Poland's second city Krakow offers architecture, history, great food, vodka and Europe's best dressed dogs
If I hadn’t seen it for myself I never would have believed it. For 15 years Krakow has, on the first Sunday in September, celebrated the dachshund or sausage dog with an incredible fancy dress parade. Proud pet owners wait all year to dress up their dogs and parade them through the town. Assembling at Krakow’s Barbican you can taste the excitement as local TV and radio crews jostle with excited dogs and owners waiting for the bugle’s noon call from St Mary’s Tower. The brass band strikes up and they are off. Crowds throng the pavement as the army of knights, footballers, soldiers, sailors, cops and superheroes take to the streets.
This truly was the unexpected highlight of our trip to Krakow, a city we knew remarkably little about before we boarded our easyJet flight from Luton. Getting to Krakow from the airport is easy even if you do appear to have been abandoned at an open air railway platform when you step off the free airport bus. A modern train soon delivers you to Krakow. Tickets are seven zloty (£1.50) and bought from a machine at the airport or on board.
Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s main market square is an architectural wonderland having been originally laid out in 1257. The most impressive building is the triple naved basilica of St Mary’s Church, from where, on the hour, a fire brigade bugler blows the hejnat, a short cut off tune to the memory of the watchman cut down by a Tartar arrow in 1221 as he blew his horn to warn the town.
From Rynek Glowny it’s a short walk to Wawel which used to be the seat of the kings of Poland until the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1609. Wawel Castle (www.wawel.krakow.pl) was founded in 1038 but what you see today is the result of several fires and restorations, most notably by the Italian architects Francisco the Florentine in 1516 and Giovanni Trevano in 1594. A good look around the castle takes the best part of a day and the best day to visit is Monday when the Crown Treasury and Armoury are free.
Exit the castle by the Dragon’s Den (entry 3 zloty). Local legend says this underground cave, reached by a spiral staircase, was the haunt of a dragon woken by the castle’s construction. A cobbler left the dragon a sheepskin full of sulphur and salt which he ate and then drank so much of the River Vistula that he burst. There still is a dragon today, who you will meet at the cave’s exit, but his fiery breath is gas powered.
A short distance away from Wawel is Kazimierz. This was the Jewish quarter of Krakow before the Nazis murdered most of its inhabitants. Kazimierz was once a town with its own city walls some of which can still be seen. It became a Jewish centre in 1494 when King Jan Olbracht expelled the Jews from Krakow. It owes its Holocaust survival to Hitler’s plan to create a museum of "vanished races". It is home today to active synagogues and many good Jewish restaurants and bookshops. We enjoyed a light lunch by the market - excellent borscht (beetroot soup) and many and varied dumplings for under 20 zlotys per person.
And a light lunch is all you will want, our Hotel, Hotel Batory, offered a huge delicious breakfast buffet inclusive of the £94 a night we paid for our twin bedroom apartment, which was enough to keep us going until the evening. There are a great many excellent restaurants in Krakow, but be warned they are not places for vegetarians or the light eater.
For top notch local cuisine in a splendid setting Restauracja Szara, (Rynek Glowny 6, Krakow, tel: +48 (12) 4216669, www.szara.pl) is hard to fault. I had the herring in sour cream sauce to start followed by an enormous roast leg of goose served with apples, pears and a red currant sauce, absolutely delicious and very filling. With wine the bill for four came to 517 zlotys which is about £113, great value when compared to UK prices.
However, that’s expensive by Polish standards, on our second night we dined at Polskie Jadlo (Rynek Glowny 23, Krakow, tel: +48 (12) 4238135, www.polskiejadlo.com.pl). This atmospheric basement restaurant served up a dish called "Poland and her neighbours" on a plate comprising of goulash, beef rib, black pudding, roast lamb, meat wrapped in cabbage, dumplings, baked spud and pickled cucumber. Delicious but far too much to eat! However, at 308 zlotys (£67) for four people, extremely good value considering the vodka and beer we’d consumed as well.
And so to round off the evening what could be more Polish than Wodka (Ul, Mikolajska 5, Krakow) a tiny vodka bar with a mind boggling choice of flavoured vodkas at around five zlotys a shot just over a quid.