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Little Poland, Big Time

A guide to Krakow

Your travel correspondent – as if he didn’t have anything better to do between meetings and business trips – has embarked on a major new project for the travel pages on this site: a complete feature on Poland’s two capitals, Warsaw and Krakow. This project may lead us well into the year 2002, since for Hajo’s Encyclopædia of Warsaw I will have to review around thirty of my favourite bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels, let alone the diverse sights in this city.

Thus I will start with something small, little, at least by name, but no less beautiful. We are entering the region of Malopolska (Little Poland), and its capital, Krakow. I have quickly fallen in love with this picturesque mediæval city, and I hope you will too. Indeed Krakow does not need to fear comparisons with major Eastern European highlights such as Prague or Budapest.

The secret capital

Krakow has twice carried the title of “Cultural Capital of Europe”, in 1992 and 2000 respectively. And many artists and intellectuals, to whom Krakow has always been the preferred domicile, may secretly wish for a return of the year 1038, when Krakow became Poland’s official capital.

Things are done slightly different here. Whilst Warsaw has turned into a thriving financial centre over the past decade, Krakow has fully maintained its laid back, laisser-faire mentality. This is a place to chill, not to do business.

Krakow owes much of this liberal lifestyle to Austrian occupation – between 1846 and 1918 Krakow and the Province of Galicia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And like in the Austrian capital Vienna, everything seems to happen a little bit slower in Krakow, with a bit more Gemütlichkeit.

Krakow has enough sights and attractions to fill two weeks of holidays, but a weekend trip seems a sensible approach to this city. 55 buildings and monuments have been included on the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage, and there are 18 museums with over 2 million exhibits. Following are the must sees which I would recommend most for a weekend itinerary.

Rynek Glowny (Market Square)

The centrepiece of the old town is the Market Square, which dates back to the 13th Century. At 200 metres square, it is Europe’s second largest mediæval square – only the Piazza San Marco in Venice is bigger. (So much for “Little” Poland). Rynek Glowny is a wonderful place to explore, shop, and relax.

At the centre of the square is the 100 metre-long Sukienice (cloth market), which nowadays it is a market hall for all kinds of handicrafts ant antiques from the region of Galicia. But much more than just a shopping place, Sukienice combines neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance styles in its marvellous architecture. The upper floor has been turned into an art gallery.

In the summer months, street cafés are set up around Sukienice and across the whole square. As you sit and relax over a coffee or a good Polish beer, you may want to take a look at the façades of the surrounding houses. Again you will notice an interesting mix of styles: the houses appear to be Classical, but in fact the Classical façades were only added between the 17th and 19th century, and the original doorways are still in Renaissance and Baroque style.

If the appreciation of architectural styles is not your thing, then you may just enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, the picturesque surroundings and some spectacular views. The best view can be caught from Wieza Ratuszowa, the free-standing town hall tower, next to the market hall. The top floor gallery is opened in summer and lets you see the whole old town from a bird’s eye view.

In the north-eastern corner of the square stands the Church of the Virgin Mary, Kosciol Mariaki. This is a must-see, for it includes a masterpiece of late Gothic ecclesiastical art: the 15th century altar, a huge work of art 13 metres high. Even if you are not too fond of religious artwork, this piece will impress you with its over 2,000 sculptures and ornaments of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and reproductions of famous Krakow citizens of the time.

Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter)

Christian and Jewish history go hand in hand in Krakow. This is best symbolised by Kosciol Bozego Ciala, the Church of Corpus Domini, a Gothic church with rich gold-plated Baroque ornaments on the inside, which stands right in the middle of the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz. At a time when Jews were accused of having brought the Plague to Western Europe in the 14th century, Casimir the Great invited them to Poland and Kazimierz became one of the largest Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe.

Seven synagogues have remained throughout that time. Like all of old Krakow, they only survived destruction by a hair’s breadth. When the Red Army freed Krakow in 1945, the whole town had apparently been covered with dynamite by the Nazis, but the withdrawing German army lacked the time to trigger the explosion.

