… where the care for centuries-old heritage is accompanied by the development of modern technologies, and where the creative invention of people living and working here, the manifold opportunities for spending free time and Kraków’s genius loci cause that it is a city for good living and work.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kraków next to such monuments as Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China
The Wieliczka Salt Mine, Auschwitz, Calvary Sanctuary in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Wooden Churches of Małopolska and Kraków Old Town Historical District has been listed by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as the world heritage sites.
One of those sites is located at the heart of early country`s capital. Poland’s prime tourist attraction, Kraków boasts numerous landmarks. Its historic area’s grid of streets with the huge central Grand Square.
Europe’s largest in the Middle Ages…
… dates from 1257 and seems the last stage in the perfection of medieval city planning. It is also the best example of that art.
Kraków’s main market square (Rynek) serves as the city’s gravitational centre, and is the natural start and finish point for any tour of the city. Originally designed in 1257 – the year Kraków was awarded its charter – the grid-like layout of the Old Town and its central square has changed little in the years that have followed. Measuring 200 metres square, the Rynek ranks as one of the largest medieval squares in Europe, and is surrounded by elegant townhouses, all with their own unique names, histories and curiosities. Through the centuries it was in Kraków’s Rynek that homage to the king was sworn and public executions held. Most famously it was here that …
… Tadeusz Kościuszko roused the locals to revolt against foreign rule.
On March 24th 1794, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, announced the general uprising and assumed the powers of the Commander in Chief of all of the Polish forces. He also vowed
not to use these powers to oppress any person, but to defend the integrity of the borders of Poland, regain the independence of the nation, and to strengthen universal liberties.
In order to strengthen the Polish forces, Kościuszko issued an act of mobilisation, requiring that every 5 houses in Lesser Poland delegate at least one able male soldier equipped with carbine, pike, or an axe. Kościuszko’s Commission for Order in Kraków recruited all males between 18 and 28 years of age and passed an income tax. The difficulties with providing enough armament for the mobilised troops made Kościuszko form large units composed of peasants armed with scythes, called the “scythemen”.
The Rynek has always been the natural stage for public celebrations…
… with everything from parades of sausage dogs to Christmas crib competitions taking place. Not all the events have had been happy affairs however, and back in the 17th century King John Sobieski III (Jan III Sobieski) was privy to a firework display which ended in bloodshed when some of the explosives were accidentally fired into the crowd.
The center of the square is dominated by the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice). Built in the 14th century this huge hall was effectively …
… the first shopping mall in the world.
Rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style, topped by a beautiful attic or Polish parapet decorated with carved masks. On one side of the cloth hall is the Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa), on the other the 10th century Church of St. Adalbert and 1898 Adam Mickiewicz Monument. Rising above the square are the Gothic towers of St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki). Kraków Main Square does not have a town hall, because it has not survived to the present day.
More recently the market square was subjected to a Nazi rally attended by Der Führer himself when the square’s name was changed to ‘Adolf Hitler Platz’ during German occupation. Fortunately the moniker didn’t last long and today the Rynek occupies itself by hosting annual Christmas and Easter markets, as well as numerous festivals and outdoor concerts.
To this day it is still crammed with merchant stalls selling amber, lace, woodwork and assorted tourist tat.
Kraków is also one of the oldest cities in Poland, archaeological evidence proves that …
… there were settlements in the Kraków area as early as the Palaeolithic period…
with stone tools found on Wawel Hill dating back to 50,000BC. Archaeological excavations prove that Wawel Hill was inhabited as early as the Old Stone Age. It was supposedly formed about 150 million years ago at the time of forming Earth. Legend attributes the city’s founding to Krakus, the mythical ruler who vanquished the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski) and built it above a cave occupied by dreadful lizard. The Mounds of Krakus and Wanda, another legendary ruler, probably come from the 7th century. However, historians date the settlement of Kraków’s Old Town slightly later in the 8th century, crediting it to a tribe of pagan Slavs known as the Vistulans.
In the pre-Piast period two dates related to the history of the City appear. Between 876 and 879 the Great Moravian Prince Svatopluk captured the future Lesser Poland, and after 955 Prince Boleslav the Cruel, brother of St. Wenceslas, introduced the Czech rule.
The first documented reference to Kraków can be found in records from 965 of the Cordova merchant Abraham ben Jacob. He mentioned a rich burg city situated at the crossing of trade routes and surrounded by woods. By 966, the date of the Christianisation of Poland, Kraków had already grown into a busy commercial centre, thanks in part to the amber trade. It was incorporated into the principality of the Piast dynasty in the 990s, thus creating the Kingdom of Poland although it is difficult to verify whether it took place during the reign of Mieszko I in 990 or Boleslav the Brave in 999.
Princess Wanda was the daughter of Krakus, mentioned legendary founder of Kraków. Upon her father’s death, she became queen of the Poles, but committed suicide to avoid an unwanted marriage. And the legend says that …
… once upon a time …
… there was a good, old king Krak who ruled the city of Cracow and the lands around it. He was very popular among his subjects, as a man of honour and kind, loving heart.
His wife had long been dead and he had no son who would take the throne after his death, but he had a beautiful and brave daughter called Wanda. She was in love with a young prince, who ruled the lands close to the Baltic Sea. Even though they were often separated by the long miles of thick forests, the two happy people did not despair and kept making plans for the future together.
Unfortunately, the time finally came when the old king died. The nobles of Cracow started thinking how to ensure the safety and stability of the land. They thought that the best way would be to marry the princess off to some brave knight who could protect the land and its people.
