Off the beaten track, Kraków is full of hidden treasures
When Kraków Główny modernized at the front end of the millennium, the joining of its original 19th century building with a glinting new super structure felt like a symbolic bridging of the past with the tomorrow.
Honed in anticipation of the waves of visitors that would come, at a stroke it became the most impressive station in Poland. And yes, did the visitors come.
To think of Kraków, it is impossible to do so without envisioning the torrents of tourists that course through its streets.
Yet whilst the deluge may have temporarily dried to all but the laziest of trickles, it’s a given that these figures will recover once Covid is vanquished. And when that happens, the race will once again be on to find a corner of the city unimpeded by the masses: a Kraków unknown to the hollering horde.
In this respect, the city isn’t short on covert quirks and curiosities – things and places that somehow fall between the cracks when it comes to receiving the widespread adulation of the backpacker bibles and internet’s travel sites.
Falling into the category of “so bad that they’re good”, for me this includes a deft sprinkle of museums that have become cult attractions on account of their thundering kitsch, bewildering sense of naffness and mysterious power to compel and amuse.
Examples? Well, considering Floriańska’s somewhat tarnished reputation as a collection point for all things vulgar and tacky, it’s no surprise that two such places can be found on this very street: the first, a Cat Museum founded by Ukrainian war refugees containing over 1,000 feline figurines in a shoebox space of 15 square metres; and the second, a waxwork exhibition of such unbelievable quality as to leave you wiping away disbelieving tears of mirth.
Spanning two locations (one on the aforementioned Floriańska, the other on the Rynek), it’s in the Polonia Wax Museum that befuddled visitors end up walking a parallel universe as they try and identify the figures on display and match them to reality: whose the crazy homeless woman in the nice dress? Ah, Queen Elizabeth II. And that bunch of oddball Geography teachers? Maybe that’s The Beatles.
It is, have no doubt, hilarious, but not all of Kraków’s unknown gems are quite so cheerfully moronic.
For something under-the-radar in the most literal sense of the word, then a visit to Nowa Huta is essential. Boldly born as a Socialist Realist Utopia (though later better-known as a dysfunctional communist Dystopia), it’s in this outlying district that visitors can feel the paranoia of the Cold War era.
Firmly tucked from the tourists, its dehumanizing dimensions and bombastic boulevards are enough to give anyone a foreboding sense of doom, but to truly travel in the past then shuffle into the former Kino Światowid to explore the petrifying world of atomic war.
Yep, it’s here inside what is now the Nowa Huta Museum that the few who visit enter a heart of darkness to tour deep inside a former nuclear shelter. One of 250 built in Nowa Huta, its in these dank corridors that the nuclear nightmare becomes uncomfortably vivid.
Back out into the open, and it’s to Podgórze I recommend heading to find ancient, mystical history rubbing shoulders with a remarkable, abandoned piece of cinematic history.
Said to mark the burial spot of King Krakus, the city’s mythical founder, the 16-meter tall Krakus Mound is both the eldest and highest of the five man-made hills that surround Kraków and commemorate key local figures (for instance, freedom fighter Tadeusz Kościuszko). Extending an almost mystical aura, this is especially pronounced come sunrise and sunset.
Then, at its base, find a steep, muddy footpath leading down to the Liban Quarry. Steven Spielberg’s team constructed a full-scale replica of Płaszów Concentration Camp here for the filming of Schindler’s List back in the 90s and elements of the film set have survived the vicissitudes of time to poke out of the tangled, knotted undergrowth – among the bits and pieces, rusting pieces of barbed wire fences and, even, a pot-holed pathway made of fake Jewish tombstones. A favourite of wannabe’ explorers, it’s an eerie departure from Kraków’s main sights.
As bizarre and unexpected as this is, it’s majestically trumped by the existence of Elvis Presley Alley by Zakrzówek Lagoon. Apparently, it’s here, near the entrance to the forest, that Polish Elvis once gathered in the 70s to listen to The King and do whatever it is Elvis fans may do on the fringe of a forest.
Renamed Aleja Elvisa Presleya in 2006 after a campaign by Jan Blajda, the Vice President of the local Elvis club, a golden memorial stone was later added complete with the head of the singer mounted inside a silicon solution. Often adorned with flowers, these tributes hit a peak each year on the anniversary of his death.
But is this the strangest memorial in Kraków? Is it hell!
For that, go no further than Wawel itself. Set en-route to the Grunwaldzki Bridge, find here the memorial to Dżok the Dog, a faithful hound who was left sitting close by after his master keeled over with a fatal heart attack back in 1990.
For a year Dżok would wait patiently on this spot in the hope that his owner would return; fed by sympathetic locals, he was eventually taken in by a new owner only to later be splattered by a tram in 1998. Three years later, a campaign backed by various stars of stage and screen resulted in the erection of a monument that remains well-tended to this day.
“Most faithful canine friend ever, and symbol of a dog’s boundless devotion to his master,” reads the poignant inscription.
And on this note, no plunge into Kraków’s lesser-known glories can be complete without a drink in one of its speakeasy bars.
In this, Z Ust do Ust take it to extremes by requiring potential visitors to find their address through a series of coordinates and clues issued to their phone before entering via the mirror in an out-of-order toilet.
And whilst this venue looks to have closed permanently as a result of the pandemic, its equally secretive sister bar William Rabbit remains hopeful of survival, as too does the legendary Mercy Brown, an inter-war themed cocktail den whose covert atmosphere is accented by an entrance closely guarded by a hunched, gloomy night porter.
Attracting the city’s most glamorous night owls, it’s a fitting finale to any whistle-stop romp around Kraków’s less mainstream sights.
You can easily get to Krakow by PKP Intercity trains. From Warsaw the Pendolino takes about 2.5 hours, and from Rzeszów about 1 hour, 40 minutes. From Katowice it takes about 1.5 hours and from Wrocław less than 4 hours. Full information on connections is available at www.intercity.pl
This article was sponsored by PKP Intercity.