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Hope rises above Krakow's haunted past

New vitality has come to Poland's second largest city's evocative Jewish district, says Mary Novakovich

In its long history, Krakow has withstood attack numerous times – from the 1241 sacking by the Mongols to the deadening hand of communism. But few periods have been as poignant as the revival of the Kazimierz district, which had been home to Krakow's Jews since the 14th century and was almost wiped off the map in the Second World War.

The Nazis had started deporting Krakow's Jews by 1940, forcing the remaining 15,000 into a ghetto across the Vistula River in the Podgorze district. On 13 and 14 March 1943, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto, destroying centuries of Jewish culture. Kazimierz was neglected during Poland's communist years, but in the 20 years since Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler's List in the district, Jewish culture has been undergoing a revival.

One of the catalysts was the film, which drew tourists to the area and, in turn, businesses to cater for them. Another was the annual Jewish Cultural Festival in June, which began 25 years ago to reintroduce Jewish life into a community that had been robbed of it. Restaurants, bars, shops and cultural centres have sprung up in Kazimierz's narrow streets and squares, making it one of the buzziest areas of Krakow.

Start in Ulica Szeroka – more of a square than a street – where a simple stone monument pays tribute to the 65,000 Krakow Jews who were killed by the Nazis. Beside it is a white gate leading to the 16th-century Remuh synagogue, one of the two in the district still used as a house of prayer and, like the other five synagogues, almost completely rebuilt after the war. The Nazis also did their best to destroy the adjoining cemetery; it too has been rebuilt, its smashed tombstones used to build a particularly evocative wailing wall.

Restaurants fill Ulica Szeroka, with café tables spilling outside now that the long Polish winter has drawn to a close. At the other end is the 16th-century Old Synagogue (mhk.pl), the oldest in Poland. Under its beautiful vaulted ceiling is a fascinating museum of Krakow's Jewish history and daily life.

Leaving the synagogue, turn right and immediately right again into Dajwor. Soon you reach the Galicia Jewish Museum (00 48 12 421 68 42; en.galiciajewishmuseum.org), a hi-tech, contemporary space devoted to the history of Jews not just in Krakow but also in southern Poland – formerly called Galicia.

Follow the road to the left and turn right into Starowislna. Within a few minutes you cross the Vistula River and into the Podgorze district. To your right is a rather nondescript square, Plac Bohaterow Getta (Heroes of the Ghetto), from where Jews were deported 70 years ago. The only clue to its horrific past is a simple sculpture of empty bronze chairs, one for every 1,000 Krakow Jews killed.

From here it's about a 10-minute walk to one of the most captivating museums you're likely to see. At the square, turn into Ulica Kacik, head under a tunnel that's a memorial installation to the victims of Auschwitz and walk over the railway line to the familiar white Art Deco exterior of the offices of Oskar Schindler's factory (00 48 12 426 50 60; mhk.pl). Well-crafted exhibits evoke what life was like for all of Krakow's citizens under Nazi occupation. It's at once chilling, enlightening and utterly absorbing.

As you retrace your steps, you come back to the square, where Jadlodajnia Restaurant (00 48 12 656 20 75) is a good place for a lunch of Polish dishes such as pierogi (potato dumplings) for 10 zlotys (£2). Head down Targowa at the south-western corner of the square and turn right on to Jozefinska, where plaques mark the ghetto's significant buildings.

As you arrive back at the river, cross the new footbridge and take the street facing you, Mostowa. Eventually you'll see Kazimierz's handsome 17th-century Town Hall on your left (also home to the Ethnographic Museum; 00 48 12 430 55 75; etnomuzeum.eu), and the 15th-century Corpus Christi Church (00 48 12 430 6224; bozecialo.net).

At the next right, on Jozefa, walk under the arch at No 12 beside Pub Stajnia and through a pretty courtyard of two-storey flats. Film buffs will recognise this peaceful setting from one of the most dramatic scenes in Schindler's List, when the ghetto was being liquidated.

Turn right at the end of the path and you reach the agreeably scruffy Plac Nowy, one of the liveliest squares in Krakow. At the centre is the dark green rotunda that had been the old Jewish slaughterhouse and where food stalls sell the staple Polish street snack zapiekanka, resembling a baguette pizza.

From here it's less than 10 minutes to Krakow's Stare Miasto (Old Town), with its wealth of medieval, Baroque and Renaissance architecture. Leave Plac Nowy via Estery, turn left into Miodowa and right into Stradomska. On your left will be Wawel Hill (00 48 12 422 5155; wawel.krakow.pl), within whose walls are the former royal residence and the imposing Wawel Cathedral.

Veer right along Grodzka to end your walk in Market Square (Rynek Glowny). Europe's largest medieval town square is an enchanting hotchpotch of history: the Gothic St Mary's Church (00 48 12 422 0521; mariacki.com), the Renaissance Cloth Hall and a medieval museum (muzeum.krakow.pl) lurking beneath, the tiny 11th-century St Adalbert's Church (00 48 12 422 83 52; kosciolwojciecha.pl) marooned in a corner. Summer brings café tables outside, but winter is just as pleasant under the vaulted ceilings of the cosy underground restaurants.

Fresh cuts

After extensive renovations, the museum at the Eagle Pharmacy (00 48 12 656 56 25; mhk.pl) in Plac Bohaterow Getta has reopened in time for the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto. The pharmacy had been the only non-Jewish business allowed in the ghetto, and its owner, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, is regarded as a hero for helping to save lives. His eyewitness accounts of the everyday life in the ghetto – as well as its destruction – form part of the exhibition.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Krakow is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Birmingham, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester and Stansted; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Belfast, Edinburgh, Gatwick and Liverpool; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Newcastle.

Staying there

The four-star Hotel Wentzl (00 48 12 430 26 64; wentzl.pl) is on Market Square, Rynek Glowny. Doubles start at 780 zlotys (£162), including breakfast.

More information

krakow.pl; poland.travel