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Cracking Krakow, a stunning survivor of Nazi destruction

My compartment on the train from Warsaw to Krakow reminds me of the old days, when everyone had their nose in a novel, newspaper or magazine. Only one person is fiddling with his smart­phone – but I have an excuse. I’m trying to book a hotel room before we arrive, which is in about 15 minutes.

Krakow is famed for its fairy tale old town brimming with churches, castles and pastel-coloured gingerbread houses. First, though, the train snakes past dreary uninspiring outskirts more reminiscent of Kwai Chung. Perhaps the suburbs were built to keep visitor expectations low.

If cheap beer is a priority when booking a holiday, Krakow is probably your best bet.

Onboard Wi-fi comes to my rescue and a confirmation email arrives from Pokoje Goscinne Dom sw. Szymona, which I belatedly discover translates as “guest rooms at the House of St Simon”.

In the lobby there’s a framed painting of Pope John Paul II smiling benignly at a receptionist who smiles benignly at me.

The religiously themed lodging has only recently opened to the public. Rooms are spotless, beds comfortable and staff so help­ful they ought to have halos. I’m tempted to suggest that it’s an immaculate concept but it’s too early in the day for biblical puns. The faint smell of fresh emul­sion is preferable to stale nicotine and, best of all, the old town is a short walk away.

A Wi-fi glitch results in offers of compli­mentary coffee and apologies for the incon­venience. At some point I’ll need to confess that I typed in the wrong password. Before doing so, though, there’s a Unesco World Heritage city to explore.

Wawel Castle is only an arrow’s flight away. Swarms of visitors traipse through the 16th-century stronghold, pausing to inspect the crown treasury and armoury, state rooms and royal private apartments. Across the courtyard, no one seems to be interested in climbing Sandomierz Tower yet there are sublime views of the castle grounds and the placid Vistula River.

Rynek Glowny is Europe’s largest medi­e­val town square and Krakow’s beating heart – a space where locals and foreign tourists mingle. There are buskers, beggars and bubble-blowing street performers. Court­ing teenagers exchange coy glances and kindergarten kids chase pigeons until their teachers chase them. Tour groups play fol­low the flag holder and a magician per­forms beside a handwritten sign promising donations will be spent on beer, rather than anything frivolous such as food or shelter.

Krakow escaped the destruction suffer­ed by other Polish cities during the second world war and is almost too gorgeous for its own good. Horses clip clop along the cobbles pulling carriages but, like taxis on Lantau Island, there aren’t enough to satis­fy demand. The city appears to be at the limits of its carrying capacity but things are sure to get even busier in the high season.

Malevolent clouds and a steady drizzle accompany my stroll through Kazimierz, home to a 70,000-strong Jewish community until they were compulsorily relocated by the Nazis in 1941. The Krakow Ghetto was established in the nearby manufacturing district of Podgorze, which profited from the abundant supply of forced labour. One workshop managed to finish up out of pocket on the deal, however.

Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory came to the world’s attention after being immor­tal­ised in the 1993 Steven Spielberg block­buster Schindler’s List and is now the site of an impressive museum chronicling life in Krakow under Nazi occupation. Harrowing though some of the exhibits are, there’s also an uplifting emphasis on the lives saved by the German industrialist, who bribed Nazi officials to protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death.

The 90-minute bus ride to Oswiecim seems to take much longer. A group of boisterous schoolboys spend the journey throwing a football at each other and occasionally at my head and it’s a relief when we finally arrive. We pass a 24-hour McDonald’s, an HM store, a crowded children’s playground and posters adver­tising an Elton John concert. It’s an ordi­nary town except that Oswiecim is better known by its German name, Auschwitz.

The concentration and extermination camp is a half-day excursion from Krakow but something has been gnawing away at me since a chirpy teenager in Rynek Square tried to sell me a deluxe Auschwitz tour. The largest mass murder site in human history is marketed as another Krakow sightseeing attraction, alongside guided pub crawls and Elton’s extravaganza.

Holidaymakers pose for selfies inside the gas chambers and our guide bites her tongue when she’s interrupted by a shrill mobile phone ringtone and a shouted conversation that begins, “Yeah, I’m at Auschwitz.” If ever there were an occasion when it would be reasonable to ask people to turn off their phones, this is it.

Students lark around until teachers cast withering looks and a woman complains to her husband that she shouldn’t have worn white trainers as the footpaths are so muddy. Worrying about a bit of dirt on your shoes at Auschwitz seems all wrong.

I ponder whether there’s a correct way to behave in a place where such heinous crimes were committed and decide that maybe the high-spirited boys on the bus have the right idea after all. They’re no doubt mindful of the past but clearly aren’t shackled by it.

Back in Krakow I jettison the Mr Grumpy persona. There are pigeons to chase, bubbles to pop and I need to find a lofty vantage point for a sunset snap.

Taking decent photos of a large plaza from ground level is notoriously difficult. Bird’s eye views offer a broader perspective – but then birds aren’t so good with cam­eras. Staff at the tourist office explain that the gothic towers of St Mary’s Basilica close at dusk; as does the Cloth Hall, a striking Renaissance structure that would have been ideal. They suggest I buy a drone.

Instead I fall into conversation with the desk clerk at a hotel overlooking the square, who agrees to let me use an empty third-floor bedroom – as long as no one checks in at the last minute.

Last minute? How could anyone possibly be so disorganised?