Poland’s second city and busiest tourist destination has welcomed home the league title more times than anywhere else. Venue for the European Under-21 Championships final in June 2017, Kraków was surprisingly overlooked as a host for Euro 2012, which Poland co-shared with Ukraine. Some thought that Kraków simply didn’t try hard enough to win the tender – visitors have always flocked in droves to this pretty, historic town.
With reference to the city’s religious heritage as Poland’s ecclesiastical centre and former capital, Kraków stages the Swieta Wojna, the ‘Holy War’, between Wisła and Cracovia, the most venerable derby in the Polish game.
Each was formed in 1906 and first played matches on Błonia, the park west of town that separates the clubs’ two stadiums today. Decades later, Pope John Paul II held Mass before huge crowds here, close the Cracovia ground of his boyhood affection.
As Karol Wojtyła, the later Pope played in goal for both Catholic and Jewish teams. In fact, the term ‘Holy War’ might have echoes from those times. Certainly, Kraków’s main two Jewish clubs, the left-leaning Jutrzenka and the Zionist-allied Makkabi shared a rivalry as bitter as that between Wisła and Cracovia.
At the time of their formation, Kraków, and the surrounding region of Galicia, was under Habsburg rule from Vienna. An early promoter of sport was Anglophile Professor Henryk Jordan – the park that sits alongside Błonia and the Wisła stadium is named after him. Each main Kraków club played friendlies against other teams in the Habsburg Empire. In similar spirit to Slavia in Prague, to signify Polish independence Wisła sported a white star, gaining the club the nickname Biała Gwiazda.
This pioneering fortitude earned Kraków a special place in Polish sporting mythology. With Poland one nation again after World War I, it was fitting that Cracovia should win the first football title, in a play-off between the northern and southern champions, in 1921. Kraków’s clubs won five of six as soon as a national league was formed in 1927.
Wisła attracted support from the middle classes. Cracovia drew their fans from small businessmen and shopkeepers, earning themselves a Jewish tag.
A third element was added in 1921, Garbarnia, funded by Poland’s largest tannery, over the Vistula in today’s district of Ludwinów. Two years later, a football ground was built, the best in town, with a wooden stand and clubhouse. In 1931, ‘Tannery’ won the league to keep the title in Kraków.
This side of the river then became the site of the Jewish Ghetto, the Schindler Factory and the Płaszów work camp, settings for Steven Spielberg to film the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List there in 1993. In the early 1940s, Garbarnia had taken part in Kraków’s underground championships, about which relatively little is known.
Kraków was the only major Polish city whose buildings survived World War II almost intact. While the rest of the country was rebuilding, Wisła and Cracovia shared four straight titles from 1947.
Considered bourgeois and merchant class, Cracovia and Garbarnia were shunned by the post-war Communist authorities and spent decades in the doldrums. Garbarnia’s stadium was knocked down in 1973 to make way for a hotel. Currently the club plays at a modest ground at Rydlówka 23, close to its old home on Barska. A mini-revival has seen Garbarnia head Group 4 of the fourth-tier III Liga in 2017.
With the forced industrialisation of the 1950s, a new club arose: Hutnik from the vast steel plant of Nowa Huta east of town. The city’s third club ironically achieved more immediately after the fall of Communism, with a third-place top-flight finish in 1996 and European football. The millionaires of Monaco, including later World Cup winners Fabien Barthez and Manu Petit, duly paid a visit to the basic Stadion Suche Stawy in this former Socialist utopia.
A decade later, debt-ridden Hutnik collapsed, to be revived by loyal fans as Hutnik Nowa Huta in 2010. The stadium was improved enough to accommodate England as a training pitch at Euro 2012 and the club now plays against the reserve sides of Cracovia and Wisła in the lower leagues.
With a new, urban generation of Wisła fans from the north and west of the city, including a significant hooligan element, the centenary city derby of 2006 was played out against a backdrop of water cannons and riot vans. The year before, followers of both clubs had piously come together to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II.
