A present from Poland: Why you should visit Krakow at Christmas
With its bustling Christmas market and sightseeing galore, Krakow makes the perfect festive getaway, says Jonjo Maudsley
AMID The sparkle and hubbub and the freezing cold air, somewhere beneath the illuminated towers of Saint Mary's Basilica, a beautiful ceramic bowl catches my eye. Eagerly, I squeeze my way through the thronging crowds, a sea of puffer jackets and backpacks, to steal a closer look at this incredible piece.
I am in Krakow, Poland's second city by population, but surely its first where culture and beauty are concerned. For five weeks every year – from the last week of November until St Stephen's Day – the Old Town's historic centre plays host to one of Europe's most animated Christmas Markets. It is, I discover, the ideal place for a weekend city break at Christmas.
The bowl that catches my attention was hand-crafted by a local artisan called Anna. She, along with her best friend Agnes, is in her seventh year of selling at the market under her brand Candeluna.
"This is my life," she tells me, recalling her 20 years of experience working with ceramics, paint and even architectural salvage to create her products. "When I make these pieces, I give a piece of my heart, my soul."
A couple of stalls away, I meet Anastazja of Galina Kavowska. Like Anna, she is proud to say her business sells only 100 per cent handmade pieces, all in traditional Polish styles. They are so unique, she tells me, that some of them are limited to just one piece. Sparkly jewellery, folksy clothing and intricately hand-crafted flower crowns make up her rich and colourful display.
I sashay through the crowds, admiring the beautiful displays at stalls such as DekorArt, which sells cutesy candlestick holders and beautiful ceramic baubles, Swiece Rzemieslnicze, where I find scented candles and soaps (with gift sets starting at just 15 zloty/£3), and Kozyra, who create kitschy gifts with ceramic, wool and linen.
"We are artists," says the shopkeeper at Kozyra from behind her thick merino scarf. "Everything is original and handmade, and we make it with passion. We love what we do."
On the subject of originality, I return to my hotel later that evening to discover another part of Krakow where passion and artistic flair reign supreme.
The Hotel Indigo opened in 2016, after an extensive renovation project revitalised a building dating from 1836. Now, rooms over five floors have each been endowed with a unique character and charm, paying homage to various artists who have helped put Poland on the world map of art.
Even the restaurant (which serves up a fantastic Polish breakfast) doubles as a gallery of graphic design, while the bar area is hosting a temporary exhibition to celebrate the works of Agnieszka Slonska – it's the perfect setting to enjoy the hotel's cocktails, which are as innovative as the decor.
And then there is the food – yet another great reason to go to Krakow.
On my first night, I try Garden Restauracja (gardenrestauracja.pl/en; five-course menu 300 zloty/£60; wine pairing 200 zloty/£40). With a choice of five, seven or nine course "Modern European" tasting menus, plus wine pairings to boot, I'm almost spoiled for choice. I get to experience a masterclass in flavour design. The scallops melt in my mouth; pork knuckle and sauerkraut is reimagined in boutique form; the beef tenderloin with foie gras is, frankly, life-changing. Even the palate-cleanser, a sorbet-stuffed lime, makes for a feast.
The next day, I venture south of the Old Town along the Grodzka boulevard, taking in the beautiful facades and exciting window displays, past chilled-out Polish couples in their winter woollies holding hands, towards the monumental Wawel Castle (wawel.krakow.pl/en; 12 zloty/£2.40).
Since the 13th century, this impressive bastion has loomed large over Krakow. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, it invites visitors to traipse its grounds and descend into the impressive tombs beneath the Wawel Cathedral.
Having worked up an appetite, I take a detour through Planty Park and up the Sienna road, in the direction of Kogel Mogel (kogel-mogel.pl/en; mains from 42 zloty/£8.39). While it may resemble a shabby Parisian cafe, with its antique panelling and labyrinthine corridors, this historic building hides one of Krakow's finest restaurants – not only because the food is so delicious and local, but because the atmosphere is so warm and inviting.
I try a Zurek soup (colloquially known as a 'Polish hangover soup', served not with bread, but literally inside it) followed by a hearty 'golabki' – cabbage leaves stuffed with buckwheat and mushrooms, bathed in a creamy truffle sauce.
I finish with the 'Cracovian' cheesecake. What makes it distinctly Cracovian, you ask? Well, I'm not entirely sure. It could be the orange mousse, or it could be the sheer, incredible size of the thing.
On my final morning, there's just enough time to try a heated golf buggy ride around Krakow. You'll spot these electric wagons all over town, trundling over the cobbled streets to explore lesser-seen sides of the city, from Kazimierz (the 'Jewish Quarter') to the former ghetto, past Oscar Schindler's factory and all around the Old Town centre. They are a great way to see everything Krakow has to offer.
With lights glittering, church bells chiming, the waft of freshly cooked food down every boulevard, and shopping in abundance at one of Europe's most authentic artisan markets, Krakow makes the perfect Christmas getaway, whether for solo travellers, cool couples or families on a budget.
One weekend is just long enough to get me into the festive spirit and, better still, it's helped me finish my Christmas shopping early. Whether this year or next, I recommend a trip to experience this lovely city and its wonderful market – just make sure to leave extra room in your suitcase.
:: easyJet holidays (easyjet.com/en/holidays) offers a three-night trip to Krakow from £315, staying at Hotel Indigo Old Town Krakow. Includes flights from London Gatwick and 23kg luggage. Departs January 10.
:: Christmas 2020 holidays will go on sale in April.
:: Ryanair flies direct to Krakow from Dublin.