Seeing the wonders of Kraków, Poland
Kraków, with a population of three-quarter million, is Poland's second-largest city after the capital Warsaw. Pronounced Krakof by the Polish, it is also one of Europe's most beautiful cities with examples of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture as well as Europe's largest medieval market square, alive with activity day and night. Right in the middle is the Sukiennice or Cloth Hall, a vast building which houses the Museum of 19th Century Art upstairs, an underground museum of Cracow's history and on the ground floor arcades with vendors selling amber, crystal, wooden figures, embroidered clothes, in fact, all sorts of souvenirs including stuffed dragons. That's right. Legend has it that the name Krakow comes from the city's founder Krakus, who built the first settlement on a hill above a cave where a dragon lived. You can visit Wawel Castle and peer into the cave below where, today, a statue of the dragon breathes fire periodically.
If you're confused that sometimes the city's name is spelled with a K and sometimes with a C that's because historically, in English, it was spelled Cracow but the K is closer to the Polish spelling and so Krakow is preferred, though both are still in use, even in the city itself. Krakow, a great cultural and trade centre, was the capital of the Kingdom of Poland from 1038, though Polish history is fraught with drama. Krakow had to be rebuilt after a 1241 Mongol invasion. Then construction on the Gothic-style Church of St Mary, across from the Sukiennice in Main Market Square, began in 1355 and boasts the famous Hejnal Tower where a trumpet is still blown every hour in remembrance of the trumpeter killed by an arrow as he alerted the city to a Tar Tar invasion. King Casimir III (in Polish Kazimierz III) founded in 1364 the University of Krakow or Jagiellonian University, the second oldest in Europe. Even today, 200,000 of Krakow's inhabitants are university students, contributing to the multitude of small restaurants, cafes, and drinking places.
Poland's Golden Age is considered the 15th to 16th century when Swedish King Sigismund II ruled, in 1569 moving the court to Warsaw. Then on his death, French King Henry III became ruler and from 1569 until 1795 a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth existed. Geographically placed between stronger nations, these greater powers kept encroaching on Polish territory. Finally, national hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had fought to liberate America during their Revolutionary War, tried to liberate Poland. If you've ever driven from JFK airport into lower Manhattan, you've crossed a bridge named in his honour. Kosciuszko's fighters lost disastrously to Russia. Partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795, Poland ceased to exist as a country for more than 100 years.
With Hitler's 1939 invasion during World War II, the Nazis made Krakow the capital of Germany's General Government and sought to eliminate all Poles and Jews from Krakow, trying to turn it into an entirely German city. In the 1930s, there were 120 Jewish synagogues or prayer houses. Today only 200 Jewish people remain. The infamous death camp Aushwitz and neighbouring Birkenau, where more than a million and a half people died, lies just 50 miles west of Krakow, which may account in part for why Krakow is the sixth most visited city in Europe as people pay homage to those lost in the Holocaust.
Unlike Warsaw, which was destroyed in the war, Krakow's amazing buildings survived intact and today the ancient Jewish neighbourhood of Kazimierz District is thriving with everything from visits to Shindler's factory, the Remu'h Cemetary, the beautifully restored Tempel Synagogue, to the hip La Habana Restaurant across from it. Helena Rubenstein's family home can be seen next to kosher restaurants and near a memorial, a "Place of Meditation upon the Martyrdom of 65,000 Polish citizens of Jewish nationality from Cracow and its environments killed by the Nazis during World War II."
Soviet domination followed WWII with Stalin building a giant steel works nearby, trying to create a workers' industrial centre. Nowa Huta is today considered a prime example of Socialist-Realist architecture and just as tourists visit Aushwitz, or the Wieliczka Salt Mine, they also visit Nowa Huta.
Poland is a profoundly Catholic nation with 98% of its citizens baptised, plus Krakow has the honour of Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978, the first non-Italian Pope in more than four and a half centuries. Statues and references to him abound here and as it happened, we were fortunate to visit Krakow just the week before World Youth Day was celebrated, an event that he founded. More than 300,000 people poured into the area and when Pope Francis celebrated mass on July 28th outside of the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a four-foot high "Black Madonna" darkly coloured by smoke, over half a million celebrated with him. By the week's end, more than one and a half million people had participated in the activities. It is no surprise then that there mor than 200 churches in the city now. And the most beautiful is surely Cracow Cathedral on Wawel Hill. It can take six hours to go through the Cathedral, Royal Castle, Treasury, and Museum all situated by the Vistula River but at least visit the Cathedral where the tomb of Kazimierz the Jagiellonian and the silver coffin with relics of St Stanislaw, to whom the Cathedral is dedicated, lie in splendour.
You can take guides in electric golf carts, called Melex, to tour the city's neighbourhoods and its 40 parks, or you can sit like a lord in a decorated horse-drawn carriage if walking gets too much. We stayed and dined at the boutique Bonerowski Palace Hotel, which I highly recommend, right on Main Square and thoroughly enjoyed good Polish cuisine at Miod Malina Restaurant but there are many hotels, museums, and superb restaurants in this charming and historic city which you should explore for yourself.