Krakow, Poland – A Long Weekend

I’ve spoken about our visit to Auschwitz (HERE), but we spent a good amount of that weekend checking out Krakow, Poland. A sprawling city development that still has the European Charm that we’ve come to expect (castle, legends, cobblestones), we found our time in Krakow (a total of 36 hours tops) to be the perfect amount of time to see what we wanted. Krakow is the second largest city in Poland and, dating back to the 7th century, one of the oldest in the country. In fact, Krakow’s Old Town was declared the first UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The city began with a small settlement on Wawel Hill. Legend says that Krakus built the settlement above a cave that was home to a dragon, Smok Wawelski. During the 10th century is when Krakow saw it’s first significant growth. The castle was constructed, churches and a basilica, as well as a flourishing trade center. That first city was then sacked and burned (by the Mongolians), however rebuilt identically in the following years. During the 14th century the city started to head into a Golden Age, with the construction of a university. That Golden Age continued through the 15th and 16th centuries. This was when the Jewish Quarter was created, and the Old Synagogue was built. Things came to an end though in 1572 when the last ruler, King Sigismund II passed without any children. His death was followed by many many changes in leadership as various other countries ruled. Finally, an outbreak of Bubonic Plague and a Swedish Invasion spelled the end of their Golden Age and the end of the ruling houses residence in Krakow. Things didn’t really get any better in Krakow as it continued to almost bounce between various countries rule until 1866 when Krakow started to see a degree of political freedom and, once again, became a national symbol of Poland. 

When Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany, Krakow became the capital of the German General Government. They saw Krakow as a vision of Krakow becoming completely “Germanized”. Krakow had a very large communities of Jews living in its city at this point (statistics say over 5% of the entire population of the Krakow District was Jewish). Prior to the invasion and subsequent creation of the Ghetto (and then camps) the Jews were encouraged to flee the city. Things started to go sour shortly after the invasion with the creation of the “Judenrate” or Jewish Councils. These were run by Jewish citizens for the express purpose of carrying out Nazi orders, such as tax collection, forced labor, and citizen registration. Around 4 months later the Jewish Ghetto was created in the Podgorze District. The ghetto was only in existence for 2 years, with residents really only living there for 15 months (the majority of deportations were completed by June 1942- though the final Krakow Jew deportations were until September 1943-, after the ghetto initially being “designated” in March 1941). Many people know the story of Oskar Schindler, his enamel factory, and his work to save as many as he could.     

Aside from the destruction of the German occupation and the immeasurable loss of life, Krakow remained undamaged as a whole throughout the second world war. Once the war ended the city was turned from a university to industrial with the new government. 

One final note, the Pope John Paul II was Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow. He was elevated to papacy in 1978 and was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. The same year of his election, Krakow was officially approved on the UNESCO World Heritage List. 

So, we actually started our trip in the early evening with a dinner in the main Old Town Square. We were able to watch the sunset on the Town Hall Tower as well as see the what the city is like in the evening. We stayed just outside of the Old Town (we actually walked our entire time in the city- no public transport, that’s how close we were to most everything).

 

Our only full day in the city we started off at Wawel’s Castle and Wawel Hill. The castle was commissioned by King Casimir III the Great, but the current castle dates back to the 14th century. I’ve already touched on the legend of the Wawel Dragon, but it’s important to note just how deep that legend runs. Legend says that the dragon terrorized residents before being slayed by Krakus, a polish prince who then went on to found the city of Krakow and built the first royal residence on the hill above the dragon’s lair. These days, if you walk by the river you will see a metal statue of the dragon that is situated in front of the “den” and it shoots fire from time to time. The castle complex as it stands today consists of galleries, collections, and gardens. You are able to pick and choose which exhibitions you would like to visit on the castle grounds, as well as the option to visit the Cathedral once on the property. We chose the Private Apartments, Royal Chambers, the gardens, and then a walk into the Cathedral. 

I think one of the coolest bits on the interior was what was known as “Wawel’s Heads”. I don’t have any pictures (as pictures inside the castle were not allowed). In the throne room if you looked up at the ceiling there were a series of Heads that were carved out of the ceiling. In its height, there were a total of 194 heads looking down from the ceiling, overlooking the Polish King as he conducted business. Now there are only about 30 of the original heads left hanging. They depicted citizens from every walk of life that lived in the 16th century. There aren’t any true explanations as to why this was done, or how the people were selected, but it was a really interesting decoration to see. 

