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16 September 2018Krakow's Art and History Tour
04 October 2017Northern Ireland: Titanic, Belfast and Derry
14 October 2016The Historic Houses and Heritage of Winchester and the Isle of Wight
11 October 2015The Dutch Masters and The Rijksmuseum
22 September 2014The Houses, Art and History of Northumberland
05 June 2013Derbyshire
19 September 2012Madrid
09 June 2011Bordeaux
25 September 2010Moscow and St. Petersburg

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Krakow's Art and History Tour

On a chilly, windy Sunday morning members of KL Art’s Society collected at Knight’s Hill, the beginning of our trip to Krakow.  We had never been to Poland before nor had we been on an Art’s Society tour.  After an uneventful journey we arrived in Krakow where we were met by Gregory our Polish guide, he proved to be extremely conscientious, entertaining and very knowledgeable, especially about Polish history.  If we had any doubts about the friendliness of the group they were quickly dispelled on the first day, we found throughout the week that everyone was welcoming, thoughtful and helpful.

On the first morning we were taken on an extensive walking tour of the old city, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.  The history of Poland is one of division, domination and occupation, invasion from Sweden, Prussia, Russia and Germany. This year, 2018, it celebrates 100 years since its re-establishment as an independent nation.  Everywhere in Krakow is a wealth of treasures, lovely buildings and quaint streets.  The centre of the city has remained unaltered for centuries.  After the Second World War and occupation by the Russians it suffered much neglect but has been beautifully restored and the treasures sent to Canada for safekeeping have been returned. Our hotel was a short distance from the gorgeous Market Square, a gem, ringed with cafes, restaurants and two churches.  The Church of the Virgin Mary has served as a watchtower for centuries.  Tradition has it that after successfully repelling an attack aeons ago a trumpeter plays on the hour, every hour, day and night, from a window in the highest tower!  We walked around the outside of Wawel Castle, hearing the story of the ever hungry, virgin eating, fire breathing dragon; saw the remains of the old walls, the houses where Copernicus and Pope John Paul II had lived and studied, and generally got a feel for the place and our surroundings.

In the afternoon a short coach journey took us to the Wieliczka Salt Mines.   Rock salt was mined here from about the 13th century and was active until recently, today salt is collected from evaporated water in the modern salt water treatment plant.  An underground health centre, opened in the 20th century, remains active today.  There are many miles of underground tunnels and chambers, seven levels in all, we went to the third, 1,000 feet underground.  We were stunned by the size, the statues carved from granite looking salt but most of all by the magnificent cathedral where even the chandeliers are made of salt.

On day 2 we visited the interior of Wawel Palace and the adjacent cathedral where the kings, queens and bishops of Poland are buried.  Situated on a rock above a bend in the river the beautiful silhouette dominates the skyline.  The first castle was built here in the 10th and 11th centuries, it has been rebuilt, extended and restored over the years.  The Italian Renaissance styled courtyard retains some of the original frescoes.  Both cathedral and palace are packed with a wealth of artefacts, statues, paintings, sculptures and tapestries; the tiny royal chapel in the palace is a gem.

In the afternoon some of us opted to visit Auschwitz.  The site of the concentration camp with its grim gas chambers has become a memorial to the millions who died here, a memorial to them, it is staffed by those determined that we never forget.

The evening was an uplifting and cleansing experience after the sombre afternoon: we attended a piano recital in the Bonerovsky Palace Hotel, held in a small, beautifully decorated room on the first floor.  Our group made up the whole audience!  The music, the surroundings, the prosecco was what was needed after the horrors of the afternoon.

The next morning we went to the old Jewish quarter on the north side of the river.  It is an area full of atmosphere, a square full of memorials, cafes and restaurants.  People had been forcibly moved from here to the ghetto south of the river where Schindler’s factory was based.  It is now a museum and tells the history of the Jewish people from the ghetto; arrests, murders, concentration camps, slave labour, the ghastly lives forced on this community.

Next, to the Jagiellonian University, founded in the 14th century; it is the oldest in Poland.  The early building is now a museum although parts, such as the Aula, a former lecture room, continue to be used for important ceremonies.  It is richly decorated, the walls with one hundred portraits from kings of the 15th century to Pope John Paul II in 1980.  There is a magnificent marquetry door at one end of the hall, too many treasures to mention.  Our museum guide was a delightful, well informed young woman rightly proud of her heritage.  Copernicus was a student here, instruments he would have known are displayed here along with state regalia.

On the final morning we headed out of the city along a beautiful valley dominated  by Piescowa Skala Castle.  Originating in the middle ages this beautiful, much renovated and extended castle houses even more beautifully displayed treasures.  We could have spent the whole day here but there was a plane to catch.

We are grateful to our guide Gregory and the many museum guides as well as the friendly members of the group. Most of all huge thanks go to Chris Cawthorne  for organising the tour, for his planning , attention to detail even reminding us to take our passports!

David and Anne Truman   28.09.2018