A royal room with a view
We arrived home from Poland just days before the country went into lockdown due to the coronavirus.
From Sunday, March 15, for a fortnight its government closed all its borders and banned all flights to and from Poland.
We came back to a wet and cold Nailsea on Monday, March 9, when foremost in our minds was if we would be able to buy any loo paper.
Those first frivolous thoughts have since been swapped to worrying initially about our family – their health and jobs – before focussing our concern for the future of everyone worldwide.
But having said this it hasn’t stopped me wanting to share our six days of happiness in the historic city of Kraków.
The old town of Kraków – pronounced crack-off – is an architectural gem steeped in history and until 1596 the capital of Poland.
Our fabulous five- star hotel, The Bonerowski Palace, dates from the 13th century and is in a prime location on the corner of Świętego Jana Street and the Old Market Square.
The blurb says it has been ‘meticulously restored and richly refurbished’ however, the refurbishment on the ground floor was still going on when we arrived (no prior notice of this) and when four members of staff got stuck in the lift for half an hour on day one we mostly had to use the stairs to our second floor suite – see photos.
It kept us fit unlike the advertised ’luxury spa’ which I never found open and the receptionist said was more like a ‘well-being centre’ – I think this refers to being on the third floor and with no lift you certainly feel a lot healthier for the climb? I did pick up a leaflet for a massage on desk outside!
Our upgrade to the best room(s) in the house – an apartment with a grand piano in the corner of one room - could have been due to the limited number of other guests staying out-of-season.
It was fantastic and from our balcony we could almost touch St Mary's Basilica and hear the bugle call from its highest tower but with triple glazing I can’t vouch that is was played every hour on the hour.
The hotel staff were the best we had ever encountered, nothing was too much trouble, running up the stairs with fresh milk to booking art centre film tickets, from finding us an electric cab to go sightseeing to sorting out return taxi to airport and then leaving us alone on hangover day (slightly embarrassed but too many Porn Star martinis).
For the uninitiated the cocktail is made with vanilla-flavoured vodka, Passoã,passion fruit liqueur and lime juice. It is traditionally served with a accompanying chilled shot of Prosecco.
We decided we will definitely go back and stay here.
The entire medieval old town is among the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's original World Heritage List and in the height of summer is usually wall-to-wall people.
I would equate the line of colourful horse-drawn carriages you could see from the hotel to the gondolas of Venice – a tourist attraction for those with money to spend, and your money goes a long way in Kraków.
The glamorous women dressed in black riding gear with top hats act like the sirens of Greek mythology to lure tourists (mostly males on stag parties and there were a few) to sample their wares. We were told they were often replaced at the last moment by an elderly coachman.
The weather for March during our stay was unusually warm and we met friendly fellow travellers from Bath, Beckenham, Kendal and Northern Ireland on our sight-seeing trips.
We walked around the castle and cathedral and would advise pre-booking online as all the attractions get busy, especially in high season.
On arrival from lovely Bristol Airport we went straight to the ATM at Kraków Airport and withdrew our Polish Zloty to pay the official taxi driver – a mere £23 half hour drive one-way.
HOTEL HEAVEN: Top looking at hotel from market square and slideshow of our beautfiul The Bonerowski Palace
To date our favourite city has been the child-friendly Stockholm in Sweden but Krakow has knocked it off my top spot and it isn’t just because the alcohol is much, much cheaper.
Unlike Stockholm with its double nay treble doors to keep the outside outside Krakow has steel shoe grates at its entrances and at the Bonerowski Palace Hotel the concierge staff armed with a carpet sweeper constantly brush the red welcome mat.
This is a clean, friendly city where all the young seem to speak English and the older people speak Russian – the Polish people we met didn’t seem to like either the Germans or those from the former Soviet Union but they had good reason.
What you notice first though is the city’s lack of diversity - it’s not multi-cultural in the slightest, not does it embrace ‘access for all’ – uneven steps, lack of handrails and an investment in more signage would be helpful.
There is no litter though but city is plagued with graffiti tags.
We travelled with easyJet and booked a suite at hotel for six days, five nights room only and the total cost of flights and accommodation was £1,131.58.
We ate breakfast at hotel on three mornings at an additional cost of PLN Polish Zloty 75 each - about £15.
Carol Deacon with a little help from husband Rob Deacon
MARKET SQUARE: First photo in slideshow is of the twin towers (or not so 'twin') of St Mary's Basilica, artwork from the upstairs gallery at the Cloth Hall (free on Sundays) and the demonstration for International Women's Day which inspired the menu of the restaurant we ate at later
AUSCHWITZ & BIRKENAU
We took a day trip to Auschwitz (pronounced ouchvits) – harrowing.
