Three Things I Love About Kraków
Have you ever been somewhere for the very first time, and yet felt like you were home? My memories of my first ever trip to Poland are vague to say the least; it was for a wedding. I remember snowy covered mountains and dancing the night away. Walks into (what seemed like) the wilderness, and lots of friendly faces. I was a small child, I don't remember the name of the town.
I bet you've probably never considered visiting Poland. It's not usually the first European country on everybody's lips. For me, there was never a question about it. Polska has always in my heart. My great-grandfather was Polish; a Second World War veteran who escaped from his invaded town to fight for the British army, but by the time it was over he was wounded and he had fallen in love with a Scottish nurse. In Aberlady, he taught my grandmother to make Pierogies and a myriad of Polish swear words.
Although I'd only ever been there once, it was this history that drew me back to Poland. I couldn't speak Polish, I'd never lived there, and yet I felt a stronger connection to it than anywhere else in the world. When I finally had the chance to re-visit it this summer, I discovered Kraków, a city full of surprises and delight. It's that enchanting charm that will keep drawing me back again, and again.
WHO WILL BUY?
In the centre of Kraków, you're very rarely any further than a street away from the nearest tourist information shop. Whilst they can be helpful, nonetheless, the best of Kraków remains with its locals. Whilst I adored our tour guide at the salt mines, I found it unnecessary and disruptive when we visited Auschwitz. Know when local help is needed, and when it might be best to sit back and observe.
Which brings me on to my first favourite thing about Kraków; the people. Rather than visiting the organised events and department stores, it was far more interesting to throw yourself in the centre of things, to taste what was on offer. It isn't hard- even on the coldest and rainiest day you'll find people sitting outside in the main square. Every single restaurant and cafe had colourful blankets draped over the outdoor seats; as someone who is continuously cold, I'm almost certain this is a policy cities should begin to adopt everywhere.
Everything from the Krusczyki stalls to the local vodka tasting shop is delectable. In reference to the latter, I recommend the hazelnut. Whether you're enjoying the most delicious cakes in the whole of Europe at Milano (trust me, you won't be able to resist repeat visits), or grilled Sheep cheese on the other side of the square, you'll probably notice a delightful variety of street performers. Musicians, women selling roses and children selling drawings. Don't forget the cloth hall; if you look closely enough, there's some real treasures to be found. Mine was a hand-carved amber locket. The pottery shops are breathtaking too.
If you want to explore the city, join a free walking tour, you'll make friends. Or hop on a horse and carriage fit for a fairytale. There's plenty to see, do it in style!
Another thing you might notice about Kraków is the apparent abundance of golf carts. literally. everywhere. They'll take you around whatever part of the city you want, usually at an extortionate price. The guides are thorough though, and heartwarmingly friendly. Most of the city can honestly be done on foot, but the reels of history behind Kazimierz, or the 'Jewish Quarter' are so remarkable that I would recommend a guided tour whole-heartedly.
So the second thing I love about Krakow? It's this place. Far away from the grandeur of the Old Town, Kazimierz is disarmingly captivating. It's an area where you should be on full alert, because it's not just the quarter as a whole, but the little details that make it so fascinating. Hostels with names like 'Goodbye, Lenin!' and enchantingly artistic graffiti scattered around the walls.
Szeroka Street, which is really a little square, represents the heart of the whole district and has been around since the 14th century. Here you'll find wonderful restaurants; possibly the best food in Kraków, and the thickest hot chocolate in the whole world. Shop signs from the 1940s still hang above the doorways, and although the place is brimming with life, it's almost like stepping back in time. There are also an abundance of beautifully Gothic churches, and historic Synagogues, as well as spine tingling monuments remembering the Holocaust; remnants of the old Ghetto walls and Schindler's Factory.
If you're around in July, don't miss the Jewish Culture Festival there. If you're into vintage too, there's also a daily market that sells the most amazing wonders.
THE BUGLER OF ST MARY'S
Now though, it's time for my favourite thing about Kraków. It's small, but this little practise enchanted me over and over again. We didn't know what was going on at first; every hour, when the bells of St. Mary's Church struck, a sound would emerge from the top of the tower and dance around the square.
The Hejnał Mariaki; a bugler opens a window and plays the Kraków anthem. You could see the shine of his trumpet, maybe the wave of his hand before he disappears again, but that was all. It's so popular that the noon song is played on radios all around Poland. I was fascinated. I think Victor Hugo would be too. Back to my great-grandfather, who was injured at the Battle of Monte Cassino, he would have also heard the Hejnał playing when the Polish announced the allied victory.
I included a fairly shaky video above, but it doesn't do nearly enough justice to the magic of it all. If you're as captivated as I was, don't forget to go inside the church too; it's the most beautiful I've ever seen. Colourful, and full of life. Music is an integral part of the charm of Kraków; if you have a spare evening spend it listening to a Chopin concert in one of the hotels - they're on every night- or a Klemzer band in the middle of Kazimierz whilst you're dining.
Kraków is an exquisitely beautiful city. The Old Town encircles the main square; there's very little traffic in the centre, instead you'll find students riding bicycles and monks travelling by foot. Despite being so popular, it remains a quiet city and one that feels incredibly safe. Unspoiled by the arms of industrialisation, the centre of Kraków is absolutely bursting with history.
A small walk out of the Old Town tells a different story, but an important history nonetheless. The outskirts of Kraków, whilst still wonderful, bear the marks of Communism and the Holocaust. A younger generation lives here and it remains a thriving centre of Polish and Jewish culture. The contrast between the two areas just adds to the magic. I'm yet to encounter an unfriendly face there. Although it's only been a few months since Summer, I miss it, and I can't wait to go back.
And remember, whilst you're out there adventuring and discovering the city, as they say in Poland- szukajcie, a znajdziecie. Seek and you shall find.