A coffee break in Poland's culture capital

Café society set against a backdrop of Renaissance splendour - that's the essence of Krakow, writes Adam Newey

Krakow has a mixed history. It is the city of Auschwitz and Oskar Schindler (much of the Spielberg movie was filmed here), and it is also a city of extraordinary artistic grace and wealth. Unlike Warsaw, which replaced it as Poland's capital in 1596, Krakow survived the Nazis with its fabric mostly unscathed. Even 45 years of Communist rule have left no trace - beyond the brutalist Bunker of Art - on the Old Town's architecture. The absence of cars and the presence, on every corner, it seems, of busking string quartets make walking around an unmitigated pleasure.

Krakow has a mixed history. It is the city of Auschwitz and Oskar Schindler (much of the Spielberg movie was filmed here), and it is also a city of extraordinary artistic grace and wealth. Unlike Warsaw, which replaced it as Poland's capital in 1596, Krakow survived the Nazis with its fabric mostly unscathed. Even 45 years of Communist rule have left no trace - beyond the brutalist Bunker of Art - on the Old Town's architecture. The absence of cars and the presence, on every corner, it seems, of busking string quartets make walking around an unmitigated pleasure.

Why go? In a word: culture. Perhaps the one advantage to a nation constantly under the heel of foreigners is the extraordinary intellectual cross-fertilisation it allows. I hadn't known that the Italian Renaissance had shed its light this far north; it can be seen on Wawel Hill, where the royal palace overlooks the Vistula. This is the very symbol of the Polish national spirit, but it was built by Italians. The buildings date back to the 11th century, but the palace itself, a three-storey building around a glorious arcaded courtyard, wouldn't look out of place in quattrocento Florence.

Why now? Krakow is enjoying its status as a European City of Culture for 2000, which is being marked with lots of special events: concerts, exhibitions and the like. And since the summer rush is now over, you won't have to fight your way through tourists.

The mission To pack in as many sights as possible into three days. The place to start is the centrepiece of the Old Town, the Rynek Glowny, or main square. This vast medieval piazza, Europe's largest after St Mark's in Venice, is almost bisected by the arcaded Renaissance hulk of the Sukiennice, Krakow's former cloth market, which now sells upmarket arts and crafts to tourists. From the square, narrow cobbled streets fan in all directions to the aptly named Planty Park, a river of greenery that girdles the whole area.

The other main point of reference is Wawel Hill. Aside from the palace, with its magnificent collection of 16th-century Flemish tapestries, this is also home to Krakow's exquisite Gothic cathedral. Two of the side-chapels deserve special note: the Holy Cross Chapel, roofed with stunning Byzantine frescos, and the Sigismund Chapel, a perfectly proportioned Renaissance masterpiece.

Of the city's abundant galleries and museums, two are especially worth a visit. The Czartoryski Museum on ul Sw Jana (open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am-3.30pm) is housed in a gorgeous bright yellow baroque house just round the corner from the Florian Gate. A varied collection includes Greek, Egyptian and Etruscan treasures as well as a smattering of Dutch, Flemish and Italian old masters, most notably Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine. At the other end of town, the Wyspianski Museum on ul Kanonicza (open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am-3pm) is devoted to the works of Stanislaw Wyspianski, the playwright, poet and artist who was the foremost exponent of the Young Poland aesthetic movement which flourished in Krakow between 1890 and 1918.

Wyspianski's stained glass can also be seen in the mighty Franciscan church a block away on ul Franciszkanska. In fact, you could spend your time just visiting Krakow's extraordinary churches, from the elegant simplicity of the Church of St Peter and St Paul on ul Grodzka, Krakow's earliest Baroque building, to St Mary's on Rynek Glowny, with its massive 15th-century carved altarpiece.

