Krakow: more than just a Christmas market

By | Category: Travel destinations
good and honest food at the Christmas market

good and honest food at the Christmas market

The former capital of Poland for over 500 years, Krakow has been selected as  the location of the World Youth Day in July 2016 when hundreds of thousands of people will journey to the city.

I had wanted to visit for a long time and getting over to the Christmas market (it runs until Boxing day) was the perfect curtain raiser to this very “warm” place despite the temperature going down to minus two Centigrade at night. Getting in at Friday tea time we got stuck in to the market straightaway. Over the years I’ve been to quite a few Christmas Markets in Northern Europe but this was the most enjoyable. Unlike some, all the stalls are open in the daytime. English is widely spoken and Brits comprise about twenty five percent of tourists. Many Christmas present lists can be fulfilled just by visiting this one market! Stands have dolls galore, icons and hand painted stocking fillers, complete cribs, amber jewellery, hats, woollies and stalls laden with great steaming pans of meats and sausages. And, of course, mulled wine for sustenance!

First impressions: the Main Market Square and Cloth Hall

a jewellery stall in the market

a jewellery stall in the market

On arrival in Krakow there’s a fairly big clue as to Krakow’s most famous citizen – as we touch down at “John Paul II Airport.”   The first non-Italian Pope for 455 years was born just down the road at Wadowice and studied and worked in Krakow for forty years until his departure to Rome in 1978. In April 2014 he became Saint Jean Paul.

The Christmas Market takes place in the Main Market Square. First established in 1320 it’s the largest medieval square in Europe with three churches in a mixture of styles: Gothic, Baroque and later Rococo. It also has a magnificent Cloth Hall which in turn is a covered market area with a large range of stalls.  Compared to some central European and Northern European cities, Krakow has a very easy going atmosphere at times so relaxed as to seem Italianate and this coincides with a strong Polish sense of humour. The locals have hard heads and are probably the winners in the worldwide per-head Vodka consumption stakes – West of Russia anyway. There are so many bars and clubs that one can potentially “do” a dozen in a couple of hundred metres. So caution is suggested!

horses with muffs but no reindeers

horses with ear muffs

Next morning, Saturday, there was a good Spirit of Christmas all around which included Santa ear muffs on the carriage horses and at lunchtime a cavalcade of a hundred or so motor bikers circling the Square in Santa outfits. Some had little illuminated trees on the pillion. There was also a whiff of some sort of “Vodka toddies” starting to simmer on the stalls.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”: art news sensation in 2014!

This oil on a wood panel painting by Leonardo (c. 1490) is Krakow’s greatest treasure on show to the public thanks to the Czartoryski family’s Foundation. It is only one of four Leonardo individual portraits of women in existence. It can be seen in a gallery within Wawel Castle in a private room with a limit on 20 visitors at a time a totally different situation to the permanent crush and jostle that surrounds the Mona Lisa in Paris.

Lady in Ermine - the different versions

Lady with an Ermine – the different versions

In mid 2014 there was world news coverage of the discovery that the final image had been painted over two earlier versions starting without an ermine (see photo). This was disclosed by a new diagnostic technique by a specialist French laboratory called Lumiere Technology.

Wieliczka Salt Mines have a million visitors a year. Still a working mine today after 400 years, it’s a vast complex of passages and chambers with a main cave the size of a modest cathedral with chapels and shrines. It can be used for weddings, parties and includes chapels and shrines and a significant rock salt statue of a Pope (guess which one! ). Well worth a visit and more comfortable to get around than many large caves – well-lit and ventilated, smooth paths and hand rails.

A plaque remembering the first synagogue

A plaque remembering the first synagogue

Jewish history and culture.

Prior to WW2 there was a significant and thriving Jewish community in Krakow. One of the centres was the Kazimierz area. This became run down but now has something of a new lease of life for artists, craft shops and some night clubs. There are two well-kept Jewish cemeteries one with a memorial plaque celebrating the Popper family and the Poppera Synagogue built in 1620.

The film Schindler’s List was shot in the former barracks at Pogorze celebrating Oskar Schindler who employed and helped Jewish prisoners from the nearby Płaszów camp. Auschwitz is nearby but is still a good half day for a visit.   We did not go but trips, usually five to seven hours, are easy to arrange by mini-coach etc. for about £25

St Mary’s Church and Altar

the altar in St Mary's Church

the altar in St Mary’s Church

Many aspects of the interior of this church are outstanding. Tourism brochures refer to “The largest gothic altar in the world” which is probably true but it’s certainly among the most spectacular. After some necessary repairs in 1442 the sculptor Veit Stoss “and his apprentices” worked for 12 years on the altar piece in which the principal figures are three metres high and each is carved from individual 500 year old trees which means today the wood is about 1,000 years old. All the surrounding detail is almost perfect in respect of plants and every aspect of the dress of the locals of the time.  

Eating and Drinking

Many successful restaurants and hotels in Krakow seem to have “International” menus. Traditional Polish food comes in large portions and tends to be rich and “meaty” and it’s easy to over order. I have always found it better to get the advice from the restaurant on a balanced meal. It was interesting to see listings of “Argentinian beef” and, as a dumplings lover, surprised to see: “goose leg, gnocchi and red cabbage”. Three places we enjoyed, all on or near the main square, were:   Karczma-Goscinna ; Restauracia Wesele  and The Piano Rouge.   There are also many, mainly small, Jewish restaurants and generally a thread of Jewish Cuisine throughout.

There are also many bars with small tapas sized portions and crowded ones particularly with students always seem to have the best food and, of course, there’s a great choice from the Christmas market stalls. A “Bar Mleczny” is a milk bar. Expect to pay about half London prices for food and local drinks but rather more than London for imported wines.

Getting to Krakow from UK

Good availability December through January on budget flights: there are direct links with Krakow from 14 regional airports in the UK and Ireland

Photo credits: Three Leonardo images: Lumiere Technology all others © Anthony Lydekker

For more about Krakow, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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