Once you start looking into a city’s history, it’s pretty hard to stop, especially in Krakow where just about every building begs you to explored its past. The district of Kazimierz was once its own town, founded by – of course – Kzimierz the Great in 1335.
Its importance became more defined when it became a centre for the Jewish community. The Second World War took its inevitable toll on the people, who were moved to other ghettos and even concentration camps. Kazmierz was neglected for years until the fall of the Communist Government. In the strangest of paradoxes, the district underwent a significant revival after being portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
The result of this is now a thriving area with some great nightlife. A short tram ride from the Old Town takes you close to the New Square, home to a market selling street food, flowers and even old metal signs – just in case you want a souvenir that will weigh more than the rest of your suitcase.
The vintage theme doesn’t end there. Around all four sides of the square are a large selection of bars. Many play on the vintage o quirky theme. At Singer, for instance, each table has its own sewing machine.
It’s an arty, bohemian vibe that reminds me of the “Ruin Pubs” I first witnessed in Budapest, although here some of the “vintage” had obviously been painted on. That said, many of the bars are in really old buildings, characterised by thick stone walls and hard brick floors. I’m writing this in September, but I can imagine just how cosy these places would be on a cold winter’s night.
Sunday lunchtime in the Old Town brings a wave of heavy rain showers, which mens there’s no time to look upwards at Kraków’s stunning buildings. Instead I head beneath the Market Square and into centuries of stories.
The Rynek Underground does two things at once. First, the stones that you see are the very foundations of the orginal Cloth Hall, whose modern equivalent is directly above. The second is a lengthy, rich history of Kraków’s trade, stretching back to medieval times. Helpfully, only 300 visitors are allowed into the museum at any one time, which means you’re not having to share the exhibition space with large crowds.
One of the fascinating angles about this whole location is its construction. Starting in 2005, large parts of the Market Square were dug up, revealing the archaeological remains that now make up the musuem’s shape. Preserving the scene was delicate work, not least because of the huge construction site required to build the fabric of the walls and walkways that guide visitors around.
Oh, and if you like that sort of thing, there are also the remains found in an 11th century cemetery, containing the graves of those suspected of being vampires.
It’s still raining as I emerge from the depths, so instead of more exercise I decide to cleanse my soul with a visit to St Mary’s Basilica, the huge church that dominates the Old Town. There are two entrances; one for those who just which to pray, which is free, and another for the tourists, which involves a £3 “donation”. Now I know it’s not much, and I don’t mind paying, but surely a donation should be voluntary?
Once inside, it is slightly amusing to see that the devout “praying only” crowd are kept to a small area at the back of the church. Which means they don’t get the same access or impressive views as those of was who’ve paid. I don’t know whether to feel guilty, pious, smug or just go to confession.