KRAKÓW, CAPITAL CITY IN THE HEART OF THE POLES
After having visited the current capital of Poland, Warsaw, I take the train from Warsaw Central Station to Krakow. I don’t even think to join my seat (yet reserved), as all 2nd class compartments were overflowing. So I go instead to the dining car to look for an empty seat. I take something to drink and eat and document myself on my future destination while admiring the scenery.
Once in Krakow Central Station, I joined the historic center of the city where my hotel Venetian House Aparthotel is. We are approaching the end of the day, so I am going for a walk on the main square and around, just to admire the few surrounding buildings. After a nice dinner at a local restaurant, I get back to my room and prepare my next day, of which the text below is a short summary :
Let’s start with Rynek Glowny, the famous main square.
This huge main square was laid out in accordance with the City Charter, which awarded it rights under the Law of Magdeburg in 1257. The name market square – in Polish Rynek which originally means Ring – was used for the first time around the year 1300. Yet it was only in 1882, when the naming conventions for the city’s streets and squares were standardised that it received its official name: Rynek Główny (the Main Square).
The Market Square was the most important public space and satisfied all the basic needs of the residents related to the city’s administrative (headquarters of the authorities in the City Hall), trading and economic (Cloth Hall) and religious (Parish Church of St Mary’s) life. In the following centuries, the space within the Main Square was covered by shambles and stalls divided into separate trading sections where were sold salt, chickens, coal, lead, fish, barrels. etc.
When the city authorities decided to put some order into Kraków during the 19th century, the Main Square was one of its priorities. In 1868-1879 the stalls and lean-tos on the Cloth Hall were demolished and the buildings of the Great and Small Scales shared their fate. Somewhat earlier, in 1820, the City Hall was torn down, and only its tower remained. The year 1898 marked the unveiling of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz.
I then walk a bit in the square and starts my visit (that is a big word, let’s say I just passed through) of the Cloth Hall.
A true Renaissance architectural gem, the place is a city postcard, its older “mall” and one of the most important historical monuments. Once used for cloth trading, it is from this activity that the Hall got its current name. I spend a good hour browsing through the different stands and was surprised to discover that one can buy almost anything here!
At exiting the Hall, I came almost face to face with the Church of Our Lady of Krakow. Over 600 hundred of history in a single church situated right in the middle of Krakow!
The first mentions of St Mary’s Church date back to 1222. It was then a Romanesque church which was destroyed by Tartar raids. The second church was built in different stages over the next few centuries, until receving its final form at the end of the 14th century. Being the main parish church of the town, St Mary’s received donations from rich burgher families. It was thanks to their efforts and funds that most of the 16th and 17th-century furnishing, including the stalls, tomb slabs, and chapels were constructed. The lower tower is the home to a unique set of five bells, of which the oldest, Pół-Zygmunt was cast in 1438. According to tradition, it was carried up into the tower without any assistance by the strongman Stanisław Ciołek, son of the Voivode of Mazowsze.
I slowly walk away from the market place and head to Florian’s Gate.
It was through this gate that kings would enter the city after victorious battles, it was also used for ceremonial reasons by diplomats, and famous people visiting Kraków. It was also the route of royal coronation and funerary processions. The gate was built around 1300, and received its brick storey with projecting machicolated battlements (shooting galleries) supported on stone consoles in the 15th century. It defended the city from the north, where Kraków couldn’t make use of any natural obstacles like marshes or boggy flood plains. St Florian’s gate stands at 34.5 m (113 ft) high and provides today a beautiful feature in the townscape of ul. Floriańska and the Royal route. It may be hard to imagine that in the years 1901-1953, there was a narrow gauge tramway going through the gateway everyday, having to fold down each time its pantographs…
I continue my visit and a few steps away from Florian’s Gate, I can see Juliusz Słowacki Theatre.
To quote the inscription on the façade of the theatre building, this is Kraków’s contribution to the development and preservation of national art. This place is where many famous premieres took place and one of Poland’s best-known theatres. As it is almost noon, I walk back on the main square and enters a local restaurant that I had noticed earlier. After lunch, I head to Wawel Hill and the Royal Castle.
Initially, the castle stronghold was not of impressive size, and – as excavations prove – was situated on the northern side of the hill, under one of the wings of the current castle. The structure was only extended to the south and east when Kraków became the main seat of Polish monarchs between the 11th and 12th centuries.
Early in the 14th century, King Ladislaus the Elbow-High (Władysław Łokietek) greatly extended the castle. Among the structures built at that time were the residential tower, known as “Łokietkowa”, reconstructed and extended by King Casimir the Great (Kazimierz Wielki) who erected the stylish projection encircled with impressive buttresses called “Hen’s Foot”. During the reign of Jadwiga, an opulent tower was built in its vicinity; it later received the name “Danish”, as Eric VII, King of Denmark, stayed there during his official visit to Kraków.
