Kraków

The last European weekend trip I did in 2006 was to Poland in early December, taking an extra day off to allow two days in Kraków before heading to the capital Warsaw. Kraków is a beautiful old city that thankfully mostly escaped serious damage in WW2. Since I went visitor numbers have increased by well over 50%, with a friend who visited recently commenting on how busy the place was over the summer. It was cold but peaceful when I was there, with welcome blue skies.

The obvious place to start is the prominent Wawel Royal Castle in the old town, which represents architectural styles of the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.

Neighbouring the castle is the unusual 14th century Wawel Cathedral with a real mixture of architecture styles for it’s various chapels.

The Cathedral tower was home to a suitably huge bell, and great views across the old town and a still Vistula River.

The heart of the old town is the Main Market Square, one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe. Landmarks around the square include the Cloth Hall, the 80m high 14th century St. Mary’s Basilica, and the Town Hall Tower. I’m not sure which church the interior is from, but it was eye catching.

I don’t think photography was allowed inside, but the Czartoryskich Museum was a must visit, in particular for Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite ‘The Lady with an Ermine’.

Only 20 minutes drive from the centre of Kraków is the fascinating Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the oldest operating salt mines in the world. Inside there are over 287km of passages and chambers, though the tour only covers a small fraction. There were recreations of how mining was carried out, some lovely chambers with reflective pools, and many salt sculptures, including a rather scary looking Pope John Paul II.

Finally I tried to make it to Auschwitz by train, which wasn’t very successful… At Trzebinia the train unexpectedly ended. I should probably have followed the rest of the passengers onto another train but had no idea where it was going. Instead I had an hour to wait, filled in part by wandering to the nearby Bazylika church. I finally made it to Auschwitz by about 1.45pm to find that the site shuts in winter at 2pm. I wandered around the outside as darkness fell, the sun sets at about 3.30pm in December, before returning to Kraków.

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