FEW European cities wear their painful pasts with the grace and spirit of Krakow, Poland’s most popular tourist destination – and surely among its most approachable.
For centuries a major Jewish haven, Krakow escaped both the worst architectural ravages of World War II (it was the only major Polish capital not to be razed) and the rigorous concrete colonization of the communist era that besieged so many other Polish cities.
Subsequently Krakow Old Town is a romantic-utopia. It has Europe’s largest – and perhaps oldest – market square complete with fairytale castle (Wawel) peering down over the river Vistula from its grand rocky outcrop. In December, with its dustings of fresh snow and vibrant Christmas markets selling bigos (hearty meat stew) and grzaniec (Polish mulled wine), the setting couldn’t be more glorious – for those not discouraged by sub-zero temperatures.
By contrast, the recently re-awakened Jewish district of Kazimierz, immortalized in Schindler’s List, is now Krakow’s most energetic and bohemian quarter – especially Plac Nowy (New Square) with its moreish street food and shambolic charms. Urban legend also has it that Krakow has the world’s highest density of bars and clubs among its furtive cellars and courtyards.