Saturday July 13 – Thursday July 18 2013
Our Ryanair flight from Manchester landed in Krakow soon after 11.00. As we emerged into the arrivals area we immediately spotted our taxi driver holding up our name. There are cheaper ways of getting into Krakow from the airport at Balice, but a fare of 100 zlotys (£20) right to the hotel door seemed reasonable to us. Because the hotel had arranged our taxi, they knew when to expect us and although it was only just after mid-day, our room on the third floor of the Hotel Batory was already available.
Unfortunately the afternoon turned wet, so after unpacking and relaxing for a while we chose to have an early evening meal in the hotel’s restaurant: chicken noodle soup, and pierogi (Polish pasta dumplings) with mixed fillings. When we had finished it finally looked as if the rain was done for the day so we set off to walk to the main square. It was about a ten minute walk from the hotel through a quiet residential area.
Even though we had seen photographs of the main square (Rynek Glowny), the first sight of it still took the breath away. There is a sense that everything fits together perfectly: the long terraces of buildings on the outer edge of the square provide the frame; the two towers of St Mary’s church dominate the north eastern side – their lack of symmetry adding to the charm; in the centre stands the medieval cloth hall (Sukiennice) looking good enough to eat; and in the far south west corner the tower of the old town hall. And there is so much space! Even when it is busy, there is still plenty of room for the open air cafes, the street entertainers and the horse drawn carriages. We promenaded around the square and strolled a short distance down the main street leading from the southern end (Grodzka). Our short excursion that first night left us in no doubt that this place was something special.
We awoke to rain on Sunday morning, which was rather annoying as back home they were in the middle of a heat wave. We had an excellent breakfast in the hotel restaurant and then as the weather was still rather uncertain we decided that today would be a good day to go down the salt mine at Wieliczka. We packed wet weather gear into the back pack and set off for the station, but during this short walk the conditions changed rapidly. First we noticed bits of blue sky and then the sun began to shine properly.
Definitely time for a change of plan, so we stopped at the station just long enough to check the train times for future use and then walked across the station square (Plac Kolejowy) and through the underpass towards the Barbican: the only significant remaining stretch of the city walls. Before entering the city we wandered around Matejko Square (Plac Jana Matejki) with its impressive Tannenberg war memorial. At the top end of the square is St Florian’s church, the first parish church of Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II. We then entered the old town through the Florian Gate (Brama Florianska). Just beneath the archway a group of three musicians in traditional costume were performing on trumpet, accordion and drum. Local artists use this short section of the city wall to display their work. Just around the corner from here is the Slowackiego Theatre, a neo-Baroque building topped off with some extravagant carved faces and statues.
From the Florian Gate, Florianska, known as the royal way, leads directly down to the main square. This was the way that all kings and important guests entered the city and made their way to the Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral. The square was really bustling by now and we slowly worked our way around, pausing to listen for the hejnal, a trumpet call, which is played every hour from the taller of the two towers of St Mary’s. The call is played four times, once at each point of the compass, each time stopping suddenly. This commemorates the legend of the brave trumpeter who sounded the alarm call to warn of a Tartar attack in 1241and was struck in the throat by an arrow before he could complete his warning.
We stopped for apple pie and tea at Noworolski’s café in the Sukiennice and watched the world go by. The puppeteer who was set up close to us was doing great business with his pop puppets: Elton John, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner and Michael Jackson performed their hit songs to an enthusiastic audience. After our cake we wandered through the central arcade of the Sukiennice; many of the small shops were selling jewellery and Baltic amber.
We had wondered why there was a long armed crane poised over a part of the square. As we came out of the arcade we noticed that a rehearsal was underway for a most spectacular show later that evening. Eight performers were lifted high into the air where they performed an aerial ballet. We decided that we would have to return to catch this performance even though it did not begin until 10.00 pm. We then took a short walk along to the university area: the Collegium Maius was founded in 1364 and the Gothic inner courtyard apparently dates from this period. Although only a short walk from the main square this area was much quieter.
We went back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest before returning to the action in town. We dined well at Soprano’s Trattoria which we had spotted whilst in the university quarter and then joined the growing crowds in the square for the performance of Voalá Station. This was described in their publicity material as: “an aerial comedy performed at the height of 30(!) metres over the ground. It is created with aerial images with original, strong and sensual music that makes the audience feel the most beautiful emotions.” The story was quite simple: four business men waiting for a train are enchanted by a siren who causes them to be seduced by four young nymphs who emerged butterfly like from the white swathes of cloth suspended from the hoist. They then lure them into an aerial world of dance and acrobatics. The show was breath-taking; the characters were lifted into the air on foliage covered wires where they created patterns and shapes, linking hands and feet as they wove their magic above the crowd. Very beautiful and scary at the same time. Wow! What an end to our first full day in Krakow.
