Winter glistens in Krakow

Ryanair starts flying direct from Cork to Krakow this week. Great timing, says Pól Ó Conghaile, if you want to visit one of the most atmospheric Christmas markets in Europe.

There’s something very special about winter in Central European cities. Of course, for residents of places like Budapest, Vienna and Krakow, winter is probably greeted with as much sighing and shaking of the head as it is here at home.

But for the rest of us, thoughts of Christmas markets, of snow-covered squares sparkling with fairy lights, of the reviving powers of mulled wine and hot chocolate, are pretty darn irresistible.

If winter wonderlands are your thing, then you’re in for a treat. This week, Ryanair launches new flights from Cork Airport to Krakow (Nov 7), Gdansk (Nov 10), Warsaw (Nov 7), Wroclaw (Nov 8) and the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius (Nov 9).

Krakow, I reckon, is the route to jump on. Over the centuries, this gorgeous place has grown from a hamlet on Wawel Hill into Poland’s cultural capital, and once you stand in its Market Square, watching horse-drawn carriages crunch through freshly fallen snow, you’ll see why.

OK, those carriages are unapologetically touristy. But aren’t we tourists?

Isn’t that why we want to shuffle into the action surrounding St Mary’s Church, chomp on baked potatoes, glug back mulled wine and browse through cask-shaped stalls bedecked with handmade ornaments, little wooden toys and Szopki, Krakow’s famous nativity cribs?

Apparently, the layout of Krakow’s central square hasn’t changed in 800 years. And the Szopki feel like they’ve been around for every one of those. Delicate miniatures of the city’s churches and cathedrals, these models are sweated over for months before making their way down to the city’s Christmas crossroads, entered in competition, and oohed and aahed at by all and sundry.

It’s another reminder of just how Catholic a country Poland remains. That, and the name of the airport you fly into: John Paul II International. There’s even a “city within a city” devoted to the Polish pope under construction in the Lagiewniki neighbourhood.

A sanctuary on the site already features relics including a phial of his blood, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the mobile museum exhibiting items like his passport, sweater, and a clock stopped at the hour of his death. Of course, Krakow isn’t all angels and saints. Like most Central European cities heavily serviced by budget airlines, Krakow gets its fair share of stag parties; the horse-and-carriage rides are complemented by raucous cellar bars, rifle ranges and super-strength lagers.

Book with one specialist company, and you can even arrange to have your stag kidnapped, bundled into a Russian militia vehicle and interrogated KGB-style, before being “delivered back into your loving arms for a comforting beer and striptease”.

In truth, if you’re not partying into the wee hours, you probably won’t see the fallout from partying into the wee hours (if you are, don’t look in the washbasins).

The reason Krakow attracts so many visitors, of course, is because it’s such a charming place to visit. The medieval layout is virtually car-free, and remarkably, seems to have escaped World War II intact.

The Market Square, Rynek Glówny, is reputedly the largest medieval square in Europe, and the home-base for most moseying. Through December, it’s anchored by an enormous Christmas tree, and crowds gather on the hour to hear a bugle call delivered from St Mary’s.

Strangely, the melody breaks off mid-bar — this is because a medieval bugler alerting the city to a Tartar invasion was cut off mid-phrase, the story goes, when an arrow pierced his throat. Krakow’s other famous attraction is Wawel Castle, a Gothic pile dating from the 14th century and perched above the city on its namesake hill. Its bell can be heard 50km away.

You need to plan your visit here to avoid the crowds, which can get claustrophobic, particularly climbing the ancient bell-tower. The royal chambers, crown treasury and cathedral are well worth the effort, however — if only for the fact that you’ll learn that the first king to be buried here was called Wladyslaw the Short (aka, Wladyslaw the Elbow-high).

Wawel Castle lay at the heart of Polish culture and politics until the 17th century, and a holy stone lying beneath it is said to protect Krakow from misfortune. Perhaps it had something to do with the city’s lucky emergence from World War II unscathed? But then the lurking malevolence of Auschwitz 75km away reminds you that the Nazis didn’t just destroy buildings.

More evidence of that lies in Kazimierz, the city’s old Jewish quarter. Oskar Schindler’s famous factory was located near here, and Steven Spielberg filmed parts of Schindler’s List in the area, so my first impression of the fading paint, crumbling buildings and weeds poking from the pavement was pretty poignant. But then I twigged another atmosphere entirely.

Kazimierz has its synagogues and cemeteries, sure. But there are also arty cafes, candlelit bars, antique stores, blast-from-the-past boutiques and suave cocktail joints.

I sat for a moment, taking notes, watching the life around me. A man stood at his street stall, trying to hawk a gramophone. A bar used old sewing machines as tables. The smell of fresh pastries wafted from a bakery. On a balcony above the fray, an old woman fed pigeons.

When it comes to nightlife, needless to say, Krakow rocks. Legend has it that Poland’s second-largest city has the highest density of bars in the world, and who would doubt it? They teem out of old cellars and courtyards — glossy lounges, workmen’s holes, tourist traps, techno dens, Irish bars, burlesques, student clubs. There’s a basement for everything, and then some.

As darkness falls, the twinkling Christmas lights are joined by flickering spits of neon, doors creak open to reveal cellars you never knew were there, and the throngs start to party.

Men juggle fire in the square. A large local beer might cost €2. It seems like everyone smokes. You step off the snow-caked streets, into crammed cellars and a whole other side to the city.

The next morning, Krakow’s cycle begins again. The air is crisp, your breath is frosty, Christmas stalls are bustling, and it’s never too early for a hot chocolate. Their city may have been assaulted by Tartars, Swedes, Nazis and Communists over the years, but the local Poles are welcoming and friendly, chuffed if you venture a hello, (Dzie? dobry), in their language. There’s a lot of warmth in this winter chill.

HOW TO GET THERE

Flights

Ryanair (Ryanair.com) begins flying direct from Cork Airport to Krakow on Nov 7. Flights operate on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and, going to press, were available from €30.44 one-way. Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly from Dublin to Krakow.

Where to stay

Hotel Grodek (donimirski.com) is a 4-star boutique hotel in the Old Town. Prices start at €110 for doubles. The Travel Department (thetraveldepartment.ie) has a three-night Christmas Market break from €299 plus taxes, based on 3-star accommodation, from Dublin.

Where to shop

Krakow’s Christmas Market traditionally opens at the beginning of December and continues into the New Year. You’ll find everything from miniature figurines to Baltic amber here, but if you prefer shopping malls of the indoor variety, try Galleria Krakow (galeria-krakowska.pl).

Where to eat

Krakow does good lines in Polish and Italian cuisine, and there’s no shortage of eateries in which to sample them, including great pizza at Casa Della Pizza (Maly Rynek 2), and cheap and cheerful Polish fare at Polakowski (Plac Wszystkich Swietych 10). I’d also recommend a cuppa at Wisniowy Sad (’Cherry Orchard’) a Russian style teahouse with lace tablecloths, antiques and a piano.

What to see

Market Square and the Wawel Castle (wawel.kraow.pl) are Krakow’s big hits, though the city centre itself is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a comprehensive (and brilliantly irreverent) guide to the city, download the free In Your Pocket guide (inyourpocket.com).

Visiting Auschwitz

Buses to Auschwitz (Oswiecim) depart from the PKS bus terminal and cost around zl.14 (€3.40) one-way. The 75km journey takes 90 minutes. Check for English film screening times and group tours at auschwitz.org.pl. Auschwitz is not suitable for children under 14.

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