Seventy years ago when war was ending in Europe the world was made aware of the full horror of Nazi atrocities in Poland. This peace-minded nation suffered more than any. All six Nazi concentration camps were in Poland and millions were killed in the country, mostly Jews.
For years, the country struggled to step out of the shadow of the war, but things are changing and tourism has been embraced by big cities like Krakow. We had been inspired to visit by the nattily jacketed Michael Portillo’s televised train journeys and after a short flight and easy landing we couldn’t find the driver who had been booked to take us to the apartment. Forsaken, we got a taxi, a very smart black Mercedes with an equally smart driver. He was a taster of the good week ahead.
Half an hour later we arrived in the centre of Krakow. A smart (that word again) woman was on the pavement, apologising. Her driver had forgotten us. Unbidden, she refunded the taxi bill and arranged a cut-price airport return at the end of the week.
So far, so impressed. From the apartment it was just a few minutes to Krakow’s magnificent market square with the ancient Cloth Hall in the middle, a fabulous cathedral where a trumpeter plays hourly from one of its towers; shops and cafes and bars on the four sides in lovely old buildings. Nearby, the ancient castle and university.
It’s worth exploring the city on foot with one of the free walking tours. It’s mostly flat, apart from a short haul up to Wawel castle and on our first day we easily covered 10 miles and by the end had a much better understanding of Krakow and its history. For those wanting more than a general overview, more focused tours include the Jewish Quarter and, across the river in Podgorze, the wartime walled Jewish ghetto area.
From Krakow, day trips are possible to the all-year mountain resort of Zakopane, where this year the ski runs on the Tatra mountains were still open in late March. There is a funicular railway up to Gubalowka, a 3,700ft peak set out with chalets, cafes and tourist stalls and sun decks looking down on Zakopane. There is ridge walking for miles and, weather permitting, a bosky walk back down to Zakopane. The bus takes more than two hours from Krakow, but costs just £6 return.
The famous salt mines just outside the city at Wieliczka are also worth a visit. Active from the 13th century until the mid 1990s, they were an important revenue maker when salt was half the price of gold, and now when it has up to 5,000 visitors a day. Nearly 400 steps take you far underground to vast caverns, up to 35 yards high, with fantastic salt carvings made by the miners. Return is by a lift. Not recommended for wobbly walkers.
No trip to Krakow is complete without a visit to the Schindler’s factory museum –showing how the city suffered, coped and (sometimes) survived the Nazis. There is a ghastly procession through the horrors at the museum, which has had one million visitors since it opened five years ago, but it is worth noting that there is a limit of 1,000 visitors a day.
Walking back to the old town we finally found the guide-recommended razuchy, an apple-flavoured, deep-fried cake, hard to track down but worth the effort, at Marchewka z Groszkiem near the river (marchewkazgroszkiem.pl). This locals’ spot was to be our favourite but supper that night was at Green Day vegetarian cafe in the Market Square. More than two could comfortably eat well for less than £10 (greenday-krakow.pl).
The following day we headed to Auschwitz, a place I seemed to know so much about that I did not want or need to visit but am pleased I did. A lovely spring day offset the gloom of a dark story – outlined in a period film shown on the tour bus shot by a Soviet army photographer who discovered the horrors 70 years ago.
The camp fills in the personal detail, the reality of sleeping six to a plank bunk in three tiers, urine and worse dripping down. Up at dawn, one minute to defecate and wash in a communal shed, skimpy meals, arduous work, millions gassed and worked to death. Punishments were extreme and met the sadistic fantasies of the Nazis. Such as being packed like sardines, upright in a windowless cell at night then marched straight to work. Any stumbling and you’d be shot.
On our final day we notched up another 10 miles on foot, including nearly four miles walking the Planty, a charming, tree-lined perimeter of the old town which replaced a superfluous defensive wall. Lunch of cabbage and mushroom ravioli (aka dumplings, pirogi) was taken at Pod Smocza Jama, a busy restaurant in the lea of the castle (jama.krakow.pl). With a similar dish of pancakes the bill was £4.80 – for two. More walking to a mid afternoon snack of garlic and tarragon soup at Dawno Twmu Na Kazimierzu, constructed in and furnished with trappings from an old terrace of shops and workplaces in Szeroka Street (dawnotemu.nakazimierzu.pl).
We finished off our whistlestop visit at the vast underground museum of old Krakow, viewed at the original level under the Market Square, discovered when the square was being re-surfaced 10 years ago.
The last night, as we walked back in the dark from supper at Marchewka z Groszkiem men were sweeping the tram tracks. Krakow knows how to keep its streets clean and tidy and it knows how to keep visitors coming back. I will be returning as soon as I can.
Flights: Jet2 flies from Newcastle to Krakow (www.jet2.com). Ticket prices vary seasonally.
Staying: Lots of choices, from smart hotels to basic hostels. Seven nights at AT Krakow Apartments, self-catering, sleeping four, through Booking.com cost 1,569 Zloty (around £300 depending on the exchange rate). Quiet and only a minute from the Market Square.