Bugles And Dragons

‘Any minute now,’ whispered our 5yr. old, tense with anticipation. The dragon obliged, erupting into smoke and flames to an ‘Ah!’ from the waiting crowd. Our dragon was a bronze replica of the legendary beast that had its lair here, under Wawel Hill on the Vistula Embankment.

We were on holiday in southern Poland, spending a few days in the beautiful, medieval city of Krakow before moving on to the nearby Tatras Mountains for some adventure activities.

There is lots to see in Krakow. It was the capital for 500 years, up till 1596 and the merchants’ houses and palaces have somehow survived Poland’s turbulent history. The children loved the little electric cars that trundle tourists round the sights, including the cathedral with ‘dinosaur’ bones chained up outside.

We made sure to be standing beneath the watch-tower in the market square for the famous interrupted bugle call, replicated daily in honour of the brave town bugler who died with an arrow in his throat as he gave warning of the approaching Mongol horde.

When culture began to pall, we took a trip out to the Wieliczca salt mine, with its nine levels and two hundred miles of passages. A guide is essential. Ours explained that to work here is not a punishment, but a plum job handed down from father to son.

Over the centuries, the miners have created amazing sculptures. These include a full-sized chapel, complete with salt bas-reliefs, chandeliers and pulpit. There is also a concert chamber, where a quartet sits playing Chopin. The children were intrigued to learn there is a hospital on a lower level, since the ultra-clean air is good for chest complaints.

The teenagers visited Auschwitz, for their lesson on the Holocaust. They were profoundly shocked it at the scale and efficiency of the slaughter, and came away sadder and wiser about human nature.

We made our second base in Zakopane, a pretty holiday resort on the edge of the Tatras National Park. It has two hundred miles of trails, created as public works during the Soviet occupation.

Our older children enjoyed the challenge of the 7,000ft peaks, accessed by fixed chains and ladders while the little ones strolled with Grandma through the meadows and pinewoods.

We hired bicycles to travel farther afield. The area is teeming with wildlife. We had a close encounter with a wild boar and the children are convinced they heard bears crashing in the undergrowth.

Another day we travelled to the Dunajec River, where the less robust took a rafting trip through the gorge. Costumed boatmen sing folk-songs on placid stretches and there are a few exciting rapids. The more intrepid can hire canoes like our youngsters, who emerged soaked but grinning.

The holiday was voted a success by all. We found the people welcoming and child-friendly, and loved the rural simplicity of the landscape with its wild flowers, working horses and nesting storks. As a bonus, Poland is inexpensive; we even stayed within budget.

As requested.

G Murray

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