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Pierogis, Hot Beer & Trams : Explore Krakow

There's a courtyard inside Collegium Iuridicum, one of the buildings belonging to Jagiellonian University in which stands, in my opinion, one of Krakow's most beautiful sculptures. The city is littered with art, from the giant heads of Rynek Glowny (Market Square) to the gargoyles leering from the tops of the absurdly old buildings that make up most of the city centre.

 

But this little courtyard, through a big studded oak door which opens on to one of the busiest roads in the city, holds a simple sculpture of a face half completed but at peace, standing on a small plinth. The public can visit it, but they seldom do because there's no way of knowing that it's there unless you have a good guide.

 

But that's the nature of Krakow. A city straddling centuries, cultures and political histories, you could (as I did) spend nearly three months wandering the streets and continue to find areas and sights that astound you. I was working on a documentary project centred around Nowa Huta, the old Soviet-built suburb which was made as a model of Communist living in which legions of workers were housed in Le Corbuiser-inspired apartment blocks lining vast avenues.

 

That small area alone would be enough for a fascinating holiday, visiting the small workingmen's clubs and Soviet-chic cafes scattered throughout a landscape that feels halfway between the townhouses of Vienna and the crescents of Bath. But the centre of Krakow, much of it dating back a minimum of four hundred years, holds delights of its own. The churches (and boy, are there a lot of churches) are monuments to religious devotion but also to the excesses of the believers.


 

Draped in gold and silver and swaddled in velvet accumulated across the ages, these aircraft hangar-like buildings still buzz with the prayers of the faithful. Pope John Paul II was born not far from the city and it became his adopted home, and his memory is still both a central pin of the city's identity and one of its biggest tourist draws. Catholics from across the globe come to visit, light candles and stare at paintings of him (there's one in the window of the presbytery he used to stay in, at the window from which he used to lean out and cause traffic jams by addressing the crowds of visitors).

 

Just outside of the main square of the city is Wawel castle, built on an outcrop overlooking the River Wisla (Vistula). This castle was started in the 14th century (though this is by no means the oldest thing in town!), but successive dynasties kept adding on bits to the initial foundation, and the current incarnation of the castle is a punchbowl of different architectural styles and tastes, with open courtyards, gilded domes, chapels and walkways. Wandering below the outer walls on the town side it's worth peering up and imagining being an attacker. An imposing prospect indeed.


 

But if you've just arrived by bicycle there's one particular district of the city that should hold the most appeal for your weary limbs. Kazimierz, the old Jewish district and site of the ghetto during WWII, is in many ways the perfect patch to get a sense of the city without having to move too much. It offers a condensed view of the history and architecture, but is also famed for its excellent bars, restaurants and small shops. There's a flea market on the main square most days, selling everything from WWII knickknacks to second-hand handbags and it's always worth a browse, but leave time to go and try the hot beer in Alchemia, on the corner of the square.

 

South of Krakow are the Tatra Mountains, with their vast meadowed valleys sprinkled with villages which look like they were built copying a sight somebody once saw on a postcard. The older houses are made of logs and the gaps in the walls are filled with a clay mixture to stop draughts. If this filler is painted blue it traditionally meant that there was a daughter in the house who had reached a marriageable age, though be warned: these days it's more usually done for aesthetic reasons, and residents may not take kindly to prospective suitors knocking on the door!

 

Along the roadsides throughout the mountainous region you'll find small restaurants open for the passing trade. I put on over a stone in weight during my time in Poland, and I put most of this down to these little places. Between the golompki (stuffed cabbage leaves), the smalec (pork grease, a perfect antidote to vodka) and the pierogi (Polish dumplings), as a cyclist you should exercise caution or you'll find the hill climbs a little tough!


 

I loved my time in Krakow, with its clanking trams and droves of nuns and monks hurrying below the spires. I will return this spring for work, and I can’t wait. The Malopolska region of Poland is full of places I want to visit (and things I want to eat). To the participants in the Trans-Europa ride I will just say this: take the alleyways, and drink a glass of hot beer for me. It’s nicer than it sounds.

Thanks to Will Boase for this insight in one of Europe's hidden gems.

Read the complete article here.

Explore Krakow on our Trans-Europa Bicycle Expedition this summer.


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