There are beautiful cities that have been around for a long time and the founding fathers had the good taste to leave a large square in the middle. A city with a real centre tends to live and breathe.
There may have been cattle in it years ago. Or horses. But today it is a meeting place for people. When they built the square in Krakow they certainly knew how to build a square. On my first day in this magical city it is filled with a wonderful Christmas market. I could have decided not to sample the mulled wine at €5 a hit but that would have been a big mistake. I could have decided to postpone the Camembert and bacon with cranberry sauce from the next stall but why?
I had barely emptied my case when I hit the town. I flew Ryanair and the airport is about a 30-minute taxi to the centre. My hotel, the Ascot, was absolutely ideal and just a leisurely walk to the square. My taxi driver practiced his English on me all the way from the airport. In return I got a good account of Polish politics, history, and his family life. A fair exchange. Poland joined the EU in 2004 but it does not use the euro. It is easy to change to Zlotys. Just divide the prices by four and you won't be far wrong.
Krakow is a good city for shopping. The Galeria Krakowska is like any other big shopping centre and label heads will be happy. What I liked were the quirky shops and there are plenty. Between the hotel and the square was an antique shop that I never managed to pass without browsing. Among the many curios was a two foot wide pair of red lips that I lusted after in an antique sort of way. I wished I owned a bar and could justify buying them. I did go as far as seeing what the postage would cost before common sense returned. I had thought they would go well in my bedroom but people have enough to gossip about without handing it to them on a plate. There are also some wonderful shoe shops. You could do some serious shopping in Krakow and fill an extra suitcase if Mr O'Leary wasn't looking.
As well as quirky shops there are quirky bars. Just off the square, beside the Harley Davidson shop, was the Bulldog Bar where I had a Polish IPA. I was served by a fabulously punk waitress with very good English.
I walked every day but as an e-scooter rider I was fascinated by the scooters all over the place. It is a great system. Once you are signed up you start your e-scooter and go where you want to and leave it there.
Krakow is alive with walking tours and if you do get run over it will most likely be by a walking tour, rather than an e-scooter. The walking tours follow their leader's flag, all headphoned up and eyes forward.
Day two and I took a fascinating walking tour myself. It was a blue sky December day. We were led by our guide through the streets and stopped at plenty of impressive churches. You still see nuns in full traditional dress. Some are under 50. We saw Oskar Schindler's factory (it's in the wrong place in the film) and his apartment. We walked along the Vistula river where the Wawel Dragon breathes fire. They are fond of dragons in Krakow. Many of the gargoyles on the old buildings and churches are dragons.
We walked along the cobbled streets to Wawel Castle, once the home of the royal family. This is the posh end of town and next we visited Krakow Cathedral, Kathedra Wawelska, where one, Karol Wojtyla, was once a bishop. This is a massively ornate building with marble coffins, carved pews, tapestries, and silver. Kings were crowned here and buried here. There is a side chapel to Saint John Paul II, and a very good statue outside. There were so many side chapels I lost count.
I retired to the visitor centre and splashed out €10 on a wonderful hot chocolate. The toilets required a Zl2 coin to get in. I met a Russian man with no change so I did my good deed for the day and bought him a pee. We continued to Jagiellonian University where Copernicus studied. So did JP2. Copernicus figured out that the sun was the centre of our universe. By the time one Karol Wojtyla studied in the same building the church has figured out that Copernicus was right. And finally back to St Mary's Church on the square where a real trumpeter appears at a top window and plays on the hour, every hour. The square was the centre of my universe. The horse-drawn carriages were beautifully liveried, stalls for Christmas presents and perfectly cheesy Christmas music.
Up a side street I discovered a great pub, Huki Muki, with its white paint-splattered walls and began the nightly ritual of a spicy mulled wine in an enamel mug for about a fiver. A group of students arrived and drank a Szoty Shot for €1.50 and headed out into the cold again. I suppose they were playing 'Huki'. (Sorry!)
I had never been to Auschwitz. As I ate my breakfast I wondered what was ahead. It was a 90-minute drive though suburbs and then into what is a tourist town. There are buses everywhere. There are 6,000 visitors each day who begin at Auschwitz and then make the short journey to Birkenau and stand by the tracks that carried people to death.
There is no rulebook as to how to behave at a scene of mass murder but this is definitely a selfie-free zone even if there is nothing to stop you. It seemed an inappropriate place for a smiling 'look at me and where I am' photo. There are only a few places, locations of mass murder, where you are asked not to take photos. It was quiet too with very little chat as people shuffled along with their imaginations for company. This is also the scene of the Soviet murder of 22,000 Polish intellectuals which was kept secret until Yeltsin made it public.
There is the constant sound of feet on the gravel. I found myself imagining the sounds of the place rather than the pictures. You stand in the women's death cell and look at the scratchings on the wall. You stand in a gas chamber. You look at thousands of suitcases with the names of their owners. And you remember that having planned all this, 90pc of the SS went unpunished.
Thankfully it is unlike any other tourist visit, more like a funeral in atmosphere, but without the forced jollity and the celebration of a life lived. I did hear one person saying "I enjoyed that tour", but I think they were on automatic pilot.
It could never happen again? And then I thought of Rwanda, The Balkans, Myanmar. When will we ever learn?
After the Auschwitz trip is was probably no harm to get back to the buzz of the Christmas market. The square was becoming my home from home. If a drink has a place then the place for mulled wine is Krakow, just as you drink rose as soon as you arrive in Provence and you wouldn't touch it in Connemara even if the sun split the stones.
That night I ate spare ribs. It was more like half a pig and very good value. A good meal with two drinks and change out of €25. I did leave a tip. Krakow is big on dumplings and another night I had to try them, washed down with Okocim, a local draft beer. Very filling, but worth trying once.
My final morning I saw the magical Christmas Crib Competition with all of the entrants parading with their very complex buildings done in bright colours and gold. From young schoolchildren to very professional artistic cribs they presented their amazing wares to the public and judges. The winners were honoured on the city centre stage amid an atmosphere of celebration.
I was preparing for the airport. I sat in the window seat in the Hard Rock Cafe at the side of the square and watched the world go by while planning my return.
Pierogi = dumpling and I had Pierogowa Micha, a dumpling platter with potato and cottage cheese stuffing with pork, cabbage and mushrooms. Dumplings once is fun. The second time might be a bit of a mistake.
From the moment I walked through the iron gate reading Arbeit Macht Frei, meaning 'Work sets you free' to the time I got back on my tour bus all I could think of was what would I have done.
* Ryanair has daily flights to Krakow. John stayed in the 3-Star Hotel Ascot, about a 10-minute walk from the main square. The Ascot does a full buffet breakfast. It has a small bar in the reception area which is ideal for a late night drink or coffee. The hotel reception is a pick up point for the tours that are booked. Tours with English speaking guides are available.
* You can book packages to Krakow and other European Cities with Keith Prowse. It will also book tours in advance to Auschwitz or to the Salt Mines. Allow a full day to visit Auschwitz.
* Guided city walking tours are also available. Visit keithprowseattractions.com or call (01) 878 3500. Keith Prowse also offers a range of theatre and sporting breaks including premiership soccer.