The final stop at the Castle is to stop in and see the Cathedral. The Cathedral is formally known as the Royal Arch cathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill. This Roman Catholic church and cathedral is the home of the Archdiocese of Krakow and serves as the coronation site of the monarchy. The current standing cathedral is the third to have been built after the first (11th century) and second (12thcentury) were both destroyed by fire. Construction on the current cathedral began in the 14th century and is a true site to behold. Seemingly never ending with its various chapels, and little quiet spots. This cathedral is also the main burial site for the monarchy as well as national heroes, military members (generals), and other individuals important to Polish history (including two poets!). You are able to walk along the crypt to see the all the various tombs (although there are several on the main floor of the church as well). 

From visiting the castle, we headed back towards the main old town, wandering through cobblestoned side streets, stopping in to purchase some Polish pottery, lunch on the opposite side of the square as our dinner the night before, and then a walk through the Krakow Cloth Hall. 

The Krakow Cloth Hall is one of the most recognizable features of Krakow and Krakow Old Town. Situated at the center of the Main Market Square, it dates back to the Polish Renaissance (that Golden Age in the 15th& 16th centuries). The interior of the hall contains shopping stalls which once held the bulk of the textile industry in Krakow. Buyers and Sellers would flock to the covered shopping center. It now not only serves as a shopping market, but also has an Upper floor museum that contains the largest collection of Polish painting and sculpture, and hosts monarchs and politicians from other countries (Prince Charles and Emperor Akihito visited in 2002). We did a little shopping within the hall and enjoyed seeing the variety of items offered, from tourist tchotchkes to hand crafted designs.

We also stopped in to see Saint Mary’s Basilica. With the foundations dating back to the 13th century (completion in the 14th century), this church is a great look into the Gothic Architecture of Poland. The current standing church is the third one, as the original (from the 1200’s) was destroyed by the Mongolians, and then the second was rebuilt under Casimir III’s rule. The interior is, one again, incredible. There are two main “focal” points of the Basilica. The first is the interior altarpiece. This was undergoing some restoration work, so we weren’t able to get a good view, but what we did see was stunning. The second point is the trumpeter of the basilica. A trumpet signal (the Hejnal Mariacki) is given at the top of every hour from the top of the taller tower. An interesting note while you listen- the song seems to end rather abruptly; this is to commemorate the trumpeter who used the signal to warn the city of the Mongolian Attack. During the signal he was shot in the throat. The signal is rumored to have been initially used to signify the open and close of the city gates (this was done across Europe), but there is no concrete evidence as to where this specific signal originated. 

We started off our Sunday morning with a visit to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I’ve done a separate, dedicated blog post on this concentration camp, which you can find here. 

On Sunday afternoon we headed over to  the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz. We visited during the High Holiday, Sukkot, so we were not able to go into any of the synagogues or such, but we still were able to see quite a bit walking around and get an idea of the history of the area. A Jewish community focus in Kazimierz came about in the 1400’s when anti-Semitism started to run rampant through Krakow. When a fire burned down a large part of Krakow in 1494, the Polish King transferred the Jews from the Old Town to the Bawol District of Kazimierz. The Jews then petitioned for rights to build its own defensive walls. The area within the walls was known as the Oppidum Judaeorum and was, geographically, only 1/5th of the size of Kazimierz, but held nearly half of the people of the city. The oldest Synagogue in Kazimierz was built in the early 1400’s (the actual year/date is disputed) and was an Orthodox fortress synagogue (known in Yiddish as Alta Shul). The initial golden age for the Jewish Quarter came to an end in the 18th century when the Austrian Emperor disbanded the area and tore down the walls. Not long after that, Kazimierz lost its city status and was brought into the newly formed district of Krakow. Kazimierz kept the “Jewish District” status due to the fact that the majority of the Jews stayed close and within the limits of the city. 

Up until the invasion of Poland by the Nazi’s, this was the most important synagogue in the city and the main center of the Jewish community (beyond just religion- it also was a social and organizational center). During the Nazi’s reign, the synagogue was ransacked, destroyed, and used as a warehouse. It also has one (at least) instance of the defensive wall being used as an execution site for Polish hostages by the Nazi’s. Kazimierz was not the location of the crowded ghetto of Krakow though, most of the Jews of Krakow were transferred to a ghetto location in Podgorze (another heavily Jewish area across the river in Krakow) and then either killed in the ghetto or at the death camps. After World War 2, the Jewish District was largely neglected, but starting in the 1980’s started to see growth and a resurgence of Jewish Culture. It now has quite a community built to celebrate. 

Once we finished up in the Jewish District, we headed back over to Wawel’s Castle to visit the dragon and walk along the river. I’ve already talked about the legend of Wawel’s Dragon, but we wanted to see the statue for ourselves. The boys also got to pick up a couple of stuffed small dragons to take home as a little souvenir. We didn’t stay out too long as the temperature very quickly started dropping and we had had quite the long day. One final dinner in the main market square and back to the hotel we went. 

And just like that, our weekend in Krakow came to an end. 

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