Kraków, inside out
A couple heads towards Wawel Hill. (Matt Munro/LPI)
From snowy walks through a fairytale castle to warming hot chocolate and cherry vodka, embrace and escape the cold on a winter’s break to Poland’s second city.
Sugar and spice and all things nice
With its higgledy-piggledy streets and cobbled alleyways, Kraków is a city that lends itself to afternoons of contemplation in tucked-away cafés. Hours can tick by sitting at a window, hands warmed by a cup of hot chocolate, watching people in thick fur coats and hats wending their way through the wintry mists of the city.
A walk through Kraków is like following a fairytale trail of breadcrumbs - around every corner a new place offers something sweet, from gingerbread biscuits to cranberry fritters to poppyseed cake. 'In Kraków, we believe sweet things help to keep out the cold,' says Arek Liskiewicz, a university student and a waiter at Pod Aniolami restaurant (ul Grodzka 35; podaniolami.pl), where the baked dense apple cake is a specialty.
Inside a 13th-century building, the restaurant's thick, stone walls are the colour of butterscotch. The tweeting of a caged canary punctuates the evening chatter that fills the warm room. I take my slice of famed apple cake, served with a pool of custard, to a spot by a roaring hearth spitting crackling flames. In times gone by the premises were occupied by local goldsmiths, who used the fireplace to melt precious metallic nuggets before thwacking them into shape on an anvil that now hangs from the cellar ceiling.
The sugar trail takes me next to the Wedel Chocolate Lounge (ul Rynek Główny 46; wedelpijalnie.pl) overlooking the city's grand square - a place seemingly transplanted from a turn-of-the-century novel. Waitresses in starched aprons make their way around a room filled with cushioned banquettes, its white walls rising to a vaulted ceiling that cocoons customers from outside chills. I join them for a treacly glass of hazelnut hot chocolate before making my way out, passing shelves stuffed with be-ribboned pralines as the bittersweet aroma of cocoa dust catches in my throat.
Following the maze of back streets to Café Camelot (ul Sw Tomasza 17; 00-48-12-421-0123), its glass panes misted with condensation, I realise how Hansel and Gretel must have felt when they found their gingerbread house. Walking through the door is like opening the window on an advent calendar: the walls are painted a vivid raspberry, and wintry draughts are kept at bay by thick red curtains across stone doorways. At a snug table next to an old-fashioned black iron stove I drink a Moulin Rouge tea - a mélange of rooibus, strawberry, raspberry, hibiscus and rosebud, chased by a shot of Wisniowka (cherry vodka): as sweet as something 40 per cent proof can be.
Bask in an eternal summer
Kraków's white-grey winter gives it the look of a city cloaked in pigeon feathers, but at the Franciscan Church (pl Wszystkich Swietych 5, south of the Old Town Square, opposite the Archbishop's Palace) I find a palette worthy of a bird of paradise. One of the city's 120 religious buildings, the 13th-century church has a stunning art nouveau interior designed by Stanislaw Wyspianski. When the church was renovated in 1895, the Polish artist covered the walls in a blaze of colour, painting over-sized water lilies and pansies in purple, green, yellow and orange. Looking at the vivid panels, I am transported to a sun-drenched picnic on the edges of a bluebell wood. Bright, winter light is filtered through an extraordinary stained glass window, which depicts the bearded figure of God surrounded by vibrant flames of turquoise and inky blue.
Wyspianski's imaginative designs also decorate the windows of Kraków's historic St Mary's Basilica (Rynek Glówny 4, entrance from side of Plac Mariacki), the imposing Gothic church adjacent to the main market square. Inside, the vaulted ceiling rises above me like a giant Fabergé egg, its cerulean blue panels overlaid by hundreds of golden stars. The church's interior is a gloriously assembled patchwork of styles: blazing pink and red stone panels dotted with gilt-cloaked religious figurines and an imposing organ, heavy with pewter-grey pipes.
Music to warm the soul