The history of Kraków can be read as a potted history of Poland. It has risen and fallen, resisted, fallen and endured, to now emerge triumphant, glittering and beautiful as the country’s most prized jewel.
The busy roads of traffic, and inevitable advertising, lined our route into city from the south in the late afternoon sunshine.
Crossing the river Wistula on a local bus gave glimpses of its many spired and towered historic centre.
The fortified brick circular walls originally had 47 watchtowers and eight massive entrance gates, built after the disasters of the Tartar invasions in 1241 and 1259.
The city’s oldest church, stone-built St Andrew’s, still standing and sporting a baroque interior, dates from those times. It was the city’s only defensive structure which sheltered hundreds of people each time the wild horsemen from the East rampaged, raped and razed Kraków to the ground.
Wawel Castle was the seat of the Kings of Poland and the symbol of its precious, and historically precarious, statehood.
The castle and cathedral complex is a collection of European architectural styles being medieval, renaissance and baroque with a splendid Italian Florentine-style courtyard.
Underneath the castle’s bedrock it was said a dragon threatened until tricked into drinking the waters of the Wistula and ultimately, exploding. We wandered into the den before emerging at the wide waters of the river.
Riverbanks were full of pleasure craft, joggers, sunbathers and dog walkers – all taking advantage of the grassy banks on a hot June afternoon.
The glittering medieval city of spires, built during Kraków’s ‘golden age’, numbered many churches and palaces as well as Poland’s first university – later attended by Copernicus and Jan Pawel II.
It was too far south to draw the gaze of greedy Teutonic Knights, controlling the Baltic Coast trade in amber under the auspices of invading and converting ‘heathen’ Poland.
Effectively ignoring the truth that Poland had had a Catholic King since the year 1000, they were eventually defeated by the Polish and Lithuanian Jagiellonian alliance at the legendary battle of Grunwald in 1410.
Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen lies monumentally slain as one of Poland’s several oppressors in a gigantic statue that was removed by the Nazis in their occupation of the city, but immediately reinstated with pride by the Krakówians after their liberation.
In 1800 Poland had the largest Jewish population in the world, largely because of a progressive policy dating back 400 years to King Kazimierz the Great, who encouraged Jewish settlement.
Kraków was a centre of Jewish culture and life was based around the now oldest surviving synagogue in Poland – the Old Synagogue in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. Today it’s an interesting museum exhibiting everyday items from Jewish households before World War II, as well as explaining Jewish rituals and rites.
In 1939, 65,000 Jews lived in Kraków. Afterwards only a few thousand had survived the Nazis’ atrocities, as most perished in nearby concentration camps. Today only around 200 Jews live in the city.
The Kazimierz district is sadly not unique in the awful history of Jewish people in the 20th century but it does have notoriety since inspiring the Spielberg film of ‘Schindler’s List’. The factory is over the river in the nearby industrial quarter.
Kraków is probably the most Catholic city in Europe’s most Catholic country. Many beautiful churches proffer incense-laden and cool interiors, masterful art and sculpture and ornate Romanesque and baroque facades. Not just to be admired by visitors, the churches are an integral part of city life.
On a Saturday afternoon, we stumbled across a wedding service, two Holy Communions, a sung mass in Latin and one in Polish and a blessing of the sacrament with the Poor Clares.
In Pope John Paul’s ‘home church’, St Francis Basilica, we admired the vibrant colours of Art Deco peacock tail reliefs painted on the walls and ceiling.
On his return visits to the city the Pope would pray in a pew at the back of the church before holding long public chats from the balcony of his nearby Episcopal Palace.
The city was bustling with visitors and tour groups, on foot and in golf buggies, vintage cars and little trains. We mingled with Americans, Asian and other Europeans.
With budget flights now available Kraków is giving Prague a run for its money as the European ‘party capital’ but is also now experiencing the downside that accompanies the honour. We avoided the sadly inevitably drunken English louts and scantily dressed Scouse girls parading as ‘stags’ and ‘hens’.
Pottering around a busy flea market on a Sunday morning, it was fun to see all the random items laid out on blankets on the ground or on makeshift tables. A sort of boot-sale-meets-brocage feel meant that Nazi paraphernalia was offered amongst gaslight fittings, samurai swords, costume jewellery, worn shoes and garish glass vases.
The sellers were locals rather than dealers and there were some touching and personal items such as reading glasses, engraved jewellery, portrait photographs and prized medals. There was also smoked cheese and home-grown tomatoes on offer!
It was obvious that there is poverty in the city. Many of the people looked unkempt and unwell, as did many of the buildings. Properties had fallen derelict since the Nazis appropriated them from their Jewish owners.
When Poland was handed over to the Red Army at the end of the war, Communism did not restore property rights and it is very striking to see how many filthy and peeling stuccoed mansions and merchant’s houses sit today in highly desirable locations.
The Communists did not maintain the city but neither did they demolish it. Instead they built a massive steel works at nearby Nowa Huta providing Kraków with decades of employment, and smog. After Poland joined the EU the city started cleaning up and restoring its beautiful 800-year-old history.
It retains a small town feel in its centre and over our two days we merrily and repeatedly bumped into a couple of older Swedish couples, a gay American couple, a Polish family from the wedding and a bright girl who gave us a Vodka tasting of flavours we hadn’t even imagined.
With a bit of Vodka history, Lizabet offered us honey, walnut, forest fruits, caramel, lemon and cherry – but we both preferred the plain!
It was a very enjoyable visit and, as always seems to be the case in Poland, a very stirring and thought-provoking one. Kraków has its challenges – pollution still being one of them – but it is growing at a rapid rate attracting huge investment from large multi-national companies and talented young professionals from across Europe.
15 million visitors wander its streets every year and we were pleased to number amongst them. Here’s a mini gallery: