I’d heard for many years that I should see Krakow “soon, before it’s ruined.” Well, maybe I got there in time, or maybe I didn’t, but I’m here to say Krakow is not ruined and it will (inshallah) never be. This is a world-class city, folks, a city worth a major detour to go and see and inhale for all its worth. My piddly little two-and-a-half-day visit did not do it justice, and I’m already jonesin’ to go back. The surrounding region itself deserves some time and attention; in addition to the city itself, there are amazing UNESCO salt mines, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, and not too far away, the Polish alpine complex around Zakopane. Lots to see and do.
Krakow is the second largest city in Poland and one of its oldest. Importantly, it wasn’t bombed back to the stone age like many of Poland’s metropolitan areas so what you see is really what’s been there since forever, no loving reconstructions necessary. It has been a major commercial, intellectual, political, and artistic center for centuries, and most recently, was the home of Pope John Paul II for many years while he was Bishop there.
Any self-respecting trip to Krakow starts with a pilgrimage to the Old Town, (Stare Miasto in Polish) which Wiki tells us was “drawn up in 1257 after the destruction of the city during the Tatar Invasions of 1241 followed by raids of 1259 and repelled in 1287. The district features the centrally located Rynek Glowny, or Main Square, the largest medieval town square of any European city.” Got it? The Italian influences are clear; you feel you might be in Tuscany somewhere. Tellingly, the name of one of the streets that runs to the Main Square is “Sienna.” Around 1518 the Italian noblewoman Bona Sforza married the then recently widowed Polish King Sisigmund I the Old and brought her passion and aesthetic to Krakow. It still shows.
The Market Square, facing St. Mary’s Basilica:
Heading out just to those umbrellas and turning back around, one sees:
Inside this building (the cloth hall) merchants having been selling their wares for over five hundred years. At the moment, you’ll find a lot of lovely but very overpriced tourist souvenirs, predominantly amber and silver jewelry (national specialty) and some traditional Polish ceramics. One saleswoman is either inspecting her wares or checking her Facebook account:
Finally, even more incredibly, this market square was recently and thoroughly excavated and turned into a museum (known as the Rynek Underground). You can walk through a huge section of the city immediately below the market square and see not only the remnants of the medieval city but loads and load of artifacts and exhibits and fascinating videos about the history of the city. I was enthralled for hours. For most of its multi-hundreds of years, the square was just composed mud with straw thrown on top of it from time to time. Junk just kept falling from the pockets and purses of the locals, making their way into an archeologist’s bonanza. Here’s just one little look at the items discovered during the dig:
Stepping away from the main square, one walks down a long scenic pedestrian street towards the castle. I took a little byway one street off, and found this lovely building. As I mentioned earlier, John Paul II is one much loved local boy. But here’s the place where he lived during much of his time in Krakow, including, I believe, his student days and years as a priest before becoming Bishop:
JP’s house is literally at the bottom of Wawel Hill, the site of the city’s castle and cathedral. This is an immense and beautiful complex, built originally in the 14th century at the behest of Casimir III the Great. Here’s a bronze representation of the area:
Walking to the right from this spot shows you a closer look at the cathedral:
I went through the State Rooms of the castle, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures. So let me see if I can clue you in. Lots and lots of big rooms! All filled with floor-to-ceiling Flemish tapestries, marble tiles, Italian furniture, British sconces, paintings of Polish kinds and nobles! Huge! Gorgeous! Imposing! Okay, you got it.
But into every castle/cathedral complex, ya gotta add a little kitsch, so here’s mine. Remember that Wroclaw had dwarves? Krakow’s got a dragon and he allegedly lived at the foot of Wawel Hill. He met his sad demise at the hands of the knight Krakus who founded the city. Happily the little guy lives on in the gift shop, as evidenced below:
By now, I was well and truly tuckered and a bit peckish. I found an amazing restaurant in the old town and was treated to a delicious lunch. I don’t photo my food often, but this time the aesthetic seemed worthy. Cheers to you, Resto Illuminati:
Finally, no trip to Krakow would be complete without a visit to Szambelan, a tiny little establishment where one can find “a huge selection of special vodkas, meads and Polish absinthes decanted from enormous Erlenmeyer flasks.” Since I’m a sucker as much as the next guy for sweet stuff that makes you faintly buzzed, I tried a few of the house brands and then bought 200 ml of quince liquor (upper left) to gift my host in Berlin:
So that’s a short look at Krakow; more of the Jewish side of the tale will be told at a later time. Let me repeat – if you’ve ever thought to come here, let me urge you to make a date. This is one heck of a town, and it deserves all the buzz its got.
P. S, The Krakow bureau of tourism wants to hire you.