Take busy roads and walkways, thick heat and noise, and you have Krakow in May.
Cramped with sitting vehicles, dusty pavements carry impatient pedestrians onwards, to whatever locations demand such urgent attention. Hookah bars, Polish delicatessens and eateries, Jewish restaurants and countless other bars and shops line the streets, unimportant to the hasty citizen, intoxicating to the tourist.
Krakow is never entirely pleasant, rarely relaxing, but intense and exhilarating in abundance. Whether it is a puff of smoke, a whiff of spirit, the thud of bass or the unashamed smack of car into bicycle that overwhelms you, it is hard to deny the city’s unique character.
Krakow is bruising like its thick-armed men, perfumed like its women, and never ceases to surprise.
High-walled courtyards sneak open their gates to reveal idyllic, leafy beer gardens, where slithers of late evening sun intrude upon duly satisfied inhabitants.
Turn down two alleys at random and you’re likely to find a square of some kind. Whether the poky but undeniably cultural Jewish Quarter or the expansive and glorious Main Square, these clusters are what make Krakow, above all, enchanting. Stunning architectural sites, such as the medieval St Mary’s Basilica and Wawel Castle, reveal captivating – and otherwise largely unknown – evidence of enduring Polish history.
Such areas are unfortunately helpless to avoid the tourist touts and ‘Old Town tours’ that seek out and occupy, more thirstily than a cloud of locusts, any popular European city. On opposite sides of the transport spectrum, sparkling horse-drawn carriages (“the real Poland, of course sir”) and wheezing electric carts escort their either smug or increasingly white-faced, white-eyed and terrified passengers around the sights of the Polish culture capital.
The Main Square – in line with its medieval architecture – offers a surprisingly old-fashioned attraction. Less than discreet, umbrella-clad ladies of the night target men from their seemingly allocated sections of the square.
Whatever the umbrella once represented in Poland has clearly been given explicit sexual connotations, with the males as casually dismissive as men declining a free hand-out on the London Tube.
Whilst there are certainly more conventional attractions to Krakow, notably the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine and the harrowing Auschwitz concentration camp, the ‘ladies of the brolly’ are a further display of just how astonishing the city can be.
When one leaves Krakow, there is no distinct sense of love or dislike, instead there is a feeling of having learnt. The cultural attitude is very similar but so much more brazen than the British identity; the people are apparently in love with harsh drinks and smokes; the city is a flavour of eastern Europe, and scattered with fragments of wartime history.
You might not want to go back, but you might also not want to miss.