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Poland is leading the way for the countries of New Europe, as much of the old Eastern Bloc surges out of the Cold War and into the 21st century. Two world wars rolled across Poland's countryside and there is much remaining physically and emotionally. The borders shifted east and west, but since the 1990s and particularly since joining the EU, Poland is looking towards a bright future.

It was a family trip to Krakow in late 2014, for a family wedding uniting Scotland and Poland, that was my first foray into this part of Eastern Europe. Either we were lucky with the weather, or it's always that way in the autumn as there were warm, sunny days for much of the trip. As it was a celebratory visit, we elected to steer clear of Auschwitz which we felt would not have been appropriate to visit at that time.

Wawel Castle, Krakow

Wawel Castle on the banks of the Vistula River is the old fortified centre of Krakow, and a very grand place indeed. Built in the 14th century and remodelled over hundreds of years, it now houses an art gallery and museum. Our hotel was just along the riverside from here.

The Main Square of Krakow's Old Town, or Stare Miasto as it is locally known. The whole old town is a World Heritage Site, and it's clear to see why. Underneath the town square is a comprehensive exhibition of the town's history.

Krakow Main Square

Krakow sign

A tourist poses with the colourful Krakow sign in the main square, outside the Cloth Hall.

Inside the Cloth Hall, which now serves as a market place selling all sorts of souvenirs and bric-a-brac. It wasn't always this way, as the Cloth Hall was built as a major trading centre in the 15th century and dealt with all manner of commodities from far and wide.

Krakow Cloth Hall


Horses and drivers line the main square, ready to take tourists for a trot.

An altogether more elegant form of horse-drawn transport can be seen in amber, at one of the city's many amber shops.

Polish amber

Saints Peter and Paul Church

The Church of Saints Peter and Paul, on Grodzka leading up to the main square. It is the largest church in Krakow and was built in the early 17th century. I like this photo particularly for the texture of the sky, and the lined up statues in front of the church. Another Peter and Paul place I have visited is the fortress by that name in St Petersburg.

Karol Jozef Wojty or Pope John Paul II as he was latterly known, was of course Polish and turned around the eponymous phrase regarding a Pope's nationality. He was born in Wadowice, not far from Krakow, and served as Pope from 1978 until 2005. I was fortunate enough to see him in person in the Vatican just a few months before he died.

Pope John Paul II

Inside Wawel Castle

Inside Wawel Castle the grounds are kept very pretty and we sat in a cafe for a while in the sun. Amongst other works, the museum was exhibiting Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady With An Ermine", one of only four female portraits he painted, along with the Mona Lisa in Paris.

We also visited the Collegium Maius, part of the Jagiellonian University, Poland's finest. It was here that Nicolaus Copernicus studied, using such instruments as the Globus Jagellonicus seen here, the oldest surviving globe to represent the Americas, dating from 1510.

Jagellonian Globe

Church of St Joseph

The Church of St Joseph stands as a stark landmark on the south side of the Vistula. Despite its old appearance, it was built just after the turn of the 20th century. I took this as we were walking a circuit around the river near the old town.

The Vistula river wends around the south of the old town of Krakow, and is flanked with substantial embankments to contain it after heavy rains. Further downstream it flows through the capital Warsaw, before discharging into the Baltic Sea at Gdansk.

River Vistula

Jewish Quarter, Krakow

Krakow's Jewish Quarter was all but decimated during the war, with most of its population being holed up in the walled ghetto south of the river, and ultimately taken to Auschwitz or Plaszow. The recovery has been slow, but there is a small community building up again in Kazimierz. We went to this restaurant for dinner.

Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist, ran this factory in Krakow during the war. By recruiting workers from the nearby Jewish ghetto, he was able to prevent the deportation of over one thousand to the concentration camps. The story was portrayed in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's List".

Schindler's Factory

Krakow Jewish ghetto

The Jewish ghetto has been reintegrated as part of the city, however some of it is still in a state of disrepair. From this square the residents were deported at the liquidation in 1943. Each memorial chair represents one thousand people.

In the town of Wieliczka outside the city is one of the world's largest and oldest salt mines. We entered by walking down a shaft descending 64 metres underground, before following a series of tunnels over two miles until we were twice as far underground.

Descending into the salt mines

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The salt mine dates back to the 13th century, and it was amazing to see some of the woodwork and walk through tunnels built hundreds of years ago.

Throughout the mine are various statues and carvings all cut from rock salt, and produced by the miners themselves. This regal chap looks as if he's just stepped out of a dwarf mine in "Lord of the Rings".

Lord of the Rings

Salt mines chamber

A giant chamber deep underground, lit by rock salt chandeliers. Whilst the tour took all afternoon, we explored only a fraction of the mine's corridors, which stretch over one hundred miles.

Salty artworks abound in the mine, my favourite was this representation of Leonardo's Last Supper, complete without the doorway cut through it, as is the case with the original in Milan.

Salty Last Supper

Old beer truck

A historic beer truck leaves us in no doubt as to what's offered by this establishment.

Walking back to our hotel along an atmospheric leafy lane. This is a stretch of the park that encircles the old town completely.

Dark leafy lane

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2015