Kraków, Poland - A beautiful bubble
I arrived in Poland without high expectations. After all, it’s impossible to escape the immigrant-bashing media telling us how hoards of Poles flock to Britain to live in damp, overcrowded terraces on the North Circular while working for next to nothing. If it was so nice, why would they be so eager to leave?
On stepping off the plane (Easyjet £140 return) we were herded into a large tent for passport control, the luggage ramp crudely passing through two holes cut in the canvas sides. Things must be even worse here than I had thought, unable even to afford proper airport structures! Thankfully, it all moved quickly and before long I was jumping in a taxi and heading for my hotel.
As we drove over the main highway into the city, bland industrial buildings and the mammoth structures of familiar warehouse brands floated past. Looking for some Swedish meatballs and a flat pack chair on your visit? Ikea has you covered.
It’s worth noting that at this point I became quite distracted by the fact that the taxi driver insisted on maintaining a constant 30cm distance from the car in front. Judging by the rest of the cars on the road, that’s considered a safe distance for motorway driving in Poland.
As we pulled into the Old Town, (as well as thanking my lucky stars for having survived the motorway) I decided that my preconceived ideas were probably correct; despite a magnificent history of bravery and nobility, the invasion by Nazi Germany and subsequent 40 years of Communism had taken their toll and it would take more than EU membership and Scandinavian furniture to restore it to its former glory.
How wrong I was.
Nowhere else in Krakow impresses quite as much as the main square. Located in the heart of the Old Town and Europe’s largest open square, Market Square is flanked on all sides by the umbrellas of open-air cafes and restaurants, while stunning renaissance architecture and gorgeous gothic churches fill your view in every direction, all of it immaculately maintained.
The atmosphere is every bit as enthralling. Street performers josle for attention amongst all the hussle and bussle of children playing and fountains pouring. Horse drawn carriages trot selfie-stick wielding tourists round the perimeter, while a bride cuts through the crowd clutching her groom, searching out the best spot to capture their special day.
At the centre of the square is the Cloth Market, a huge Renaissance building incorporating museums and cafes as well as the market stalls (sadly all selling the usual tourist tat). It makes London’s closest comparison; Covent Garden, look like a village square. So magnificent is this square that it was even listed as “Best Public Space in Europe” by The Project for Public Spaces.
The cities’ grandeur does n’t stop at Market Square either, visiting the incredible museum under the square (which was excavated in 2006) you discover the city's prominent medieval history as a center of European trade. Walking around the stunning Wawel Castle culminates in a panoramic view out over the river Vistula, as runners, cyclists and rollerbladers glide along the waterside paths like something out of an advert for Californian life.
As evening closes in, a drink and some food on one of the many riverboat bars proved a great way to wind down, while a stop at one of the many themed bars located in the more bohemian Jewish quarter pulls you even deeper into the cultural history of Krakow. One such bar was ‘Propaganda’, styled in 1980’s communist decor and filled with so many retro items of that era that it almost felt like a museum. Shoreditch hipsters eat your heart out!
Having discovered all this, I felt a little embarrassed with myself. Far from a city that had been degraded from a difficult past, Krakow really feels like a modern European cultural centre. They are even building a new airport. Cue delayed “oooooooohhh”.
Of course it’s not all sunshine and roses (although talking of sunshine, did I mention the weather was a scorching 30+ the whole time I was there?). Step out of the tourist bubble that is the Old Town and Jewish Quarter, and things get a bit more real. The perfectly maintained buildings quickly morph into walls of crumbling concrete, which you are surprised to find are not derelict when someone casually steps out from the front door. The street corners and park benches entertain tired looking aging men, clutching cans of beer, while trams that look like they are from the set of an east German film screech past.
Wondering around you don’t get the feeling that the people who live here are quite as impressed with its cultural and historical restoration. Smile are few and far between and service is, although effective, generally provided with an air of begrudgery. But then if your hourly wage was less than the coffee you were serving, you might not be smiling either. Poland is a cheap place for us Western Europeans to visit, but for the people who live and work here, it’s far from it.
Despite the economy having nearly doubled in size since Poland joined the EU in 2004 and although they lead the way of all former communist countries in terms of growth, unemployment and wages, the average person still earns less than half that of a Brit, while minimum wages are less than a quarter of those at home. That’s if your Polish employer even pays you minimum wage, loopholes to get around them are easily jumped through.
By the time my short stay in Krakow was up, I had mixed feelings about the place. As a city getaway it’s hard to beat. Beautiful, cheap, overflowing with culture and history and decent food, along with a vibrant nightlife, make it an ideal destination for pretty much anyone.
On the other hand, walking around Krakow, it feels a bit like a real-world Disneyland, complete with fairytale castle, ready to enchant visitors in a specially choreographed performance. Behind the veneer however, there are clearly still numerous challenges for the people of Poland. Perhaps this is why so many Poles still feel they would rather try their luck in London.
So should you visit Krakow? Yes, absolutely! And enjoy everything she has to offer, I promise you won’t be disappointed. But when your waitress walks over with that cold, begrudging look on her face, remember where you are and leave her a good tip.
Don't judge a person's behaviour if you don't fully understand the circumstances which are causing them to behave like that.