In early October we headed for vacation to Cracow in Poland – a city central in the history of the holocaust during world war 2. Naturally, these happening have put their marks on the history of the city, but Cracow is also rich in history that dates further back in time – telling a much happier story. Among other things, Cracow was for example the capital of Poland up until 1609 and is today the second largest city in the country.
Our flight with Norwegian Air Shuttle left from Gardermoen saturday morning and landed two hours later in a warm and sunny Cracow. At the airport we were greeted welcome by Wojciech Kulczykowski who was booked to be our guide for the next couple of days. Wojciech had previously guided some of our traveling companions and was hired back because of their previous experiences with him. After transfer from the airport we arrived at Andels hotel Cracow – a large and nice hotel just north of the old town (Stare Miasto). From here a short walk could take us to the city centre, and the distance was no longer than 20-25 minutes to the jewish quarter and the Wawel-castle further south.
We checked in at the hotel and immediately headed for the old town for lunch. On our way we stopped by the Barbakan (one of the best preserved fortresses in Europe), the Florian-gate with the remainings of the old city walls that once protected Cracow. In the middle age, Barbakan, the Florian-gate and the city wall were all connected and served as entrance and check-point for people entering the city.
From the Florian-gate, the shopping street Florianska stretches south ending up at St. Mary’s church on the main square. This church is one of the main tourist attractions in Cracow and in the whole of Poland. The church was built in the 14th century, representing gothic architecture. The church features two bell towers, the lower one was built during the renaissance and is the newest tower. From the highest one, a trumpet melody is played daily in memory of a famous trumpet player from the 13th century who died when playing to warn the citizens that Cracow was under attack. Inside, the church is very famous for its altar piece, featuring wooden carvings from Veit Stoss.
The market square itself is quite large (about 200×200 meters) and features lots of cafes, restaurants, stands and street sellers. In the middle of the square, the large renaissance building of Sukiennice lies. Since several hundred years ago this has been the major trading place in Cracow, and it seems so. The first floor of the hall is today occupied by museums, but the ground floor still consists of shops of different kinds. In the southern part of the market square lies a tower that is the last remainings of the old city hall. The hall itself was torn down in the 18th century due to severe decline.
We sat down near by the tower at a cosy restaurant and ordered food and beer 🙂 We had pierogis – some kind of dumplings filled with cheese and potatoes – a polish speciality.
The next morning we were picked up by Wojciech at our hotel for a trip to the Wieliczka salt mines. On our way there, we stopped to have a look at the highest point in Cracow – the Kopiec Krakusa – or mount Cracow. From here the view is splendid to all of Cracows suburbs and beyond. On a clear day you can see the Tatra mountains in the south, where the winter capital of Poland (Zakopane) lies. From the edge of the park that surrounds Kopiec Krakusa you can see the area of Liban Quarry where the scenes from the labour camp Płaszów in Steven Spielbergs movie “Schindlers liste” were shot. The real camp was located a few hundred meters south from the park and was the main labour camp of Cracow during world war 2. Wojciech explained the history very carefully, pointing out places and guided us through the area.
After leaving the Kopiec Krakusa we headed south to Wieliczka which lies about 10 km. south of Crakow. This small village is the home of the salt mines. The mines has been in continuous operation since the 12th century and they are one of the oldest mines of their kind in the whole world. In 1978 they were added to the first edition of the Unesco world site heritage list – among 17 other attractions. The mines consists of 9 levels and over 300 km. of tunnels and halls! We went for a guided tour on the tourist route, about 2 km. long. This route explained the history of mining through the centuries, we saw chapels, large halls, salt lakes and impressive wooden constructions put up to support the roof of the mine from collapsing. The tour lasted for 2-3 hours and was definitely worth the money.
A 125 meter long and super fast elevator took us back to the surface of the earth. In splendid sunshine and summer temperatures Wojciech drove us back to the main square of Cracow where we had lunch. The weather was really pleasing and above average in Cracow this time of the year.
After lunch we called Wojciech who took us for a guided city tour in an electric car/minivan. He explained a lot from the history of Cracow, the old town, Kazimierez and the Ghetto among other things. The histories from world war 2 was really heartbreaking to hear, and although we’d heard them before the impressions was much stronger with them beeing told at the places where it all happended – just 70-75 years ago… We stopped to take on impressions at the Szeroka (one of the squares in Kazimierez) and also at several other historical squares, places and shooting locations from the “Schindlers list”-movie. Last but not least we stopped at Oskar Schindlers factory in the Ghetto on the south bank of the river Wisla. Wojciech had a lot of knowledge to share, and he did it in a very throughoutly manner that made the city trip very interesting.
The schedule for our last day in Cracow was to pay the Wawel castle a visit. Situated at the north bank of Wisla, the castle lies on top of a small hill overlooking Cracow and the river – next to the Kazimierez part of town. We walked from our hotel throught the market square and followed the Grodzka street from there to the castle. Along this street we found a couple of interesting sights (Peter and Paulus-church and St. Andrews church). Wawel itself is a fairly large complex comprising several bulidings, squares and parks – the most inportant among them beeing the kings castle (unfortunately for us closed on mondays…) and the Wawel cathedral. The cathedral had served as coronation- and funeral site for polish kings and other important persons through several centuries. Close to the cathedral a bell tower (Sigismund) is located. A 13 ton iron bell from the 15th century is located on top of it! It’s in use only on special occations, and according to our guidebook it takes 12 men to operate the bell (to make it swing!). The stairs up in the tower were really narrow and we almost got stuck some places…
We went inside the cathedral and the tower, and had a walk around the whole complex to see everything from the outside. We also found time for a short break for beer and some snacks at a cafe in the surrounding park. Afterwards we headed for Kazimierz where we strolled through the streets and tried to take in as many impressions as possible in this very charming and historically important district of Cracow. The weather was still nice, although a bit more cloudy today.
For dinner we booked the resturant Pod Aniolami in the Grodzka-street. We all ordered grilled wild boar steak as this is very uncommon food i Norway. The meat tasted really delicious and the restaurant was intimate, cosy and rustical. Although surely not beeing the cheapest restaurant in Cracow, a visit comes highly recommended from us because of the excellent food.
The next morning Wojciech drove us to the airport for our flight back to Norway. Summarized, we felt that we’d seen the highlights of Cracow but we wouldn’t have had any problems filling another day with sights too. For example, a visit to the concentration camp Auschwitz is surely on many visitors lists, being situated just about an hours drive from Cracow. We also didn’t look deep into the sights, so there’s surely more to find at all attractions – we probably only scratched the surface of everything. Buy a good guidebook, contact Wojciech Kulczykowski who we can highly recommend as a guide and we’re sure you’ll get as much as possible out of your Cracow-trip 🙂