W moim serce, wiem, że jestem Polakiem–Leon G. Konieczny
I’ve always known that I was Polish, even though I was born in the USA. How’d I know? I guess because my all of immigrant ancestors came to the United States between 1884 and 1907 and brought with them the profound knowledge of who the were and where they came from. To be fair, not all were 100% Polish–heck, Poland as a nation did not exist when they came to the USA. But they all knew who they were and brought their customs, language, and culture to the USA with them, and did not forget who they were or where they came from. It’s part of the Polish spirit, and has a lot to do with how Poland has survived all these thousand or more years.
But this post is about my favorite city in Poland, Kraków. Why Kraków? Because I think the heart of what “Poland” means lives and starts in Kraków. Poland’s history is complex, and Kraków was the capital of Poland from about the 11th century until the end of 16th Century. It is home to the marvelous Wawel Palace and cathedrals. It’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the first places so honored. And, Kraków, for the most part, escaped the near total destruction that was the fate of so many other cities in Poland jduring World War II. This, among many other reasons, is why I love Kraków.
I’m fortunate, I visited Kraków twice–the first time was on an organized tour in 2010 where we took in a few of the main sites. The second time was in September 2019, where we visited on our own and so we chose where to go and what to see. If I was told that there was only one city in the whole world I could visit, it would be Kraków.
I am writing this post in part because my nephew, Joe, contacted me. His son, Mac, is doing a project for school, writing about a city, and he chose Kraków. He knows he’s Polish. The fruit does not fall far from the tree, does it? And so in this post, I will tell a few stories of Kraków, along with some photos, from both of my visits there.
The Old Town Square in Kraków is one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever visited. This view in the evening, shows the old Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) in the background–years ago it was where merchants met to trade cloth and other wares. Today it houses various vendors selling souvenirs, gifts, trinkets, and mementos, as well as several restaurants. The second floor houses the Sukiennice Museum of 19th Century Art, well worth a visit. We toured the museum and were very impressed by the art collection–it is magnificent.
In days gone by, the town square was of vast importance, as it’s here that merchants would meet to sell, buy, and trade goods. Today the old town square is well populated with restaurants and souvenir shops. Town squares today are still the center of social life across all of Poland, and Kraków’s old town square is no exception–and, at 9.4 acres, it is the largest medieval town square in all of Europe.
One of the most famous edifices on the Town Square is the church called Kosćioł Mariacki–St. Mary’s Basilica. It was built in the 14th century (1355-1365) on a 13th century foundation and is one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture. It is 80 m (262 feet) tall and is particularly famous for its wooden altarpiece carved by the German carver Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz). St. Mary’s Basilica itself became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. The altarpieces has its own story. During World War II, the Nazis hauled away many Polish treasures, and destroyed many Polish works of art. They also hauled away the Veit Stoss altarpiece. But they did not destroy the wooden altarpiece because it had been carved by a German. They did haul it away and put it in storage, but after the war it was located and returned to Poland and the church.
I have visited Kosćioł Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica) twice. When I was in the old town square, I heard the bugle call, the Hejnał, which has a rich history. The Hejnał (also known as St. Mary’s Trumpet Call) is a 5-note Polish anthem, played every hour, on the hour, every day of the year. It is played four times in succession, once east, north, west, and south, from the tower of the church. Each time it is played, the melody ends abruptly, unfinished. According to legend, the Mongols were approaching Kraków, and a trumpeter in the tower sounded the alarm, but was unable to finish as a Mongol arrow shot him in the throat. True story? Who knows, but it makes for a good legend.
For a great series of photos from inside St. Mary’s Basilica, see this article here. That article has many great photos (as do many web sites) and a spectacular view of the Veitt Stoss altarpiece. Magnificent, but even more so to see it in person, and I have, twice, though last time it was partially hidden by some other restorations going on. As you can imagine for a church of this age, it takes a lot of work to keep it in prime condition.
Below are some of my photos from inside this magnificent church, taken during our 2019 trip.
In 201o I climbed the 239 steps to the tops of the tower, and I took some pictures of Kraków from the top. I also watched as the trumpeter played the Hejnał, once in each direction, always ending abruptly. You can hear the Hejnał played here. By the way, besides being played every hour from the church’s tower in the square, the Hejnał is played every day at noon on Polish National Radio 1 Station.
