Cracow (Polish: Kraków), the capital of Malopolska located on the Vistula River, is a special place on the map of Poland. This is where the heart of the country was beating through the centuries, were kings were crowned and buried in the crypt at Royal Castle Wawel. And when darkness fell over Poland during partitions, when the country was not on the map, it was just here, where the most precious historical artifacts and symbols have been kept. It was here where Poles were searching its former glory and consolation of the spirit.
And most importantly, opposite to Gdańsk, Warsaw and Wrocław, Cracow has not been destroyed during II world war. Touching the venerable walls of the city you are touching the History that lurks here from almost every angle.
A bit of history
The oldest traces of settlement in Cracow date back to 50 000 BC. In 7th and 8th century Vistula tribe settled here, creating a strong center of political power. According to some legend, the name of the city originates in the name of its ruler Krak. Already in the late 10th century it became one of the major centers of the Polish state and it became a capital of the country in 1320 year when Ladislaus the Short (Władysław Łokietek), the prince of Małopolska, was crowned (so far, the authority rested in the hands of the Piast dynasty from Wielkopolska). Cracow exercised this function formally until the third partition of Poland (1795), although after 1595 year the seat of Polish kings was already in Warsaw.
The best year for Cracow accrue to the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Jagiellonian dynasty era). Cracow was then an important political, economic, scientific and commercial center of the country. His role diminished after the capital was moved to Warsaw, and after Swedish invasion in 1655 year the city strongly declined. After the partitions Cracow was incorporated into the Austrian monarchy.
Planty at sunrise, Stanisław Wyspiański, 1894
In the interwar period the city has risen to prominence again, to suffer heavily during the II World War. It became then a German General Government, Jagiellonian University professors were deported to concentration camps, Jews (about 45 000 living in the area) were killed, many valuable monu-ments and works of art were stolen or destroyed. During the liberation by the Soviet Army in January 1945, Cracow escaped the fate of many other historic Polish cities, which have been completely des-troyed. Germans were ready to blow it up and mined many strate-gic locations, including historic buildings, but rapid flanking maneuver of Marshal Ivan Konev, commanding 1st Ukrainian Front, managed to prevent this barbarism. (Konev did it on Joseph Stalin’s personal request, and Stalin subjected diplomatic pressure.)
Since 1978, Cracow is on a UNESCO list of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The city houses up to 5971 historic buildings (churches, palaces, castles, cemeteries) but we saw only a small fraction of this wealth.
OLD TOWN MARKET
In the summer the old Cracow market – the largest square of this kind in Poland – is teeming with life from morning to night, but life spins here a little bit slowly, what we experienced while waiting for our morning coffee a little bit longer than it should be. But is it something nicer than spending time looking at the magic cabs and the Renaissance houses, seated comfortably in a coffee garden, one of many surrounding the square? In the filled with history Cracow time flows more slowly, after all, than elsewhere.
A visit to Cracow’s Old Town is necessarily associated with hearing the famous Cracow bugle call (“hejnał mariacki”), played by a real bugler. In the electronic age Cracow bugle call is something exceptional. The bugler and his golden trumpet can be seen in four windows of the tower bugle as he plays its melody to the four corners of the world, every full hour. The last time it is unfinished, according to legend saying that the trumpeter warning the city about Mongol invasion was killed during his work so he didn’t finish his melody. The bugle is played from the higher of the two towers of St. Mary’s Church (Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The church has been built in the 13th century in the ruins of the old Romanesque church, before the demarcation of the market. For this reason the building stands at an angle relative to the surrounding streets. A characteristic feature of the church is that his two front towers are slightly different in size and appearance, but the reasons for this are not known. On the pic: St. Mary’s Church.
The interior of that Gothic building is filled with sacred objects – paintings, altars, tombstones, statues, chapels, etc., originating in different ages. The most valuable monument is the St. Mary’s altar made by Veit Stoss of Nuremberg in the years 1477-1489.
Photo: Hans Rosenbach
During World War II Germans deported it to Nuremberg but the altar was successfully recovered and returned to its place in the 50s of 20th century. Above the altar appear authentic Gothic stained glass windows of 14th century, one of the oldest in Poland. St. Mary’s Church is one of 87 churches in Cracow. Photo: Veit Stoss altar.
