The city of Kraków, located in southern Poland on the bank of Vistula river, had been for centuries the capital of Poland. Nowadays, it is a large academic and cultural centre. The Old Town of Kraków, along with the Wawel Castle and the city's Kazimierz district were included in the First World Heritage List, created by UNESCO in 1978. Today more than 900 sites worldwide are placed on the list, but in 1978 such prestigious recognition has been awarded to only 12 of the world's most famous heritage sites.
The current shape of the Old Town was established by the Magdeburg Law on the 5th June 1257, though the history of Kraków dates back to 7th century AD. One of the remains of that time left behind by the initial settlers is the Krakus mound.
The greatest development of the city took place in the Polish Golden Age in the 16thc. In those times several great artists had been working in Kraków such as the master craftsman Veit Stoss and architect Bartolommeo Berrecci. The signs of their work in the shape of the magnificent altarpiece in St Mary's Basilica and the spectacular cloister at the Wawel Castle designed by them, respectively, can still be seen today.
Kraków has accumulated numerous, impressive historical monuments throughout its history. The most significant sites in the city are the Wawel Castle, the main Market Square with the Sukiennice Cloth Hall, St Mary's Basilica and St Albert's Church, as well as the Barbican situated in the city walls and Kazimierz - old Jewish quarter.
Wawel Royal Castle
The oldest ruler's seat was established at the highest south-east part of the Wawel hill in the beginning of the 11thc. while Boleslav the Brave was the ruler. Wawel boasts the Rotunda of St Felix and St Adaukt, the best preserved example of the pre-Romanesque architecture in Małopolska, which dates back to those times. The Romanesque palace complex was erected at the end of the 11thc. and in 14thc. was transformed into a Gothic residence. At the same time the castle was encircled with defensive walls.
The representative and residential wing with the arcade cloister was set up during the rule of Casimir the Great (1333-1370). The part commonly known as the Hen's Foot was erected then as well. At the end of the 14thc., during the reign of Władysław Jagiełło the coats of arms of the Jagiellon Dynasty and the Kingdom of Poland (White Eagle) and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Vytis, in english "Chase") were added. The interiors of the Hen's Foot are the most picturesque rooms of the palace.
Another crucial episode in the history of the Wawel Castle was in 1506 when King Sigismund the Old commissioned Francesco Fiorentino - sculptor and royal architect - to reconstruct the old buildings and add some new ones. That shape of the palace has been preserved up to this date. Then, the Renaissance courtyard was closed with the arcade cloister in the south, the curtain wall and the three residential wings. To enter the palace's courtyard one needed to pass through the gate building that was restored by Bartolommeo Berrecci in the same style.
About 1540 a wood carver - Sebastian Tauerbach sculpted in the ceiling of the Envoys' Room (also known as the Under the Heads Room) 194 human heads. Only 30 of them were preserved up to date. Among them there is one with a band on the mouth which draws attention. The legend says that this head dared to tell to the king "Rex Auguste, iudica iuste", which means "My Lord, judge righteously."
Other masters - Giovanni Trevano, Ambrosius Meazzi and Giovanni Battista Petrini left their marks in the Wawel Castle when they renovated it after the fire of 1595 caused by alchemical experiments conducted by King Sigismund III Vasa.
When the palace ceased to serve as the residence it lost its importance but the Wawel Castle (more precisely: the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill also known as the Wawel Cathedral) remained the place of enthronisation and the necropolis of Polish sovereigns. There was a tradition of kings being buried in sarcophagi, some of them placed in separate chapels, added to the cathedral. Among numerous chapels at the Wawel Cathedral, the one founded by King Sigismund the Old, known as the Sigismund Chapel, is particularly noteworthy. Designed by, already mentioned, Italian master Bartolommeo Berrecci it is considered a jewel of Renaissance style in Central Europe. Among numerous sarcophagi is the one of King Casimir IV Jagiellon sculpted by Veit Stoss, a masterpiece of late-Gothic art and the sarcophagus of King Jan Olbracht - a unique piece of artwork for its Renaissance style built to Francesco Fiorentino's design.
Nowadays the Wawel Royal Castle serves as a museum of the National Art Collection.
Main Market Square
At heart of Kraków there is the largest market square of mediaeval Europe. One can find there some of the most recognisable examples of Polish architecture.
St Mary's Basilica
This outstanding Gothic church was founded by Kraków's burghers in the 13thc. The viewer can take a glance at the exceptional polychromes by the famous Polish painter Jan Matejko as well as stained-glass windows from the 14thc. and those designed by S. Wyspiański and J. Mehoffer - other representatives of 19thc. Polish artists. However, the greatest treasure of the basilica is the largest medieval wooden altar in Europe which had been carved for 12 years by Veit Stoss. Every hour for over six hundred years one can hear the Heynal (bugle call) played by a St Mary's trumpeter from the Guard tower of St Mary's Basilica to the four corners of the world.
St Adalbert's Church
In the southern corner of the Main Market Square one can come across a small, stone church that dates back to the 12thc. This trace of Romanesque architecture was built in a place connected to St Adalbert. It is worth mentioning that the level of the Main Market Square was raised throughout the centuries (in some parts by even about 5 metres) and this can be observed looking at the walls of St Adalbert's Church.
