Explore Krakow’s Past and PresentPoland — By Lost Girls on May 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm
By Rob Melau
It’s safe to say Poland is a country on the move, the spirit of progress is almost ever-present and particularly palpable in the city of Krakow. The former capital city has turned into the country’s cultural hotspot and by virtue of its Mediterranean flair has been dubbed “Florence of the North” or “Polish Rome” on numerous occasions. Krakow represents a fusion of modernity and long-gone times and in part resembles an open-air museum. This holds especially true for the historic district which is dotted with medieval buildings and thus forms an impressive UNESCO heritage site. Unlike some other Eastern European touristic getaways, Krakow has largely managed to preserve its authentic appeal. However, I don’t think there’s much point in reeling off all the major tourist sites that you can also find in any standard guidebook. Instead I’ll give you a few hints on a handful of selected venues and/or events that you shouldn’t miss out on during your travels!
Communism up close
You may find it somewhat tiring to traipse round UNESCO heritage sites and other touristy attractions (the medieval market square Rynek Glówny, the Royal Wawel Castle, St. Mary’s Church, the Cloth Halls of Sukiennice etc.) for hours or even days on end. In order to get a new perspective on things and a slightly different angle on Krakow, I set off to Nowa Huta, one of the city’s suburbs and prime example of Poland’s socialist era. In the 1950s Nowa Huta was conjured up out of nothing as a satellite town of Krakow and destined to accommodate 100,000 people. Today it has been fully engulfed by the city of Krakow but a blend of Renaissance and Stalinist, gingerbread-styled buildings and avenues is still testament to the socialist past. I can only fervently recommend one of the ‘communism tours’ with the local operator ‘Crazy Guides’. As part of the tour you will hop on an old-school Trabant and then delve into the socialist world of Poland which is still vivid today. Thanks to numerous pothole-riddled streets you’ll be in for a bumpy yet authentic ride! You will also be able to admire those hideous prefabricated houses typical of the communist era, but I guess they add to the experience…Unfortunately, modernity hasn’t failed to leave its mark on the suburb; the busy central square was renamed to Ronald Reagan Square a while ago. Similarly, a Lenin statue originally erected on the square was removed and sold off to a Swedish theme park … how times are changing! The tour actually set me back roughly €30 but you could obviously embark on the journey by tram all by yourself for probably less than €1.
A city beleaguered by students
One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival was the hustle and bustle that can be found almost all over town. Krakow is a city full of energy and its ambiance is largely shaped by young students attending the country’s oldest university by the tens of thousands. Especially around May, Krakow is engulfed by an ever-present sense of buoyancy and activity which lends the town a slightly Mediterranean touch. Every year a massive student festival harking back to medieval times, the so-called Juwenalia, turns the town topsy-turvy and into a huge party zone. It’s a sort of mini-Spring Break with elements of carnival and … needless to say … tons of booze. There’s an abundance of parades, gigs and charity events to mark the end of the semester. If you haven’t already made plenty of new friends by nightfall you should just go with the flow and head for some of the numerous nightclub turned cellar-vaults and cozy stone caverns.
The Jewish quarter
One of the trendiest areas is Krakow’s Jewish quarter ‘Kasimierz’. Its synagogues, museums and cemeteries are testament to the city’s eventful and harrowing past. At the same time Kasimierz is home to numerous restaurants, cafés and bars which make for a very vibrant atmosphere. As far as food in Krakow is concerned, as a general rule of thumb prices tend to drop and restaurants get less touristy the further you get away from the central square in the old town. So I’d suggest you just go for a casual saunter around the area and then stop at whatever place grabs your fancy. Krakow’s restaurants cater for all tastes and the Polish hospitality is legendary! By the way, if you have a bit of a sweet tooth then you should swing by ‘Lody’, one of the best ice cream parlors in town. It’s extremely popular with locals and tourists alike and gets extremely busy in the summer months … you may find yourself at the back of a 50m queue but its well worth the wait!
Rob Melau, decided to study tourism management to combine his professional career with his passion for travel. He lived in England and France for a while and is already on the lookout for the next adventure somewhere in Asia or South America. Enjoys writing, sports and any type of outdoor activity.
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