilst at the Collegium Maius clock, you might want to consider doing a tour of the university museum. This is actually surprisingly good!! There are a couple of English tours a day at 11am and 1pm. Since the tours are conducted in small groups, probably best to reserve your places the day before. It’s a fascinating tour through the ages. Find out about their most famous student Nicholas Copernicus, or simply marvel at seeing an Oscar statue close up!
Collegium Maius courtyard

The next place to aim for, if you have the energy, is the Wawel (castle). The nicest approach is to walk down ul. Kanonicza. It is lined with lovely renaissance and baroque architecture.
ul. Kanonicza
Pope John Paul II lived at numbers 19 and 21 as a priest and bishop. Half way down the street is an open square which provides a dramatic view of the Baroque Jesuit Church of St Peter and St Paul and its array of statues adorning its entrance.

St Peter and St Paul 
The Wavel is incredibly popular during summer months, particularly at weekends with tour groups and Polish tourists alike. It is a more soothing visit in the winter, but if you do visit in the summer there are a few tricks to avoid queues. 

The Wawel

The Wawel itself is a complex of different areas, exhibitions and chambers to visit. It’s an eclectic mix of buildings which harbour quite an atmosphere on a snowy winter’s day. For each area, different tickets have to be purchased for access. However, you would have to be really going for it if you attempted to squeeze a visit to them all in one day! For Krakow virgins, the State Rooms and the Treasury and Armoury are probably adequate and will give a good flavour of what the Wawel has to offer. Don’t immediately be tempted to stand in the long line at the first ticket window on the ramp approaching the Wawel, there is another large ticket hall within the complex itself. If in summer you are finding the queues too long, why not simply go to the reservations window and book yourself tickets for the following day. You will be given a specific time for your visit and will avoid the queues! For those interested in more of the history of the Wawel and like tapestries, then a tour of the Private Royal Apartments is interesting. For this, few slots are available and it really is worth booking this a day in advance. In addition, a visit to the cathedral is recommended. The tickets for this are purchased separately in the building opposite the entrance. 

Wawel Courtyard

Even if you are not a castle person and you don’t want to go inside, it is worth hiking up into the complex and visiting the stunning Renaissance courtyard. There is a lovely coffee shop also!

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