Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland
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Krakow Planty Park

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Good shade from heat in summer but also look great in winter, covered with snow.

Krakow Planty Park

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Krakow is not a city lacking in historical monuments, but one of its most exquisite can be easily overlooked as such. This is the Planty, the narrow garden walk that rings the Old Town and, besides providing a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll, is one of the most fascinating and comprehensive monuments to the city's past.

The Planty roughly follow the line of the city's former defensive walls, running from the base of Wawel in a loop around the Old Town's historical streets and squares. The city walls were demolished in 1807 and its surrounding moat, by then an unsightly and unhealthy refuse dump, was filled in. Trees were gradually planted in its place, and the 52-acre, four-kilometer-long park, comprising eight differently-styled gardens, was created in the 1820s.

The first of these eight gardens, the Wawel garden, runs from the foot of the castle up to Franciszkanska Street, across from the Philharmonic. Walking along the path between its sculpted lawns and characteristic green benches, you pass a neo-gothic brick seminary and the crumbling garden wall of the archeology museum, located in a former 17th-century Carmelite monastery that has also spent a part of its existence as an Austrian prison. It's unlikely you'll manage to get a peek into the gardens by standing on a bench, but a short detour up Poselska Street will give you a look through the garden gate. On the corner of Franciszkanska Street, the Planty widen at the entrance to the Franciscan Church, an area that is often used for historical and artistic displays. Across the street from the church is the 17th-century bishops' palace from whose upper window Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, would greet his loving Cracovians.

Across the intersecting Franciszkanska Street is the University Garden, bordering the old university buildings. This wide expanse of tree-dotted lawn is a popular spot among students snacking between lectures on obwarzanki, the local bagel-like roll; nearby is a sculpted fountain whose streams of water represent piano strings. Pause a moment to admire the striking red-brick façade of Collegium Novum, the new main building of the Jagiellonian University built in the late 19th century. Look in the opposite direction, up Pilsudskiego Street, for a view of the Kosciuszko Mound rising above the open green Blonia.

Continuing around the park, you'll pass the bleak concrete exhibition hall Bunkier Sztuki, built in 1965 and now transformed into a trendy bar and museum; across from it stands the 1901 art nouveau-style Palace of Art. The gardens here become gradually wider and more elaborate, bordered by cafés and fancy façades interspersed with bits of stone wall, remnants of the early city defenses. The only full remaining segment of the original wall stands around the 13th-century gothic Florianska Gate and the defensive fortress, the Barbakan, which was built across from it in 1499. A beautifully sculpted garden near the Barbakan, complete with pond and swimming ducks, weeping willows and a little wrought-iron bridge, bursts with colour for most of the year. Further stretches of the garden walk, planted with changing patterns of vibrantly-toned flowerbeds, include a small rise topped by a sculpture representing the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the figures of the medieval Queen Jadwiga and King Jagiello.

The eastern stretch of the Planty skirts the underpass to the old main train station, overshadowed now by the glass façade of a modern shopping center, and then winds down along quiet, narrow, cobbled lanes, offering a thin strip of delicate shade, open lawn, wooden benches and fairytale lampposts that run up against the silent white wall of a convent. Its Church of the Snowy Mother of God was built in 1635 on the site of a former 16th-century palace; the remains of an earlier, 14th-century gate is still visible in the church wall.

Across the Planty and the bordering boulevards you can catch a glimpse of the late 19th-century Main Post Office. The last stretch of the gardens takes you along the high wall of a Dominican monastery, with a clear view of the dome of the Church of SS Peter and Paul, and continues on behind the 17th-century Royal Arsenal at the foot of Wawel Hill, now housing a branch of the Jagiellonian University.

The entire walk around the park probably takes about an hour, although it's hard not to get distracted by enticing side streets, bright café windows and peaceful benches under the rustling oak branches.

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