This post is a continuation of a series documenting our travels across the beautiful Central European country of Poland. We were now on the last day of our trip in the picturesque city of Krakow. We had spent the initial part of our last morning in Krakow roaming around the Stare Miasto / Old town just after dawn and had been fortunate enough to get some great skies for photography. (Krakow, Part 3 – Rynek Głowny at Dawn – A must do experience)
We had then returned to our Studio apartment in the Aparthotel Stare Miasto and had our breakfast there making sandwiches from the provisions we had bought on the previous evening. We then set out again to try our luck at climbing the tower of the St Mary’s Basilica.
The Tower of the St Mary’s Basilica is the highest point around old town and gives great views over Old Town. We are suckers for a good view and try to do at least one of these tower climbs in every town we visit. And for the record we have never been disappointed. The tower climb at St Mary’s is limited to 10 people at a time, for a half an hour slot on top of the tower. Tickets are only sold on the same day and had sold out when we had visited the basilica on the previous day.
So we reached the ticket office 15 minutes before it opens at 9 am and still found a few people waiting in front of us for the tower climb tickets. We had a 11 am tour booked at the Wawel castle, so we were hoping that we got the first or second slot for the tower climb. Otherwise we would have to take afternoon slots for the climb, which wasn’t ideal.
Fortunately we got tickets to the second slot up and soon we were waiting at the base of the tower, tickets in hand waiting for the first group to descend. The tower climb as in most church tower climbs in Europe is a mixture of tight spiral stone steps followed by steep wooden ones. Luckily here there is no vertical steel ladder for the final ascent. That is because the top viewing floor is not a open balcony but a closed room where the fireman who plays the hourly Hejnal ( See previous post or Google it) has his small office.
We were in a hurry to get up because of the limited time in the tower. So photos of the stairs would have to wait for the descent. We were fit enough to climb all of the 239 steps without stopping & soon we found ourselves on the top floor with windows for great views all around.
Admittedly an open balcony is always better ( Like the ones in Florence, Siena or Gdansk) but this was certainly much better than the cage enclosed balconies ( Like the one on top of St Peter’s Basilica , Rome). There were glass windows which you could open and get uninterrupted views in that direction. As there were only a limited number of people on the top there wasn’t any jostling for position, making it a very pleasant experience. It didn’t hurt that the views were spectacular too. So we went from window to window and took in the views. (And take a gazzilion photos!)
It is always great fun getting a birds eye perspective of monuments you have visited earlier. Also you will notice a green rim intervening between the old town and the modern city beyond. That is the very walkable Planty that replaced the old town walls and moat beyond.
Soon it was time for us to descend and let others enjoy this great view. So we took a few photos of the room itself and started our descent down. We didn’t see the fireman but I am sure he must not like being pestered by tourists for selfies and only come out of his room to play the hourly Hejnal.
We still had some time left so we descended much slowly than we ascended and took photos of the interesting climb.
We even stopped at the spacious intermediate floor where the wooden steps end and the spiral stone steps begin ( on your way down – reverse that on your way up). After looking around at the huge red brick tower extending above and below us for a while we started our descent down the tight spiral stone steps and stepped out into the square just in time.
It was a beautiful sunny day and the weather Gods had been kind to us after the incessant rains in Zakopane. So we meandered our way through old town towards Wawel hill where we had to collect tickets for our prebooked tour.
We stopped intermittently at the beautiful flower patches on the way and took a few photos before resuming our walk towards the castle.
Soon we were at the base of the Wawel hill and started our walk up the ramp for the first time. There was a fair crowd there already & I rued not having another morning in Krakow to walk around the castle courtyards before the crowds started to collect. ( Well, you can’t do everything!)
There was a very long line to see the Cathedral interiors and since we had a tour of the Castle gardens and architecture coming up in some time we decided to skip the cathedral interiors altogether. The Wawel Cathedral exterior itself is a hodgepodge of architectural styles. It looks as if each king decided to add his own favourite style of architecture to it and the result is an exterior like no other.
