Beauty contrasts with bleakness on a visit to Krakow
A handy city break to Krakow offers Northern Ireland visitors a taste of Poland, old and new, while visiting the nearby Nazi-era camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau remains, while difficult, an imperative, writes Enda Cullen
MENTION Krakow to any gathering in the north and undoubtedly someone has been there, such is its popularity and ease of access with Easyjet from Belfast International airport.
Krakow itself needs two days and a third day could be spent on a visit to Auschwitz, about an hour and a half's drive away.
We spent two nights in the city and it wasn't enough – but we will return. Arriving on the first evening and taking a taxi to our hotel near the Old Town, we walked around, taking in the sights of the grand main square that is surrounded with bars and restaurants.
We took the advice of a friend and chose to eat a couple of blocks off the square in Café Camelot which offers traditional Polish cooking. I sampled meat pierogi, dumplings stuffed with beef – you could also have had cottage cheese and walnut ones – while my wife had leek soup followed by apple pie; all of which, as well as a beer and coffee, cost us just a tenner.
Our taxi driver advised us that Krakow has a large student population and that's why there are so many bars with reasonable prices. I tried the Movida Cocktail bar, which was warm and cosy with great staff and, yes, reasonable prices.
We had an early start the next day as Auschwitz, Birkenau and Wieliczka Salt Mine were all on our packed itinerary. Fortunately I had read of local private guides Marta Chmielowska and her husband Czester who could drive us and arrange for access to the various sites. It is quite feasible to arrange group tours to each one but it is virtually impossible to visit the concentration camps and salt mines in the same day by this method.
Our 8am start saw us driving through the Polish countryside and Czester pointing out to us 19th century wooden houses sporting blue lines that were painted by parents when their daughters were eligible to receive male suitors.
Auschwitz in winter is especially bleak and walking around even well wrapped up I felt chilled to the core by the evil that permeates the place. In a strange way the spot that interested me most was the gallows, next to the crematorium, where Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of the camp, was hanged in 1947.
It may be a cliché but everyone should visit Auschwitz.
Birkenau is a five-minute shuttle-bus ride from Auschwitz. It is recognisable for the view along the railway lines that brought more than a million men, women and children to their deaths here. It is truly desolate and I felt I could sense the pain and suffering as I walked through the archway into the concentration camp. A line of wooden huts remains, which brings home the unimaginable suffering of those murdered.
As for many visitors, this was an experience that I didn't particularly want to have but it was a chilling education that will stay with me forever.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a two-hour drive from Auschwitz, closer to Krakow. It produced table salt for more than 700 years, up to 2007. The mine is 327 metres deep, accessed by 378 steps, and more than 287km long. Its attractions include hundreds of statues and four chapels carved out of the rock salt by the miners. I found the two-and-a-half-hour tour of this Unesco World Heritage site a fascinating and unique adventure.
When we return, a free walking tour of the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter will be on our itinerary, along with visits to the city's many galleries and ornate churches. There may also be further forays into some of those reasonably priced bars and cafes.
:: Easyjet flies daily from Belfast International Airport to Krakow from £39 one-way.
:: Taxi from Krakow airport to the Old Town costs around £15
:: The Hotel Grodek, two minutes walk from the square, with comfortable rooms and a great breakfasts is approx. £70 per night
:: Marta Chmielowska, tour guide, (www.privateguideinkrakow.com), can customise tours and will provide quotes
:: The Zloty is the Polish currency which be pre-ordered online via a bureau de change site; alternatively there is an ATM in Krakow airport arrivals.