The clocks have gone back,and the days are getting darker and colder. Yes, this can be a little depressing, but when you visit some of the most amazing places around the world around this time of year, you get to see them in a whole new light.
Last November I visited Krakow in Poland with friends. Royal capital of the country for more than 500 years, Krakow is stuffed with history, and amazing architecture. I spent a leisurely three days walking around the beautiful city which is also very affordable!
The Main Square (Rynek Glowny) is the largest medieval town square in Europe, covering 10 acres with a beautiful Cloth Hall in the middle. Cafes around the edge of the square, market stands and carriage rides give a real buzz, and offer a great way to pass an hour or two people watching. The ornate St. Mary’s Basilica offers an auditory treat as well – listen out for the trumpet signal that plays on the hour from the taller tower. The tune breaks off mid-stream, to commemorate the famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city.
Put aside some time to walk around the city – it is a very easy place to access on foot (even in November when I visited), and you see some real gems tucked away around corners.
Another great visit is Wawel Royal Castle. Built in the 14th century, the labrinyth of castle buildings contain a wealth of art and treasures to be seen. Wander through the streets back to the Main Square to see a great variety of independent shops, restaurants and cafes. If you are a fan of hot chocolate, stop by Slodki Wentzl on the main square. This little cafe for coffee and cakes offers what I believe to be the world’s greatest hot chocolate – so thick you have to spoon it out of the mug!
Looking for an authentic Polish meal? Klub Krakowska Koliba not far from the centre may not look like the most glamorous eatery, but the menu is full of tempting, hearty dishes such as goulash and dumplings and it is very affordable.
If you are looking for presents to take home, the Cloth Hall contains a great market of little stalls selling amber, carvings and other souvenirs. Browsing here is a great way to pass a little time!
Don’t forget though that Krakow is also surrounded by other amazing sights that are worth treading a little further afield for.
One not to miss is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. One of the oldest salt mines in Europe, this site has a well deserved place on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. Although mining salt does not take place any more, a full team of miners are still employed to keep the routes and corridors in full working order for visitors.
Around a half an hour bus ride outside of Krakow town centre, a brilliant guided tour takes you 135 metres underground (where it is surprisingly warm!) Get ready for your jaw to drop as you see the the incredible Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, with the floor, walls, murals and statues all carved out of salt. Do note though that to enter the mine you are required to walk down a staircase of more than 350 steps, so consider this if steps are not the easiest for you.
The tour takes a couple of hours all in all, but you will not be disappointed. You will be led down long corridors into rooms full of stalagmite and stalagtites, intricately carved salt chandeliers and statues, undeground lakes and grottos, and you are even offered the chance to lick the wall (just to confirm that they are telling you the truth it is made of salt!)
There is even a health spa, ideal for those with respiratory problems. This offers unique micro-climate with an air free of pollution and allergens, and rich in micronutrients.
There are some brilliant facts about the mine here.
While it might not be for everyone, on my visit to Poland I was compelled to see Auschwitz Concentration Camp, a network of camps located around two hours outside of Krakow built by the Nazis during World War 2. While we may all know a little of the atrocities that took place there, it is not until you visit the camps for yourself, walk through the gas chambers, see thousands of pairs of shoes, suitcases and even human hair that the full scale of what happened there hits you. The free guided tours take place in a variety of languages at regular intervals, and are very informative and respectful of the history. Something that really struck me was that rather than have to raise their voice like on normal guided tours, everyone is equipped with headphones and a reciever pack while the guide speaks quietly into a microphone, as a mark of respect.
The tours start at the first camp, former Polish army barracks turned concentration camp Auschwitz I which was mainly filled with political prisoners. You are then taken by coach down the road to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the infamous camp that brought carriage loads of people to their deaths by train. The size of the camp is over-whelming.
More than a million people visit the sites each year, and while I felt incredibly sad at the end, my final word would be if you can visit, you should. It is something that everyone should see.
My top tips for Krakow
- Staying centrally in Krakow need not be expensive. I cannot recommend our accomodation enough. We stayed at the Venetian House Aparthotel right on the the Main Square. A series of fully equipped self-catering apartments, these are clean, fresh and modern with brilliant views. Try and get one of the penthouse apartments which even come with walk in wardrobes! When I stayed in November 2011, these came at the very reasonable price of £50 a night for an apartment that sleeps four.
- Rather than booking an expensive organised tour to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, catch a bus from the Bus Centre. It only costs a few pounds, and you can travel in comfort by coach/mini bus from door to door. Stop by a visitor information centre for more advice on how to do this
- Before you leave Wieliczka Salt Mine, take the chance to eat in its underground cafe – affordable food, and a great chance to say you have eaten in one of the world’s deepest restaurants!
- Krakow offers brilliant night life with its jazz bars and specialist vodka. The best of my visit? Harris Piano Jazz Bar on the Main Square. Small and intimate, this great venue is always full to the brim, with an amazing vibe, brilliant live music and only a small cover charge. Although worth a visit is U Muniaka Jazz Bar, a legendary club located in a cosy 14th century cellar.
- And finally, if you are anything like me, stay clear of the ‘Bison Grass’ vodka- not a great move!