The castle survived in this form until 1499, when it was destroyed by a fire. A major refurbishment of the castle in the Renaissance style begun in 1504. The new style reached Kraków via Hungary thanks to Italian masons and architects. The former medieval castle turned into an impressive palace-like residence with a most imposing arcaded courtyard while at the same time losing nothing of its defensive role. After the fire of 1595, King Sigismund III Vasa moved his court to Warsaw, and left Kraków for good in 1609. Although work on the construction of the castle continued after the conflagration, the slow decline from its heyday was already happening. During the Swedish invasion (1655-1657), the castle was pillaged of virtually everything. The following centuries increased its degradation, which was finally sealed when the former royal seat was converted into Austrian military barracks.
The castle was not successfully reclaimed until 1905. It gradually had its former splendour returned. Work on this task proceeded particularly rapidly after Poland regained independence in 1918. At the time, the precious objects and works of art carried away from Poland by the invaders during World War I were returned to the castle. This included Szczerbiec – the Notched Coronation Sword of Polish kings – and Flemish tapestries which found themselves abroad again in 1939. During World War II, the castle was the seat of Governor General Hans Frank. Luckily, the low level of war damage enabled it to be rapidly renovated. Today, the castle houses a number of different exhibitions, including the State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, and Crown Treasury and Armoury.
I spend a few hours there to visit the different buildings on the hill before going down by another road. Doing so, I pass in front of the statue of the Wawel Dragon. This is a famous dragon in Polish culture and especially in the history of the city of Krakow. According to legend, this fabulous animal lived in a cave inside the cliff on which stands Wawel Hill overlooking Vistula river.
The Wawel Dragon was a beast which lived in a den under Wawel Hill and terrorised all the inhabitants of King Krak’s town. They had to feed to the monster by giving him offerings of cattle, while other tales speak of that hellspawn eating nothing but virgins. No knight could vanquish the monster, until a young shoemaker Skuba outsmarted the Dragon. He stuffed a ram’s hide with sulphur and pitch, and put the doctored ram in front of the Dragon’s Den. The monster caught the bait and devoured the ram. Immediately, he felt a bad pain and burning in the throat. To quench his thirst, the Dragon started to drink from the Vistula River. However, as water cannot extinguish burning sulphur, the gases produced by the fires inside him made the beast explode. All the townsfolk revelled in the news and the heroic shoemaker was properly rewarded.
To conclude this day of visit, I walk through Kazimierz, without really knowing where I’m going. Kazimierz is currently one of the ten neighborhoods that are part of the first district of Krakow. Renowned for its art galleries, monuments, restaurants and nightlife, it is very popular among tourists. It is also one of the main memorial sites for the Jewish community. Along the way, I pass by Remuh Synagogue’s cemetery.
Next to the Remuh Synagogue is the cemetery of the same name which is slightly older than the synagogue, as the first burials took place here in 1551. There are only two older Jewish cemeteries in Poland, situated in Wrocław and Lublin. Initially, the cemetery was accessed through a gate in the wall in ul. Jakuba, which was later blocked. After Kazimierz was merged with Kraków in 1800, the Remuh Cemetery was closed by a decision of the Austrian authorities, very like all of Kraków’s church cemeteries which were situated as a rule next to dense residential development. Not only was it quite a bedraggled place before the second world war, with just a few tens of matzevahs, but the Nazis also turned it into a rubbish dump.
Renovation works started in 1956 and we can see today 711 graves standing in the cemetery, some of the traditional tombe shape, others in the form of freestanding slabs (matzevahs). Fragments of those slabs that could not be reconstituated were incorporated into the wall on the ul. Szeroka side, forming the so-called Wall of Tears.
The cemetery is an attraction to Jews from all over the world because of the grave of Rabbi Moses Isserles (d. 1572). Most of them leave little scraps of paper here with requests (so-called kwitłech) hoping for Remuh’s intercession before God. The Rabbi’s grave is the only one in the cemetery not to have been destroyed, thanks to the the Jewish community who help to maintain it in good condition over the centuries. Returning to the main square, I pass right in front of the church of Saints Peter and Paul.
This Jesuit church was the first church in Poland to be built in the new, baroque style. The towerless façade, from Giovanni Trevano, is clearly derived from the Il Gesù Church in Rome, the precursor and touchstone for early baroque. Early in the 18th century, Kacper Bażanka designed the railings of the church on Grodzka Street on which are 12 late-baroque figures of the 12 apostles by German Jesuit sculptor David Heel (those standing there today are copies). A little further away is the Church of St. Andrews.
One of the best preserved example of Romanesque architecture in Kraków, this massive church was built from stone blocks towards the end of the 11th century, and also fulfilled important defence functions. Most probably expanded and strengthened up until the mid-12th century, the church successfully withstood the Tartar raid of 1241, providing shelter for residents of the city. It that time, it was – quite rightly – called “the lower castle” to be distinguished from the nearby “upper castle” standing on top of Wawel Hill. In 1320, the church was entrusted to the Order of Poor Clares, whose convent was built south of the church. Also dating from that time is the Gothic oratorio made of bricks that plays today the role of the sacristy.
After this busy day of sightseeing and as my legs will probably stop working soon, I return to the same restaurant I went at noon for dinner before getting back to the comfort of my hotel room.