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A lonesome rabbi in a long black coat walks along Kazimierz's quiet streets bordered by brick walls paled pink by age. Founded in 1335 as an independent town, Kazimierz became home to Kraków's Jews after their expulsion from the main city in 1494. Today, it's imbued with an odd silence: a legacy of the extermination of the city's Jewish population under the Nazis. Before the war 60,000 Jews lived here; now, there are barely 200.

The 16th-century Remuh Synagogue (ul Szeroka 40; 00-48-12-429-5735) is the only active synagogue left in Kraków and its cemetery contains row upon row of tombstones inscribed in Hebrew, carefully restored after Nazi damage. Adam Libon, the synagogue's caretaker, tells me about his father, a 16-year-old Jew at the start of World War II - he was taken to three concentration camps before being rescued by factory owner Oskar Schindler, who took Jan to work in his Kraków enamelware factory. Jan survived, dying three years ago, aged 84. 'It is very sad that so many people had to leave here,' says Adam.

Pockets of traditional culture survive: across from the synagogue is Klezmer-Hois (ul Szeroka 6; klezmer.pl), a Jewish restaurant with lace tablecloths and sepia photographs of men with ringlets, who gaze down at us through the years.

Once upon Wawel Hill

Walking up the gentle snowcovered slope towards The Royal Castle, my breath a wisp of steam in the cold air, I am enveloped by the dream-like notion that I have been transplanted into a story by the Grimm Brothers. I almost expect to see a distressed maiden unwinding her long hair from one of the windows of the Gothic-era castle, with its onion-shaped domes and ochre-tiled roofs pressed against the winter sky.

Set at the southernmost tip of the Old Town, a limestone outcrop rising out of the cobbled streets and surrounded by the glistening waters of the Vistula River, it's easy to imagine fairytale royalty and mystical creatures in the grounds of Wawel Hill (wawel.krakow.pl). The castle has been the residence of Polish kings and queens for five centuries, and there's even a Dragon's Den - the damp cave beneath a line of turret fortifications is said to have housed a firebreathing beast that terrorised local residents in the city's early days. The ruler, Prince Krak, offered his daughter's hand in marriage to whoever could kill the dragon. Many died trying before a young cobbler struck upon a scheme to stuff a sheep with sulphur and leave it outside the animal's lair. When the dragon ate it, he became unbearably thirsty and went to the river to drink - and the water caused his stomach to swell until it exploded. The dragon died. And the cobbler? He and his princess lived happily ever after.

 

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