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Krakow, Old and New

Krakow, Poland

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Krakow is a city of curiously haunting beauty. It was spared major destruction in World War II and boasts striking buildings, flamboyant monuments and a number of exceptionally beautiful churches. The collapse of the Soviet empire has brought new vigor to this jewel of Eastern Europe.

At the heart of the city is the Rynek Glowny - the largest medieval square in Europe. It's long been a marketplace and commercial center, and you'll frequently find yourself drawn back to the place during your time here. In the evenings the grand buildings and towering spires reassert their presence above the crowds - but you'll still find it a lively area. Around about is a fascinating network of passages leading to Italianate courtyard that house the cafés and restaurants that have sprung up since the fall of the communist regime.

Top of the list of visual attractions is Wawel Hill, with its castle, cathedral and the remnants of earlier fortifications. The Castle is one of the grandest royal residences in Europe; it used to be at the heart of Polish cultural and political life. The State Rooms have a fantastic collection of Flanders tapestries. Don't forget to look up at the ceiling of the Audience Hall - it's decorated with carved wooden heads. You can also check out five centuries of weaponry in the Armory Room. The Oriental Collection contains a sumptuous selection of carpets, banners and other loot seized during campaigns against the Turks and Persians. The Lost Wawel exhibition delves into the distant past of Wawel and is a must for archaeological enthusiasts. The Royal Cathedral is regarded by Poles as a symbol of national and spiritual identity. Even after the capital moved to Warsaw Polish monarchs continued to be buried here in the Royal tombs along with many of the nation's heroes. The Zygmunt Chapel is particularly interesting - it houses the largest bell in Poland - over six feet in diameter and weighing almost eleven tons.

In complete contrast is the Nowa Huta - a vast steelworks intended by the Communists as the symbol of a bright industrial future that would outshine Krakow's despised Catholic, intellectual and artistic past. The peasants weren't cooperative and the dream didn't work out, but there's still a daunting collections of steel mills, smokestacks and grimy, decaying housing blocks. The city of Krakow is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but the industrial area earned a rather different tag: 'ecological disaster area'. The Nowa Huta became a centre for Solidarity-era opposition activity and any local will be keen for you to see this darker side of Krakow.

Kazimierz district was home to Krakow's Jewish population and although the Jews perished in the Holocaust many of the buildings survive: Yiddish inscriptions on doorways, a ruined theatre and old synagogues are a poignant reminder of a vanished culture. Recently the area has undergone something of a revival on the back of the movie Schindler's List, much of which was filmed in and around Kazimierz. Across the river you'll find the wartime ghetto, quiet and rather rundown. The old ghetto pharmacy is now a museum containing a record of life and death in the wartime ghetto and the Plaszow concentration camp. Jews were regularly deported to the death camps at Treblinka and Birkenau from the square where the pharmacy stands. The Emalia Enamel Factory run by Oskar Schindler still stands, but these days produces electronic components.

If churches are your thing then you'll be spoilt for choice. Perhaps the biggest draw is the Church of St Mary, built to rival the Cathedral on Wawel Hill. The great basilica and its side chapels contains an exceptional number of important works of art - there's a fifteenth century crucifix and the vast Gothic Altar of the Virgin. The Franciscan Church is renowned for its interior decoration: Art Nouveau murals and glorious, unusually moving stained glass windows. On a small hill known as Skalka - the rock - you'll find the Pauline Church and monastery - impressive examples of Baroque architecture.

Thanks to the university, life in Krakow has a buzz that's still absent from other Polish cities, even Warsaw. There's a long established tradition of cabaret and jazz you shouldn't miss. The post-Communist era may have revolutionized Krakow's cafe and bar culture but it seems that old eating habits die harder. Traditional, canteen-style milk bars - jadlodajnia in Krakow still offer the old favorites: cabbage stew, dumplings and potato pancakes - mmmm! If this doesn't sound appetizing you'll be pleased to know that getting a genuine McDonald's is no longer a problem. If you're after a more upmarket dining experience you may be in for something of a letdown. This romantic city is still going to fill you with an uninspiring combination of soup, meat and starch!

Don't let the food put you off - you'll visit few cities as full of life and beauty as Krakow.

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