Nonetheless, the beauty of Kazimierz has eroded. The Jewish population had been almost completely exterminated by 1943, the Ghetto was destroyed, and the whole Jewish quarter has been left deserted for decades under the Communist regime. Nowadays, as Jewish families have returned to Krakow in large numbers (so many indeed as to make a daily flight from Krakow to Tel Aviv commercially viable), restoration work is underway throughout the whole quarter. Yet only one of the seven synagogues is still being used as such. The largest old synagogue now hosts the Museum of History of the City of Krakow. The Jewish Cemetery is the only one in Gothic style left in Europe.

All around Kazimierz, Jewish life has begun to prosper again. New shops are opening constantly, selling anything from kosher food to Jewish books, artwork and antiques.

Should you wish to further discover Holocaust history in and around Krakow, then the Schindler Factory and the Plaszow Concentration Camp provide more insight into this dark period. Both sights gained world fame in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List”. Schindler’s enamel factory now contains a small exhibition, and parts of Plaszow survived the demolition by the Nazis, and a memorial has been put up in its place.

Wawel Hill, Castle & Cathedral

At the southern end of the old town, Wawel Hill is the site of the cathedral, castle and a number of houses of royal and Church servants.

Warning: as much as Wawel is a must-see for anyone visiting Krakow, it is also a prime tourist location and very crowded on weekends in summer months. But this wouldn’t be a true Hajo’s World article if I hadn’t included a few tips on how to evade the visitor groups.

What you can see today of Wawel Castle is actually the third version. A Romanesque castle was first built here in the 11th century, and replaced by Casimir the Great with a Gothic construction in the 14th century, of which only one tower, the so-called Chicken’s Foot, Kurza Stopka, has remained. Today’s version dates from the 16th century, and is mainly Renaissance in style.

The most picturesque part of the castle is the Courtyard. On two sides it is surrounded by beautiful arcades, with three storeys of arches and a graceful staircase. On the other two sides of the yard, the Renaissance wings of the castle and some guest houses are ranged, fully covered by ivy. If you manage to come here on a weekday without the tourist crowds, you may like to just sit or lie on one of the stone benches, relax with a good book and occasionally catch a view of the arches and green ivy walls against the blue sky, and the turquoise (copper patina) roofs of the cathedral towers, the top of which can just be seen from the yard.

Wawel Cathedral is among the most beautiful I have seen outside Rome. Beginning with the outside, it offers ever new views if you just walk a few metres around it. Many side chapels have been added since the original construction was built in the 14th century. Most of these chapels have copper domes, but the most beautiful – Kaplica Zygmuntowska, the King Sigismund Chapel – has a dome fully plated with gold leaves. Between these domes rise several small and big towers and the triangular gothic façades of the side ship.

The inside of the cathedral is a dream in blue, gold, black and white. At the centre of the crossing stands a huge baldachin, i.e. an altar with its own roof on four columns. The columns are gold and blue, the roof is black marble, and at the centre are the golden altar and the silver sarcophagus of Saint Stanislaw. The white walls of the cathedral are built around high Gothic arches, decorated with black and golden baroque sculptures and old carpets. I usually don’t like this mix of styles, but here it creates a wonderful harmony, and this is certainly one of my favourite churches outside Italy.

Now, if you want to get away from the visiting crowds, just walk a few steps to the adjacent park, still inside the Wawel complex. Promenade around the large green with its trees, statures and old cannons, and have a look at the old houses which are built into the fortress walls. These resemble all the different architectural styles that can be found at the castle and the cathedral themselves – Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque – plus, because several of these houses were constructed during Austrian rule, with Classical façades. All of these houses are still inhabited and many of them nicely decorated with flowers.

So much for now. I hope I have managed to create your interest in Poland’s little pearl. My next article will be full of tips for getting there & around, and for making the most of the Krakow shopping, dining & drinking experience. Enjoy.

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