Follow contributing editor Ed Perkins as he embarks on a round-the-world "Joan Trip." (What's a Joan Trip? Find out in Take That Special Trip ... While You Still Can.) According to Perkins, "neither frequent-flyer miles nor people improve with age," so he's working off a bundle of miles seeing the world, combining places he missed over the years with some old favorites. Read the rest of Perkins' round-the-world-trip posts.
Krakow wasn't the easiest stop on my trip, but was still worth the visit. The old city center is filled with interesting churches, monuments, and other buildings, and the city is, as advertised, one of the most photogenic in Europe. Also, for visitors who have the time, an excursion to nearby Auschwitz brings the holocaust to vivid memory.
At the Airport
What wasn't easy? Both of my flights in—from Istanbul to Frankfurt and from Frankfurt to Krakow—loaded and unloaded at remote stands rather than at a jetway gate. For those of you who haven't undergone this system, here's how it works: You process through a gate at the conventional departure level, typically one or two regular stories above the ground, then you go down to ground level, get on a shuttle bus, head to your plane, and board the plan by climbing an external set of stairs.
When I first started flying within Europe, this was the standard mode of boarding and deboarding planes. Most European airport managers preferred it. But passengers apparently hated it from the beginning, mainly because the boarding agents invariably overloaded the shuttle buses until they resembled the Tokyo subway at rush hour. And passengers hated going up and down those long flights of stairs, especially when schlepping big carry-on bags.
Over the last several decades, however, most European airports have adopted the jetway system to accommodate increasingly larger planes, using buses and stairs only when jetway gates are fully occupied. I don't know why the airports at Istanbul and Frankfurt used buses for my flights when jetways were available, but they did. And that system is particularly tough on seniors who have back or leg problems: I observed some agents lifting a lady from her wheelchair and hauling her up the stairs.
In partial compensation, processing at Krakow and Frankfurt (on my return) was mercifully easy. These days, travelers flying within most of Western Europe no longer have to go through immigration or passport control. Just get off the plane, claim you checked bag if you have one, and be gone, with none of those hour-long immigration queues that plague so many international travelers.
Getting in from the airport is easy. A short shuttle bus hop (free) or a brief walk takes you from the international terminal to the adjacent rail station, where a train whisks you into the city center nonstop in about 25 minutes. The cost is a reasonable 12 zloty (about $4). Buy tickets from a machine on the platform or on the train.
Getting Around Krakow
But "in" isn't as easy as it is in some places. Krakow's central rail station is being rebuilt, and the escalators from the platforms currently drop you into a large underground shopping mall. Although I wandered around for quite a while, I never did locate either the station's ticket windows or a conventional taxi stand. The locals apparently just head for a ramp at the north end of the airport train platform (rear of the train), which leads to a plaza fronting Ibis Hotels where you can grab a cab.
Getting around Krakow is easy, provided you're good at figuring out transit maps and automatic ticket machines without much language help. A single 30-minute tram trip costs 2 zloty, a ticket allowing changes costs 4 zloty, and a ride-all-day ticket costs 12 zloty. Although no trams go through the true center of the old city, they surround it, with lots of stations to get on and off.
Eats, Excursions, and Unfriendly Locals
Sightseeing excursions are relatively expensive, starting at 150-160 zloty for a half-day bus tour or for a one-hour electric cart ride around the old city. All-day Auschwitz excursions start at around 200 zloty.
Food, on the other hand, is a good deal. For my one dinner, a tasty and well-served full-course meal in an excellent restaurant with beverage billed out at about 40 zloty.
I think my biggest disappointment in Krakow was the reception I got from the locals. Of course, hotel and restaurant people were OK; it's their job. But just about everywhere else I've been, locals have tried to be helpful to obvious foreigners even if they don't share a language, instead employing the usual mix of gestures and minimal word exchanges. But not Krakow—people I approached just turned around and walked away when I tried to get help.
Was I glad I visited Krakow? Yes. Am I in a hurry to return? No.
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