More Krak for your euro: 'Krakow is arguably Poland's masterpiece'
It has a dark history, but Krakow is stunning and fun - and can be enjoyed on an affordable break, writes Mark Evans
It's unfair to compare Dublin and Krakow. One is stylish, with a mix of great nightlife, clean streets and outstanding historic buildings. The other, sadly, is Dublin.
And it's odd that while Ireland is home to thousands of Poles, and our two countries have so much in common (religion, family, underrated food), the Eastern European nation isn't near the top of our radars for a break away.
For the first-time visitor, Krakow is arguably the country's masterpiece - a medieval trading town that was transformed into a baroque beauty when it was part of the Austrian empire, from 1795 right up to the end of World War One.
Its glorious heart is Rynek Glowny, better known as Market Square to English-speakers. Lined with scores of bars and restaurants, it's dominated by churches and, at its centre, the Renaissance-era Cloth Hall. Locals say that it's the biggest medieval plaza in Europe. Whatever the truth, it doesn't matter - this is Vienna meets Rome meets Prague in one outstanding setting.
Krakow doesn't have Dublin's beautiful bay setting - it's far from the sea in the heart of Europe, with the Czech Republic to the west and Slovakia to the south - but it's far more liveable than our capital. The Old Town, ringed by a park and little boulevards of tram lines, is largely a car-free zone and the pace of life is gentler. The streets are immaculately clean, store signs blend in with the old buildings and while the centre is geared up for tourists, it hasn't become a museum like Dubrovnik or Venice.
And, despite its beauty, it's great value.
We stayed at the Francuski Hotel - a landmark for over a century - at the north end of the Old Town. The location is unbeatable; beside the beautiful Church of the Transfiguration and the ornate St Florian's Gate, dating from the 14th century and one of the few remaining pieces of the original city walls. It's the gateway to the city's answer to Grafton St, Florianska St which, in turn, leads on to the main square.
And history is never taken lightly in these parts - on the hour, daily, a bugler call sounds out from one of the twin towers of the main square's imposing Church of St Mary. The tradition goes way back to the days of the bugler announcing the closing of the city's gates - and some believe that it commemorates the bugler that warned of the oncoming Mongol invasion, and got an arrow in the throat for his trouble, in 1241.
Like Ireland, Poland has had a turbulent history, and being sandwiched between Germany and Russia has been a curse over the centuries.
My wife and I took a time machine to visit the worst of times, the 20th century. Time machine? Well, the Trabant.
Built during the Soviet-dominated times in old East Germany, the little car captured the attention of locals, some old enough to remember driving them, some too young, but fascinated, as the two-stroke engine (basically a big lawnmower) noisily wound its way through the streets.
Our driver, local man Jurek from the local Crazy Guides company, said it's "love and hate" driving a "Trabi" - ie. a lot of fun until it breaks down.
Our Eastern Bloc motor brought us to the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, and the darkest heart of the city's history. The Jewish ghetto - which was dramatised in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List - is now an up-and-coming trendy area, but Jurek showed us the remaining bits of the walls. Shaped like Jewish tombs, they were built by the Nazis to keep the doomed inhabitants at bay before their eventual deportation to the death camps. While the most chilling of all, Auschwitz, is over an hour's drive from the city, there is one near the heart of Kazimierz.
We looked down from the city's centuries-old artificial hill, Krakus Mound, in a peaceful park, at what was once a scene of horror, where SS commandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie) shot at the terrified inmates.
Jurek later dropped us off at a must-visit museum - set in Oskar Schindler's old factory - nearby. The museum is enormous, complete with Polish tank, newsreels and photos from the days when Krakow faced the might of Hitler's troops, and wisely stayed intact by surrendering before destruction. The guided tour is a must, but put aside around two hours to see it all - including Schindler's own office and the testimonies of the people he saved.
The tour ends with a large portrait of Josef Stalin, reminding us that when one dark chapter ends, another sometimes begins. But the city, and country, has changed for the better since freedom 30 years ago. A city of 200,000 students, it's lively, and very affordable.
While prices are highest in the Old Town area, it's still cheap by Irish standards. Expect to pay the equivalent of around €3 a pint (Zloty is the local currency, so worth taking some out before you travel) in and around the main square - and half that, or less, elsewhere.
For cheap drinks in the historic heart, follow the youngsters - BaniaLuka bar, just off the square, has pints from €1.40 and shots from a euro. It's only slightly dearer in the nearby U Jozina, which has a good selection of Czech beers.
Non Iron and Café Philo, again in the Old Town, are a friendly 'local' and trendy jazz-themed bar, respectively.
Food is underrated here, too. Like the bars, the prices are excellent. It's kitsch, but the cowboy-themed Sioux restaurant on Market Square is recommended if steak and burgers are your thing. Trendy but friendly Orzo, in a beautiful industrial-meets-indoor garden setting, feels like it should be expensive, but it's not. It's right beside the Schindler museum, and a bright and hopeful contrast to the darkness of the past.
For good Italian fare, I'd recommend the stylish and friendly Del Papa in the Old Town, while Gossip café, right beside our hotel, does a fantastic Irish-style breakfast (around €6), served in a trendy frying pan, and lunches.
In honesty, I didn't expect so much from the city - my loss, and hopefully I'll be back.
How to get there:
We paid for a short break (out early Monday morning, back Wednesday afternoon) with Dublin-based clickandgo.com. Now is a great time to visit Krakow, as the Christmas markets (the biggest is on the Main Square) are up and running.
If you want to stay longer, and witness the likes of Auschwitz or the city's salt mines, flights are also available to return on Fridays.
Local excursions and tours are widely available to book online, or through the myriad local agencies along the city's Florianska St.
While I got away with just bringing a small backpack, it's worth booking priority boarding on the Ryanair flight, which allows you to bring a second bag (up to 10kg) on board. That, or other options like seat assignments, will always cost more with Ryanair, so think ahead.
The flight out was on a newer Boeing 737, and despite being in a middle seat, it was grand. The return plane was older and tighter, so my advice is to grab a coffee on board, and download some Netflix shows for the flight, which is a very short two-and-a-half hours, in fairness, and both crews were a pleasant bunch.
For Krakow airport transfers, I booked ahead, so a driver was waiting at arrivals, and on return leg from the hotel, saving us time. Check out dydko.com
Where to stay:
Our deal got us to the Hotel Francuski. It's old school, with quaint vintage rooms, but it's very clean and the beds and bathrooms are excellent. Plus, it's a friendly family-style offering and breakfast (go for the omelettes) is included. Its excellent bar also appears to be a magnet for the Irish for a swift nightcap too!
What to do:
Crazy Guides (crazyguides.com) organises Trabant hire for an hour upwards, communist disco nights and visits to a Soviet-planned suburb. If history - or just wacky fun - is your thing, go for it.
Meanwhile, the Schindler museum (muzeumkrakowa.pl) costs 24 zlotys (€6), but is free on Mondays. However, it's best to check the website regarding tickets.
NB: This piece originally appeared in The Herald.