Another damp start to the day, so we felt that this was definitely the day for Wieliczka Salt Mine. It was raining lightly as we walked to the station, but whilst waiting for our train the heavens opened. Our departure was at 11.00. We were advised to only buy a single ticket, as tickets were sold for specific trains and we wouldn’t know what time train to use when returning. The price was a very reasonable 4 zlotys each.
Fortunately when our very smart train reached the small station at Wieliczka the rain had stopped. We soon worked out the way to the mine; you could see the winding gear from the station car park. First impressions at the entrance to the mine were very confusing. There were lots of different queues and for a few moments it was hard to decide which one to join. Once we had identified the queue to buy tickets, things began to make more sense. We were sold tickets for the 12.30 tour in English, so we had to wait for just under half an hour. Once inside the main building we were all given head sets and small receivers to wear around our necks. There was a short briefing and we then began to descend the many stairs into the mine. Rather than using a lift, it seems that all able bodied people enter the mine this way, and at the bottom of 378 stairs we were around 64 metres deep underground. The real fascination of this mine is that the miners didn’t just work tunnels to remove the salt; they built rooms, chambers, offices, chapels, even a ballroom as a part of their life underground. These chambers are decorated with a great variety of carvings and statues. The most impressive space, saved until almost the last, and drawing a gasp of amazement, was the large cathedral complete with impressive salt crystal chandeliers. At the deepest point on our tour we were 130 metres underground; something that was hard to believe at times, especially when we sat down to eat lunch in the large cafeteria! Fortunately they don’t make you climb all those stairs to get out, but we did embark on a seemingly endless walk along passages and past many more chambers before reaching the lift to the surface. At the top we realised that we had come up a completely different shaft and had to walk through a small park to get back to where we had started.
Back at the station we discovered that we had just missed a train and would have to wait well over an hour for the next one, so we found the nearest bus stop, bought tickets from the kiosk and used the 304 bus to get back to Krakow. (Again 4 zlotys each, but nowhere near as comfortable). We got off the bus right by St Florian’s church and made our way back to the hotel for another little rest. We had walked at least three kilometres underground and then quite a lot more on the surface. We decided that we would have an early evening meal in the hotel and then go back into town for the Baroque concert at St Peter and Paul’s Church.
The concert was excellent: the programme included Bach, Mozart, Albinoni, Dvorak, Brahms and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There were six musicians: two violins, viola, cello, double bass and harpsichord. It was well after nine when the concert finished, so we strolled up Grodzka, made a circuit of the square and returned to the hotel for the night.
Today dawned bright and clear. This was great as today we intended to visit the aviation museum and many of the exhibits were outside. After breakfast we walked up to near the Barbican where we bought four 20 minute tickets and waited for the number 4 tram. We stamped our tickets right away in the machine on the tram and within a few minutes they were inspected. (The severity of Krakow ticket inspectors has been much discussed on the Trip Advisor forum). We got off at the AWF stop and began walking back towards town. There weren’t any obvious signs but we stopped a passing cyclist and showed him my written note of Muzeum Lotnctwa Polskiego. He spoke surprisingly good English and said that he would walk along with us to show us the way: a very kind man. We soon reached the museum and it turned out that the information I had seen on the internet was correct and there was no admission charge on a Tuesday.
This was a fantastic museum. The range and variety of aircraft was quite remarkable with First World War fighters, Second World War Spitfire, DC3 and Junkers 52 and then an enormous number of jet aircraft from the cold war era, both Warsaw Pact and NATO. We spent at least a couple of hours wandering round the exhibits in bright sunshine. I couldn’t help thinking that before the fall of the iron curtain, if we had gone anywhere near a place like this we would have been arrested!
We rode back into town feeling well pleased with ourselves and decided to treat ourselves to a proper lunch today in a place on Florianska called Gościniec. We both chose pork served on mashed potato which proved to be very tasty and filling. After lunch we sought out a small square that we hadn’t yet visited: Plac Szczepamski. To our delight there was a very attractive fountain on the far side and we lingered for a while watching the different patterns of the jets of water. We came back to the main square and followed Grodzka down to two churches: St Peter and St Paul’s and right next to it the twin towered St Andrew’s; both beautiful churches. St Peter and St Paul’s has statues of the twelve apostles on pedestals along the front; St Andrew’s has the most unusual boat shaped pulpit within the gated nave. We then walked along the curving Kanonicza between the bishops’ palaces, leading to the entrance to the castle and cathedral; but that was for another day.
We walked back up Grodzka and chose to eat at one the square-side cafes in front of the hotel Wentzl. After our substantial lunch we felt we only needed something light, so both chose to have Caesar salad. This was an absolute prime position for people watching as they promenaded around the main square or rode by in one of the many carriages. We were greatly amused by one of the street entertainers, who, dressed like a clown, would shadow and imitate people passing by. We were also serenaded by a small band of local musicians. They were good, but then they were approached by a fellow diner – a lady who asked if they would play a particular song and then astonished everyone, the musicians included, by absolutely belting out the vocals like a true performer. She then thanked them and slipped back to her seat at a table just behind us.
Once more round the square, catching the ten o’clock hejnal, and then back to our hotel and bed.
