Krakow: The Cultural and Tourism Capital of Poland | Subhash Motwani

After getting various glimpses of what Poland has to offer, our last leg of the itinerary before returning back to Warsaw for our onward flight was a visit to Krakow, which is undoubtedly Poland’s tourism and cultural capital Krakow was also the former capital of Poland between the 11th and the 17th Century. Krakow lies to the south of Poland on the Vistula River and the drive from Zakopane to Krakow takes a little over 2 hours to cover the distance of 110 kilometres. We arrived into Krakow at around 7.00 pm and on arrival checked in at the Andel’s Hotel Cracow, which is centrally located near Krakow’s beautiful Old Town, merely 100 meters from the train station and more importantly for the shopaholics from India, it is just opposite Krakow’s newest shopping centre.

We were impressed by the chic and contemporary design of the property right from the lobby to the restaurants and the rooms of the hotel as the Andel’s in Krakow was designed by a famous duo of architects Jestico + Whiles who had also designed the first Andel’s Hotel in Prague and also the PVR multiplexes in Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Juhu, Mumbai amongst a wide range of other international marvels of architecture. Not only the lobby was impressive, but the rooms too had contemporary design and were fully equipped with a 32? flat screen TV, DVD player, WLAN, full climate control, minibar, safe and a spacious bathroom as well. This fine 4 star property is highly recommended for those who want to stay in the city centre in close proximity to the Old Town as well as close to the main station and shopping centre. Commuting within Krakow is very convenient as a single trip ticket valid on a bus or a tram costs 2.50 PLN (Polish Zlotys) which is equivalent to INR 45 approx or you could purchase a 24 hour pass which costs 10.40 PLN or INR 190 approx. If you want to explore the city on your own then you can also purchase the Krakow Tourist Card valid for 2 or 3 days that gives you access to public transport as well as free entry in up to 32 Krakow Museums as well. The card is also valid on the city bus route which takes you to Krakow International Airport. A 2 day card costs PLN 45 (INR 820 approx) or a 3 day card would cost you PLN 65 (INR 1185 approx) which would take care of your commuting as well as visits to the museums .

After checking in we took the tram to the Jewish Old Town of Kazimierz for some Jewish dinner. The Ariel restaurant which serves Jewish cuisine with a live Klezmer Music concert has a dining room which seats 50 persons and a meal can cost you in the vicinity of 30 Euros which is approximately INR 1900 .Worth an experience for those who haven’t had Jewish cuisine and would like to experience a combo of a Jewish meal and a concert – a unique experience indeed. We had two days in Krakow and our agenda for the first half of the following day was to visit the UNESCO enlisted Wieliczka Salt Mine. Located 10 kilometres from Krakow, you can reach the Salt mines by a local train or a minibus and it takes you 40 minutes to reach the oldest salt establishment in Poland which has been functioning since the Middle Ages and today is one of the most popular Polish tourist attraction receiving over 1 million visitors every year.

The Salt Mine at Wieliczka was enlisted with UNESCO in 1978 and in 1994 was acknowledged as a National History Monument by the President of Poland. Spread over 9 levels underground, the mine reaches to the depth of 327 metres and consists of over 300 kilometres of corridors comprising of more than 3000 chambers. The tourist route is accessible for a stretch of 3.5 kilometres located from 60 to 135 metres below ground level. This architectural marvel comprises of underground lakes and excavations, chapels carved in salt, sculptures and bas-reliefs which leaves every visitor in awe especially to see life in an underground city with a restaurant, a post office, telephone booths and souvenir shops with internet access and use of mobile phones at 125 metres below ground level, thus providing the right blend of tradition with technology.

There are salt mines across the world, but what makes Wieliczka special is that besides being one of the oldest mines, the mine itself is so enormous and comprises of magnificent sculptures made of salt. The salt mine has the unique distinction of being featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first ever underground hot air balloon flight was performed in one of its enormous chambers. Also the first ever underground bungee jump has taken place within the Salt Mine and that tells you the depth of each chamber within the Salt Mine. The Salt Mine has been host to some famous personalities such as Copernicus, Pope John Paul II and Goethe, to name a few. The most beautiful of all the chambers is the one which houses the St. Kinga’s Chapel as well as a reproduction of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper which is simply stunning. The chamber has hosted many weddings and parties and are ornated with chandeliers which illuminates the fine work around the chamber. The floor is of course, salt, but it appears to be as smooth as marble and the masterpieces on display took 3 miners almost 70 years to complete. The chamber was laid out in 1896 after the excavation of a huge green salt block and is 54 metres long, almost 18 metres wide and 10 to 12 metres in height. The fine work within this chamber is that of the Morkowski Brothers and Antoni Wyrodek.

