Charismatic Krakow

You don't have to look far to see evidence of the devotion that the people of Krakow have for their former archbishop who became the first Polish pope.

John Paul II pops up all over the place, in icons and other religious memorabilia, including a statue deep underground. It is made of salt, located in the amazing salt mines of Wieliczka about 40 minutes drive from the city.

The mines are a must-see on the list of things to do in the tourist magnet of Krakow, once the royal capital of Poland and for long the home of kings and saints.

It is a lovely and accessible city, built on a surprisingly grand scale. Beautiful historic churches are everywhere and several of them are regularly used for intimate classical concerts.

The splendid Wawel royal castle with its impressive state rooms and imposing internal courtyard sits high on a hill next to the majestic stone cathedral with its thousand-year history, where John Paul once presided as cardinal-archbishop.

The popularity of the Wieliczka mines is much in evidence in the crowded tours which fill their salty depths. You can literally lick the salt off the walls in the centuries-old tunnels and vast caverns, some holding man-made lakes and sculptures carefully crafted by the miners over the centuries.

The crowning glory of any tour is the underground church with its altar and religious figures carved out of salt, as are the vast chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It is still used as a church, unlike the mine itself, which is too expensive to operate. Salt is now imported from Pakistan and other countries.

Tours are easily booked at little tourist offices scattered around the city.

If you want to visit John Paul's actual birthplace, the town of Wadowice is about 50km south-west of Krakow and you can take a bus or join a tour. The Pope's family home has been turned into a museum but it is closed for renovations until the end of the year.

The pope was a devotee of the national Shrine of the Black Madonna, the spiritual heart of Poland, located in the imposing hilltop monastery at Jasna Gora, 130km from Krakow.

Trains leave regularly each day from Krakow station for the shrine which houses an ancient icon of the Madonna and Child, which tradition holds was painted by St Luke the Evangelist on a tabletop from the Holy Family's home and has miraculous powers.

Krakow itself is easy to get around, with most of the attractions within walking distance through picturesque cobbled streets. Electric carts whiz tourists around on day tours and public transport includes trams and buses.

For 400 zloty ($125) a night, we stayed in a modern and spacious two-bedroom apartment providing accommodation for up to six people. It was clean and comfortable, in a charming old apartment building close to the train station and historic town centre and a fresh produce market where you could buy fruit, vegetables, meat, bread and creamy home-made cottage cheese.

The old town square, surrounded by palaces, churches and elegant old townhouses, is dominated by St Mary's basilica with its two curiously asymmetrical towers, one shorter than the other. Legend has it that they were built by two brothers, one of whom was more skilled than the other, finishing his tower much more quickly.

The other brother, so the story goes, killed him in a jealous rage, leaving his tower short of his brother's achievement.

The square is alive with activity day and night, lined with alfresco restaurants, cafes and bars where you can eat cheaply and well. Elegant buildings around the square hide little restaurants, bars and shops you discover by exploring ancient arcades and walkways.

For about $25 each we had a dinner in the stone cellar of a restaurant in the square which serves up a challengingly generous feast of Polish fare. For starters there was a traditional plate of rye bread with lard studded with chunks of bacon, followed by black and white blood sausages, roast beef and chicken, red cabbage and bacon and plump dumplings filled with spinach, cheese and minced meat, all crowned with a centrepiece of a huge broiled pork knuckle.

Musicians strolled through the square at all hours ready to serenade diners, a rap group performed in the centre of the activity and living statues delighted in leaping out at passers-by and then posing for photos for the price of some coins in a hat.

At night local artists have paintings of the city for sale at the grand 16th century drapers' hall in the centre of the square which houses a teeming arcade of stalls selling souvenir-style craftware ranging from icons and other religious objects to chess-sets, babushka dolls, embroidered blouses and tableware.

At the other end of the scale, the modern train station where we arrived on an overnight trip from Vienna has a shiny new shopping mall filled with designer stores selling fashionable and fairly expensive clothing.

Most of the locals appear to leave them to the tourists and instead frequent the various cafes and food hall where you can get budget-priced fare ranging from goulash to the ubiquitous KFC and McDonalds.

At the unlikely venue of a Starbucks cafe we found a deliciously fresh and moist plum cake which could compete with any served up in a traditional establishment.

It is all very cool and modern. In fact it is such a contemporary as well as ancient city, proud of its impressive national heritage, that it is hard to think that not so long ago it was all very different, with a poverty-stricken Poland mired in the misery of Soviet tyranny. And the terrors of the nazi past cannot be forgotten.

There are several tours available to the ancient Jewish quarter and ghetto and the savage death camps of Auschwitz Birkenau, where the nazis killed about 1.5 million people. For anyone who has never been exposed to the evil that was done in such places, it would be a worthwhile, though sobering experience.

On a less serious level, if you want to take a trip back into the days of communist kitsch, you can do so courtesy of several tours recreating those times. Crazy Guides tours will take you on an "unforgettable trip down communist-era memory lane".

There are several options, one of which is a Socialist hero's welcome with a communist worker from the 1970s meeting you at the airport with salted bread, pickles and vodka and a traditional Polish greeting.

For $60 per car you will be driven to your hotel in a genuine "people's car", an East German Trabant. An extra $150 will get you a musical greeting from a Polish folk band.

As those crazy guides promise, like Krakow itself, it will be truly unforgettable.

It is hard to think that not so long ago it was all very different, with a poverty- stricken Poland mired in the misery of Soviet tyranny.

The West Australian

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