Forget stag nights: this city break destination offers the kind of lost weekend that doesn't leave a hangover, reports Renata Rubnikowicz
Perhaps you've already "done" Cracow. After all, it is third in the European city break hit parade (the top two are Prague and Berlin). But if you haven't been, it's time to find out what you've been missing. If you've been there already, you'll know how much more there is to see.
One way of getting under the skin of Cracow is by looking for what is no longer there. Like so many great cities, it is built on a legend - and a hill. By the Vistula, under the limestone outcrop on which Wawel Castle now stands, a huge metal dragon with blowtorch breath marks the spot where a virgin-devouring monster once had his lair. You can climb up to the cathedral to see the evidence that the dragon really was slain here: three enormous, antediluvian bones hanging from its porch. Inside the cathedral lie the tombs of the kings and queens of Poland, for Cracow was once the capital of this country of ever-shifting boundaries.
Like the rest of Cracow's 200 churches, the cathedral is still used for prayer. Pope John Paul II, who died in April and whose loss is keenly felt throughout the city, said his first mass here. Next door, the magnificent royal palace is garlanded with treasures from all over Renaissance Europe and tapestries woven in gold and silver. By the 16th century, it already had warm-air central heating, so the court could marvel at the ceilings, splendidly decorated with, in one case, carved heads, without worrying about getting cricks in their necks from draughts.
On the other side of the gardens, the Lost Wawel archaeological exhibition shows what came before. A walkway takes you through an excavation of the foundations of earlier churches on the site, and leads you to a collection of beautiful tiles and stone carvings and fascinating finds. Who would have thought that 11th-century fashion was for delicate openwork leather shoes?
The source of Cracow's historical riches, the nearby Wieliczka salt mine, is now out of salt. The mine was first worked in 1105; by the 13th century, its 70 miners were producing a third of the country's wealth. The caverns from which the salt was dug are now thronged with people following in the footsteps of Copernicus and Goethe, who were among the earliest to see the statues and chapels that the miners carved from the salt in their spare time.
Singing "Hi ho" and treating us to some of the 123 versions of "mind your head" that he has collected in languages from Aussie slang to Xhosa, our likeable guide demonstrates why this tour is still one of the area's number one attractions. Both the mine and Cracow itself were on the first Unesco list of world heritage sites in 1978.
Back in town, another lost landmark is the city wall, knocked down by the Austrians in one of the many troubled phases of Poland's complicated history, and replaced by Planty, the groves of trees which encircle the city and where locals stroll. Dodge the skateboarders who crash between scurrying nuns on Kanoniczka, a perfect example of a Gothic Renaissance street, to get to the main square, the largest in Europe, and the magnificent Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, at its centre. On a muffled winter evening, no cars disturb the people softly chatting in pavement cafes, and you can hear the street musicians and the horses clip-clopping across the cobbles with their carriages of tourists. You could lose yourself here for a whole weekend, exploring the restaurants, clubs and bars on the square and in the medieval grid of streets around it and shopping for souvenirs in the Cloth Hall. It's debatable whether you'd get your new chainmail and "Coronation Sword of the Polish Kings" (only pound;56) through airport security.
Every hour a bugler plays from the highest of St Mary's two mismatched towers. And every hour his (or her, for it is a real bugler) last notes are lost, just as they were when the original watchman, sounding the alarm of a Tartar invasion in 1241, was silenced by an arrow through the throat. Our guide had chosen the hejnal, or bugle call, as the ringtone on his mobile.
In a city of 45,000 students, it's impossible to ignore the university. The beautiful Collegium Maius (who could fail to daydream in a library whose ceiling is painted with fluffy clouds and blue sky?) is its oldest building and houses an incredible variety of objects, from a Moorish astrolabe that was already 500 years old when Copernicus studied here, to the film director Andrzej Wajda's Oscar. The collection of portraits of professors has a melancholy section: a group of academics who died in concentration camps.
You would think, therefore, that Kazimerz, the Jewish quarter of Cracow since the 15th century, would be unbearably sad to visit. Yet here life is stirring again. Although pitifully few people are left to worship in the one synagogue that still functions, other synagogues have been reborn as cultural centres and museums of Jewish history. Around Szeroka Street, cafes, restaurants and hotels have opened to receive the Schindler's List tourists, with lace tablecloths and menus paying homage to a pre-war era.
Artists and students have moved in too. Many houses are still decrepit, as their rightful owners have not been traced, but the market is thriving and there's a popular weekend flea market. At night, the jubilant sounds of klezmer bands spill on to the streets. Change is in the air.
Centralwings flies between Gatwick and Cracow daily from pound;4.50 one way (excluding taxes and charges). Book on 00 48 22 558 00 45 (choose option 2 for an English-speaking operator) or on www.centralwings.com. For more information about the city see www.krakow.pl or Krakow In Your Pocket (www.inyourpocket.com)