Another of the main landmarks of the Old Market is the Cloth Hall “Sukiennice” – something like the Renaissance supermarket. Name comes from the word “sukno” (cloth), as initially the cloth from Flanders and Germany was sold there. The present building dates from 16th century. On the ground floor there are stalls with typical souvenirs and jewelry, and the first floor is a place of Polish painting exhibition.
Right beside them you can find cabs stop, which make Cracow so specific. These are no longer those real magic cabs from Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski poetry, but rather a coach, but riding them should become a must. Like the consumption of Cracow’s famous pretzel!
The third characteristic object of the Main Square is a monument of the poet Adam Mickiewicz (he lived in first half of 19th century). Although he had never visited Cracow, was buried on the Wawel Castle crypt. Every year at Adam’s name day (December 24) city florists put flowers at the basic of this monument.
Since autumn 2010, the Market Square has yet another attraction. It is fantastic underground multimedia museum (the largest of its kind in the world), showing the earliest history of Cracow. Tourists can see here fragments of excavations, burial, early settlement, stalls, mock-up, also stand face to face with the guard and hear the true sounds of the city, because the exhibition is accompanied by special effects, holograms and many other attractions.
Stroll around the market starts from Florianska Street, which is the most repre-sentative commercial street of the city. Its buildings were constructed in 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The street ends with the St. Florian Gate, built in 1300, which is another very distinctive building in Cracow. The adjacent fortification wall is a place of an exhibition of paintings, what creates a specific art gallery. You can buy there charming landscapes and panoramas of the city.
St. Florian Gate
Outside the gate and the fortification wall there is a Barbican – Defensive Rotunda of 15th century, one of only three such buildings in the world preserved in such good condition. It is now the headquarters of the Historical Museum, which is carrying out various exhibitions.
Turning to the left of St. Florian gate we enter the St. John Street, at which Czartoryski Museum is placed. It was originally founded by prince Adam Czartoryski and his wife Izabela in 1801 year in Pulawy (south-eastern Poland) and it was first professional museum in Poland. Across the street is Arsenal.
Almost all tenement houses surrounding the Old Market and neighboring streets have a rich history – detailed information can be finding in a guide book or on the plates commemorating famous inhabitants or events. It is worth mentioning that the architectural style of the city in large part was created by Italian artists. Many of them were brought to Poland in 16th century by the queen Bona Sforza.
Pijarska street, nearby the Czartoryski Museum
“Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo Da Vinci can be seen at the National Museum.
WAWEL ROYAL CASTLE
The most Polish of all Polish sites, the finest symbol of Polish history. His name “Wawel” (read w like v) the Royal Castle took from the hill on which it was built. The hill was a seat of the local princes already in 8th century, the first brick buildings were erected in XI century. As being repeatedly extended and rebuilt, destroyed and riddled with fires, the castle complex is not a compact architectural style, being a mix of different styles – Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance.
The most beautiful part of the castle was founded in 16th century, when the construction was supervised by Italian architects. It was then when a wonderful, three-story cloister was built, later being copied in other aristocratic residences. It was a period when the Wawel castle belonged to the most beautiful royal residences in Europe. Unfortunately, due to the fires and looting (many of them were caused by Swedes in 17th century), only few authentic souvenirs survived. Among those rescues were priceless tapestries of King Sigismund Augustus collection. And also exhibits of the royal treasury.
Royal castle – the courtyard
Visiting the castle is divided into separate routes: State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury and Armory, and the Lost Wawel exhibition of Oriental Art. Separate route is the Wawel Cathedral with the Zygmunt Tower (with famous bell) and the royal crypts.
Here Polish kings were crowned and buried in the basement, which became a place of rest also for meritorious poets and politicians. Hence, in the most important moments for the country, it is heard the voice of the most important Polish bell – Bell Zygmunt. Accustomed to the simplicity and austerity of Protestantism, average Dutchman can watch the interior over filled with souvenir statues, shrines and sarcophagi with some disapproval, but soon he can feel a raised atmosphere of this place. Built in 14th century, cathedral is overgrown with numerous chapels, and its interior is fulfilled with beautiful stone sarcophagi of the most distinguished rulers and kings: Władysław Łokietek (Ladislaus the Short) – the first king of the Małopolska Piast dynasty, Władysław Warneńczyk (Ladislaus of Varna) – Polish and Hungarian king, killed in 1444 during battle of Varna with Turkey (his sarcophagus is empty, because the young king’s body was not found on the battle field), Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great) – builder of the system of stone castles, the so-called Eagles’ Nests (popular saying states that he found Poland built in wood and left bricked), Władysław Jagiełło – conqueror of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald battle in 1410 and his wife Hedwig Anjou (beautiful queen and much beloved by the people, who pledged her jewels to reactivate the Academy of Cracow, now bearing the name of the Jagiellonian University). Among the wealth of memorabilia and regalia, it is wooden relics of Hedwig, removed from her tomb, which generate the greatest emotion. Photo: the entrance to the cathedral and the tomb of king Casimir The Great.
