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Krakow is one of Europe's most beautiful examples of enlightened 17th-century urban planning. The opportunity kindly provided by barbarians from the north had razed the medieval city to the ground in what is known to Polish and Lithuanian children as The Swedish Deluge (1655–60). Thanks to the new start, long straight boulevards lead to elegant Neo-Classical squares punctuated with medieval churches, now cover the flat drained marshlands, while outside the largely vanished ramparts, a string of shady parks surrounds the city. At one end stands the city's raison d'etre, Central Europe's pivotal strongold, the Wawal.
Warsaw suffered terribly in the Second World War, but it was never bombed. Today it is home to the Czartoryski Collection's Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine (for which no familiarity can ever prepare you), the finest collection of Turkish tents in the world (sadly few are on show), as well as a century-old Turkology department – Krakow is a city with curious Turkish links, most notably the consumption of large quantities of simits (in all but name). This is the Florence of the north, and still a centre of learning, though like the Florence of the south, it is plagued by tourism in high summer. Fortunately few stray far from the central square, and certainly not to the magnificently austere but hugely rewarding National Museum.
A very comfortable 2.5 hour train journey from Warsaw (more sensible than flying as fog often causes cancellations).
Good shoes and a tram
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