I don’t know what I expected from Krakow at the beginning of February – but it certainly wasn’t Christmas. We arrived in the great market square after darkness had fallen to find the streets lined with Christmas trees and fairy lights trailing the shop fronts ; the ground appropriately covered in a layer of icy snow.
Through the arches of the Sukiennice, the Cloth Hall, the ceiling globes and strings of lanterns glowed softly, while the stalls that lined both sides of the hall were crammed full of colourful wood carvings, jewellery and local crafts to match the best of the German Christmas markets.
Across the square, white ‘Cinderella’ coaches and horses made an orderly queue, fleecy rugs folded at the ready for any unsuspecting tourist seduced by the fairy-tale scene.
It was shank’s pony for my partner and I, rather than these magnificent white steads, but there’s no better way to explore Krakow than to wander through the icy streets on a winter’s night on foot, peering into shop windows filled with Christmas biscuits and pretzels, nativity scenes and szopka crèches, the glittering Krakow Christmas cribs.
We followed the Royal Road, dipping down alleyways until the icy night-air and hunger drove us into the warmth of a Polish restaurant. We ordered solid peasant food to stave off the cold: pickled gherkins to dip into bacon lard; borscht, dumplings swimming in beetroot soup - and bigos, a hunter’s stew of cabbage and meat held in a large ‘crock’ of bread.
Returning to Krakow’s old town by daylight, we stumbled on a Sunday mass at the Church of St Francis of Assisi. Christmas trees still dotted the chancel, while a magnificent szopka crèche of Krakow spires and arched windows gleamed in seasonal blues, greens and reds.
Hidden in the centre of the spires, Mary and Joseph were knelling over the crib, with the Wise Men and shepherds arriving with gifts. Below the szopka, there was yet another nativity scene of clay figurines. Just as I was about to leave, the sound of rich baritone voices rang out from somewhere deep within the church.
I spotted a tiny wooden door by the church entrance, opened it and followed a rickety spiral staircase up to the painted ceiling of cobalt blue and golden stars. All around, the stained glass windows and painted walls echoed the rich Christmas colours of the szopka: purples and reds; blues and greens.
It was then I saw the choir, a group of elderly men squeezed into the corner of the balcony, stooped and frail, rattling their hymn sheets.
Up on Wawel Hill, the ancient royal centre of Krakow, I asked the girl at the information desk about the long Christmas in the city. “Yes, it’s true,” she said. “Christmas continues all through January and at least up until the church feast day tomorrow.”
On our last evening in Krakow, we returned to the old town to find it overrun with nuns. They floated through the streets, their black gowns flowing behind them as they carried tapered candles.
I followed a woman down a side lane, where she slipped behind a front door with her candle. In pagan times, the candles were lit to scare away winter spirits, but Christians adopted it as the Feast of Purification – or Candlemas.
It was the 2nd of February (and officially the close of Krakow’s Christmas), but as we left the town centre for the last time, the Christmas trees and fairy lights were still very much in evidence. It was as if the people of Krakow are reluctant to say adieu to the Christmas season.
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