Sukiennice Cloth Hall
In the centre of the Main Market Square there are the mediaeval arcades called Sukiennice where the Kraków's burghers did shopping. They still trade nowadays, but today's tourists buy here folkloric souvenirs rather than food or clothes. In the building of the Cloth Hall one can descend to the Rynek Underground permanent exhibition which introduces visitors to mediaeval Kraków, while upstairs there is the National Museum with the gallery of 19thc. Polish art.
City Hall Tower and Adam Mickiewicz
Besides the above mentioned monuments in the Main Market Square there is the tower of the City Hall and the memorial of Adam Mickiewicz - the most famous Polish poet. To feel the atmosphere of Kraków it is worth paying attention to the townhouses and city residences, traditionally called palaces, that surround the Main Market Square and stroll along the mediaeval streets that radiate from the main Market Square: Grodzka, Wiślna, Bracka, Sławkowska and Floriańska.
In place of defensive walls that encircled Kraków in the past there is the Planty Park - a favourite place for Cracovians.
Going for a walk along the Planty Park one can come across the Kraków Barbican, a relic of the network of fortifications that once surrounded the city. It is worth mentioning that this circular fortress with seven turrets is one of the only three outposts that survived in Europe. In the past this Gothic-style outpost, built around 1498, was connected by a covered passageway with St Florian's Gate and opened the way into the Old Town of Kraków. With respect to its circular shape with a bridge to defensive barriers Poles used to called it "rondel", which means "a pan".
Walking in the western part of the Planty Park one passes a neo-Gothic Collegium Novum: the main building of Jagiellonian University, which, having been established in 1364, is the oldest in Poland and one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the world. The Jagiellonian University was established in 1364. Throughout the history many outstanding personalities such as Nicolas Copernicus or Pope John Paul II were trained here. One should also take a glance at Collegium Maius the oldest preserved building of the Jagiellonian University (Jagiellońska street) and give a hearing to "Gaudeamus Igitur", a academic song played there by the chime.
Stefan Banach and Otton Nikodym
Going further to the Wawel hill one will see a bench with figures of two renowned Polish mathematicians Stefan Banach and Otto Nikodym. This memorial was unveiled on the hundredth anniversary of a famous mathematical conversation that Hugo Steinhaus recalled that way: While he was strolling along the Planty Park he overheard the term "Lebesgue integral" (this concept was quite new at the time). Surprised Steinhaus approached the self-taught young mathematicians and they made an acquaintance that resulted in a long-lasting collaboration and friendship. Steinhaus, Banach and Nikodym, along with other Polish mathematicians initiated the Polish Mathematical Society which was officially founded on the 2nd April 1919.
Kazimierz Jewish district
One of the major tourist attractions of Kraków, besides the city centre is the Kazimierz district. Since its beginning up to the 19thc Kazimierz had been an independent city and the place where both ethnic Polish and Jewish cultures had existed together for the long centuries. However, Polish inhabitants dominated over the closed enclave of Jewish Kazimierz. The beginning of some social and economic balance started in the 1860s when Jewish inhabitants were granted equal civil rights. Since then and up to the beginning of the Second World War the Jews actively participated in the development of the city.
The Tempel Synagogue is currently one of the four active synagogues in the city, but the services take place only a few times a year: during the Jewish Culture Festival, during special occasions or during the largest religious holidays.
Corpus Christi Church
Today, Kazimierz is associated with Jewish culture. However, it is worth remembering that when in 1335 King Casimir III the Great issued a location privilege (the city was named after him from that time), the first erected building was the Catholic parish church of Corpus Christi. Visiting it, you can see an impressive eighteenth century boat-shaped Ambo and a neo-Renaissance commemoration dedicated to Bartolomeo Berrecci, who rests in this basilica. It is also worth listening to the organ in the Basilica of Corpus Christi - it is the largest musical instrument in Kraków.
Atmosphere of Kazimierz
Everyone who would like to feel the unique atmosphere of Kazimierz should visit synagogues (Old Synagogue, Remuh, High, Isaac, Popper, Kupa or/and Tempel), the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish History museum, as well as the bustling flea markets, pubs, restaurants, and cafés with live Jewish music. Enamoured people can leave a sign of their love by clipping their love lock on the Father Laetus Bernatek Footbridge that connects Kazimierz to another district - Podgórze.
Last look at Kraków
It goes without saying that nowadays, Kraków is an important centre of cultural life on the map of Poland. In 2000 it was a European City of Culture. Many famed events and festivals are organised here, most notably Sacrum Profanum, Misteria Paschalia and the Jewish Culture Festival. It is a magical place, a kind of a melting pot where tradition is mixed with modernity.
At the end it is worth mentioning a culinary delicacy that is a symbol of Kraków and has the status of a regional food. It is a braided ring-shaped bread with golden-brown crust sprinkled with salt, poppy seeds or sesame seeds called obwarzanek krakowski. This name derives from the verb "obwarać" that means "to parboil" with regard to preparing the dough before baking.