Krakow is a beautiful, medieval city with a central market square, cobbled streets, elegant houses and countless legends. But it is also so much more than that and its interesting layers were slowly revealed to us as we toured the city.
One of the First UNESCO World Heritage Sites
I was not surprised therefore to find out that the entire old city of Krakow, (comprising the old town, Wawel Hill and the Kazimierz district) was one of the original 12 places entered onto the first ever UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978, along with the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine. Of course, today there are thousands of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it is interesting to see which places in the world were picked out as the first. If you want to know what the other ones were, this article on Time.com lists them all, together with photographs.
And 1978 was a significant year for Krakow, as its archbishop Karol Wojtyła, became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, and there are sites all over the city that mark places significant in the life of the man you may know better as Pope John Paul II.
Krakow has so many interesting sights to offer, but the main ones can be found in three main areas of the city:
- Royal Krakow up on Wawel Hill
- The old medieval heart of the city surrounding the main square (Rynek Glówny)
- The old Jewish quarter (Kazimierz)
We chose to start at the top of the hill with the Royal Castle.
1. Wawel Hill – Castles, Cathedrals, Dragons and Kings
Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland and stone tools found on Wawel Hill date back to about 50,000BC. Legend says that the city was founded by Krakus, a mythical ruler who vanquished the Wawel Dragon and by the 8th century it had become a busy commercial centre, thanks in part to a thriving trade in amber. In 1038 Krakow became the capital of Poland and for centuries its kings lived in the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill, overlooking the city and the river.
The first crowned king to have lived on Wawel Hill was Wladyslaw I, the Elbow-High and subsequently all of Poland’s rulers lived in the Royal Castle. Through the centuries, each one added their own architectural details to the building and so it is a mixture of styles and periods, including Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance. You can walk up the hill and into the castle grounds for free and it is definitely worth the climb. As you pass the magnificent cathedral and enter the main square, you start to get a sense of the monumental scale of the place. It reminded me a bit of the grounds within the Tower of London. In the centre of the castle is the most beautiful arcaded courtyard, which exudes simplicity and light. I particularly loved the intricately painted plasterwork in the upper tier, which looked like it had been made especially tall just to accommodate it.
After the capital of Poland was moved to Warsaw in 1596, the Royal Castle fell into disrepair. During the intervening years it has undergone many restorations. It has served as a military hospital and was used by the Nazi Governor General, Hans Frank, as his headquarters during the German occupation of WWII. Today it is primarily a tourist attraction and you can view the state rooms, private apartments, treasury and armoury as well as see various temporary and permanent exhibitions.
The cathedral was undergoing extensive restoration on our visit and the scaffolding inside parts of it made it very dark and crowded, but it was interesting to see all the magnificent tombs contained within it. It was the location of 37 royal coronations and virtually all of those kings were subsequently laid to rest within its walls too. As you walk around, there is information in Polish and English about each one of them, next to their tomb and sarcophagus.
One of the towers of the cathedral contains the enormous Sigismund Bell. It weighs 12.7 tonnes and was cast in the 16th century from melted cannon barrels. Apparently it takes ten people to put it in motion and its sound is heard up to 12km away. It now only tolls occasionally, on important events for the city or the nation.
The Legend of the Wawel Dragon
By the western entrance to the cathedral you can see some enormous bones hanging chained to the wall on the left. Legend has it that these are the bones of the famous Wawel dragon.
The story of the Wawel Dragon is well known throughout Poland and there are many different versions, each slightly different, but the basic premise is the same. The dragon apparently lived in a cave at the base of Wawel hill and terrorised the people, ate their livestock and even devoured their young maidens. Many noblemen and knights tried to kill the dragon, but none succeeded. It was finally killed by a hero named Krakus who fed it a lamb filled with sulphur. After eating the lamb, the dragon felt as though its belly was on fire and it stood on the banks of the Vistula River and drank until eventually its belly burst. Krakus built a castle on top of Wawel Hill, the area prospered and the people named their city after him.
The bones of course are not really those of a fire breathing dragon. They are actually thought to come from a mammoth or a whale. But whatever their origin, they have hung there for centuries and are credited with magical powers, including protecting the city from destruction. Some even say that if the bones ever fall from their chain the world will end. You can’t beat a good dragon-slaying story and the presence of these bones on Wawel Hill certainly bring this one impressively to life.
Down at the bottom of the hill, alongside the river and by the entrance to the cave, there is a statue of the dragon.
2. The Old Town and Main Market Square (Rynek Glówny)
At 200m x 200m Krakow’s main square (Rynek Glówny) is the largest medieval square in Europe and its sheer size makes it pretty impressive. It was set out in 1257 and is surrounded by colourful townhouses and palaces.
