I’ve only just started discovering Turin, but because I had made plans for a summer mountaineering holiday, I headed off to Krakow in early July. It was my first time in Poland, and I arrived early in the morning on a swelteringly hot day. The sun punished every tourist who decided to go outdoors and upon meeting up Luke and I hid inside for a short while. Still, as we are not the kind of folks to be discouraged by the heat on a limited schedule, (and I was terribly hungry) we had a very slow stroll through the very small centre of the city. The centre is also the old city, once ringed by fortress walls, a moat and high towers. Now this architectural gem is surrounded by a strip of shady parkland. Via this shaded, cooler walkway I reached the river, which provided a cooler environment.
On the banks of this river, slightly raised on a mound, stands a castle. Wawel Castle has been the coronation and burial place for all but two of Poland’s monarchs and is now a museum. As you round it, on the river’s edge, there is a large statue of a dragon, which breathes fire every three minutes (in the summer). This refers to the story of the dragon’s den, which is located under the castle. The story goes that when the dragon started eating local children, the King sent his most trusted knights to kill the dragon. When they failed, a shepherd asked permission to try, and succeeded through his cunning. As a reward he married the princess, and later became king, himself.
Krakow old town has a circumference of about four kilometres (I ran around it several times during my stay), and hosts a variety of old buildings, cobbled streets, churches and market squares. Generally packed with tourists, the restaurants and shops beckon with brightly coloured and multi-lingual signs, food and sweets. You can find traditional polish restaurants, small local hideaways, lavish Michelin recommended restaurants and street vendors selling bread rings.
As the centre of Krakow is so small, it is rather surprising that we managed to fill four hours of our visit with a bike tour a few days later. This wasn’t because we travelled so far, however, but because there was so much to tell. From the medieval times to the World Wars, Poland and Krakow have seen many changes of power and experienced many different stages of history. The monuments, buildings, street layouts all attest to this, and our very knowledgeable tour guide made sure we also at least knew some of the details. For instance, there is only one gate left standing of the fortifications around the town centre. This is the northernmost gate and the barbican. According to our guide, this gate was left standing by the Austrians who were removing the city walls because of the persuasive arguments of a Polish artist. This artist argued that the strong winds from the north would pose a threat to women’s modesty if the gate were removed, and the wind blew up their skirts.
Old churches border trading houses, which in turn border artists homes and revolutionaries’ layers. Today, granted, they are filled mostly with souvenir shops , museums and restaurants of all different types of cuisine for all different types of traveller but that, too, made me very happy!