Many people go to places like Munich for the Christmas Bazaars, and probably for the whole Christmas ambience. If I had no other plans for Christmas, I would go to Krakow. I can just see the Old Town Square lit up for the holiday, and I’m sure the churches have lots going on. The population of Poland is 98 % Catholic, so you can imagine there would be many opportunities to attend spiritual services, in the many beautiful churches.
It was just a few weeks ago that I boarded a Lufthansa flight from JFK to Munich and thence to Krakow, on a University sponsored trip to Poland.
I went to Poland with my college roommate. Now, please be advised that we were roommates more than 55 years ago, but we have remained friends ever since, and that we had traveled together several times prior to this trip. I hadn’t seen her in more than five years, and I needed a “roommate fix.” I thought maybe an Iceland trip would do it, but thank goodness for Priscilla, who said, “no, too expensive, let’s go to Poland, which is currently much cheaper.”
So we signed up for a Brown University trip to Krakow and Warsaw in early October. We flew on Lufthansa to Munich and thence to Krakow. Though I had never flown with Lufthansa before, it was better than just fine, in fact we had decent food and free wine, (or anything else one wanted to drink.)
We were met in Krakow airport by the sainted Beata, our Tour Director, who never left our sides (36 sides, by the way.) (Not my usual mode of travel, but it proved to be a terrific group of people.)
Our first stop was the Hotel Farmona, in the outskirts of Krakow. Now, the Farmona proved to be a perfectly lovely hotel, but we had expected to stay at Andel’s Hotel, right next to the medieval center of Krakow, for the entire four nights we would be in the city. Some glitch at the hotel made for a last minute change. This is something no traveler really likes, but it was perfectly OK in the end.
The Farmona is a newish spa hotel in a lovely park like setting, with great food, great rooms, and a huge supply of cream and lotion samples in our rooms. We spent two nights there before we ended up in our expected destination at the elegant contemporary Andel’s Hotel.
The first travel tip I would give anyone traveling in Poland (available also in other European cities, I gather) is to find a giveaway gem, called (in this case) “Krakow in Your Pocket.” (We also got “Warsaw in Your Pocket” later.) This is usually found on the concierge desk, and it was informative, chock full of history, hotels, restaurants, general information, ideas, in addition to being hilariously. It felt like somebody who had lived in Krakow for the last 20 years was giving you all the inside scoop on just about everything.
And if you seriously plan a trip to Poland, you might want to read The Polish Way, by a Professor Adam Zamoyski. Be warned, it is a history textbook, but it reads fairly easily, and will give you a marvelous background.
The medieval center of Krakow was not destroyed by the Germans in WWII, so it remains the largest medieval square in the world. It is full of sidewalk cafes, and is where everyone seems to go at least once a day. It is full of residents, students, tourists, musicians, buskers, and all manner of busy, happy people. We happened upon a group of Polish break dancers, who were obviously extremely funny in addition to being very talented, since the crowd was roaring with laughter every few minutes. Fascinating streets full of shops and good inexpensive restaurants, and lovely old churches surround the center.
The Wawel Castle in Krakow is an absolute must, sitting as it does at the south end of the medieval part of town, perched majestically high up over the Vistula River. It is at the end of the Royal Road, which dissects the old town. The first Cathedral on Wawel Hill was built in about the year 1000; it has been the scene of the crowning of most of the Polish kings and queens.
We loved the castle, the cathedral, the gardens, and the views out over the Vistula on a warm sunny day. Taking the walkway back down to the old town, we were able to see the famous Krakow dragon, called SMOK, the subject of ancient Polish heroic stories. It took us a while to connect that dragon to the ubiquitous bright green plush dragons of all sizes on all the souvenir stands.
Another must-see is St. Mary’s Basilica in the Ryneck Glowny (just call it the old town square), which has a magnificent altarpiece by the 15th century German artist Veit Stoss. I can honestly say that I have never seen anything so incredibly beautiful as this altarpiece, and it is surrounded by polychrome paintings by Polish artists Matejko, Mehoffer, and Wyspianski. It takes a lot for me to spend much time in a cathedral, since there is a lot of sameness in all but the best. In this case our visit was much too short, and I wish I’d had time to go back.
Speaking of artists, another must-see, as far as I’m concerned, is the Czartoryski Museum, also in the old town, if only to see the famous and lovely Lady with An Ermine, one of only three female portraits done by Leonardo da Vinci. You could spend more time, as we did, to see the Rembrandt Good Samaritan, and to get a feel for the Polish love for its cavalry and its military past in the armor and guns collections.
Speaking of POLISH artists, which is hardly ever done, we were very happy that we broke away from our group one day to go to the National Museum, a slightly out of the way treasure of Art Deco works. The museum itself is an art deco building and it maintains an entire floor of delightful turn of the century work of artists such as those mentioned above. Sadly these marvelous painters, sculptors, and stained glass designers are not well known outside of Poland. They should be. Go there.
I do not think one should go to Krakow without a tour of the Jewish Ghetto, Kazimierz, and perhaps a day trip to Auschwitz. The Ghetto day evoked memories first of Schindler’s List, (the movie was made right there on those streets,) and further back memories of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Poland is an enigmatic country. Its long, complicated history is brutal, heroic, and poignant. It contains anomalies of Poles being persecuted and Poles persecuting others. It is now a country on the rise economically, a member of the EU, with a somewhat narrow minded leadership, which may make it falter a bit. Its people are attractive, charming, welcoming to Americans, and they certainly do have a story to tell.