One other thing about climbing to the top of Kosćioł Mariacki. Poland is not the heavily litigious society the United States is. What do I mean by that? I think that lawsuits in Poland are not as prevalent as they are in the USA. Here in the USA, lawsuits result in businesses, attractions, building, and parks having many guardrails, warnings, and restrictions. Not so much so in Poland. And they do not have the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) like the and many lawyers trying to get rich on it, like in the USA. So the climb to the top of St. Mary’s Church is not that easy. There are no ramps. There are not a lot of handrails, the steps are uneven, and you must watch your step. But oh, the view is so worth it. If you ever have the chance to climb to the top, do it, you will not regret it.
While the Town Square, the Church, and all the things associated with old town are the heart of society in Kraków’s old town, the Palace and Castle called Wawel marks its majesty. Wawel was built on a hill which overlooks the Wisła River (Vistula in English), and long ago, rivers were the main highways by which trade and merchandise moved about. Having control of the waterways was paramount, and Wawel had a commanding view and it was indeed quite the fortress.
But how did Wawel Castle and Kraków come to be? That’s where a visit to the limestone caves at the foot of the castle tells the story. It was here that the legendary beast, Smok Wawelski, a fire-breathing dragon, lived. The dragon terrorized the community eating their sheep and local young maidens. One day, a legendary Polish Prince, Krakus, slew the dragon and saved the people. He founded the city of Kraków (apparently naming it after himself) and built his palace on top of the dragon’s lair (apparently naming it after the dragon). I saw the statue of Smok the Dragon when I was there, and sure enough, he was fire-breathing….
On my first visit to Wawel in 2010, I was on a tour. The advantage of a tour was that we had a guide to take us around and show us the highlights. But the downside to a tour is that you have to keep moving at the group’s pace and you only see the highlights. On my second visit in 2019, we were on our own and could take our time, enjoying the sights of Wawel, the palace and other buildings, the fortifications, and the many chapels as well.
Wawel Castle is the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. It is part of a fortified architectural complex erection on a limestone outcrop on the left bank of the Wisła (Vistula) River. Some of its stone buildings date back to 970 AD. The Castle (or palace) at Wawel is a mix of many architectural styles, and is one of the largest castles in Poland. Kings have been crowned and buried at Wawel. The Wawel Cathedral is really an amalgamation of various additions and chapels, but the original first Cathedral still in existence was built about 1322 and the first king to be buried there was Władysław I the Elbow-High, in 1333. There are a number of stunning sarcophagi there, tombs, elaborately carved, and of many famous people. My favorite tomb is that of one of my heroes, King Jan III Sobieski, the King who saved Europe from the Ottomans in 1683 at the Battle of Vienna. Sigismund’s Chapel contains the tomb of Sigismund I the Old, and his son, Sigismund II Augustus, and is also quite magnificent. You can also see the sarcophagus of Queen Anna Jagiellon, whose story is in itself amazing. Poland’s first Queen (technically, she was a king, but a female king, the first in Europe, ) is also buried there, Jadwiga (Hedwig), crowned King in 1384. This history of Wawel is deep and rich, and you can read much more about it and see a gallery of amazing photos here.
Today, the old town of Kraków is surrounded by a lush, green, pedestrian walkway and many of the main streets and the square are pedestrians only. The above map shows the old town. Wawel Castle is located at the south end and sits high up overlooking the Wisła (Vistula) river. The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) and Koscioł Mariacki sit on the town square in the center of the old city.
The red line is generally called the Royal Way, as it was the road taken by Kings and other royalty. The first part follows Ulica Grodzka (Grodzka Street), and passes a number of magnificent churches, many of which I’ve visited. On the north side of the square, the Royal Way follows Ulica Foriańska (Florian Street). This is at night a very popular place, full of clubs and bars, and a center of nightlife in Kraków’s old town. Following the red line (the Royal Way) all the way to the top (north), you’ll come to the limits of what was the old walled city, St. Florian’s Gate and the Barbakan, the old fortified entrance.
In olden days, the green walkway around the city was actually a moat, and the whole city was walled in. The main entrance/exit of the walled city was through the Barbakan. You can see the Barbakan, St. Florian’s Gate, and some of the remnants of the old wall in the photos below. And you can see how enterprising artists are using it to sell their wares, too.
There are many, many other things to see and do in Kraków and in the vicinity. The Old Town is just a small part of it, but is historically significant. You can read more about the Old Town here, and I heartily recommend it.
I have been in love with Kraków since my first time there. I follow a number of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and to some extent, I live in Kraków each and every day. Yes, for sure, my heart is in Poland, and the center of Poland, for me, is Kraków.