IT’S –5°C when I arrive in Krakow’s medieval market square, the largest of its kind in Europe, dating back to the 13th century.
Distinctly old-worldly, the impressive 10-acre main square, Rynek Glowny, features the 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall, known as Sukiennice. It dominates the square, which contains the splendid 14th-century Gothic Basilica of the Virgin Mary and the small church of St Adalbert’s, which is older than the square itself.
Breathtaking in winter, snow falls around the turreted arcades of the Cloth Hall, which contains souvenir shops. Stalls sell pierogi, a Polish speciality – little dumplings filled with meat, vegetables or cheese. Other stalls sell mead, fur hats, woolly socks and Baltic amber. Shops and cafés inhabit the ground floors of the square’s townhouses. As a winter sun sets against the elegant, historical, pastel-coloured buildings, I no longer feel overdressed in my enormous fur coat and hat, a necessity during Krakow’s bitter winter months.
One of central Europe’s least-known treasures, Krakow, the former capital of Poland, is fast becoming a popular destination. The city was spared the destruction that befell Warsaw, and remains the cultural and intellectual heart of Poland. For instance, Collegium Maius, where Copernicus studied astronomy, still stands and houses Chopin’s piano among its treasures.
As the city becomes a playground for tourists, the residential population of Krakow’s old town has fallen from 70,000 in 2000 to just under 40,000 in 2012. Cafés and bars are in abundance, with many seemingly unaware of how cool they are. Food and drink is very cheap – a two-course meal with drinks for two people costs, on average, 50 to 100 zlotys (£10 to £20).
In the main square, for coffee and cakes try Café Gchanowska, a classy place decorated in wood panelling and oil paintings. At the upmarket (but cheap) Wesele restaurant, bag a window seat and enjoy a steaming bowl of shockingly purple beetroot soup with dumplings or the traditional Polish soup of fermented rye with sausages and quails eggs served in a wonderful rustic bread bowl for 14 to 17 zloty (about £3).
Several Krakow cafés specialise in pierogi. At Zapiecek, a small, rustic establishment, you will get a quick but very tasty lunch. If you want cheap and cheerful, head for Bar Smak, a tiny restaurant a five-minute walk from the main square and popular with locals., Here a simple but delicious dinner of pork escalopes, creamed potatoes, sauerkraut and noodle soup can be had for under a fiver, including coffee.
Karmello Chocolatiers, off the main square, is worth visiting: you can pick up a box of hand-selected colourful chocolates in every flavour imaginable for only 22 zloty (about £4).
These days, Krakow’s liveliest drinking dens are packed into the cobblestone streets of Kazimierz, the historical Jewish quarter and the city’s most bohemian area. Enjoy a glass of the local Okocim or Zywiec beer, or a shot of Polish vodka, at one of the many bars on Plac Nowa, the district’s main square. Stroll down Szeroka Street, a delightful area of colourful buildings filled with kitsch kosher restaurants.
Café Mlynek, serving only vegetarian food, is eclectic and bohemian with antiquated sewing machines for tables and old typewriters and local art adorning the walls. At first glance, the Alchemist looks like a dingy bar to be wary of. But the interior of this candlelit lair – once a butcher’s shop – with old sepia portraits hanging up, glass beakers strung from the ceiling and a stuffed crocodile hovering above the bar, is truly atmospheric and eerie. An old wardrobe leads to more rooms, recreating the original through-the-cupboard hiding places of the city’s less happy times.
Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz restaurant and bar, fronted by weathered window shutters, serves both Polish and Jewish cuisine. An old lace wedding dress hangs on the wall along with military uniforms and a variety of other quirky artefacts.
For an evening of traditional Klezmer concert music – originating from the Eastern European ghettos – head for Hotel Rubinstein, named after Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics magnate, who was born in Kazimierz and became the first self-made female millionaire.
One of the biggest attractions in Krakow is also probably the most sobering. The former enamel factory belonging Oskar Schindler, which was portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film Schindler’s List, opened in June 2010 as a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. The museum’s impressive permanent exhibition Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945 traces life and death in the city from the outbreak of the Second World War through the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto, with exhibits that are both informative and unforgettably moving.
Restored largely in response to interest ignited by Spielberg’s film, Kazimierz was home to Krakow’s Jewish population until the Second World War and has now become trendy. Only the six silent synagogues bear witness to the past – the atmosphere around them is beautifully melancholic. The Galicia Museum is an excellent starting point for a visit to the area.
Wawel Castle, only a five-minute walk from the main square, served as a royal residence and is the site where the country’s rulers governed Poland for five centuries (1038-1596). This castle is a symbol of the independent Polish state and today contains a priceless collection of 16th-century Flemish tapestries, considered to be one of the largest in the world. The stunning Renaissance arcaded courtyard is the largest in Europe.
A visit to the pharmacy museum is an offbeat experience. Located just off the main square, it spans over five floors and retains its original Gothic cellars, stunning Renaissance ceilings and even a 19th-century fresco.
The history of pharmacy throughout the middle ages and up to modern times is featured through the 22,000 objects on display – including old laboratory equipment, rare books, glassware and pharmaceutical instruments. Its one of the few museums of its kind in the world, and the largest in Europe.
For authentic souvenirs, head for the city’s flea markets. The Saturday market at Plac Nowy sells mostly secondhand clothes and a range of bric-a-brac. Fur is on sale in abundance too, but prices are on a par with London, so don’t expect to pick up a bargain.
On Sundays, head to the flea market at Plac Targowy Unitarg, north-east of the Jewish quarter and a ten-minute walk from the main square. Famed as the biggest and best flea market in Krakow, it is stocked with antiques, religious souvenirs, medals, war memorabilia and pretty much anything you can dream of at bargain prices. If you want to bring back an authentic piece of Polish history, visit Hala Targowa on a Sunday morning.
Krakow retains an authenticity that is becoming hard to find in other cities. Yes, there are tourists, but it still has all the mystery and atmosphere of a bygone era.
Three days was only enough time to glimpse the history that abounds in the squares and side streets of this ancient medieval city.