Hmm! Cheap rooms in central Krakow? My old computer wheezes and gurgles. With a high Zloty and a low buck, "Cheap" would buy a "heavenly bed" and a double Jacuzzi at home.

Aha! Here's one. Let's see if the availability light flashes red when I punch in my dates?

The taxi driver throws me a quizzical glance as we head deep into the suburbs? Turns out that "15 minutes from downtown" involves a midnight dash at the wheel of a Ferrari. Superfluous information for an ageing backpacker driving a well-worn pair of Rockports.

"The bus and tram combination should only take 25 minutes," assures the pretty receptionist, adding sniffily: "Most guests of The Hotel Lorenzo arrive by car."

Poland has experienced a bumpy history. Endlessly invaded over the past 1000 years. Six million killed during WW11. Home to the Nazi horrors of Auschwitz and Bikenau. It finally emerged from Russian rule in 1989 with pride and religion firmly intact.

Joining the European Union in May 2004 has brought a new level of optimism. Polish plumbers are fleeing the complexity of British bathrooms in droves. "It's not that we're great tradesman - Poverty is the mother of invention," laughs a recent returnee.

Krakow is Poland's worthy UNESCO crown jewel. It has joined the legion of weekend getaway spots for UK revellers, thanks to frequent easyJet flights from London.

The royal capital for 500 years remains suprisingly unscathed. Not unlike Prague, its remarkable medieval and renaissance buildings are getting a cash infusion from EU grants and a tourist boom.

It hasn't hurt that Karol Jozef Wojtyla was Archbishop of Krakow before becoming Pope John Paul 2nd in 1978. An eerie lifesize photograph of His Holiness waving to the crowds is still pasted to a 1st floor window of The Bishops Palace at #3 Franciszkanska Street.

The action is in Market Square - Rynek Glowny. Accordionists and violinists vie for space with match sellers and balloon peddlers. Wanna buy a dragon-on-a-string? Small hands reach up for sticks of candyfloss. The bagel man relaxes in his, near-empty, kiosk after an early morning rush.

The Anne Boleyn poser terrifies children with occasional jerks from a headless body.

Niftily garbed drivers, at the reins of grand caleshes, try to tempt beer swilling patio customers into taking a city tour.

When the bugler proclaims the hour from the tallest tower of St Mary's Church, it's easy to ponder the past.

700 years ago, villagers wheeled goatskins and root vegetables to this square by oxcart, hoping to turn a zloty and catch-up on gossip. Vendors gathered in "Cloth Hall" to sell bolts of woven wool instead of today's tourist trinkets. The bugle call signalled imminent attack or closing of the city gates.

Fine cities grew up beside navigable rivers. Treed banks of The Vistula, are filled with picnickers, joggers and artists sketching Wawel Castle.

Poland's political nerve centre and Royal residence for 600 years stands majestically at the top of Wawel Hill. Swedes, Prussians and Austrians all had a go at ransacking the place before World War 2, so at the first sign of sabre rattling, treasures were crated and shipped to Canada. Just as well. The castle was seized again. This time by Nazi Governor Hans Frank.

The bank of Canada returned all artefacts in 1959 and with renovations completed Wawel Royal Castle is now open for business. Five museums offer a glimpse into an erratic past. Don't miss the Royal apartments, 16th century tapestries, or a weird bundle of (magic?) prehistoric animal bones hanging beside the Cathedral entrance!

At night ancient cellars become hot discos, bars and clubs. If you tire of Polish fare, (It's not all perogies and potato fritters - Polish chefs work wonders with fish and game), have no fear. There are Brazilian, French, Chinese, in fact the full international gamut of eateries to choose from.

When you bore with meandering through back alleys, ogling cherubs, gargoyles and tiny museums set in medieval courtyards. When magnificent altars become a blurr. Take a minibus ($.90) to the 13th century Wieliczka Salt Mines and visit the only church built entirely out of salt (including the chandeliers) 200 meters underground.

Touring Auschwitz and Birkenau, a mere 1 1/2 hours away, is a sobering experience. Witness human behaviour at its most depraved. Our guide lost two uncles to the death camp, and in a voice wracked with emotion, she made us promise to tell the world what we had seen.

Krakow should keep most people enthralled for 3 or more days (A lifetime for history buffs!) I rather enjoyed being a commuter and a part of daily life instead of just a tourist in this magnificent city!

Authors Note: Poland is huge and few tourists venture beyond famous sites. I headed North towards The Baltics, (Leaving The Tatra mountains for another visit), by train. Lublin, is an ideal base to take minibuses to Zamosc, another UNESCO town, and the chalk mine at pretty Chelm, founded in the 10th century.

Further North, in Bialystock, I rented a car and was rewarded with magical countryside. The tiny Ruthenian villages of Soce, Pulce and Trzeslianka were frozen in time. Horses ploughed fields. Traditional wooden houses were decorated with gingerbread trim. Wells and root cellars lay hidden among the sweet peas. Prayers were held in Orthodox wooden churches - Some miniscule - Others grand. Bicycles replaced cars. Poles, like Canadians, love their forests, lakes and rivers. Take time to visit the real Poland!



GETTING THERE: From London Gatwick - easyJet to Krakow

VISAS: Not required for Canadians.

COSTS: Two Star hotels around C$100 usually include breakfast. Book early!

GETTING AROUND: Buses, minibuses and trains are plentiful and reasonable. My train ticket from Krakow to Lublin - 270km's - C$28. Car rental runs around C$65 per day due to high insurance/theft rates. (They disappear over the Belarus border.)

SAFETY: Poles are charming helpful people, however thieves and pickpockets do exist, particularly at Krakow train and bus stations and in crowds. Always keep valuables under your clothes.

GUIDEBOOK & WEBSITES: I used Lonely Planet and find www.kayak.com invaluable for worldwide flight deals.
http://www.krakow.pl/en/ Krakow official tourism website.

NOTE: Life in Poland is still a struggle but the towns and villages are immaculate and fascinating. Many people do not speak English but each day I experienced another act of kindness. They deserve to do well. AR



Copyright © 2009 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.