written by: Fabio Brunello
I will take you to the discovery of Krakow and its region Lesser Poland (Małopolska).
Our trip lasted six days, you can probably see the main areas even in less time, but we preferred to give the right amount of space to visit and rest, to fully enjoy our holiday.
The order of the chapters is not chronological, but they are grouped by topic.
Krakow is a city of around 700 thousand inhabitants, which has always been the beating heart of Polish culture, of which it was also the capital in the first 500 years of the last millennium.
All the main monuments are located in the Old City, enclosed within a ring park, which replaces the ancient city walls. The city is historically mercantile and the main square hosts – in its centre – the covered fabric market – Sukiennice (now replaced by souvenir stalls). Around it, there are stately buildings and many churches. The churches themselves, over 200 in the city, are among the most significant monuments, underlining the strong Catholic religiosity of the population. I don’t suggest one in particular, the beauty lies precisely in observing the different styles and appreciating their details.
The castle, the Royal Wawel complex, stands on a small hill: more than a classical fortification, it is a set of heterogeneous monuments, including the cathedral which also contains the funerary crypt of the Polish royals.
I highly recommend a guided tour of the city: we did it in Italian with the friendly and well-prepared Antonio da Foggia, as a free walking tour.
We liked Krakow a lot, a real gem, full of greenery, with an excellent public transport network and very pleasant to walk around.
Wort to know
- The Historic Centre of Krakow was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. “The Historic Centre of Kraków, the former capital of Poland, is situated at the foot of the Royal Wawel Castle. The 13th-century merchants’ town has Europe’s largest market square and numerous historical houses, palaces and churches with their magnificent interiors. Further evidence of the town’s fascinating history is provided by the remnants of the 14th-century fortifications and the medieval site of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues in the southern part of town, Jagellonian University and the Gothic cathedral where the kings of Poland were buried”. More you can find on UNESCO Krakow.
For many centuries Krakow had a significant Jewish minority, amounting to approximately 15-20% of the population. Historically, the Jewish quarter is Kazimierz, once an independent city, now part of Krakow for about a century. There you can find synagogues, the Jewish cemetery, cultural centres, and some kosher restaurants. The Jewish population is now small, less than a thousand people, but before the Second World War, there were over 60 thousand.
The arrival of the Nazis in 1939 led to significant restrictions for the Jews until they were forced to move across the Vistula River to an area designated as their ghetto. Nothing remains of it, except a memorial square, with many statues of chairs placed as a reminder of the few objects that people carried with them.
The Jewish population was almost fully eliminated, killed in various raids, in hardship or deported to nearby concentration camps.
For cinephiles, Krakow is also the city of Schindler’s List, so a visit to Oskar Schindler’s factory next door is a must. The factory is used as a war museum, but vestiges of the original factory remain, such as the offices of Schindler and his right-hand man Izaak Stern, as well as some pots and pans produced.
The places of remembrance of the Holocaust are a fundamental part of our journey.
The visit to Auschwitz is always with a guide, consisting of a first part in Auschwitz I, and then the transfer to Auschwitz II Birkenau, a few kilometres away. The third main section of the camp, Monowitz, no longer exists.
Auschwitz I – consists of two dozen brick barracks; some of them can be visited and you can find the famous piles of glasses, suitcases and hair taken from Jews and other prisoners. The final part, with the gas chamber and crematoria, requires a necessary silence, thinking of the thousands of people killed daily, between inhuman suffering and continuous deception, carried out by the efficient Nazi death factory.
Even with few ruins left, Birkenau is even more shocking. The immensity of the spaces, of the hundreds of meters of railway yard, give only a vague idea of what that hell on earth was like.
Worth to know:
- Auschwitz Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945) has been listed on UNESCO World Heritage page in 1979. ”The fortified walls, barbed wire, platforms, barracks, gallows, gas chambers and cremation ovens show the conditions within which the Nazi genocide took place in the former concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest in the Third Reich. According to historical investigations, 1.5 million people, among them a great number of Jews, were systematically starved, tortured and murdered in this camp, the symbol of humanity’s cruelty to its fellow human beings in the 20th century”. More you can find on UNESCO Auschwitz Birkenau
Pope – John Paul II
Hard to believe, but the same land that saw those horrors was also the birthplace of Saint John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla.