The Cloth Hall
The enormous Cloth Hall in the centre of the square started life as rows of stalls belonging to cloth merchants. During its golden age in the 15th century, exotic products from the Far East like spices, silk, leather and wax were brought here to be sold, along with local products like textiles, lead, and salt from the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine. The Hall was rebuilt in the 19th century and today it looks resplendent standing in the middle of the square, its magnificent colonnades seeming to stretch on and on. The stalls inside aren’t selling cloth anymore, but the buzz and bustle is no doubt the same as it was centuries ago.
St Mary’s Church
Dominating one corner of the main square, built at an angle across the corner, is the distinctive St Mary’s Church with its mis-matched towers. It was funded in the 13th century by Krakow’s gentry and according to legend, the two towers were built by two brothers. When the younger one realised his tower wasn’t progressing as fast as his brother’s tower, he took a knife and murdered him. Full of guilt for what he had done, the brother then plunged the knife into his own heart and threw himself off the tower. We read that the knife he used still hangs in the cloth hall, so we went to find it. It hangs under one of the arches on the side nearest the church. Who knows whether it is the actual knife (I suspect not!), but seeing it hanging there really brings this dark tale to life.
St Mary’s Bugle Call (Hejnał Mariacki)
Every hour you can hear the St Mary bugle call from the highest tower. From below all you can see is the tip of the bugle sticking out of one of the windows on the west side of the tower, facing the square. A melody is played that resounds all over the old town but then stops abruptly. The bugler then makes the call in turn from windows on the east, south and north sides of the tower. In the Middle Ages, a bugle call would announce the opening and closing of the city gates or to warn citizens about a fire or the approach of enemy forces. In fact, the melody coming to an abrupt end is said to remember a trumpeter who, in 1241, managed to warn his fellow citizens of an attack by the Mongols but was shot in the throat by an arrow before he could finish his refrain. The tune that is played is called the Hejnał Mariacki or Saint Mary’s Dawn and the 12 noon performance is still broadcast on Polish public radio every day, as it has been since 1927.
Franciscan Church and Monastery
Whilst there were big queues to pay to look around St Mary’s Church in the main square, a short distance away, this quiet church was deserted and free to enter. From the exterior it looked nothing special and, had I not seen pictures of it online beforehand, we would surely have just walked past it, assuming it to be just another of Krakow’s many Gothic churches. However, once inside we gasped at its colourful art nouveau painted walls and ceilings and its incredible stained glass.
They were designed by Polish playwright, painted and poet, Stanislaw Wyspiański, who was commissioned to paint the church after it had been significantly damaged by fire in 1850. St Francis is often associated with animals and the natural environment and so Wyspiański covered the walls with flowers, snowflakes and geometric patterns using organic shapes inspired by nature. The result is a truly captivating interior; the colours and patterns are incredibly busy but they come together to create a stunning and harmonious whole that we sat and gazed upon for ages.
Elsewhere in the old town, there are countless beautiful squares, cobbled streets and colourful buildings seemingly everywhere you turn. Krakow really is one of the most attractive cities we have visited on this trip.
3. The Old Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz)
After the central area of Krakow, we made our way into the old Jewish quarter, known as Kazimierz, and were taken aback by what we found. It was like entering a different world, miles away from the old town and yet right next door to it. You could literally feel the history of Poland’s Jews in the narrow streets, crumbling townhouses and old synagogues of Kazimierz. It was astonishing and very atmospheric.
It is worth me explaining the history of the area as it has a bearing on how it is today.
History of Kazimierz
Kazimierz was originally a separate town, established in the 14th century by Casimir the Great, but it eventually became incorporated into Krakow itself. The city once had one of the most important Jewish communities in the world, where for hundreds of years Jews lived in harmony alongside Christians; synagogues alongside churches. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century, when Krakow came under Austrian control, that all Jewish people were ordered to resettle in Kazimierz. By 1910 Krakow’s Jewish population numbered about 32,000, swelling to double this during the inter war years.
During the Second World War
But everything changed with the Second World War. Of the 68,000 Jews in Krakow when the Germans invaded, most were ordered out of the city to be re-settled elsewhere. Only 15,000 were allowed to remain and they were forcibly removed from Kazimierz and other areas to a ghetto on the other side of the river called Podgórze. Walls were built around it that completely closed the ghetto off from other parts of the city and living conditions there were terrible with 15,000 people crammed into an area previously inhabited by only 3,000. There was only one apartment for every four families and many ended up living in the street. In 1942 the Nazis began deporting people from the ghetto to nearby concentration camps. The final ‘liquidation’ of the ghetto was carried out in March 1943. 8,000 Jews deemed able to work were transported to the Plaszów labour camp, those deemed unfit for work were shot in the streets and the rest were sent to Auschwitz.
Kazimierz After the War
So during the war, Kazimierz was inhabited by families displaced from Podgórze or otherwise stood empty. After the war, it was abandoned and neglected, falling into ruin for many years. It became a dodgy area where people didn’t venture, inhabited by stray dogs and people down on their luck. People just didn’t want to live there and the issue of the repatriation of land and buildings was, and still is, highly emotive.
