We travelled by train from Warsaw to Krakow which took approximately four hours. We were boxed-in in a carriage of 8 people, knee to knee, hip to hip.
The countryside on the trip south was magnificent, snow still lay against hedges, but a bit of green was starting to peek through. Houses in Poland look exactly as children draw them, perfect, picturesque rectangles with peaked roofs a door in the middle and windows on either side!
The minute we arrived in Krakow, we could feel the atmosphere buzzing. Everyone (literally) was out and about enjoying the sunshine – the temperature was around 15 degrees. The city is built surrounding the ‘Old Town’ which is ringed by a lovely park, with tree-lined pathways. Within the park, people were sitting on benches, walking their dogs, rollerblading, cycling or buying sweet treats from local sellers – everywhere we walked, people were celebrating the afternoon sun.
Krakow is described as Warsaw’s sexy sister, and it is easy to see why. Her features are softer, the sun feels warmer – people smile more here, perhaps they have more reason to. Even the river Vistula, the same river that flows through Warsaw, is lined with grassy banks, with swans bobbing on a gentle current – In Warsaw the river rages against muddy banks, uninviting and angry even.
The town square is a wonderful place to while away the afternoon. We enjoyed a sunny Sunday afternoon in one of the many cafés lining its boundary walls. Jazz players strolled past us as we sipped our beers, filling the air with music and making us think ‘this is what it’s all about’. Restaurants are plentiful and the food is hearty and delicious. We were spoilt for choice in this wonderful place, although I admit, one night we did eat pizza (it was touted as the best pizza in town, who could resist?).
While in Krakow, we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which was an incredible experience. The mine is approximately 330metres deep and has shafts that total around 280kms in length. Most impressive was the large underground cathedral, the biggest underground cathedral in the world; carved entirely out of the salt, down to the floor ‘tiles’ and an impressive replica of ‘The Last Supper’. The mine has been in use since the 13th century, and excavation of the salt stopped as recently as 1996 – although the mine is still used for evaporative salt production. The tour through the mine took approximately 3 hours, it was very informative and something quite extraordinary to witness. You are allowed to lick the wall at any time – and yes, they are salty!
While on our way to the salt mine, we were nabbed by undercover transit police for not validating our tickets. They were very friendly about it, but wouldn’t listen to our excuses. As we didn’t have a permanent place of residence we were told we would have to pay our fine immediately (120 zloty each – approximately $30). We were escorted off the bus (by all three officers) at the salt mine and shown to the nearest atm. I eventually managed to reduce the fine from 240 zloty to just 120 for both of us, but we were still annoyed with ourselves for the slip-up, or perhaps more annoyed that we had been caught!
Of course, the main reason for our visit to Krakow was to visit the concentration camps… This is covered in a separate post.
Time in Krakow: 3 nights
The best things about Krakow:
- The atmosphere: there are people walking about, relaxing in cafés and parks all day every day, everyone just seems to really be making the most out of each day.
- The old town square – has a lovely atmosphere, often with live music.
- The concentration camps – I don’t say this is a ‘good thing’, however, if you go to Krakow, visiting the camps is highly recommended.
- Despite celebrating its 750th birthday in 2007 – early settlements in the area date back to the paleolithic age.
- Krakow has 750,000 inhabitants and is visited by 7 million tourists a year.
- It served as the capital of Poland for over 500 years until 1596.
- Krakow architecture remained virtually untouched by WWII.
- The old town was named a UNESCO heritage site in 1978.
- Do not jaywalk in Poland, you will be fined if seen (even as an ‘innocent’ tourist).
- Remember to validate your ticket when you get on the tram/bus – undercover ticket inspectors patrol regularly and are unforgiving. Trust me, we learnt the hard way!
- We found the “In your pocket” tourist guide for Krakow very useful, we downloaded ours online, as we didn’t find a tourist info spot while there. It gives you the pronunciations for basic words, details on tipping as well as useful maps, eating options and sightseeing info.
- Food portions are enormous, quite often a plate of traditional Polish food can feed two!
- Sometimes the language barrier can be an issue, it is handy to have a very basic repertoire of a few common words, such as thank you, hello, please etc. The locals always seemed happier to help when our sign-language included a few words in their language too (and a smile!).