Enter a bygone era in Krakow

With the temperatures already soaring at seaside hotspots this summer, there will be some who prefer to avoid the hordes heading for the coast and instead opt for shorter city breaks that broaden the mind.

Krakow in Poland is a city destination from Shannon that will exactly fit that bill. And it is a hell of a lot cheaper than other European city destinations.

It’s a three-hour flight to Krakow – pronounced Krakov – whose majestic old world architecture was miraculously spared in World War 11, is compact so walking around is the ideal way to see most of the highlights with traffic largely banned from the old town and trams on the edges to hop on when venturing further afield.

My wonderful guide Marta reveals me that the population of Krakow is about 800,000, which swells to a million when students attend the 25 universities and third level colleges here – so like Galway this is a place buzzing with young people.

The focal point of the UNESCO-listed old town is the spectacular 13th century market square or Rynek Główny, probably Europe’s largest medieval squares, with a town hall, church and Cloth Hall or  Sukiennice, which is now an ornate shopping arcade with dozens of stalls with handmade crafts. The cobblestones laneways, the fairytale carriages that lie in wait, the lighting – it makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time.

Formerly the place of public executions, it was also here where Adolf Hitler held a huge rally. It’s now home to annual Christmas and Easter markets, as well as festivals and outdoor concerts Grab a coffee at any of the 30 cafes that now trade on the square to do some people watching.

Many of them will be getting their picture taken inside Eros Bendato, or the giant head of Eros gifted to the city by sculptor and former city art student Igor Mitoraj.

Everywhere you will see tributes to one of the city’s most famous former residents, Pope John Paul 11, who was educated in the secret university set up during the Third Reich.

“Karol Wojtyla was a very important person to us,” explains Marta “He was elected pope in 1978 from a communist country. During his homily in his visit in 1979 he told us not to be afraid and it sparked the Solidarity Movement supported by 10 million people. Ten years after his visit communism collapsed.”

We walk along the so-called royal road to the spectacular Wawel Castle with its sweeping views of the city and the Vistula River. The grounds are free to enter from where you can admire the Romanesque, Renaissance and Gothic architecture dating from the 14th century onwards. It is worth buying a ticket (€12) to wander around the ornate rooms inside and the stunning cathedral (€6) but go early to get ahead of the masses. Check out the fire-breathing dragon on your way out, a tribute to the legendary Smok Wawelski who terrorised farmers in the 7th century.

Pictured: The majestic main square of Krakow.

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