Krakow The Malopolska Region, known as Little Poland, is one of the most favoured tourist destinations in Europe.
"Four days in Krakow?" exclaimed a Warsaw resident at the Frederic Chopin International Airport, a tad enviously. The half-hour flight to Krakow — the former capital of Poland — was filled with anticipation.
The drive to the hotel along picturesque landscapes gave a glimpse of this uniquely-beautiful town that beckons tourists for its World Heritage Sites. We couldn't wait to get to the hotel, not as much for the much-needed rest as for the fact that it is situated next to the Main Market Square, which dates back to the 13th Century. And, at 4,30,000 sq ft, is the largest medieval town square in Europe.
A sudden shower did not deter our enthusiasm to walk across the Square as we took in the famous landmarks — the 16th Century Cloth Hall, a major centre for international trade and the 13th Century St. Mary's Basilica.
We stood there, in the middle of the Square, and knew that in Krakow, every wall we touch will tell a tale that's as old as a thousand years.
The day after our arrival, our exploration of the town, mostly on foot, began. Bringing alive the history with its teeming tourists is the Wawel Castle and the cathedral that dates back to 11th Century — the place where Polish kings had their coronations and burials. A visit revealed that it's truly a treasury of archaeological discoveries.
This first Roman Catholic castle houses remnants that depict evolution of a lifestyle from medieval to the 15th Century Renaissance era.
An intriguing sight was of a small bed, not meant for a child, but for adults who slept in sitting position confirming a medieval belief that it would take one's soul straight to heaven.
The 136-Flemish tapestry collection at the castle is ranked among the largest in the world. A ballroom with a decor that has not changed in the last 400 years is the biggest staterooms in the castle. Wawel, like the Poles believe, certainly weaves a magical power.
A visit to the collegium Maius Museum of the Jageillonian University followed. We were greeted by a “namaste...vanakkam..aaiye” by our guide — a Pole who had visited India for sure! The University can certainly boast of two alumni — Nicolaus Copernicus in 1490 and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) in this Century. Established in 1364 by the King Kazimierz the Great, this university was rebuilt at the end of the 15th Century, and houses a unique collection of astronomical instruments and the ‘Jagiellonian Globe', the first such globe in the history of cartography to show America.
The India connection
A plate on the wall with an Indian fort had us scurrying to have a closer look. The bemused guide, rather dramatically revealed that the plate is indeed from India, depicting the Fort of Ferozabad, the famous Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi, carried by an Englishman in 1351. The 14th Century St. Mary's Basilica was our next stop. Built by affluent merchants, the high altar focuses on the church's patron saint, Virgin Mary, surrounded by the apostles; carved in wood by Veit Stoss.
Our Polish companions made sure we got the best of the Krakow experience by arranging a ride in the hackney carriage, through the Market Square to the adjacent Kazimierz — a former Jewish district, home for Jews for many centuries. As we walked through the streets, we were informed that the Nazis murdered almost 70,000 of Krakow's Jews. What's left for a tourist to absorb here is the spirit of the survivors; dainty little restaurants, flea markets and graffiti on the walls.
More recently, Steven Spielberg shot his Schindler's List here. Dinner at Klezmer Hois — a Jewsih restaurant — consisting of salmon tartar, veal casserole in onion sauce and pascha dessert complemented the concert of Klexmer music.
The walk back to the hotel through the Square, minus rain this time, gave us ample opportunity to savour Krakow by night — youngsters pouring into the Square, the vibrant chatter, and music from inside the pubs.
The next morning, we visit the historic Wieliczka Salt mine, a unique mining site placed on the first UNESCO World Heritage list. Visitors, under the care of a tour guide, enter the mine descending a 380-step staircase to level 1, 64 metres below ground level.
The mine, along the way, has chambers and chapels hewn in salt. For centuries, the mine has been visited by political leaders (including President Pratibha Patil), scientists and artists.
From mines we went to a monastery — Tyniec Abbey, situated on the right bank of the Vistula river, 12 km from the city centre.
Established by the Benedictines nine centuries ago, the abbey greeted us with a rhythmic liturgical chant by monks. Our guide Jadwiga Pribyl lets us savour the solitude before leading us inside the monastery. The breathtaking view from the window of a brook and the green plains connected my soul with Maria Rainer (Von Trapp)... yes, the hills are alive.