There are Gothic towers, Baroque domes and Neoclassical chapels sitting next to each other. The most striking of this is the Gold domed Sigismund Chapel, made with 80 pounds of gold sheets.
I then went and collected our tickets from the reservation office and then we waited in the courtyard for our tour to begin. The courtyard is itself an interesting place as it has the bases of two Gothic Churches that were destroyed when the Austrians occupied Wawel in the 19th century. They also added a red brick hospital building ( Which our guide later called a monstrosity !) which is now used as an administration office.
There was a cafe at the entrance of the museum building where we were supposed to assemble for our castle garden and architecture tour and it was perfect weather to sit and have a cool locally brewed beer before the tour began, so we did exactly that!
Soon it was time for our tour to begin and we were given badges and met our guide, an elderly lady who must have been doing this since ages. Usually I never booked guided tours at castles as I don’t like being herded along room after room of royal chambers. I booked the Castle gardens and architecture tour at Wawel, because it is mostly an outdoor tour and it allows us to visit the castle gardens which are otherwise off limits.
We first visited the inner courtyard which immediately reminded me of Florence. And sure enough our guide informed us that it had been built by Florentine architects after the original palace burnt down. It has the typical arches, columns & the pleasing symmetry that renaissance architecture is known for. After hearing about the uses of each floor we then moved to the part that interested me the most, the gardens.
The gardens which line the exteriors of the main castle itself were small but beautiful and provided great views over old town. We listened to the guide explain about the Italian Queen who had originally built these multilevel gardens. These gardens were all destroyed in the Austrian occupation and reconstructed after Poland became an independent nation using the detailed plans available.
The guide also explained about the architecture of the castle itself and how it has changed over time, Overall I found the tour interesting and would highly recommend it over the royal chambers tour if you like the outdoors.
Soon we left the gardens and entered the last part of the tour which was the Bathory Courtyard in between the Cathedral and the Castle. This otherwise hidden courtyard provides a great view from the arched balconies of the courtyard and also provides a solace from the crowds outside.
Then we said goodbye to our guide after exiting the courtyard and went to the Sandomierska tower of the castle. This is one of the three artillery towers of the castle and the only one open to tourists. The tower climb ticket was included in our tour price and we needed no further invitation to climb our second tower for the day.
The Sandomierska tower has only 137 steps and a relatively easy climb. Our Rick Steves Guidebook mentioned the views from the tower as disappointing. I certainly don’t agree. Even though the views are through small windows originally meant for guns, it provides a totally different view over the castle and modern Krakow.
You will occasionally find the walls creeping into frame in your photos (intentionally leaving them as such here) but nothing that is not too big of a bother. We were glad we ignored Rick Steves and went up the tower anyway.
After spending some time on top of the tower we descended and went to visit the last ticketed site included in our tour price, the Dragon’s Den. It is a series of caves right below Wawel hill where supposedly a mythical dragon lived. Obviously there is no dragon now, so its just a series of caves that are lit up and more importantly provide a quick way to get down from the hill to the river banks without backtracking all the way across the castle complex.
We showed our tickets and entered the dimly lit caves below. While the caves are nothing special it provides a few different photo opportunities that caves usually provide. Having decided to avoid the touristy salt mines tour at Wieliczka this was the only cave system we were scheduled to visit, so we took our time in these caves.
A leisurely descent later we were out of the caves at the foot of the hill where there is a monument to the terrorising dragon that supposedly lived in the caves. It was extremely funny to see children climbing all over the base of the mighty dragon and terrorising it.
We then walked beside the river for a while before our growling tummies reminded us that it was time for lunch.
I had planned to have lunch at a popular place near the castle where we would have a most filling meal followed by a trip to the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz and a great last evening in Krakow.
But that is topic for my last post from this trip, some other time, some other day.