Stepping into a tiny lift to head 100 metres underground into a mine is a concert-going first for me. So is hearing one of today’s finest countertenors serenade a packed audience in a chapel made of nothing but salt. Yes, in St Kinga’s Chapel, the ‘tiled’ floor, ‘brick’ walls, ceiling, sculptures and even the chandeliers are all carved from rock salt. The 900-year-old Wieliczka salt mine, reopened as a tourist attraction, is a venue for the Misteria Paschalia Festival – a first-rate Baroque festival based in Kraków, Poland.

Now in its seventh year, the Misteria Paschalia Festival runs each Easter, bringing a starry line-up of Baroque performers to the second largest city in Poland. Over eight days, a series of concerts present programmes loosely tied to Holy Week: in 2010 ‘Passion and resurrection’ was the overarching theme, while this year it’s ‘faith’. Kraków’s historic centre is, so the story goes, home to 1,000 churches (and 1,000 restaurants), offering atmospheric concert settings as well as plenty of choice for a pre- or post-concert bite to eat.

The enthusiastic audiences and returning performers suggest that the Misteria Paschalia is becoming a festival circuit favourite. Viol maestro Jordi Savall, Les Musiciens du Louvre and Marc Minkowski, as well as the aforementioned countertenor, Frenchman Philippe Jaroussky, are all regulars.

Easter is a good time to visit Kraków, because, in this predominantly Catholic country, the city is famed for being home to the late Pope John Paul II. Crowds gather in front of the Bishop’s Palace, decorating the area with flickering candles in coloured glass holders. The 10-acre medieval Grand Square, dominated by a Renaissance covered market, is festooned with flowers and filled with stalls selling painted wooden Easter eggs.

But breathtaking churches and Easter traditions represent just one aspect of the city’s past. While the capital Warsaw was near obliterated in World War II, many historic buildings of Kraków survived unscathed. Yet its scars still run deep. Of the 65,000 Jews who lived there before the Nazi occupation, only 2,000 survived. The Podgorze ghetto was notorious for its inhuman conditions, while the Nazis built Auschwitz nearby. Past horrors have put Kraków on the tourist map for the wrong reasons – and now there’s an odd mixture of genuine memorial (in 2009, the World Orchestra for Peace commemorated 70 years since the start of the war in Kraków) and more unsettling examples of Holocaust tourism. After the war, the Communists moved in, heralding an industrial era that saw the ‘socialist realist’ suburb of Nowa Huta spring up to house workers for the country’s largest steel mill.

Kraków’s century-old buildings might have provided inspiration for the Misteria Paschalia Festival, but its darker 20th-century history has also been turned to artistic advantage. Off-beat venues such as Vladimir Lenin’s Steelworks, a chemical tinning plant, even Oskar Schindler’s factory provide the backdrop for its sister event.

Sacra Profanum, run by Filip Berkowicz, also artistic director of Misteria Paschalia, is an innovative new music festival that takes place in September, taking a different country as its theme each year. Both his concert series, Berkowicz explains, are a showcase for the latest and best in the worlds of Baroque and contemporary music. ‘You spend eight days in a beautiful city and you get to know all there is on the market,’ he says. ‘Kraków’s the city of kings and legends. It has architecture and history, but culture is surely the most important aspect. People call it Poland’s cultural capital.’ Or to put it another way, Kraków’s clearly a city that’s worth its salt.

Five musical highlights

Sacra Profanum
One of the world’s leading new music festivals, Sacra Profanum takes place each September. This year it will mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11 with the London Sinfonietta and Steve Reich’s Bang on a Can All-Stars (below).

Misteria Paschalia
Highlights of the 2011 festival include Bach’s Mass in B minor, and a salt mine excursion courtesy of the Venice Baroque Orchestra.

Opera Rara
Pergolesi’s L’Olimpiade and Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso and Alcina are in the diary for 2011. An offshoot of the Misteria Paschalia Festival, Opera Rara focuses on productions of rare 17th- and 18th-century operas.

Kraków Philharmonic
The Szymanowski Philharmonic Hall, named after the Polish composer, is home to the city’s resident symphony orchestra. This year the 80-strong ensemble performs music from Bach to Górecki.
Kraków Opera Created in 1954, the city’s opera company moved into a new purpose-built opera house in 2008. The current season includes Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Verdi’s Rigoletto.

The article 'A city worth its salt Kraków: Poland' was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.