The capital of Poland for 500-plus years until 1609, Krakow is a fantastic repository of historically important churches, houses, university buildings plus the hilltop Wawel Castle. The Market Square in Old Town, covering about 10 acres and sometimes described as Europe's largest surviving medieval square, is built around the distinctive 16th century Cloth Hall, clear evidence of the city's importance as a trade centre. Unquestionably, these UNESCO World Heritage Sites are not to be missed. But for the client who plans a long stay or needs ideas for a second visit, Krakow and its environs offer a unique perspective on the destination for those willing to go underground.
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Krakow's Historical City CentreThere are more than 100 cellars under about 18.5 acres of Krakow's historical city centre, according to literature distributed by local tourist authorities. Many of the vaulted spaces accommodate restaurants, clubs, cabarets and theatres. During a recent press trip, I had dinner inside the 13th century Gothic cellar that houses the Pod Aniolami (meaning Under the Angels) restaurant, a few minutes' walk from the Market Square. (View more photos from the trip, which also took in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, here.)
The space looked very much the part, especially with the memorabilia displayed on the stone walls and the heavy wood furnishings, which might not have been old but contributed to the atmosphere. Menus emphasize traditional Polish cuisine, and meats are cooked over a beechwood fire. Pod Aniolami accommodates 180 people, with a few tables located in the garden.
Some members of our group sampled the Piano Rouge, a lounge and restaurant featuring jazz, and a lot of pink in the decor. Located in a Market Square cellar, it offered the sounds of Nat King Cole, Billy Joel and soft jazz. But other cellars are considerably livelier.
Digging for salt at the Wieliczka Salt Mine dates to the 13th century, but since the 17th century miners and others have used the salt like marble to carve statues telling stories of mining, folk traditions, history and religion. The figures are found on several levels of the mine. The most impressive project is an active church, St. Kinga's Chapel, laid out in the 19th century.
It's a hard-to-fathom, open space just larger than a baseball diamond and four stories high, with numerous bas-reliefs carved into the salt walls. A statue of Pope John Paul II is a recent addition. The mine, 45 minutes out of Krakow, includes a ballroom, with WiFi hotspots, and may soon accommodate a hotel, our on-site guide said. A UNESCO site, the mine attracts 1.2 million visitors a year.