In the center of the cathedral, under a canopy, there is a silver coffin with remains of St. Stanislaus, the bishop who was murdered in 1079 by king Bolesław Śmiały (the Brave). (Read also: The biggest mystery).
While visiting the Wawel Cathedral it is a must to climb the Sigismund Tower, to see the most famous Polish bell, called Sigismund Bell, founded by king Zygmunt Stary (Sigismund the Old) and suspended solemnly in 1521 year. Its weight is 12 tons, 8 m circumference and diameter of 2,5 m.
Photo: Jorge Láscar
At present, the bell beats only for the most important occasions like religious and national celebrations, and 8-12 specially privileged people possessing great physical strength are necessary to set him in motion. To see the bell, you must climb the narrow wooden stairs, squeezing between the thick wooden beamings, which is a huge attraction. Along the way, you can see four smaller bells.
The Royal Crypt
Opposite down to the high tower are underground vaults, where in 16th and 17th century old crypts Polish kings are buried with their wives and children, and also meritorious Poles rest there: poets Adam Mickiewicz, Cyprian Kamil Norwid and Juliusz Słowacki, General Tadeusz Kościuszko, prince Jozef Poniatowski, Marshal Józef Piłsudski and General Władysław Sikorski. A visit here must create big emotion and excitement in every Pole heart, because he is very close to the coffins of people who more or less successfully shaped the history of his country.
The royal coffins
The Royal Castle
It is possible to spend the whole day visiting The Royal Castle but for some reasons we chose only Residential Royal Chambers route, which starts from the courtyard surrounded by the famous cloisters. With a little imagination you can imagine queen Bona walking there vigorously with her court ladies or some politicians (she was very active in politics). Representative interiors of Wawel (like other rooms) are merely reconstructions because the castle was repeatedly destroyed, grabbed and burnt and original equipment didn’t survive. Happily it is not a case of a large collection of 16th century tapestries (so called “arras” from Arras, the city of their origin) which are a main decoration of the rooms. Those tapestries were collected by enamored in them king Zygmunt August. Visiting this part of the castle tourists pass through the halls and throne room and the room of deputies, whose ceiling is decorated with valuable carved heads – portraits of the Cracow burghers. Photo: Hall of Representatives.
Tired of wandering through large interiors we sat for rest at the room finishing the route where the huge painting by Jan Matejko, “The Prussian Homage”, is exhibited. You can find there the most famous royal inhabitants of the castle – King Zygmunt Stary, his wife Queen Bona and their children, including small Zygmunt August. Private Apartments can be visited only with a guide and tourists can see there, among others, the royal dining room and dressing room, and those visiting the Treasur House will see the coronation sword of Polish kings of the 14th century. Photo: one of the famous Wawel tapestries.
Kazimierz – former Jewish district of Cracow – is one of the major tourist attractions, as well as an important center of cultural life. Walking its streets means entering into the world, which has since long gone and only surviving monuments talk about its greatness. The name comes from the name of king Kazimierz Wielki who founded a city there. Until the mid-19th century Kazimierz was a separate city, fenced off from Cracow by the wall. Until World War II the district was inhabited mostly by Jews, forcibly relocated there from Cracow in 15th century. In the days of greatest glory, Kazimierz was a very important center of Jewish culture in Poland and worldwide, and its rabbis enjoyed great respect. After the murder of its inhabitants by the Nazis (you know them from “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg) the district firmly declined. Jewish monuments, especially places of worship, were regularly devastated, houses turned into slums, and the place had a very bad reputation.
Today Kazimierz is different. Houses have been renovated and many of them serve as pubs, restaurants and cafes, many of them serving traditional Jewish food in traditional interior style. More and more artists wish to establish there their studios and in the district many cultural events are held, including annual Festival of Jewish Culture. Maybe somewhere in the modern hustle and bustle the old, unique atmosphere of the Jewish quarter is lost, but the silent witnesses of the past continue to exist.