Renovation and reconstruction
After the fall of communism in Poland in the late 1980s, the fortunes of Kazimierz began to change. Since 1988, a Festival of Jewish culture has been held there every year and today the district is undergoing something of a revival. Renovation and reconstruction projects are slowly transforming Kazimierz and bringing back its Jewish heritage. Bars and restaurants serving up Jewish cuisine and shops selling Jewish souvenirs have all increased tourism and interest in the area and the local Jewish population is slowly growing.
One of the catalysts for the change in fortunes of this area was attributed to the recognition and attention it received following the release of Steven Speilberg’s film, Schindler’s List, which was filmed in Kazimierz in 1993.
But there is still a long way to go and I found it incredible that parts of Kazimierz are still terribly run-down, over 70 years after the end of the war. As you walk around you cannot help but reflect on what has gone before. Kazimierz today may have a bohemian vibe and be talked about as Krakow’s most interesting and lively area, but the empty synagogues and the crumbling facades are a poignant reminder of the fate of the original residents of this district.
We could’ve spent all day visiting different synagogues and exploring Kazimierz, but after walking past the old Jewish cemetery, we happened upon the High Synagogue on ulica Józefa.
The High Synagogue
The High Synagogue dates from the second half of the 16th century and was given its name because the prayer hall was situated on the first floor rather than the ground floor, which was occupied by shops.
Exhibition – Jewish Families in Inter-War Cracow
In the midst of the inhuman scale of the killings that happened during WWII, it is always the personal stories that bring home the horrors of what happened to individual families and an exhibition in the old prayer hall of the High Synagogue caught our eye. It was called “Jewish Families in Inter-War Cracow” and it very simply, with text and black and white photographs, told the stories of 8 different Jewish families who had lived in Krakow before the outbreak of WWII. Most of the memories and photographs had been provided by people who had been children at the time and who had survived the war. They gave details such as which street they had lived on and what professions their parents and grandparents had been engaged in at the time and these really brought their stories to life. Sadly, virtually all of them were tales of tragedy and loss, but they also spoke of a great spirit and of people who remained positive and showed unbelievable heroism in the face of such horrors.
I picked out a couple of them to share with you.
Alexander Allerhand was born in 1928 in Krakow. At age 14 he escaped transport to a death camp by jumping from a train window. He then found his two younger sisters hiding in a village near Krakow and took them to the home of their pre-war polish neighbours, who hid and looked after them. Sixty members of the large Allerhand family died during WWII, most of them in Belzec.
After working in several different concentration camps, Alexander eventually ended up at Oskar Schindler’s factory in Podgórze where he spent the rest of the war. He met his future wife, Christine, whilst working at the factory. They were liberated on the day of her 15th birthday. After the war they both returned to Krakow and they married in 1951, moving to Israel in 1957. At the end of the story, there was a picture of Alexander and Christine in Israel in 1968 where they were reunited with an elderly Oskar Schindler.
Cecilia Mosburg (née Storch)
Cecilia Storch was born in 1927 and lived with her family at Straszewskeigo Street in a prestigious area of Krakow near the Wawel Royal Castle. The Storch family left Krakow at the start of the war, but returned in 1941, at which time their pre-war neighbours, the Królikowskis, took in Cecilia (then 15) and her younger brother Joseph (7). Franciszek Królikowski worked as a deputy at the county office in Krakow. He and his wife, Zygmunta, had no children of their own and lived in an area of the city mostly inhabited by Germans. In fact, a German officer had even been quartered in their apartment building, yet they risked their own lives to take in and care for these two Jewish children. Apart from her father, Cecilia’s entire family, including her brother Joey and two older siblings, all died in the Holocaust. Cecilia’s future husband, Edward Mosburg, also lost his maternal grandparents, both parents and his two sisters during the German occupation. Cecilia and Edward married in Brussels in 1947 and emigrated to the USA. They often return to Poland: one of their grandsons even had his bar mitzvah there in 2010.
Franciszek and Zygmunta Królikowski were posthumously awarded the medal of the Righteous Among Nations for what they did in taking in Cecilia and Joseph. The medal was presented to their descendants at the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw in 2011.
We spent quite some time in the synagogue reading the tragic stories and studying the faces of the people behind them. Knowing that they had all lived in Krakow, had walked its streets and worshiped at its synagogues, somehow made it all seem so very real. As I said in a previous post, it is virtually impossible to travel in this part of Europe without coming face to face with the holocaust and at times I have felt deep sadness at what I have learned here. But what these stories also showed was that despite everything life goes on and those who perished are not forgotten. I’m sure that the people remembered in these photographs and tales would be glad to see that Kazimierz is being brought back to life and its streets are once again filled with hope and optimism.
We had a fascinating day in Krakow. We walked our feet off and learned so much, but we still didn’t see all that the city has to offer. It is somewhere I would love to return to one day.