On the pitch, Wisła were quickest to adjust to the free-market changes after 1989, rebuilding their team and venerable stadium, winning eight titles in 12 years, up to 2011.
Cracovia, European debutants in 2016, also reconstructed their stadium, the main venue for the Euro under-21 finals in June 2017.
Kraków’s John Paul II Airport is 11km (seven miles) west of the city centre, connected by train from the terminus behind the car park to the main train station, Dworzec Główny (every 30min, 17min journey time, 9zł) beside the city centre.
The official airport taxi service charges a flat 69zł into town unless you’re travelling under 10km, ie almost as far as the Wisła stadium, when it’s 49zł. Credit cards are accepted.
MPK runs an efficient network of trams and buses – the centre is transport-free and walkable. Cracovia is an easy stroll from town, Wisła slightly further. Transport tickets, sold from machines at main stops (notes and coins) and on board (coins only), are valid for trams and buses for specific timed lengths of journey, changes included: 2.80zł for 20min, 3.80zł for 40min, 15zł for 24hrs, 24zł for 48hrs. Stamp your ticket immediately, even for on-board purchases.
iTaxi Kraków (+48 737 737 737) is part of a nationwide network with a downloadable app.
On the same street, Reymonta, as Wisła, the lower mid-range Polonez has 49 rooms at under 300zł/night and a restaurant, the Krakus. Even closer, right by the stadium, in fact, the Biała Gwiazda (‘White Star’) is basic but at 120zł/night, 90zł for a single, you can’t expect miracles.
With the former state-run, mass-tourist lodgings close to Cracovia now youth hostels, the only hotels in the vicinity are along Piłsudskiego, the main street that leads to the nearby city centre. The four-star Ostoya Palace may be a cut above for the average football weekend, though its Kuranty pub is worth a look-in. Slightly closer to town, the Fortuna is a tidy three-star in a late 19th-century building, though its lack of online booking is annoying.
Also close, on the ring road that holds in Kraków’s historic centre, the Radisson Blu appeals to business visitors and weekenders alike with its gym, sauna, beauty salon and meeting spaces.
Typified by the four-star Wentzl on the main square, stately hotels fill baronial buildings around the Old Town, such as the Grand on Sławkowska, the Pod Róža on Florianska and the gorgeous Stary on Szczepanska, where designers have integrated two swimming pools within medieval walls.
The three-star Floryan is more budget-friendly while still occupying a 16th-century building. It’s also a short walk from the train station, where you’ll find andel’s by Vienna House Cracow, contemporary and designer-friendly, with a spa, gym, bar and restaurant.
In similar vein, overlooking the Vistula, the panoramic Niebieski Art Hotel & Spa is comfort itself, a shortish walk from Cracovia.
Kraków is a fine, fine drinking town, the historic centre and Plac Nowy in Kazimierz awash with late-opening boozeries. Those in the Old Town tend to be more mainstream and tourist-friendly, some located in cellars. The scene in Kazimierz is more contemporary.
Just north of the Old Town, Football Heaven is much more promising than its modest exterior might indicate, with four long alcoves bookended by match action and decked out in scarves. Open from 7pm weekdays, 1pm weekends.
More Polish in feel, where sport is screened but beer and music give more focus, Enigma is one of the busier cellar bars while CK Browar has just celebrated its 20th anniversary serving microbrewed beers in beer-hall surroundings. Bierhalle is the Kraków branch of a Warsaw-based chain, with own-brewed German-style beers, TV football and a location close to the main square. Right on the main square, the Vis à Vis is one of those lovely old spots you hope will still be there in years to come, a little part of Poland deep in tourist central.
If you’re one of the squillions descending on Plac Nowy, Moment is as good a bar as any, and has a TV. Given the swarming crowds in Kazimierz, it was inevitable that locals would open a place of their own nearby. Drukarnia is that place, just over the river. It’s more jazz club these days but don’t let that put you off – it’s a great bar, with riverside seats outside.