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Travel & Holidays in later life


Warsaw is the political capital of Poland, but Krakow is the tourist and pub capital. There are 70-odd pubs in the centre of the Old Town, many in medieval cellars which stay open till the last customer staggers home. 

Unlike Warsaw, Krakow escaped World War II damage. Today it's a city of 750,000 inhabitants, of whom 64,000 are students at Europe's third oldest university. The best-known graduate was Pope John Paul II. 

Krakow's rank as a World Heritage Site has put Krakow at the top of Polish tourism. With so many visitors and students, nightlife is lively while costs are low. It makes an ideal short break destination. Year-round there's the nightly sound of jazz.

In this prime tourist spot, a beer costs half what you'd pay anywhere in Western Europe. There are eating places galore, ranging from Poland's oldest restaurant Wierzynek, dated 1364, to cafeterias that do a cheap,fast, lunch.

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No visas are needed for UK passport holders. 

Many visitors combine Krakow with time spent in Poland's prime mountain resort of Zakopane, only 67 miles away with frequent bus transport.

Every year, Krakow hosts over 50 special events, festivals and exhibitions including a  bubbling Student Festival called Juvenalia in May, Jazz Festivals in July and August, and a Jewish Culture Month in September. 


More information: Polish National Tourist Office, Level 3, Westgate House, West Gate, London W5 1YY.  Tel: 08700 675011

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Cloth Hall on Market SquareEverything focuses on the Market Square, among the biggest in Europe, 200 metres by 200 metres. The layout dates from 1257. Here you can enjoy your sightseeing sitting down in an outdoor cafe, enjoying people watching and letting the atmosphere wash over you. 

There are no traffic fumes, as only a few service vehicles like taxis are allowed inside the pedestrianised Old Town.

You can even take your holiday snaps sitting down: pictures of the Town Hall tower, of the medieval Cloth Hall, and of rival cafes and their coloured umbrellas and fences of flowers.

It's also quiet enough to enjoy the local sound-effects, like the clip-clop of hooves from horse-carts, laden with sightseers, rattling and shaking over the cobbles.

Then every hour from the watchtower of the Church of Our Lady, a bugle sounds forth, to end strangled in mid-note. It's a reminder of a 14th-century legend. A sentry blew the alarm of a Tartar attack, only to meet sudden death with an enemy arrow in the throat. The bugle call ending with the death-note is played live. In case you missed hearing the first time, it's repeated from each of the tower's four windows.

Capital of Poland from 1040 until 1596, central Krakow is packed with solid buildings that date from the city's Golden Age in 15th and 16th centuries. Krakow was ringed by double defensive walls, 47 towers, seven entrance gates and a moat. 

The walls were torn down in the 19th century and replaced by a broad green belt of parks and gardens called the Planty, which now serves as the boundary of the traffic-free zone. 

In the Market Square, every building offers decorative or historic interest. The central Cloth Hall was modernised in the 16th century. It's still in trading business, with stalls that sell all the 21st-century essentials: guide books, antiques, costume dolls, folk-art, paintings, glass, silver and amber jewellery.

The belfry of Church of Our Lady Last century, the old City Hall was demolished, but the Tower was left standing. The cellar is now a cafe and restaurant, reeking with atmosphere.

The Market Square is reached by a grid pattern of magnificent cobbled streets that are unchanged from centuries past. The main artery was the Royal Way, followed by medieval kings en route to their fortified palace, the Wawel, which looms over a curve of the Vistula River.

City Hall is determined to stay with the medieval look. It's good for tourism. Strict zoning laws ensure that post-war hotels have been built just outside the Old Town centre, along the more modern avenues that radiate like wheel spokes.

Trams and buses ply along these traffic arteries and follow the ring road around the Planty. Tickets, any distance, cost 50p each, while a 48-hour pass costs 3, or 72-hours for 4. Buses cover the 7-mile journey from airport to centre, or an airport taxi costs 8. Click here to check ticket prices.

Most city sightseeing tours start with Wawel Hill. By the 11th century AD, Wawel was already the base for the nobles who became rulers of all Poland.

Up the steep cobbled hill, an entrance gate leads to the Cathedral, where kings were crowned and later buried. From the 19th century, when kings went out of style, the Cathedral became the burial place for national heroes and poets, like a Westminster Abbey.

The Royal Palace was right next door. In 1596 the kings moved house to the more central city of Warsaw, but the Palace was still kept in good trim.

During medieval times, following persecutions in Western Europe, thousands of Jews resettled in Poland. Until the Nazi occupation, Jews numbered over a quarter of Krakow's population. During the war, the community was devastated, with mass removal to Auschwitz. Some escaped thanks to Oskar Schindler's now-famous List of 1200 names. The Steven Spielberg movie was made in the area called Kazimierz where the events happened. 

Jewish folk-music is a popular attraction at the Ariel restaurant Today, the Old Synagogue, built mid-15th century, functions as a historical museum. Otherwise, little remains. But two neighbouring restaurants called Ariel feature Polish-Jewish cuisine with traditional Yiddish music and folk songs.

For a gruesome reminder of past horrors, regular tours visit Auschwitz. Here is part of history which has become a pilgrimage.

More cheerful is a visit to the Salt Mines of Wielicza, 10 miles outside Krakow. 

A tourist route explores the galleries and rock-salt sculptures created by the miners, and even a cathedral where marriages are still performed. Symphony concerts are sometimes given in a high-roofed cavern with perfect acoustics, and an oom-pah band deafens visitors during the June-August peak season. 

Where else to visit in Central and Eastern Europe

BUDAPEST - Try a short break

MOSCOW - See the transformation for yourself

PRAGUE - Pulling back the Czech curtain

SLOVAKIA - for old-time price levels

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Krakow Insight Pocket Guide - Excellent for the short-stay visitor, suggesting a choice of 15 itineraries and excursions, with ten maps.

Traditional Polish Songs - If you forget to buy Polish folk-song CDs while you're in Krakow, recapture some of the memories with this collection.

The Rough Guide to Poland - A good choice if you want to stay longer in Poland, beyond a city break weekend in Krakow. 

Krakow (Thomas Cook Travellers S.)  - covering the full range from historical sightseeing to pubs and restaurants, with details of the available out-of-town day trips.

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