Remember this To the south of the Old Town is the former Jewish shtetl of Kazimierz. Apart from the still thriving main street, ul Szeroka, it has a depleted air about it now, but is nonetheless a compelling place to wander around. In 1938 this was home to 68,000 Jews, most of whom were forcibly removed to the Podgorze ghetto just across the Vistula. The small Museum of National Remembrance at Plac Bohaterow Getta 18 features a display of photographs and other memorabilia from the ghetto and the nearby concentration camp at Plaszow.

Half a mile down the road, on ul Lipowa, is Oskar Schindler's factory (now owned by the state electronic company), which featured in the Spielberg movie. Parts of it are open to visitors (weekdays, 10am-6pm). To appreciate the full horror of what happened here, Auschwitz-Birkenau is about an hour's drive away. Point Travel (tel: 0048 12 411 3609) organises day trips for £19, including an English-speaking guide.

Eating out Krakow is caffeine heaven. Not only are tea and coffee brewed with extreme seriousness, but there is also an endless choice of effortlessly stylish cafés in which to enjoy them. Starbucks doesn't get a look in. For sheer range of coffees, you can't beat Sklep z Kawa Pozegnanie z Afryka (ul Sw Tomasza 21), which boasts 70 varieties. Along the same street are Café Larousse (the walls are papered in pages from Larousse dictionaries) and Café Camelot. Tea lovers should head for Demmers Teehaus (ul Kanonicza 21) to select from the 32 varieties on offer in a vaulted tasting room beneath the shop.

Krakow offers a seemingly endless array of restaurants housed in medieval vaults below street level. For modern Polish fare, the best place is undoubtedly Restauracja Pod Aniolami (ul Grodzka 35; tel: 0048 12 421 3999), where dinner for two with wine will set you back about £35. It's set in a small maze of candlelit cellars and is popular with locals and tourists, so booking is advisable.

For more traditional Polish grub, such as barszcz (borsch), pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and all possible varieties of pig-meat, Restauracja Chlopskie Jadlo (ul Sw Agnieszki 1) provides an extraordinary dining experience. It's done out like a rustic medieval coaching inn, with sheepskin rugs on rough wooden benches, and sawdust on the floor. Bread is served with a dagger and an enamel mug full of dripping. Not a place for the squeamish.

Sitting in Café Alef (ul Szeroka 17) is rather like being in a 19th-century living room, with its brass electroliers, old photos on the wall and a piano in the corner. The beer is kosher, the cakes comforting and there's live klezmer music every night at 8pm.

Night life On a fine evening, locals and tourists alike promenade around Rynek Glowny, while fire-jugglers and buskers do their thing. If you prefer to be indoors, Krakow has a fairly diverse selection of jazz clubs, of which Propaganda, on ul Miedowa at the north end of Kazimierz, is probably the darkest, smokiest and most atmospheric for trad jazz. Otherwise, many of the cafes on ul Sw Tomasza stay open late, serving coffee, vodka and loud music into the early hours.

Where to stay Location, as they say, is everything, and since most of the sights are packed into the Old Town, it makes sense to stay as close to the centre as your budget allows.

The Wentzl Hotel (tel: 0048 12 430 2664; net: www.wentzl.pl), occupying a modernised 17th-century tenement on the Rynek Glowny, has double rooms for around £90, including breakfast.

At the foot of Wawel Hill, the fin-de-siÿcle Hotel Royal (tel/fax: 0048 12 421 5857) has doubles from £50 to £80, depending on which section of the hotel you stay in.

Getting there The only direct flight from the UK is from Gatwick with British Airways, which operates a code-share with the Polish airline LOT. Booking through LOT (tel: 020 7580 5037) seems to be slightly cheaper, with returns from £187 including taxes.

Further information Polish National Tourist Office, 1st Floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent St, London W1R 5AJ (tel: 020-7580 8811).

Adam Newey travelled to Krakow courtesy of Thomson Breakaway (tel: 0870 606 1476), which offers three-night breaks from £328 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, taxes, b&b accommodation, transfer from the airport and a free guide book.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick