Vroom with a view! Try the new way to tour Krakow, Poland’s medieval gem, by hanging onto the ‘Lady in Blue’ (well, to be precise, she actually shows up on a blue Vespa scooter).
James Ruddy reports from the passenger seat.
She sped up to the hotel on her blue Vespa scooter, took off her helmet, shook my hand and broke the ice with that warm Irish greeting: “Slainté.”
Her next move was even more surprising when she handed me a second helmet and asked, “James, would you like to get on the back?” »
It was an unexpected offer I couldn’t refuse on a two-day tour with my bubbly guide, mother of two teenagers, 47-year-old Kasia Socha.
Born and raised in Krakow, she knows the city’s highlights and secrets like the back of her hand and has just started offering a passenger seat on her beloved Vespa 125 Primavera 2019 Special Edition scooter for willing tourists.
It was a dream for me after being introduced to two-wheeled travel on the back of my cousin Sean Ruddy’s 50 Honda moped, which he wheeled us around country roads during my 1970s vacation in the County Mayo.
Shortly after those blissful rides, I moved on to numbing runs and wearing a parka over my own white Lambretta in Skegness for rowdy teenage weekends, like those depicted in the film Quadrophenia with its cult soundtrack of The Who.
So Kasia’s offer filled me with excitement, as I was expecting a walking tour – not the wonderful driving experience offered by her “outdoor office” which, she says, “I can take anywhere and park anywhere – the city is our oyster.”
So it turned out. With his snappy driving style, we bounced over the cobblestones of the Old Town, weaved through huge crowds on the way to dreamy Castle Hill and dove into local markets to park and joke around with locals. honey and cheese sellers.
At the Stary Kleparz open-air market, I walked away with an armful of goodies from her friends among the traders, including pots of mushroom soup and pickled pork and cabbage, a piece of goat cheese encrusted with nettles sweet and even a box of blue eggs from Araucana Lucyna chickens, claimed to have less cholesterol and more protein.
After lunching in the trendy bars and cafes of the Kazimierz district, her guiding skills almost tempted me to buy a designer leather jacket for around £25 at one of the city’s popular second-hand clothing markets. town.
Kasia seemed to know everyone – and everyone seemed to know her. As one of the busiest guides in town, she is fluent in English, French, Portuguese and Russian and is the daughter of a top surgeon as well as a practicing mother. as a lawyer.
Off the beaten path she took me for a drink in a castle outside the town of Przegorzakly with one of the best views in the region over the mighty Vistula, where a Turkish businessman will open a hotel luxury next year.
Nearby, I got a glimpse of the private housing estates prized by the elite during the Communist era, when Russian dictator Stalin succeeded Hitler and Poland suffered for decades behind the Iron Curtain.
Kasia’s insights have lifted the lid on an ancient city whose cheap Ryanair flights have made a traditional destination for stag and hen parties who have flocked to its rocking bars and clubs, which always open late and sell beers and shots for just £1 each.
But Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine (the border is just 3 hours away on the E40) has recently reduced British tourist numbers and revived old fears.
“We call Putin Putler,” Kasia says, “because he acts exactly like Hitler did in the evil way that he treats human lives as worthless.”
His words are underscored by the harrowing experience of a visit – just 90 minutes away by train – to Germany’s Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where the Nazis killed more than a million Jews during World War II.
While we are chatting in the museum’s cafe-bar dedicated to Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews from extermination by employing them in his local factories, a young woman starts chatting with us.
Ann Kostiuk, 31, has beautiful long black hair and the saddest of dark eyes that tell of how much she suffered while fleeing her home in Kyiv.
She shows us a photo taken on the phone of a heavy fragment of a Russian missile that landed at her feet, almost decapitating her, at the start of the war.
Like many Ukrainians, she is a refugee now living with a university friend in Krakow and assures us, without conviction: “I’m fine. I am a traveler and have always travelled.
It’s a window into a world away from the fine restaurants, beautiful churches, amusement parks and riverside promenades of the glorious town of Kasia.
And that is why we should challenge the evils inflicted on innocent people across the border and continue to visit Poland and Krakow to show our defiance.
For Kasia tours call her on +48604053532 or email: [email protected]
For detailed information about Poland and Krakow, go to: www.poland.travel,#visitpoland, http://krakow.travel/en/,#visitkrakow
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Like several Eastern European countries, Poland has faced a drop in visitors from the UK and Ireland due to fears over the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
But Poland’s London-based tourism director is keen to reassure travelers that the country remains “as safe as ever”.
“Tourist attractions remain open and visitors can book hotels and other accommodations as usual,” Dorota Wojciechowska said.
“Tourists can experience it every day at our hotels, historic mansions, idyllic farmhouses and quaint wine lodges. We hope that the current situation in Ukraine will not discourage Irish and British tourists from visiting Poland this year, as there are so many great places just waiting to be discovered.
Besides Krakow, the country is full of medieval city gems, as well as lakes, unspoilt countryside and unexpected delights like the 35 km long Hel Beach near charming Gdansk on the newly designated north coast. as one of the most beautiful in Europe. and offering scenic rides on rented bicycles to tourists.