Malaysian tourist enjoys history, culture and cheap eats in Krakow, Poland

Cloth Hall, considered the world’s oldest shopping mall. — Photos: WEE HON KOO

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My wife and I visited Krakow in Poland recently, a city known for its history, mystic, beauty, salt mines and dark past involving the Nazi.

The city had long existed before it was rebuilt in the 13th century after being destroyed by invaders, and much of it has remained the same.

We checked out the Wawel Royal Castle, where legend claims that a mystical king had slayed a dragon; the same king then built Krakow. The dragon still “haunts” the place ... as a sculpture that breathes fire to delight castle visitors.

Meanwhile, three giant bones hang at the entrance of Wawel Cathedral, and they have apparently been there since the 16th century. Scientists later identified them as being mammoth, whale and rhino bones.

Krakow was once the capital of Poland until a king conducting alchemy experiments burned down half of the Wawel Castle. He relocated to Warsaw while the castle was being rebuilt but took a liking to the town and decided to make it the capital instead. Until today, citizens of Krakow still declare it to be the rightful capital of Poland, much to the umbrage of those in Warsaw. We couldn’t hear the end of this bickering, as we visited Warsaw too.

Inside Wawel Cathedral where many kings and famous Poles are buried, also hangs the Sigismund Bell. According to legend, as long as the bell stays in the cathedral, Krakow will never be harmed. Touching the clapper supposedly brings good luck, too.

The museums, royal garden, and the dragon den nearby are also worth visiting.

A salt mine chamber where the figures, floor, ceiling, staircases and chandeliers are all carved from salt.A salt mine chamber where the figures, floor, ceiling, staircases and chandeliers are all carved from salt.

Krakow old town is surrounded by a breezy park with mature trees. It was previously the city’s moat, but turned into a park thanks to the generosity of a gambler who donated his winnings to the development. This was when early city forefathers had other plans for the place, as well as the city walls.

But the walls were not as fortunate as the moat, as only the Barbican outer-wall fortification post remain standing today. It is said this wall stops the strong winds from blowing into the city, which often resulted in ladies’ skirts getting lifted, revealing their ankles. This was considered scandalous back then.

Behind Barbican is St Florian’s Gate, a Gothic tower and entrance to the city with parts of the renovated city walls. Nearby is the Czartoryski Museum which houses Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady With An Ermine painting.

Near the Barbican is the Grunwald Monument, put up to commemorate one of the most important battles in Polish history, the Battle of Grunwald. This was when Polish and Lithuanian armies defeated the Teutonic German army in 1410.

Krakow has numerous museums catering to varied interests so you may want to visit at least one of them.

The Poles are a religious people, and churches and monasteries are sprinkled throughout the city. Krakow was also where Saint John Paul II studied, became a bishop and then cardinal, prior to becoming the Pope.

Krakow old town is a labyrinth of cobblestone streets where pedestrians rule and beautiful and elegant period buildings lined the pavements, all leading to the massive Main Square.

St Mary’s Basilica, where a trumpet is played from the taller tower every hour.St Mary’s Basilica, where a trumpet is played from the taller tower every hour.

You may hear a faint trumpet sound when you are in the square. This traditional note is played from the tallest tower of St Mary’s Basilica at every hour. The basilica is Krakow’s iconic cathedral with its beautiful blue-and-gold painted ceilings.

At the altar is a magnificent 12-panel wood carving depicting the life of Mary.

The Town Hall Tower, a small church, Mickiewicz (Polish poet) Monument and the impressive Cloth Hall can be found around the square, surrounded by elegant buildings, restaurants and beer halls.

The Cloth Hall is a long central hall that houses souvenir shops, many of which sell amber. Beneath the hall is an underground museum showcasing the passage of time – the historical development of the square.

Krakow is sadly synonymously linked with the Auschwitz concentration camp and Schindler’s Factory. We decided not to visit Auschwitz and went instead to Schindler’s Factory and checked out the ghetto area where the Jews were interned. It was more than enough to feel downcast and depressed.

To remedy the glum, we went to one of the two salt mines, Bochnia. Located deep underground, the guided tour through tunnels of salt into massive chambers in cool invigorating air, was stunning. We were shown how salt was mined with primitive wooden machinery and horses, and huge chambers with carved figures of salt. Some chambers are now used as venues for weddings and celebrations.

A vendor selling obwarzanek, a cheap and handy Polish snack.A vendor selling obwarzanek, a cheap and handy Polish snack.

Polish cuisine is scrumptious. Meat and seasonal fruit dumplings are delicious. Their hot-and-cold soups are tasty and hearty too. All these, and other local dishes, are served at cheap prices at any “bar mleczny” restaurant, a Polish cafeteria that’s also a throwback to the Communist era.

Zapiekanka, an open-faced baguette with numerous types of toppings, is best eaten at Plac Nowy, a rotund building with multiple outlets selling this popular street food. The most popular dish, however, is “obwarzanek”, a savoury bagel sold all over the city.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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