You have to go we decided to honour the many, many who lost their lives there.
Our driver Wojcek was very knowledgeable but when he said he would show a film on route I thought he meant a Hollywood movie not a scene setting documentary – there was little conversation in the mini-bus after watching this on the one hour journey.
We learned that initially the camp was a prison for the Polish intelligentsia before a death camp for the Jews and Roma.
One of the most awful facts our guide shared was nearly all the perpetrators of these terrible war crimes escaped punishment with the exception of the camp commandant and one former guard who wrote a book describing his time there ‘as the best years’ of his life.
The piles of empty suitcases, clumps of hair, discarded shoes, baby clothes and carefully documented photographs we saw on the tour of the brick barracks were heart-breaking and in stark contrast to where the family of the commandant lived. The tour included walking through both Auschwitz and Birkenau. The two camps are two miles apart and housed over 90,000 prisoners.
We asked our guide how did she do her job, day after day, in the midst of so much suffering and death? She said: “I feel it is my duty to educate people about the horrors of the past and hopefully prevent such genocide happening in the future.”
I thought after Ellis Island in New York I was almost immune to man’s inhumanity to man, but I couldn’t sleep that night...
JEWISH QUARTER & FORMER GHETTO
We were transported in a golf buggy from our hotel to the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz, which lies south of the Old Town on the banks of the River Vistula. Kazimierz has been the centre of the city’s Jewish community for more than 500 years. Our guide Miriam, of Wojcik Tours, gave us an entertaining and informative tour of synagogues, schools, cemeteries, cafes and bars of this bohemian part of the city including a 10-minute stop to explore the imposing Corpus Christi Church. During World War 2 the Nazis destroyed Kazimierz moving the Jews first to the ghetto on the opposite side of the river then by train to the death camps. Residents are today slowly moving back into the area including young descendants of those who died in Auschwitz/Birkenau. Miriam took us across the Vistula, to the site of the former Jewish ghetto. We visited Plac Bohaterow Getta. This market square was where the Jews unloaded their belongings before being allocated accommodation in the ghetto, prior to deportation to the death camps. Today the square contains several large iron chairs as remembrance art not street furniture all facing different directions as a reminder that when the ghetto was cleared in 1943, bits of abandoned furniture were all that left of Krakov’s Jewish community. We also drove past the factory where its owner Oskar Schlinder saved many Jewish lives and his story is immortalised in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film.
CHURCH OF SAINTS PETER AND PAUL
On route to the castle and cathedral we visited one of the most magnificent early baroque churches in central Europe in Grodzka Street. This is one of the oldest streets in Kraków and we passed the five star Hotel Copernicus and thought in high season this could be quieter location that the main square and certainly worth investigating.
WAWEL ROYAL CASTLE
Both the castle and the cathedral are within a 10- minute walk from the Market Square. We visited the castle under a blue cloudless sky, in warm sunshine. The castle was the official royal residence for Polish kings and queens for three centuries and was the headquarters of the Nazi governor general during World War 2. The castle fortifications and towers date back to the 15th and 16th centuries. We visited the crown treasury and armoury and admired a vast collection of swords, armour, muskets and cannons. The architectural highlight was the beautiful 16th century courtyard with its ornate columns and balconies. The castle is situated on a hill overlooking the Vistula and offers panoramic views across the city and the surrounding countryside. The outdoor café was fun, frothy beers and crumbly fruit pastries and big chats with fellow visitors from near and far.
THE ROYAL ARCHCATHEDRAL BASILICA OF SAINTS STANISLAUS AND WENCESLAUS (at the castle)
The 14th century cathedral with its baroque twin towers and spires majestically dominates the city skyline. We attempted to climb the Zygmunt Tower to see the largest bell in Poland, weighing in at nearly 11 tons, but we gave up before reaching the top of the tower as our ascent became increasingly cramped and claustrophobic. Back on the ground we enjoyed visiting the Zygmunt Chapel and admired the sculptures, stuccos and paintings as well as the beautiful silver altar.
ST MARY’S BASILICA
Back on Market Square, we visited the Church of St Mary (Kosciol Mariacki). Legend has it, that the two towers were designed by two brothers who were each determined to build the tallest and most beautiful tower in a fraternal competitive spirit. Unfortunately, the magnificent 15th century high altar with its ornate panels depicting the crucifixion, ascension and resurrection was undergoing restorative work and was obscured by scaffolding.