Out on the street in front of the arrival terminal at Krakow Balice Airport, I spotted the Balice / Lotnisko shuttle bus parked on the bus stand ready to take passengers to the train stop a short distance away. Less than five minutes later, I was already on the train on my way to the city centre. Krakow’s main railway station, the airport train’s final destination is conveniently connected via underground corridors to the city’s main bus station. Having been here dozens of times, I could easily make my way from one to the other without getting lost in the intriguing passageways. But beware… one can easily get lost the first time one is here, probably heading mistakenly to the interlinked Galeria Krakowska, Krakow’s most central glass-and-steel shopping mall.
Krakow’s bus station is a modern affair, well-equipped with ticket offices, information points and electronic departure and arrival boards. On examining the departure schedule (‘odjazdy’, displayed in yellow), I noticed that a bus to the town of Cieszyn passing en route through Bielsko-Biala was due to leave in ten minutes from the lower terminal level. I hastily looked into my ‘Lonely Planet’ guide ‘Poland’ but Cieszyn was non-existent. Shall I give it a try? Having been made aware from the displayed information that the trip to Cieszyn ought to last at least two hours and Cieszyn was probably an insignificant city, I was not sure if it was worth the hassle. But on looking at the map of Eastern Europe, I became aware that this unknown spot is a border town, right on the periphery between Poland and the Czech Republic. Without further considerations, I decided to make Cieszyn my first port of call from where I could later proceed to neighbouring locations.
The bus left instantly, crossing the bridge over the Wisla and the Podgorze district in a couple of minutes, leaving behind the wonderful view of Wawel hill as the latter receded gradually into the background. Plying along dual-carriage motorways, the bus soon reached the northernmost edge of the Babia Gora National Park, a huge green area of gently undulating hills and unspoilt forested patches of fir and beech. Taking a sharp turn west, the bus followed the regional road to Bielsko-Biala, braking its descent to the city as the region’s topography changed from a rugged mountainous terrain of gently sloping foothills to a grassy plateau of open unpolluted pastures.
At Bielsko-Biala, the bus made a ten-minutes stop, giving me enough time to enjoy at leisure the distant view of the westernmost ranges of the stretched-out Beskidy mountains. Not far from the bus station, the cable car running along the wooded Szyndzielnia mountain side was actively making a vertical ascent carrying dozens of hikers and nature enthusiasts to the top. Closer to the city centre, the top half of the bell tower of the city’s Gothic Cathedral rising out of the Old Town square was clearly within sight. Behind the Cathedral, half-hidden amidst thick undergrowth, a well-preserved castle was the dominant feature in the cityscape.
The bus soon resumed its westbound journey along secondary roads to Cieszyn, stopping en route at a handful of old countryside villages that consisted of nothing more than a central market square, out of which radiated minor streets and intriguing walkways. The landscape, characterized by distant rolling wooded hills and neighbouring grassy meadows allowed for spectacular views, the views having become more colourful and lively as the pastures gave way to crop fields and fruit orchards.
Cieszyn’s bus terminal lies under a massive concrete bridge northeast of the Old Town quarter. Humming with activity, the entire area under the bridge is an extensive car parking zone, the bus stand sharing only a small corner location between Ul Korfantego and Ul Bobrecka. Derelict and dilapidated, this is not the best area to linger. After asking for directions, I walked uphill along Ul Bobrecka and its continuation Ul Garncarska until I reached Gorny Rynek, the city’s lower market square. The uphill walk along a high-gradient road was an utter feat of exertion, short-lasting but really pressing and struggling.
Gorny Rynek is a small graceful square, its triangular layout dotted with a score of dainty little shops, some dealing in embroidered handicraft and handmade artworks, others being small spots ideal for a quick bite or a special dish of local fare.
On the west edge of Gorny Rynek, Ul Szersznika rises gently to the main market square, the highest point and the most popular spot in the city. Known as the Rynek, it is a large rectangular piazza sidelined with wooden benches where one can sit around at leisure after a day of sightseeing. Not as huge or impressive as Krakow’s Rynek Glowny, this is nonetheless an interesting place to visit. The elegant three-storey houses that surround the square form a colourful ensemble of a first-class architectural heritage. A couple have never been renovated and look worn out by time but their historical value is still great, considering that they date back to the fourteenth century. Others are meticulously renovated, given a new coat of whitish yellow paint and presently appear as fresh as they did six centuries ago. Take a close look at House No: 12 on the north side of the square. It is a grand edifice, its architectural features finished with decorative window frameworks, sculpted arched doorways and an eye-pleasing top parapet. The elegant town hall, a building reconstructed in the eighteenth century also occupies a conspicuous position on the Rynek.
On the opposite edge of the square under the arcaded passageway, the local tourist office (Miejskie Centrum Informacji) is the place to go for anything you need to know about the city. The hospitable receptionist in attendance handed over several advertising brochures and a street map of the city on which she conveniently traced down the shortest route to a number of neighbouring hotels and restaurants. Out of the tourist office, I took a sharp turn right to find an unspoiled alleyway full of character and old-world charm. Named Ul Srebrna, this is definitely worth stepping along, a wonderland of worn-out walls carpeted with blooming ivies containing additional window displays of hanging geraniums and trailing plants. I soon hit upon the target, the spot recommended earlier by the tourist office. At Ul Srebrna 7, Gosciniec pod Kurantem became my cosy home for three nights. Inviting and peaceful, this is a heavenly place, devoid of modern contraptions but full of charisma and enchantment.
A tour with map in hand along the streets of the Old Town quarter showed me the way to the neo-Gothic Church of St Mary Magdalene, located just off the southwest corner of the Rynek. The single-nave church with a meticulously restored green-painted interior has few decorations of artistic value but it is nonetheless a historical monument housing a number of burial chambers that date back to the thirteenth century.
The city’s main street, Ul Gleboka, jam-packed with side-by-side shops of all sorts cuts across the city from the Rynek to Gora Zamkowa (Castle Hill) where most of the city’s historical attractions are concentrated. As you go downhill along Ul Gleboka, don’t miss the imposing mansions and stately homes that line the street, their grandeur becoming more impressive as Ul Gleboka reaches its lowest point where it meets the city’s main thoroughfare, Ul Zamkova.
Crossing Ul Zamkova, one comes face to face with a classic-style palatial building that stretches out across the entire southern edge of Castle Hill. An arched doorway across the palace’s floor level allows access to a walkway that heads directly uphill to the Romanesque rotunda of St Nicholas, an eleventh-century stone structure formerly used as the Piast castle’s chapel. A stone’s throw away, a squarish lookout stone tower is all that remains of the fourteenth-century Piast castle. The portrait-pretty view from here over the Olza river stretches out as far away as the train station in Cesky Tesin, the left-bank section of the town doled out to the Czech Republic after World War I.
A short downhill walk on Ul Zamkowa takes you across Most Duzby / Most Przyjazni, the bridge that spans the Olza and serves as a borderline crossing between Cieszyn and Cesky Tesin. Although no longer supervised for passport control (both Polish and Czech territories belong to the Schengen zone), it is still an area where remnants of things past are clearly visible. A ten-minute stroll on Ul Hlavni in the Czech Republic leads straight to the Autobusove Nadrazi, the city’s main bus station. The street opposite the neighbouring train station in Cesky Tesin leads directly to Most Wolnosci / Most Svobody, a second bridge over the Olza that functions as another borderline crossing. Take a steep uphill ascent from here along Ul 3 Maja until you cross the Mlynowka canal, a flowing body of water running along a picturesque fertile valley. The narrow walkway that runs along the entire length of the canal guides you back to Cieszyn’s city centre.