Salt was mined here in Wieliczka from the Middle Ages until 1996. Until 1772, the salt mine in Wieliczka was the property of the Duke of Krakow and then the king of Poland. Post 1772 and until 1918, the mines were administered by Austrian authorities and then became the property of Poland after Poland regained its independence. A visit to the mine can take almost 2 hours and the mine can only be visited with a guide. The temperature within the mine is stable at around 14 degrees celcius and it is advisable to wear a jacket to feel comfortable during your visit. As it is one of the most popular tourist attractions, the best time to visit the mine would definitely be in autumn and winter as it can get quite crowded during spring and summer.

Social events such as conferences, banquets, weddings, New Year’s Eve Ball, concerts as well as sport performances can be organized in the mine. There is also an Underground Rehabilitation and Treatment Centre situated in the Lake Wessel Chamber for those who wish to be cured from upper respiratory tract problems and allergies. To see the entire mine it would take almost an entire week and that too would not be sufficient and although we saw just 1% of the mine, it left us completely awestruck. A visit to the mines is a must for all those who visit Poland and especially Krakow.

After our visit to the mine and a lunch at Pizza Hut, we did a site inspection of one of the most beautiful hotel properties not only in Krakow and Poland but probably across the globe. I am referring to the Copernicus Hotel located on the calm and picturesque Kanonickza Street. This unique property combines the old and the new, its Gothic history is as ancient as the history of the street where it is located. It was opened to the public only in the year 2000 and the building where it is located once hosted the intellectual and financial elite of Krakow which was Poland’s capital at that time. Apparently, Nicolas Copernicus, the famous Polish astronomer himself was one of the guests and that’s why the name is quite apt for one of the most interesting monuments of medieval residential architecture in the city. During the renovation of this property, objects of historical value were discovered and preserved and today, they are part of its superb interior design and d?r. The hotel comprises of 29 rooms which are furnished in mahogany and exotic woods from Peru and Africa with beautiful Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani rugs that add a splash of colour to its dark hardwood floors of the rooms and hallways. A stay at the Copernicus Hotel is highly recommended for the discerning traveller.

We had time to inspect another hotel of historical importance – The Grand Hotel which is located in the heart of the Old Town, a mere 50 metres away from the Main Square. The Grand Hotel has been in existence since the 19th Century and is one of the finest luxury properties located within a set of buildings that dates back to the Middle Ages. The hotel is a popular place not only with heads of states, monarchs and royalties but also with film crew, actors, writers, scientists and businessmen. The city of Krakow indeed has several properties of historical importance and you need atleast 5 days to explore this beautiful city including its environ such as Wieliczka Salt Mines, and also Auschwitz which is located at the estuary of the Sola to Vistula River in the southern Oswiecismska Valley and was the largest concentration camp between 1940-45 during Hitler’s Germany. You could also do a day trip to Zakopane, the Winter Capital as well as visit Czestochowa to see the Jasna Gora Monastery – one of the holiest places in Poland and an important destination from pilgrims across the globe especially to visit the Chapel of the Black Madonna. The Jasna Gora Monastery is located 90 minutes northwest of Krakow and has been the spiritual hub of Central Europe for six centuries and is the third largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world.

After couple of site visits it was time for dinner and we stopped at Pod Krzyzykiem right in the heart of the city for some of the finest Polish cuisine that you will find in Krakow. Krakow is a city for the young and trendy and you find plenty of pubs and bars where you can relax, have a drink and enjoy some fine music till the wee hours of the morning. Krakow has the reputation of having the highest density of bars in the world and you will find hundreds of bars in cellars and courtyards stretching from the Old Town to Kazimierz and although Krakow receives a lot of tourists, most of the places offer extremely good value as we found out whilst going pub and bar hopping. You could get a large beer for 5 Zlotys (PLN). The following day we had lots of exciting tours lined up for us and you will have to wait until next month to find out the details.

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