A fairy-tale city of culture

Mags Gargan takes a sightseeing tour of Krakow

"The Polish are the Irish of the East,” our guide Krzysztof Ciacma tells us, as he escorts an Irish group on a walking tour of Krakow.I had not come across this expression before, but we do have a history of being underdogs, we are both Catholic countries and we share a similar sense of humour. Also, not only has Ireland become a popular destination for Polish emigrants, but since the European Cup Final last year, Poland has become a popular holiday destination for the Irish.

In 2015, Krakow, the cultural capital of Poland, will be inundated with young, enthusiastic pilgrims attending World Youth Day, but in the meantime Polish Catholics will have reason to celebrate next April when their local hero, Blessed Pope John Paul II is canonised.

Pope John Paul II

It is impossible to come to Krakow without coming across a statue or picture of the late Pontiff. “Pope John Paul II is a hero,” Krzysztof says. “He is a source of pride and patriotism, and we need him now more than ever.”

Before being elected Pope, Karol Wojtyla lived in Krakow for four decades – his formative years as a student and a young priest, then progressing from a humble curate at St Florian’s church to university professor to Archbishop of Krakow to cardinal and to Pope.

To follow in the footsteps of John Paul II, the starting point would have to be Debniki, Krakow’s residential district. Born in the town of Wadowice some 30 miles southwest of Krakow, 18-year-old student Karol Wojtyla moved in to a Debniki basement room in 1938. The following September Nazi Germany invaded Poland and under their five-year-long occupation he was forced to work in the nearby Zakrzowek quarry while studying at an underground theological seminary.

Wawel Cathedral

In 1946 he said his first Mass in the 12th-century  Crypt of St Leonard’s under Wawel Cathedral where Polish kings and national heroes are laid to rest. Wawel Castle dominates the skyline of Krakow, with fairy-tale towers and turrets emerging from high brick walls. This wonderful architectural sprawl includes royal state rooms and apartments, the crown treasury, dungeons and even a dragon’s den – a cave formed 12 million years ago.

The requisite statue of Blessed Pope John Paul II stands within the castle walls facing Wawel Cathedral. This is where he was ordained bishop and visitors can see his bishop’s chair beside the magnificent High Altar used for the coronation of Polish kings for 400 years.

For 12 years the Polish Pope lived at the foot of the cathedral, at the splendid  Kanonicza street as both a priest and a bishop, and his former home has been turned into the  Archdiocese Museum where one can visit his old rooms.

Bishops’ Palace

A five minute walk will bring you to the gate of the stately Bishops’ Palace on Franciszkanska Street, whose ample first-floor rooms were home to Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from 1963 to 1978. After his election as Pope he stayed here once again on his visit to his native land and a picture fills a front window where he addressed the cheering crowds, and of course his statue stands in the palatial courtyard.

The Old Town in Krakow is a magical place. Passing a Barbican fortress through St Florian’s Gate to the Main Square you pass a wealth of beautiful medieval architecture. This is one the largest squares in Europe and houses St Mary’s Basilica – a rival to Wawel Cathedral – the 13th Century Sukiennice Cloth Hall which still functions as a market, and under the cobblestones is the amazing Rynek Underground museum. This exhibits Krakow’s rich history between the stone and brick walls of the cellars of former trading sites, transport routes and even a burial site. The interactive exhibits and dark environment would be particularly interesting for children.

Any visit to Krakow should include two forays outside the city. The first, to Auschwitz-Birkenau (70km to the west), is an incredibly affecting experience. Initially, destined for Poles and then prisoners of war, the camp was designed for human extermination through work. From 1942 it had become a place of mass extermination of Jews who were put to death in gas chambers. By 1945 about 1.5 million people were killed. Today the main gates, still holding the inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free), lead to the world’s largest memorial. Rooms with displays of luggage, human hair, glasses and shoes give some sense of the extent of the massacre that occurred here and there is a pervading atmosphere of being at the scene of some terrible crime. Among the exhibits a ledger listing the Jewish population in every country in Europe, shows that 4,000 Irish Jews were marked for extermination if the Nazis had landed on our shores.


Auschwitz was a Polish military barracks and had a capacity for 30,000 people. The neighbouring specially constructed Birkenau camp could hold 100,000 people with a railway track leading straight to the main gates. Passing row after row of wooden huts in Birkenau brings home the sheer number of people who lost their lives here.

Our second venture took us deep underground, to a happier time in Polish history. Touring Wieliczka Salt Mine is like entering a mysterious underground city over 300 metres underground. This labyrinth of 240km of corridors contains almost 2,400 chambers left behind by the mining process, which are filled with amazing underground lakes, saline sculptures, chandeliers of salt crystals, a collection of mining equipment and a ghost called The Treasurer!

Multilingual tours are available all year round. The average visiting time is three hours and although the tour involves about 800 steps, certain sections are wheelchair accessible. It is advisable to wear warm clothes even during summer, as temperatures underground are between 14-16C.

Miner’s Tavern

After a tour of the mine visitors can rest 125 metres underground and eat in the ‘Miner’s Tavern’. It is also possible to rent the fabulous ballroom chambers for concerts, banquettes and conferences, and according to our tour guide Marek Strojny the mine has hosted a half marathon, the Miss World competition, the first underground bungee jump and a balloon ride.

About 400 miners work at Wieliczka maintaining the mine’s structures to keep it safe for visitors. The mine still processes about 15,000 tonnes of salt a year which is filtered from salt water which must be pumped out of the mine to prevent flooding. This salt can be bought as table salt, bath salts and numerous other products in the mine gift shop.

Marek is a geography teacher, but has worked as a tour guide in the mine for 20 years and can now say “mind your head” in 154 languages, including Irish and Zulu! His two daughters and his uncle are also tour guides, which is indicative of how much employment it continues to provide in the area.

Retreats are offered in the mine in collaboration with the Benedictine Abbey and pilgrimage groups can follow their own Way of the Cross through the mine’s tunnels which is completed with Mass in the St John the Baptist chapel.

Underground chambers

Miners are very religious, not surprising in such a dangerous job, and amateur sculptors among their ranks have turned 40 underground chambers into chapels. The most impressive of these is St Kinga’s chapel, named after the patron saint of miners. Mass is celebrated for the public here every Sunday and it hosts 2-3 weddings a month. Three miners carved in the chamber, one after the other for 67 years, decorating the walls with biblical scenes, carving the altar and a full sized statue of Pope John Paul II. The altar has two relics, the finger bone of St Kinga and a drop of blood from the Polish Pope.

The specific microclimate of the mine also facilitates treatment of illnesses such as asthma, allergies, respiratory and pulmonary diseases. The underground atmosphere is unique – free of bacteria and pollution, rich in microelements, low in temperature and high humidity.

Guests can spend a few hours every day doing aerobic activities and breathing exercises in two underground chambers in a specially designed programme prescribed by doctors. It is also possible to stay overnight in an underground dormitory 135 metres underground.

Also, from meeting the fresh-faced miners and guides who work underground, it seems the mine’s atmosphere is great for the skin!


For more information on visiting Poland, contact the Polish National Tourist Office  www.poland.travel