Kraków: August 28-31

My Airbnb was perfectly located in Kraków’s Stare Miasto, or Old Town, a two-minute walk from Market Square and the iconic Gothic St Mary’s Basilica.

Market Square with St Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall

The square was full of tourists but not nearly as packed as other cities like Prague or Vienna. I had a snack and a glass of wine before joining an Old Town tour in the late afternoon. It was a large group with a fair number of British tourists, some of whom were drunk. We visited the main sites around the square and walked through Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364 by King Casimir II the Great. There’s a famous scene in the Polish film Katyń in which an SS general informs the faculty that the university is to be closed indefinitely after which many professors are arrested and deported to German concentration camps. The other famous movie filmed in Kraków is Schindler’s List.

Kraków dates back to the 7th century and was the capital of Poland until 1596. Interestingly, it was also the seat of the German General Government from 1939 to 1944 under Dr Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor General. Frank ruled from the famous Wawel Castle, on the Vistula River. Most readers are aware that the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was built in a western suburb, which has become a major, if depressing, tourist destination.

Kraków, like Prague, wasn’t destroyed in either of the world wars, so many ancient churches and castles are still intact and in pristine condition. I spent a few weeks in Prague in September 2001 and feel that Kraków is just as impressive.

I decided to eat dinner at the cafe in my building and had a nice chat with the bartender about Kraków who offered suggestions for offbeat destinations, so I decided that I’d visit the salt mines and Nova Huta towards the end of my visit on his recommendation.

After a great night’s sleep, I had some coffee and yogurt in the apartment and took a long walk through Old Town to pick up a rental bike. The woman at the shop was helpful and gave me a cycling map. I also rented an iPhone holder so I could follow my route without trying to look at the map. I headed out through the city and suburbs towards Auschwitz, although I didn’t visit since I didn’t have reservations and wasn’t sure what to do with the rental bike. The bike lanes were well marked and I was surprised by the size of Kraków outside of the historic core. There were also a number of parks. After my ride out to the western suburbs, I headed back along the bike trail to view Wawel Castle and the former Jewish quarter. The castle was magnificent and contained its own cathedral and massive ramparts. The Vistula is broad and makes for a beautiful riverfront ride or walk.

The ghetto was interesting, although perhaps to the chagrin of its survivors it is undergoing gentrification and is becoming a hip neighborhood. From my bike I saw quite elderly tour groups walking through the ghetto neighborhoods. It was a lachrymose scene on a beautiful sun-filled day. I drove by the Schindler Factory but the line was long and I was eager to try out a hip outdoor restaurant nearby for a late lunch.

I booked a spot on the Kraków Dark History evening walking tour that night, which was excellent. The atmospheric city center takes on an even more impressive aspect when viewed at night. Our guide showed us where famous murders and other scandals had occurred over the centuries and pointed out haunted buildings and cemeteries.

The next morning I booked a tour of the Wieliczka salt mines, an hour outside of Kraków. Our guide drove us out in a Mercedes Sprinter which was quite comfortable. The mine is immense and was worked for centuries. It even contains a basilica and dormitories. The air was quite cool and refreshing. The full tour lasted almost three hours and involved a significant amount of stair-climbing, making for a good cardio workout.

That night I treated myself to dinner at Pod Aniolami in Old Town, which was billed as traditional Polish cuisine with a French flair. It wasn’t that busy, so I felt like a mob boss sitting at an elegant table with my own private waiter. The food was superb as was the Burgundy. My waiter said that it’s packed during the tourist season. I went for a 5k walk around Old Town afterwards before heading back to the Airbnb for the night.

The next morning I found a hip breakfast spot on the other side of Old Town that served excellent coffee and food. After breakfast, I hailed a taxi to take me out to Nova Huta, the master-planned Communist city on the eastern edge of Kraków.

After the Communists solidified their power in 1948, they turned Poland into a totalitarian police state. The new regime looked on Kraków with suspicion, given the city’s long bourgeois past and palpable distaste for communism. In many ways, the new rulers represented the formerly rejected part of the population, so they were seething with resentment against traditional society and some felt that they built the vast Socialist Realist suburb to introduce a proletarian aspect to this genteel city.

Nova Huta means New Steelworks in Polish and was the site of the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks as well as a giant cigarette factory. Most of its 50,000 residents were brought in from other parts of rural Poland, so they held no allegiance to Kraków. I actually find the Stalinist architectural style impressive, if a bit dehumanizing. Any fan of this style will be in heaven in Nova Huta, with its broad boulevards and massive housing blocks.

The steelworks have long been dismantled and Nova Huta is becoming a gentrified area for young professionals, although in the 1990’s it was a dangerous drug-infested slum.

After checking out, I grabbed an Uber to the airport for my late afternoon flight to Gdánsk. My young driver told me that he was studying computer science and had a Ukrainian girlfriend, stating that Polish girls were snobby. I chuckled at that. He told me that over 600,000 Ukrainians were living in Poland in 2018 and that they were smarter and more ambitious than his fellow Poles. Of course now there are almost two million Ukrainians living in Poland because of the war. The Ukrainians assimilate more easily to Polish culture than other immigrants since they are fellow Slavs and speak a somewhat similar tongue, although the alphabet is different. One always gains interesting perspectives from drivers!

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