Our last full day in Krakow, a fine one, and one we had set aside for the Royal Castle and the Cathedral on Wawel Hill. As we passed through the square we felt it was worth stopping for photographs as this was the first time we had been here in morning light. The same was true of Grodzka and Kanonicza, but nevertheless we arrived at the castle ramparts before it had become too busy. The first ticket office at the top of the ramp had already built up quite a queue, but we knew there was a second ticket office in the main information office further in. Here we had to decide which of the different attractions we wanted to visit as you had to buy a timed ticket for each one. We chose the crown treasury and armoury (10.50), the state rooms (11.50) and the private royal apartments (13.20). Admission to the cathedral was free so we decided that we would do that after we had had some lunch.
There was time for a quick stroll around the high terrace overlooking the river Wisla and the distant Kościuszko Mound before we needed to enter the castle courtyard for our appointed time at the treasury and armoury. In here were lots of ancient and valuable items, although sometimes their exact importance was hard to judge. Best items were probably the well displayed horse decorations, the various suits of armour and the coronation sword. Soon after coming out of the treasury it was time to visit the state rooms and the royal apartments: these were impressive but rather impersonal. Once the Polish monarchs had moved to Warsaw the castle had a variety of functions, including barracks, so naturally the decorations and furnishings were moved out or lost. The castle has been refurnished with donations and legacies, and some of the fine wall tapestries have been returned from Canada where they had been stored for safe keeping. In the private royal apartments, we had an English speaking guide to help us along. We discovered that much of the “new” furniture was from Italy and many of the paintings, some of them quite rare, had been donated by a wealthy expatriate family who had lived in Switzerland. Most interesting in this part of the tour were the “head” room which had thirty wood carvings of human heads set into the ceiling, and the largest room in the castle, the senators’ hall, which also serves as a theatre and ballroom. From the senators’ hall we descended a long staircase to emerge into the castle courtyard.
We were feeling pretty hungry by now so we crossed the palace gardens to the far side where the small restaurant was still serving lunch. It was getting on for three o’clock when we entered Wawel Cathedral, which is considered by many to be the most important church in Poland: it is where kings were crowned and where many of them are buried. As cathedrals go, this one is relatively small: the central aisle is quite short, with the mausoleum of St Stanislaus filling the aisle part way along. The place is packed with sarcophagi, tombs and monuments. There are eighteen side chapels, many of them highly decorated. Compared to the royal palace, the cathedral is much smaller, but almost overwhelming in its detail and decoration.
We left the cathedral and made our way down the steep driveway and back towards the centre of town. A short distance past St Peter and St Paul’s we stopped at the Café Mini – a place that had caught our eye on several occasions. I had already sampled their tiramisu ice-cream (excellent!), but this time we sat inside and indulged ourselves. Mmm.
We hoped that we would be back at St Mary’s church in time to see the magnificent Veit Stoss altar, and we were. To get a close look you need to buy a ticket, which allows you to access to the chancel. This altar was created between 1477 and 1479 and is the largest of its kind in Europe. The centre piece depicts the death of Mary, surrounded by the apostles. Around this are other New Testament scenes. The main figures are larger than life size and considering when they were created, they have surprisingly human features and expressions. The whole altar piece including the side panels measures 11 metres by 13 metres. The entire church is highly decorated, but, apart from the altar itself, it is the star studded roof that most catches the eye.
Every evening in the main square we had watched the horse carriages go by, and this evening, our final one in Krakow, seemed to be the right time to take one ourselves. The price of 100 zlotys for the two of us didn’t seem too extravagant, so we settled down as we were driven around the square, down Grodzka, past the castle, along the side of the Planty and then back into the square, where we posed for photos before getting down.
We had a light evening meal on the terrace of Da Pietro so that we could again watch the steady drift of people around the square. We noticed that immediately after the nine o’clock hejnal all the swifts that had been swooping around the towers immediately went to bed! We were nearly ready for that too, but before we did we returned to Szczepanski square to see if the fountains that we had discovered on Tuesday were illuminated. They were. It was well worth the short walk and we stood entranced for quite some time as the lights and water patterns and sounds played in front of us. It was a fine end to a great stay in a magnificent city.
Our flight home to Manchester was at 13.15, so we chose to have a quiet morning, taking our time over breakfast and the packing. Our taxi had been arranged for eleven, but it turned up early. We were asked if we wanted to wait until eleven but there seemed no point. The fare back to the airport was 80 zlotys, very reasonable and avoiding all the hassle of using the bus or the train. After that, all went smoothly: the flight arrived early back in Manchester and we were back home by four o’clock.
For many people of our generation, before the fall of the iron curtain, Poland was not seriously considered as a holiday destination: it had too many associations of post war communist drabness; an authoritarian country with nothing special to see. That might or might not have been true then; it’s certainly not true today. Krakow, which escaped devastation during the Second World War, is a vibrant and charming city with a rich history. We’re certainly glad that we have been there.