The trumpeter sounds out from high above as we exit the Cloth Market into Rynek Glowny, the town square of Krakow, Poland. He plays his anthem as he does each hour of the day. It is loud and clear and filled with melancholy. He stops his tune abruptly part way through a note. It pays homage to the ancient trumpeter who, as the legend goes, was shot while warning the town that Tatar armies had gathered to attack the city. He waves to the crowd below and they heartily return his salute. He closes the window and repeats himself in the next quadrant of the gothic tower that has reigned large over the center of town since the 15th
The crowd gathered in the square below the cathedral’s towers hardly misses a beat in their celebrations. A nearly constant festival has been taking place since the weather has warmed in the last month. May brings people from their houses after a long winter. The days tease the residents, one day sunny and warm, one day cloudy and cool. Women who wear spring dresses on a sunny morning may regret their fashion choice as they make their way home
St. Mary's Cathedral, Cloth Market and Town Hall Tower.
to chilly breezes from cloud filled skies. Schoolchildren who braved a brisk morning may not need their heavy winter coat when released into the sunny skies of a warm afternoon filled with scents of freshly bloomed spring flowers.
This largest of all medieval squares in Europe holds temporary booths that sell flowers, art and food. The smell of grilling meat fills the air. A stage presents traditional music. Horse drawn carriages await visitors and locals alike. The square sits in the center of what once was the walled city of ancient Krakow. Most of the wall was removed long ago. The moat was filled and a wonderful park was planted in its place. Called the Planty, the park is a 4 kilometer green space that perfectly separates the pedestrian oriented inner city from the more modern areas of town.
Elaborately decorated horses pull the white carriages through the narrow cobbled streets. They pass pastel buildings with intricate facades as they slowly make their way through the masses of people. They follow the so-called Royal Route south toward the river. This is the route the ancient kings took upon coronation when Krakow was the capital
On the Vistula River
of Poland. They made their way to their new castle home just on the edge of the river.
Wawel Castle perches on a rocky hill above a bend in the Vistula River. Begun in the 14th
century it has undergone many changes since. Polish kings were coronated and buried here for centuries. Passing through the gate at the top of the hill, the visitor is immediately struck by the beauty of the gothic cathedral which stands above all else on the hill. In the tower is the massive Sigismund bell which is only sounded on very special occasions. It is said that it can be heard from 18 miles away and when sounded on Constitution Day it was certainly believable.
A short walk or tram ride along the river south from the castle brings the visitor to the historic Kasimierz neighborhood. This area of town is full of cafes, bars and restaurants and has a very bohemian atmosphere, popular with locals and visitors, both in the daytime and nighttime. Traditionally a mix of Jewish and Christian citizens lived together in this area as witnessed by the large number of synagogues and churches still open
for visits. The area gained international attention when much of the movie “Schindler’s List” was filmed here in 1993. The Jewish people who lived in this area were moved to the Ghetto area across the Vistula in 1940, not long after the Nazis captured the area in World War II.
The former ghetto itself is a small area of just several blocks surrounding the so called “Ghetto Heroes Square”. Many metal chairs are placed in the square to commemorate the spot where so many of Krakow’s Jews were deported during the war. Oscar Schindler’s Factory has been repurposed nearby as a very excellent museum covering this sad period of Krakow’s history. It is only a short walk or tram ride to see where the Plaszow labor/concentration camp (made famous in the movie) was located. Not much remains of the camp but the area can be toured. It was eerie to find the camp commander’s house, infamous in the movie as the place where the commandant shot inmates from his balcony. The house is a private residence now.
Krakow is known as the “City of Churches” for its vast number of religious buildings. Back in
town we made sure to visit what we thought were two of the most beautiful churches in town. St. Mary’s Cathedral in the town center is the most famous. It is probably one of the most beautiful churches we have visited in Europe. Toweriing arches filled with a rich blue background highlighted with white stars dominate the interior. Fine dark wood carvings are everywhere. Beautiful chapels line the walls and most impressive of all is the intricately carved altarpiece designed in the 15th
century. Nearly as impressive is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi across from Bishops palace where Krakow’s favorite son, Pope John Paul II, lived for a portion of the 40 years he spent in the city. Unique stained glass windows that change color with the season provide wonderful light throughout the church which was founded almost 1000 years ago.
Krakow has 4 small man-made hills on the outskirts of town. Built at different times throughout the city’s history these mounds were made to commemorate local heroes. Easily reachable on the excellent tram network they can be climbed on a sunny spring afternoon to provide wonderful views over Krakow and the surrounding countryside.
A few miles down the Vistula River we spent a nice day touring the Benedictine Monastery in the small town of Tyniec. We took a bus, but many choose to take one of the small tourist craft that leave from near the castle. Beautiful countryside awaits for users of either mode of transportation. Walking in the small town from the bus stop to the abbey gave us a nice view of Polish life outside of the large city.
Also on nearly every Krakow visitors list is the haunting Auschwitz concentration camps located about 1 ½ hours from town in the small city of Oswiecim. Most everyone has heard the tragic story that occurred here for so many victims of the Nazis during World War II. The original Auschwitz camp was set up in a former Polish army barracks and is where the main museums that explain the camps history are located. While the story is heartbreaking in itself, we found to be most shocking was the scale of the second camp of Auschwitz II/Birkenau which lies just on the outskirts of town. The sheer number of barracks and amount of infrastructure built for the purpose
of killing innocent people leaves the visitor with the sense of how immense the tragedy of this awful part of history was.
Not to be missed was a short trip to the Wieliscka Salt Mines located just south of the city and reachable by city bus. These massive mines produced table salt for over 700 years before being closed recently. We walked for over 3 hours through narrow tunnels that took us past statues, massive church temples, restaurants and museums all built underground by miners over the centuries. To find out that we had seen less than 3 percent of the total space of the mine was incredible. Most memorable were the full size chapels that even had chandeliers made from salt crystals and beautiful carved-in-salt art work on the walls. Photographs do not do justice to the immenseness of the underground world we saw.
We had an excellent month in Krakow. I don’t think Poland is high on the list of most travelers’ itineraries, but it should be. This is a modern city that perfectly preserves its rich history. It is clean, friendly and has a variety of interesting stories that make it
unique and worthy of it UNESCO protected status. The cuisine is delicious and everything is very fairly priced. We had no idea of the variety of kielbasa, pierogis and coleslaw there were until we began sampling them as often as we could.
As we sit on our modern apartments balcony with a magical view towards the Vistula River, Wawel Castle and spires of the historic Old Town we have to say that Krakow has been one of the nicest places we have visited in our journeys so far.
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