A kracking day in Krakow…
We had a great day today exploring Krakow’s Old Town and Wawel Castle, the city’s hill-top seat of power. The city is so picturesque that it was a pleasure wandering its cobbled streets today, soaking up some history.
We’ve actually been staying in Krakow for the past few days in a very grand old hotel* just outside the old town walls, but have been so busy doing day trips with our tour group (i.e. to Auschwitz and then the Wieliczka Salt Mine) that today was our first full day in town.
*Note: When hotels are “old” in Europe, we’ve learnt this generally means no elevators. Not really a problem if you’ve only got 12-15kg suitcases like us, but a bit of an ordeal if you have lots of luggage!
Krakow is Poland’s second most populous city (population around 1 million) and has long been the nation’s intellectual, cultural and scientific heart. It was also the nation’s capital for more than 500 years, from Poland’s inception as a nation in the 11th century until its (temporary) disbandment in the late 16th century*. Built along the banks of the Vistula River, the city lay along key trade routes; this location, along with the wealth garnered from the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines, soon ensured the city’s rise to power and prominence. During the medieval era Krakow was, in fact, one of Central Europe’s greatest cities. Under the rule of the Piast dynasty, the city flourished and was second only to Prague in terms of wealth and political influence. This rich history is evident all around us in the architecture of the city, with its giant central square, beautiful churches and lovely old buildings. Fortunately Krakow survived the rampant destruction suffered by so much of Poland during WWII and today it is the most popular tourist destination in the country, attracting millions of visitors who, like us, want to gain some insight into the great kingdom that Poland once was.
*Between 1569 to 1918 Poland was repeatedly invaded by various warring factions, including the Russians, the Swedes, the Prussians and the Austrians. During these tumultuous years the nation effectively ceased to exist as a whole, as sections of the kingdom were partitioned between the various conquerers. It was only after WWI that poland was recreated and restored its independence.
We had the day to ourselves and it was great to be able to sleep in and explore the Stare Miasto (translation = old town) at our leisure. We started in the heart of the old town: the Rynek Główny (translation = Central Square). This enormous square (it is 2.5 acres in size) is the largest medieval town square in the world; originally the square was not that big, but when invading Tatars destroyed much of Krakow in the 13th century, the king at the time took the opportunity to have Krakow rebuilt on a much grander scale. He also had the “new” Krakow built as a grid; for a medieval city Krakow is therefore surprisingly easy to navigate and virtually impossible to get lost in!
Along the centre of the Rynek Główny lies the Sukiennice or Cloth Hall. This market hall used to house hundreds of merchant stalls where goods from all over Asia and Europe could be bought and sold. Today it houses hundreds of market stalls where souvenirs and tacky plastic wares, mostly from China, can be bought by tourists for just a few zloty ($1 AUD = 3 Polish zloty). The building itself is awesome, the market itself not so awesome unfortunately.
Also to be found in the Central Square is Krakow’s main cathedral: St Mary’s Basilica. Built in the early 13th century and then extended in the 14th century, this church houses a wooden alter-piece revered as one of the greatest religious works of art in Poland. The church is still used for masses and unfortunately we did not get to go in today as they had services on all morning. We did, however, get to hear the famous trumpet signal that is played from the taller of the cathedral’s tower every hour. The trumpet signal, called the Hejnał mariacki, has been played hourly for hundreds of years. The plaintive tune breaks off in mid-stream, reportedly to commemorate the famous 13th century trumpeter, who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Tatar attack on the city.
Across the square from the huge St Mary’s Basilica is the tiny Church of St Wojciech, Krajow’s oldest church. This Romanesque chapel was built in the 11th century and survived the Tatar attack on the city, making it one of the oldest buildings in town.
Having explored the square we then proceeded down the Droga Królewska (translation = Royal Route), which connects the central square to Wawel Castle. Built on Wawel Hill, Krakow’s castle is made up of three dozen separate buildings, some dating back to the early 11th century, others from the city’s “hey days” in the 14th to 16th centuries, and yet others built in more recent times by various occupying rulers (e.g. the Austrians and Prussians). The castle’s architecture therefore spans 800 years and contains buildings representative of all the major European architectural styles – from Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical. We toured through some of the interiors of a couple of the buildings that have been fully restored; unfortunately we couldn’t take any photos so you’ll just have to take our word for it when we say they were pretty interesting.
After a couple of hours “off”, relaxing in our spacious quarters, we then headed back out to the Rynek Główny for dinner. It was great seeing all the buildings illuminated and walking around the Stare Miasto by night.
Somewhat surprisingly the city felt incredibly safe at night; I say “surprisingly” because we expected Poland (and most of Eastern Europe really) to be much dirtier, “dodgier” and far less appealing. I almost feel silly for saying this, but I really expected Slovakia, Czechia and Poland to be far less, well, “civilised”! Things here are so clean, well-run and efficient that it makes us both realise we had preconceptions about these former Communist states that are obviously 20 years out of date. Since becoming free democratic and capitalist countries, it seems countries like the Czech Republic and Poland have flourished. In many ways they put some of the other European countries to shame for how “civilised” they are!