Thanks to driving through the night (it was only to 10PM, but felt much later now that the sun sets so much earlier), we were only a short drive from the Wieliczka Salt Mine. I’d visited before, and had mixed feeling about it, but Risa hadn’t and was interested in visiting. So, I dropped her off, and went about a day of chores – replacing the gas bottle, fixing the broken toilet and several other small bits and pieces.
She had a good time, but was exhausted by the time I picked her up, some hours later. I just remember a guide that was intent on giving us a hard time – don’t touch the salt, leave some for the next tourists. But, the main cathedral was stunning, and made me feel like I was in Lord of the Rings.
We found an amazing park that was only €3 per calendar day. It was still a short tram ride into town, but so were the other parks which were several times more expensive. We didn’t care that it was just a giant gravel car park, it was cheap, quiet and conveniently located.
I visited Krakow last year with my old work colleagues on a work funded vacation – yes, I know, terrible company. As it was a work related ‘bonding’ trip, partners weren’t invited, so this was all new for Risa, and I was excited to show the town to her. I was also interested to see how it would hold up after five-months of driving through beautiful towns in Europe.
It did. The very first view after crossing back through the Royal Gate was still evocative. It’s undeniably beautiful – however, I was shocked at the numbers of tourists here now. We’d visited in January, and hadn’t quite had the town to ourselves, but certainly had plenty of space to enjoy the sights.
The main street was now a slow moving stream of tourists, and the shops along either side were doing their best to lure some of these walking piles of cash to part with some of it. The only touts we’d really had last time were for the strip clubs – but, we were a group of men, and one of us looked decidedly sleazy.
We arrived in the central market square, and I let Risa wander around on her own to enjoy the plethora of sights, while I went to the park to take our drone for a quick flight to see the town from above. It was a short time til sunset, so the sun was sitting low on the horizon, casting giant shadows, but it was beautiful to see it from this new aerial perspective.
I’d forgotten how large, and how beautiful the market square was. I had a few minutes to wander around before meeting back with Risa, remembering the stunning details of the St. Mary’s Basilica’s towers, as well as the beautiful central market building.
We made a quick dash to Wawel to catch the sunset, but it beat us by seconds. Again, I’d forgotten how beautiful the castle on the hill was. We decided to visit tomorrow during the day instead.
Now, all that was left for us for the day was dinner. It was tough to find a compromise between affordable, and appealing. In the end we stopped at Chłopskie Jadło, which we later learnt was a chain. The food was pretty good, but as always, our desire to try everything meant we ordered too much. The crispy potato pancakes were phenomenal, as was the accompanying goulash. We got bot the boiled and the baked dumplings, and I unsurprisingly preferred the baked, as the pastry was rich and buttery. Rather than attempt to squeeze it all in, we opted to take it home for breakfast.
We walked through the old town again after dinner, but even though it was illuminated, it wasn’t as pretty as during the day. We walked past many of the dodgy places we visited while here with my workmates last year, and I bored Risa with all the stories.
We decided to do a free walking tour, but it started at 10AM. It doesn’t sound early, but for us, it required a moderate amount of effort – including setting an alarm. We couldn’t believe the size of the group that had arrived for the tour – thankfully they split it amongst two guides, but even still, there were more than 30 in our tour. Thankfully our guide, Golden – the last Ginger in Poland, had a large voice.
We blitzed through the history of the country and city, with mergers and wars throughout the ages. The next 2.5hrs was much of the same, filled with facts and history, and well worth the small donation (and the time it took).
He was especially proud that Krakow has a Leonardo Da Vinci painting. It was quite interesting to hear him tell the explanation of the ermine being a wealthy duke who was unable to be with his pregnant mistress – and this painting was the only gift he could give to her. He also mentioned all the artwork that was plundered during the Nazi occupation. He suggested that the art gallery should just have empty frames hung for each of the missing pieces – though he said something around 75% was missing!
We caught the bugler at the top of St Mary’s Basilica, and the (fictional) stories to explain why the melody is dramatically cut short made as little sense as ever. Mongolian archers?
He also shared his experiences of the Soviet occupation, which were really simple, but powerful – like his family saving for a small Lego set, or the queues for food.
The tour culminated in Wawel, after a quick walk around the castle grounds, with explanations about the differing styles of the cathedral’s chapels, through to the beautiful courtyard of the palace – thanks to an Italian bride and her architects.
After the tour we visited the cathedral – however, photography is strictly forbidden. It was as opulent as you could imagine, with gilding and decoration galore, and very different to the Lutheran churches we’d been visiting recently.
Kazimierz – Old Jewish District
We skipped the Schindler Factory as I’d visited last year. It is a brilliant museum about the Nazi occupation and the persecution of the Jews of the city during that period. Instead, we went to the old Jewish district, which I’d missed last time. It felt so different to the other places we’d been in Krakow, with more energy and art. It was unquestionably a hipster area, with cafes, bars and sidewalk restaurants filling the streets.
We stopped for lunch in the interestingly named Marchewka z Groszkiem (Carrots with Peas), and joined the queue for a table for Sunday lunch. The food was cheap, simple, and delicious – and worth the wait. I even got a free second plate of prunes wrapped in bacon due to a mix up in the kitchen!
There were still a few synagogues left in the area, and some were museums open for public visits – we just didn’t have the energy for much more tourist activities today.
St. Mary’s Basilica
We had to rush back from Kazimierz before the basilica was shut to tourists again. Risa managed to tack on to the tail of a large Japanese tour group, while I was forced to go queue for a ticket. Thankfully it was only 15zl (€4), including a pass to take photos. It turned out that you could see a small section for free, but a paying ticket would allow you to visit the front of the church and see the altar up close.
Stunning. There is no other word to describe the interior. The huge decorated ceiling, and the amazing walls were some of the most beautiful we’d ever seen. There was an incredible amount of colour and decoration, but it seemed harmonious, and not in conflict.
During our walking tour the guide mentioned that for a time, Krakow was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Because of this, this church was decorated with no expense spared. He mentioned that the artist commissioned to design the altar was paid €600m in 2017 equivalent money – which was 10% of the city’s annual budget!
During the summer months it’s possible to purchase a ticket to climb the bell tower, but as summer is well and truly over, it was closed to tourists again until June next year.
Oh, this? We got a laugh at this couple trying to time a jump shot with this street artist. They had someone trying to take photos, and at one point I was tempted to just step in and take over – but, I didn’t.
While there was certainly much more to see in Krakow, we felt we’d seen as much as we needed to see, and decided to make an early start on the long drive to Wroclaw.
We skipped Auschwitz as I’d visited on the trip last year – and once is the perfect number of times for anyone to visit. It’s a must to experience if visiting Krakow.
At some point along the drive, the flush mechanism for the toilet became stuck, which resulted in the toilet bowl overflowing, and the floor of the bathroom becoming saturated – thankfully the waste tank is separate and secure, so we didn’t end up with a biohazard situation! Thankfully the fresh water tank was already nearly empty, so there wasn’t a huge amount of water in the bathroom. On the flip side, we were now without fresh water.