Krakow, Poland’s former Royal capitol lies in southern Poland on the banks of the Vistula River. The Old Town with its medieval streets and squares invited exploration by foot, despite the fact they were intermittently covered with snow and ice, and sharp, cold winds occasionally cut through my five layers of clothing. A periodic ride on a trolley brought me into contact with the charming people of Krakow, always ready to assist me when they saw me stumbling at a ticket machine while trying to figure out what Polish coins to drop in for a 20 minute journey.
The hostel where I am staying is a large, but cozy, inviting place midway between the two medieval parts of town I have been exploring in depth – the Old Town and Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. I spent my first day of exploration with two young men from India who were staying at my hostel. Together we charged forward, bundled up to withstand a day outdoors in subzero (centigrade) weather. We started our day with a three-hour free walking tour of Old Town and ended our day dining on pierogi (traditional Polish dumplings) while listening to live klezmer (Jewish jazz) music in a heated outdoor restaurant in Kazimirez.
Free walking tours are the norm in Poland’s major cities, where well educated multi-lingual Polish people offer walking tours for tips. I experienced similar offers on my recent travels in other parts of Europe. We met our guide Kuba at the 14th century Florian Gate which is next to the 16th century Barbicon, a circular bastion added for protection in front of the gate. Krakow’s medieval city walls which were mainly demolished in 1807, have been replaced with a lovely green belt of public parks called Planty, albeit at the moment they are covered in winter white.
As our group followed our guide down cobbled medieval streets, the rhythmic clomp of horses from horse drawn carriages reminded us to keep to the side so they could pass. The tourists in these carriages, blankets draped across their laps, always looked warmer than I felt.
The first sight of Rynek Glowy (Market Square), the largest medieval town square in Europe, took my breath away. In the middle of the square was the impressive Cloth Hall, a neo-Gothic structure which has served as a thriving marketplace since the Middle Ages. The impressive Town Hall Tower and St. Mary’s Basilica, a 14th century Gothic church with twin spires, share the glory with the Cloth Hall. The square was teaming with activity. Children were playing with the pigeons, bundled up people were scurrying, a musician was playing for a few coins, and small tour groups were huddled around their guides.
As our group was departing from the square, bells were tolling from one of St. Mary’s towers. From a window just below the spire of the higher of the two towers a trumpet melody followed. The air was crisp; the sky was blue. All attention of passer’s by was directed to that spire. It was as if time stood still for a moment. It was magical.
Our last and most historic stop on our walking tour was the Wawel Royal Castle and Wawel Hill, reached via a scenic part of the Royal Road which radiates from the Market Square. Starting in the 11th century the rulers of Poland resided here. Poland’s monarchs were crowned and buried in the adjacent Wawel Cathedral for centuries. During the early 16th century the splendid Renaissance palace/castle which still stands today was built by the reigning king.
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