Monday, March 25, 2013

KRAKOW, INSIDE OUT

executive summary by darmansjah

Poland’s royal capital for 500 years, Krakow is a treasure trove of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. But this is no museum city – user our guide to find what’s hidden along its snowy streets, from a communist-era poster gallery to a cosy cake and coffee shop.

Getting there; with Lufthansa (Lufthansa.com), fly into Frankfurt before connecting to Krakow’s Joh Paul II International airport.

Getting around; Krakow’s one-way system baffles even native Poles, so car hire is inadvisable. The centre is small enough to walk around, but here’s also an efficient network of buses and trams. Buy tickets (all US$0.80) from the kiosks dotted around town.

Further reading; Lonely planet’s Krakow encounter (US$12.99) is perfect for short breaks David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence has a poignant description of a visit to Auschwitz.

‘No invader has ever conquered the heart of Poland.” James A Michener, novelist

There’s plenty of old world glamour to be found at Hotel SASKI, which occupies a grand old mansion just off Rynek Glowny (from US$100; hotelsaski.com.pl)

Situated just inside the city walls opposite St Florian’s Gate, Hotel POLSKI offers comfortable, eclectically furnished rooms. There’s a small café on the ground floor and staff are helpful (from US$120; podorlem.com.pl).

Elegant Hotel STARY is a renovated, 15th-century merchant’s house, including three luxury suites featuring original frescoes. Try the restaurant’s winter menu, featuring local forest fruits (from US$260; hotelstary.com).

Except for St Mary’s Basilica and Wawel Cathedral, Krakow’s historic churches can all be visited for free. The catacombs of ST CASIMIR’S CHURCH contain 1,000 mummified bodies dating back to 1667 (ul Reformacka 4).

Visit the historic CLOTH HALL at Rynek Glowny, also home to The Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art (Rynek Glowny 1).

Explore in one of the many HORSE-DRAWN CARRIAGES, which line up at the northern end of Rynek Glowny and on ul Grodzka  (US$58 per half hour).

With Jewish dishes such as czulent (bean casserole with beef and vegetables), DAWNO TEMU NA KAZIMIERZU is a blast from the past, with sewing machines on the tables and old shop sings (mains from US$6; ul Szeroka 17).

Atmospheric MIOD MALINA  is a Krakow institution. Located in a 14th-century building, the décor is rustic and charming and there’s a wood-burning stove. Try the bold and tangy borscht – beetroot soup (mains from US$6; miodmalina.pl).

Named after a medieval merchant who hosted a grand feast for royals in 1364, WIERZYNEK RESTAURANT exudes historic opulence, but offers a modern Polish menu (mains from US$19; wierzynek.com.pl).

Browse for bargains at PLAC NOWY’s Saturday morning street market. For a restorative lunch try a zapiekanka, a Polish open sandwich (US$2.50).


Visit CUKIERNIA CICHOWSKI for cakes and chocs so pretty you’ll be reluctant to scoff them (ul Starowislna 21).

Pick up communist-era souvenirs at GALERIA PLAKATU, where you’ll find the very best of Polish poster art (from US$6; galeriaplakatu.com).
 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Krakow, inside out

A legacy of loss

St John's chapel, one of several underground chapels carved out in Wieliczka salt mine

executivesummary by darmansjah

A lonesome rabbi in a long black coat walks along Kazimierz's quiet streets bordered by brick walls paled pink by age. Founded in 1335 as an independent town, Kazimierz became home to Kraków's Jews after their expulsion from the main city in 1494. Today, it's imbued with an odd silence: a legacy of the extermination of the city's Jewish population under the Nazis. Before the war 60,000 Jews lived here; now, there are barely 200.

The 16th-century Remuh Synagogue (ul Szeroka 40; 00-48-12-429-5735) is the only active synagogue left in Kraków and its cemetery contains row upon row of tombstones inscribed in Hebrew, carefully restored after Nazi damage. Adam Libon, the synagogue's caretaker, tells me about his father, a 16-year-old Jew at the start of World War II - he was taken to three concentration camps before being rescued by factory owner Oskar Schindler, who took Jan to work in his Kraków enamelware factory. Jan survived, dying three years ago, aged 84. 'It is very sad that so many people had to leave here,' says Adam.

Pockets of traditional culture survive: across from the synagogue is Klezmer-Hois (ul Szeroka 6; klezmer.pl), a Jewish restaurant with lace tablecloths and sepia photographs of men with ringlets, who gaze down at us through the years.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

krakow, inside out

Once upon Wawel Hill

 Wawel Royal Castle rises imposingly

executive summary by darmansjah

Walking up the gentle snowcovered slope towards The Royal Castle, my breath a wisp of steam in the cold air, I am enveloped by the dream-like notion that I have been transplanted into a story by the Grimm Brothers. I almost expect to see a distressed maiden unwinding her long hair from one of the windows of the 
Gothic-era castle, with its onion-shaped domes and ochre-tiled roofs pressed against the winter sky.

Set at the southernmost tip of the Old Town, a limestone outcrop rising out of the cobbled streets and surrounded by the glistening waters of the Vistula River, it's easy to imagine fairytale royalty and mystical creatures in the grounds of Wawel Hill (wawel.krakow.pl). The castle has been the residence of Polish kings and queens for five centuries, and there's even a Dragon's Den - the damp cave beneath a line of turret fortifications is said to have housed a firebreathing beast that terrorised local residents in the city's early days. The ruler, Prince Krak, offered his daughter's hand in marriage to whoever could kill the dragon. Many died trying before a young cobbler struck upon a scheme to stuff a sheep with sulphur and leave it outside the animal's lair. When the dragon ate it, he became unbearably thirsty and went to the river to drink - and the water caused his stomach to swell until it exploded. The dragon died. And the cobbler? He and his princess lived happily ever after.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Krakow, inside out

EMBRACE THE COLD

Sample the salt of the earth

executive summary by darmansjah

There are no elevators going down into the Wieliczka Salt Mine (nine miles southeast of Kraków city centre; kopalnia.pl), no soothing mechanised whir to ease my journey into its cavernous depths. Instead, I walk down several hundred wooden steps that twist and turn inwards like an Escher print, burrowing 135m into the coolness of the earth. Inside lies an eerie subterranean world of labyrinthine passages, lakes and cavere sns. Although the temperature is kept at a constant 14-16°C, the draughts that whistle through the shafts, and the lack of natural light, make it feel much cooler.

The salt mine has been producing salt for more than 700 years, and dates back to an era when salt was as valuable a commodity as oil is today. Through the centuries, the salt miners have carved out chapels and religious statuettes as they work, many of which survive intact as an extraordinary testament to their ingenuity. The Chapel of The Blessed Kinga is a vast, echoing space lined with detailed carvings in the salt walls, including a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Intricate chandeliers hang from the ceilings, lighting up the gloom with crystals made from glittering shards of translucent rock salt.