We started our wandering around Kazimierz with coffee in a place which was a big surprise to us. It is situated on Szeroka Street (the former center of the Jewish quarter) and from outside does not look like the cafeteria, but like the old Jewish shop with rings on display.
Fot. Barbara Myśliwska
Intrigued, we looked inside to see a lovely café interior filled with old furniture and memorabilia related to the Jews, including a wedding dress and a man’s suit. Café was created in a place of the former shop and two small workshops, including tailor shop. We liked it so much that we drunk up two coffees, listening to the Jewish songs and music.
In a good mood, we set off to meet with relics of Kazimierz, which hit in 1978 as a World Heritage Site. Our good humor was not spoiled by the light rain.
Kinderjohren, a Jewish song about Cracow (in jiddish)
Remuh Synagogue with cemetery
Inferring by the modesty of the building, built in 1558 year, Remuh synagogue probably originated as a house of prayer for the family of a royal banker Isserles Auerbach, and is the second oldest synagogue in the district. Today is the one of two active synagogues in Cracow and the only one in which celebrations is held regularly. Remuh name comes from the name of the founder’s son, the famous Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rabim Moses – Remuh), whose grave is in the cemetery adjacent to the synagogue. It is believed that if anybody will try to destroy this grave, will get killed soon so even Nazis during WW II, did not dare to damage it.
Founded in 1535, cemetery Remuh is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Cracow and one of the oldest in Europe – the oldest preserved tombstone dates from 1552. Jews were buried here until mid-XIX century. After World War II cemetery turned into rubbish dump (only Isserles tomb and a few others survived). In 50s last century archaeological work was undertaken, which resulted in discovering – hidden in the ground – hundreds of stone tombstones, 700 stele and funerary sarcophagi originating in 16th and 17th centuries. Many fragments of gravestones are placed in the cemetery wall today, creating a specific Wailing Wall.
Jewish graves and the grave of the rabbi Moses Isserles
It is one of the oldest preserved synagogues in Poland and one of the most important Jewish monuments of religious architecture in Europe. Until 1939 year it served as the central synagogue, the main religious, cultural, social and organizational center of Cracow Jewish community. Now houses a branch of the Historical Museum of Cracow, and the exhibition is called History and Culture of the Jews. The current appearance of the synagogue is the result of multiple reconstructions and modifications.
Here you can see, among others, Renaissance portal of the second half of 16th century, baroque stone collection box from 17th century, the late Renaissance Aron Kodesh, historic murals, and many valuable liturgical objects.
Only six synagogues survived here until today, including 19th century Tempel synagogue where, much to the dismay of Orthodox Hasidim, some Jewish celebrated mass in Hebrew. Currently, concerts are held here. Walking around the neighborhood we passed the building of the School of the Talmud Society from 1901 year, we also looked into the bookstore, where tourists can buy books on Jewish themes and CDs with Jewish music. Having drunk something in one of the numerous pubs of Szeroka Street, we entered for a moment to the famous Klezmer Hois restaurant to listen to the live singing Jewish singer. Then we left the district when its light were already on and all pubs and restaurants begun the night life. And it was the last point of the program of visiting Cracow…
Kazimierz by night…
It is worth mentioning that every year in June / July in Krakow the international Jewish Culture Festival takes place.
We came back to Krakow – for one night only – three years later. Krakowski market has a new attraction – a fountain (can any market square have no fountain?). But this one created big controversy and was not welcome with enthusiasm by many. Are they right? Everybody has to judge by himself. What would famous Cracowian singer and poet Marek Grechuta say?
Old Market Square fountain
Of course Cracow has much more places worth to see inside the city and those, who came by car, can make trips to its surroundings, to see more antiques or just enjoy beautiful, natural landscape. Here are some most interesting places:
- Wieliczka Salt Mine
- National Park in Ojcow with a castle
- castle in Pieskowa Skala
- Prądnik valley with a lovely route
- Benedictine monastery in Tyniec
Those who are interested, can make a trip to the concentration camp Oświęcim (Auschwitz) which is situated 70 km from Cracow.
Foto: Wikimedia Commons, Katarzyna Olczak, Han Tiggelaar, Renata Głuszek