Historic Krakow, harrowing Auschwitz

by Kevin Hughes

The beauty and history of Krakow, with its magical town square and royal palace, is in stark contrast to the horrors of nearby Auschwitz. Visit both, and feel the ecstasy and agony of Poland

Budget airlines have helped open up some European city gems in recent years – but what, exactly, has a short break in Poland’s southern city of Krakow got to offer? 

We booked our flights three months before we were due to travel – and at 1p each outbound and £26 inbound, it did seem incredibly cheap. However, once you add on taxes and credit-card booking fees, and pay for a suitcase each, the price can spiral. The two-and-a-half-hour flight from Liverpool's John Lennon Airport was pleasant enough, and we were soon in Krakow and jumping into a taxi for the short hop to the Old Quarter.

I have to admit I had always imagined Poland as a dreary, drab, grey type of place. How wrong can you be? The main market square, which is dominated by the Church of St Mary and the Cloth Hall, now an indoor craft market and art gallery, is as cosmopolitan and pretty a square as you will find. Tree-lined and with pavement cafés and restaurants, the square (the largest in Europe) is the place around which Krakovian life apparently revolves .

We decided to take a trip in a horse-drawn carriage – £20 for half an hour – around the Old City. I have to admit I was surprised that, despite the sheer volume of horse-drawn traffic, there was no sign of any… shall we say, equine deposits… on the immaculately clean streets. We had trotted only 500 yards when we found out why. Our lead horse, Gertrude, raised her tail in an obvious sign that she needed to relieve herself. Our driver reined her and her partner to a halt alongside a street café. Quick as a flash, he grabbed a fisherman’s landing net on a pole from beneath his feet and thrust it under poor Gertrude's tail – and that, apparently, is why the streets are so clean. Mind you, I caught the gaze of a rather large woman sitting in the street café as she pushed away her plate of fresh strawberry gâteau and held her nose. I’d like to think we, or rather Gertrude, did her a favour – she didn’t need a sweet that big.

The city's architecture is a heady mix of Gothic, Neapolitan and Baroque – and Krakow certainly has it’s fair share of churches. Away from the main square, Krakow Cathedral and the Royal Palace at Wawel Hill are musts. There is a small entry fee for the cathedral and tickets can be bought from an office near the entrance. I queued up and was intrigued by the flash of silver from under the Sister’s habit as she handed out tickets. As I neared the front of the queue, I was amazed that Sister Bernadette was wearing what appeared to be a diver’s watch as big as anything Jacques Cousteau used to wear. So, where do nuns, especially hundreds of miles from the sea, go diving?

All in all, Krakow is an excellent city to visit. Prices are reassuringly cheap and a couple can enjoy a three-course meal, a bottle of wine and a beer or two and still have change from £30. However, I was surprised how full of tourists the city gets. There were many Americans, Canadians and Japanese going around in groups of 30 or more, so expect to queue for some sites.

We stayed at the Hotel Monopol which is ideally located just a short walk from the main square. The hotel rooms are reasonably spacious, the bar and lounge pleasant and breakfasts good with plenty of choice. Eating out is a pleasure, with plenty of Italian, Mexican, Chinese and a host of other cuisines on offer alongside traditional Polish food.

However, you simply cannot beat a trip to the old quarter of Kazimierz where a host of old Jewish restaurants serve traditional fare: herring in sour cream, garlic turkey breasts, whole boiled onion and even stuffed goose necks. One of the best of these is Ariel on Szeroka Street which has old furniture and fabulous traditional live Jewish music in the evenings. The atmosphere is memorable and wonderfully old-fashioned.

The Krakow Jewish community, like so many others, bore a terrible burden at the hands of the Nazis and there are plenty of trips from Krakow to nearby Oswiecim, renamed by the Germans as Auschwitz. I travelled to visit the museum and buildings of Auschwitz feeling more than a little nervous and unsure what to expect. However, the museum is a remarkably informative, heart-breaking yet memorable experience.

Knowledgeable guides take visitors around the exhibits, explaining just what happened during the Holocaust  and in particular the events at Auschwitz and nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Polish and Jewish authorities have done a wonderful job in letting the exhibits (such as the victims' suitcases, shoes, spectacles and even a pile of artificial limbs) get the message and powerful story across, without turning the museum into some sort of gaudy peep-show. It's a thought-provoking experience and a fitting tribute to the vast number of people who died so horrifically. This is a trip that should be on the curriculum of every school.

Krakow allows visitors to experience a truly beautiful city steeped in history, along with the chance to visit a site synonymous with evil.  It's certainly a trip worth making.

Kevin Hughes

I am a retired police officer who enjoyed a second career in journalism with a weekly newspaper. I now work as a freelance journalist concentrating on politics, sport and local issues. I also do some freelance photography.

I have a passion for travel and enjoy writing about my experiences - good and bad. I have had several travel features published in regional and weekly newspapers and some magazines but I'm hardly a professional travel writer although I certainly wouldn't mind doing more!

Married for thirty plus years and with three adult children and one grandchild my wife and I now have more time to travel. I generally shy away from package holidays finding it more fun to plan where I want to go, how I want to get there and what I want to see and do when I arrive. However, for me, the most important part of any trip is the local people I meet and interact with. It is they who give me a sense of what a place is really all about.

I have been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a community moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.