Entrance to Krakow's Old Town

Entrance to Krakow's Old Town

WE HAVEN’T CONSULTED the list of “1000 Places to See before you Die,” but I’m guessing Krakow makes the cut. Its stately, medieval charm is possibly the biggest surprise of our Central European tour. One could argue that when Krakow’s most prominent citizen, Karol Cardinal Wotyla (later Pope John Paul II) was tapped for promotion, it took no less than Rome to lure him out of this city.

We board and disembark our tour coach just outside the medieval gates and preserved stretch of city wall just outside the Old Town, where most traffic is forbidden during business hours. Our hotel, inside a classic building on Florianska Street near the market square, offers rooms with what seem like 18-foot ceilings, old-fashioned silhouette portraits, and tastefully-coordinating modern furniture. Every hotel on this tour (all of them excellent and strategically placed) is quietbeyond a New Yorker’s comprehension. But even the double-window dampening can’t keep out the celebratory whoops: Krakow’s soccer team has won the national championship!

Old Town Square

Fountain in Old Town Square

The huge market square, ringed with Old World churches, shops, cafes, and restaurants, has its own districts, offering art, outdoor eating, flowers, lace and other handicrafts. The covered bazaar near the center houses an array of shops selling amber, lace, dolls, ceramics, bright scarves and much more.

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary's in Old Town

Through the day, a trumpeter sounds the hour successively in four directions from windows near the top of one of St. Mary’s Church’s two high steeples. He plays a distinctive Krakow fanfare, as a similar trumpeter plays a Prague trademark riff from a tower in the Bohemian capital.

The Altar at St. Mary's

St. Mary's Altar

The baroque interior of this church is the most opulent this traveler had seen ever seenso far. It will take St. Vitus’ Cathedral in the Prague Castle to surpass it. The altar at St Mary’s, incorporating over 200 carved figures, is a singular marvel.

Levitator in Old Town

I have no idea!

Gray, rainy days give way to sun, and the whole world seems to turn out in Old Town Square, providing carriage drivers and some unusual entertainers an audience. Painted mimes stand rock-still, imitating statues, and startle particularly gullible tourists who pose with them when they suddenly show signs of life. One performer, dressed in faded desert garb, draws and confounds a crowd. He appears to sit on thin air, holding only a staff that touches the ground. puzzled onlookers assume it has something to do with his seemingly effortless stability.

On the way to Wawel

On the way to Wawel

WE APPROACH WAWEL CASTLE (the Ws are all Vs here, Mr. Wagner), some distance from the Old Town, traversing winding streets that juxtapose venerable churches, fountains, and saintly figures on a substrate of centuries-old cobblestones.

Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle

This former royal residence holds its own among Europe’s greatest. Its dazzling royal apartments encircle a huge interior courtyard—a town square of its own. Sorry, no photo-taking allowed inside, but a few shots are to be found on the web, and, of course, in books at the gift shop.

Wawel Castle Courtyard

Wawel Castle Courtyard

Eagle Room, Wawel Castle

Eagle Room, Wawel Castle

A Building in Kazimierz

In Kazimierz

KRAKOW’S JEWISH QUARTER is named Kazimierz, after King Kasimirz the Great (1333-1370), who invited Jews, expelled from other kingdoms, to Poland. From here and elsewhere in Krakow, 600 years later, the occupying Nazis herded the city’s 65,000 Jews into a ghetto in Lublin, in the East of Poland, or to another in Podgórze, across the river from Krakow. From these ghettos they packed them in trains to nearby murder camps—Auschwitz and Plaszów. Only a few thousand survived and today, only 200 or so Jews live in Krakow.

Old Synagogue, Kazimierz

Old Synagogue, Kazimierz

The Kazimirz district offers virtually unlimited opportunity for building renovation and business development.  

Oskar Schindler’s factory (used by Stephen Spielberg in filming Schindler’s List) lies in an industrial area blocks away.

Helena Rubenstein House & Hotel

Rubenstein House

As we are touring the quarter, I wonder how we can snag tickets for a Klezmer music concert this weekend. Then someone appears, handing out flyers for a performance that night. I ask where tickets are sold, and he points to the lobby of the building behind us. At the Helena Rubenstein House (the cosmetic queen lived in the neighborhood, as did film director Roman Polanski), we do indeed find tickets for a concert at the Galicia Jewish Museum, not far from the Old Synagogue—featuring a brilliant young trio playing among the Holocaust exhibits.

Klezmer Concerts in Krakow

Klezmer Flyer

This award-winning ensemble call themselves Di Galitzyaner Klezmorim http://www.klezmorim.pl/rameng.html. They perform for an audience of about twenty, including six from our tour group; it should have been two thousand. We recognize half the music from New York performers and recordings. The soulful clarinettist, tall even before climbing into her spike heels, is too young to have studied with Argentine clarinettist Giora Feidman in Israel, but her energetic, tenderly sensitive playing say that she grew up listening to his recordings. Her amazing accordionist husband sounds four-handed, and the bassist turns his hollow instrument into a percussion section without warning.

Entrance to the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Mine Entrance

 THE ENTRANCE TO THE CELEBRATED WIELICZKA SALT MINE lies inside an unassuming building a short drive from Krakow. Immense chamber after chamber of rock salt has been excavated from its depths since at least the 11th century. Only a few years ago did it become uneconomic to exploit further. Today, only tourists and employees traverse the mine’s many numbered tunnels and ride its narrow, double-decker elevators. The smooth-worn rock salt of the tunnel walls is translucent gray, and the new deposits leached out by dripping water resemble upside-down snow, but the salt sold in the souvenir shops on the surface is pink. 
A Passage in the Salt Mine

Salt Mine Passage

The marvels below decks begin with endless tunnels, widening into chambers of varying sizes, holding and displaying figures of miners, horses, and mining machinery (all of it wooden, as are all the old and modern bracing and walkways). With little warning, tunnels open into immense caverns, subterranean pools and canals, vertical shafts, and various memorials, shrines, and placements of whimsical figures of trolls, gods and kings.

Kinga's Subterranean Chapel

Kinga's Chapel

We enter two chapels during our two-hour exploration. One of them, Kinga’s Chapel, is immense—and intricately decorated by three highly talented miners with salt reliefs of Biblical scenes, Leonardo’s Last Supper, and many large figures.
Last Supper carving in Kinga's Chapel

Last Supper Carving

Chandelier carved from rock salt

Kinga Chandelier

Our guide shows us that if one places a camera, with flash and timer turned on, on a small tile just under the central chandelier, carved entirely out of salt crystals, the result is a brilliant image of its wagon-wheel form. From the chapel, we continue our descent to the lowest level currently offered to visitors, about 450 feet below the surface. One long descent down a wooden stairway towards the warm glow below needs only the appropriate soundtrack and the smell of brimstone to simulate a descent into Dante’s Inferno.
Descending in the Salt Mine

Salt Mine Descent

This salt mine is a gold mine. Centuries ago, about a third of Poland’s income came from sale of the salt excavated here. Today, its expanses bring new revenue from tourism and space rentals for concerts and parties. Restaurants serve meals, church services bring worshipers, and the mine attracts throngs of explorers armed with cameras instead of pickaxes.