The veneration of the Polish Pope is widespread throughout the area, with many statues, streets and squares dedicated to him.
However, the impact that John Paul II had on Poland was decidedly significant, it was probably the lock that opened the door to the hope of finally being able to free itself from the communist yoke.
We visited his birthplace in Wadowice, a town an hour from Krakow, now transformed into a beautiful museum dedicated to him.
In a peripheral area of Krakow, in Łagiewniki, there is the basilica dedicated to the Holy Father, decorated with modern mosaics, where you can see the cassock still bloody after Ali Agca’s attack. At this church, there is another museum of John Paul II.
Pope Wojtyla was a great mountain lover and this leads us to write about the mountains, a trip out of town about two hours from Krakow.
Zakopane and Tatra Mountains
The Tatra Mountains are the northernmost part of the Carpathians, with peaks reaching over two thousand meters.
The landscapes are truly enchanting, and our walks were very pleasant: well signposted, beautiful views, a joy for the eyes and the spirit.
Our starting point is Zakopane, the most renowned mountain resort in Poland; in the evening, walking along the central street is remarkable, it feels like being in a trendy location in the Alps!
Many thermal springs dot the area and we enjoyed one afternoon at the Terma Bania, a beautiful complex suitable for adults and children, where you can have fun on the slides, or relax in the open air sipping a glass of vodka, warmed by the water at 36 degrees of the thermal establishment.
Worth to know
- Terma Bania consists of indoor and outdoor recreational pools, which are filled with geothermal water at a temperature of 34 – 38°C. The water at Terma Bania is acquired from a depth of 2500 meters and its starting temperature is 78°C. After removing some of its heat, it ends up in the pools while preserving its precious microelements. More you can read on the Terma Bania.pl, for tickets, check Terma Bania – buy a ticket page.
I have been hearing about the salt mines near Krakow for years and I can confirm that they are worth visiting.
The Wieliczka complex is on the outskirts of Krakow and consists of over 300km of tunnels, dug on nine levels at a depth of over 150 meters underground. Our guided tour (mandatory) takes place over a route of approximately 3 km and descends to approximately 100 meters of depth. The mines were a source of great wealth for the area and were exploited for about a thousand years, until a few decades ago.
The beauty of the place, as well as the maze of passages with a fascinating history, also comes from the presence of many statues and decorations, engraved directly on the rock salt. There are many chapels, of which the main one is a church dedicated to St Kinga, over 30 meters high and 50 meters long, with high reliefs of fine workmanship.
Worth to know
- Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines were listed on the UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. You can find the below description: “The deposit of rock salt in Wieliczka and Bochnia has been mined since the 13th century. This major industrial undertaking has royal status and is the oldest of its type in Europe. The site is a serial property consisting of the Wieliczka and Bochnia salt mines and Wieliczka Saltworks Castle. The Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines illustrate the historic stages of the development of mining techniques in Europe from the 13th to the 20th centuries: both mines have hundreds of kilometres of galleries with works of art, underground chapels and statues sculpted in the salt, making a fascinating pilgrimage into the past”. More to read on UNESCO Wieliczka.
- More about visiting Wieliczka or buying tickets on-line, you can read on wieliczka-saltmine.com and on wieliczka-saltmine.com /tickets
Finally, here is the list of my favorite dishes tasted during the trip:
- Pierogi: I’m a big fan of these dumplings – steamed or pan-fried – with various fillings. The most popular is “ruskie pierogi” (Russian), with potatoes and cheese
- Zapiekanki: large bruschetta (about half a baguette long) with cheese and mushrooms, to which you can add cured meats and other garnishes
- Krówki: Polish fudge, there are so many varieties, definitely my favourite candy!
- Kremówki cream: cream cookie dessert, which became famous for being the Pope’s favourite and was therefore renamed “Papal Cream Cake”.
- Bigos: cabbage and cabbage stew with pieces of sausage, sometimes served inside a loaf of bread
- Kotlet: the classic breaded cutlet, we are still in an area that was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire! Another classic of the same origin, goulash, in a version similar more to the Italian stew than to the Hungarian goulash soup
- Zupa grzybowa (mushroom soup): Poles are great mushroom hunters and there are many dishes with this woodland delicacy
Thank you for reading and I hope I have sparked your desire to visit this part of Poland, leaving you as enchanted as we were.