From the hotel window I could see the snow falling heavily, and after breakfast we wrapped up warmly then strolled through the streets and around the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), with the city’s big snow-ploughs trundling along the roads and the shopkeepers shifting snow from in front of their stores. Atop one of the taller buildings in the square, two workmen were shovelling snow from the roof, tossing it out over the eaves so that it fell into the street below.
Laid out in the 13th Century, this is the biggest medieval square in Europe. Like all civilised public squares it features pigeons and food vendors; in the case of the latter, little wizened-up old ladies selling pretzels. It wasn’t too cold, minus one degree celsius perhaps. We saw a miserable-looking pigeon on its last legs; I tried to feed it but it was dying and wouldn’t eat.
We’d had time for a look around, but with no sign of the bus by 9:00am we had started to wonder whether or not we were in the right place. It turned out we weren’t. We left the Market Square and walked up the Ulica Florianska (essentially, Florianska Street) which is lined with 13th and 14th Century townhouses now converted into shops; through the Florian Gate which dates from around 1300; and around the beautiful Barbakan (Barbican), a circular Gothic bastion built in the 15th Century to help protect the Florian Gate and the approach to the city. Originally connected to the Gate by a walled passage over a moat, the Barbican has brick walls nearly three metres thick and 130 loopholes (gaps through which soldiers could shoot bows, small arms, or cannons) on different levels in the turrets.
Crossing Ulica Basztowa (Basztowa Street) while dodging trams that reminded me of the ones in Amsterdam, we entered what is known as Plac Matejki (Matejki Square), once part of the ancient marketplace in a settlement called Kleparz just outside the city walls. Towards the end of the 18th Century Kleparz officially became part of Krakow, and in the 19th Century it was divided into two squares, one of which is Matejki. This square now sports an impressive group of statues, the Grunwald Monument, celebrating a great Polish military victory, so I won’t comment on the wisdom of telling visitors to the city to catch a bus in market square, meaning here.
It was just before 9:10am when we reached the bus stop and we were pretty sure we had missed the bus. V. found its timetable on a street post and I could see its last stop in Krakow listed as 9:30am at the Sheraton before it headed out of town to Auschwitz. We went back down to the road and I hailed a taxi in Basztowa Street. True to form, the cabbie was a middle-aged man with a black moustache, and he drove us to Sheraton Krakow, a five-star hotel on Powisle overlooking the Vistula (Wisla) River, by way of Wawel, which was our first look at the castle. We would be returning to the area of the castle and the river on foot late that night, but for now we alighted at the Sheraton in plenty of time to intercept the bus to Auschwitz. In fact, we were several minutes ahead of the bus so we went into the warm lobby of the Sheraton and sat down.