They sent their messengers to all neighbouring kingdoms and soon a mighty knight from a fighters’ tribe, very hostile towards Wanda’s nation, came to the Cracow castle and demanded Wanda’s hand in marriage. Wanda, scared of the knight’s brutality, refused, especially that she was still hopeful to hear from her seaside prince.
The knight, however, was not so easily discouraged. “I will now go back to my land”, he said, “but I will be back soon, with my numerous, well trained and well armed hosts. If you do not agree to have me as your husband, we will destroy your country with swords and fire and slay all your subjects. The choice is yours.” With these words, the knight left. Poor Wanda had never felt so lonely and helpless in her life before. Her prince gave no sign of life and day by day people came to her castle, begging her to marry the cruel knight and save her land. She knew, however, that under such a rule, her people would never again feel safe and free.
Finally, the day came when the knight and his army were approaching Cracow. Wanda knew that her prince would not come in time to protect her and her land. She knew she had to save her people without anybody’s help. She put on her most beautiful dress and picked up some flowers. She went to the top of the Wawel Hill and looked around to admire her lands for the last time. “If I cannot marry the man my heart has chosen then I shall marry no one,” she said with a sad smile. “And I will never give anyone a reason to attack my country and hurt my people. If this is my destiny, let it be so.”
With these words she plunged down the cliff, straight to the Wisla River.
Source: „Once upon a time in Poland” Polka NZ Ltd
Early capital of Poland
The city developed rapidly, acquiring its own bishopric in 1000, and in 1038 Kraków became the capital of Poland, with Wawel Royal Castle becoming the residence of Polish kings. The 13th century was marked by incessant Mongol invasions, the first occurring in 1241 when the city was almost entirely destroyed, but it was dutifully rebuilt. The high duke Bolesław V the Chaste following the example of Wrocław, introduced city rights modelled on the Magdeburg law allowing for tax benefits and new trade privileges for the citizens in 1257. Two years later, the city was ravaged again and one more time in 1287. Following this last embarrassment, Kraków was surrounded by 3 kilometres of defensive walls, towers and gates which would be modernised over the next few centuries. The third attack in 1287 was repelled thanks in part to the new built fortifications.
Kraków particularly flourished under the rule of Kazimierz the Great (Kazimierz Wielki 1333-1370), who expanded Wawel Castle and established two new cities – Kleparz and Kazimierz – which were closely connected with and would later be incorporated into Kraków. The defensive walls were erected around the central section of Kazimierz in 1362, and a plot was set aside for the Augustinian order next to Skałka.
A huge patron of the arts and sciences, in 1364 King Kazimierz founded the Kraków Academy, now known as Jagiellonian University – one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Europe.
The accession to the throne in 1385 of Jadwiga from the Hungarian dynasty of Andegavens, and her marriage to a Lithuanian prince Ladislas Jagiello (1386-1434) started another era of prosperity for Wawel. The royal court employed local and western European artists and also Rus painters. During the reign of Casimir Jagiellon (Kazimierz IV Jagiellończyk 1447-1492) the silhouette of the hill was enriched by three high brick towers: the Thieves’ Tower, the Sandomierz Tower and the Senatorial Tower. The first humanists in Poland and tutors to the king’s sons: historian Jan Długosz and an Italian by the name Filippo Buonacorsi (also known as Callimachus) worked there at that time.
Until 1611, the Wawel was the formal seat of the Polish monarchy; this was because Kraków was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569 and of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1596. Later, it became the Free City of Kraków from 1815 to 1846; the Grand Duchy of Cracow from 1846 to 1918; and Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1999. It is now the capital of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship. Therefore, the fortress-like Wawel complex which visually dominates the city has often been viewed as seat of power. Wawel Cathedral was not only a place of coronation for the Kings of Poland, but also their mausoleum. Later, it became a national pantheon.
During the 20th century, the Wawel was the residence of the President of Poland. After the invasion of Poland at the start of WWII, Kraków became the seat of Germany’s General Government, and the Wawel subsequently became the residence of the Nazi Governor General Hans Frank. Following the cessation of hostilities, the Wawel was restored and once again become a national museum, a place of worship and centre depicting Poland’s complex history.
The legend of The Wawel Dragon
The oldest known telling of the story comes from the 13th century work of Bishop of Kraków and historian of Poland, Wincenty Kadłubek. According to his chronicle, the frightening monster appeared during the reign of King Krakus (lat. Gracchus). The dragon required weekly offerings of cattle, if not, the humans would have been devoured instead. Legend says that …
… in Poland, a long time ago, in a den at the foot of Wawel Hill, there lived a terrible dragon. None of the inhabitants of the city Krakow from the poorest beggar to His majesty King Krak didn’t know where it had come from and how it got there.
Everyone always trembled with fear. Always having the scary thought that the knigths guarding the dragon made their hair stand on end when they heard the monster roar. People said there was no weapon and no way that they were going to defeat the dragon.
As the days past the dragon made himself feel more at home living there which scared the villains even more.
One day King Krak told a poem to the people of Krakow:
He who once and for all puts this dragon
Shall recieve my sceptre and my royal crown,
So come and defeat this most horrid beast
And win my daughters hand and a wedding feats.
After that many brave and valient knights made their way from different countries to reach Poland to defeat the dragon.
Swords and arrows shattered on its scaly body as if on a shield. But nobody was able to kill this dragon or even drive it away. Time passed, the dragon laid waste to the grounds of Krakow. Fewer knights came every day. More people cam to desert the town, until one day a young man, a shoemaker known to no one, knocked on the gates of the town. He bore no arms and wore no amour. Some twine, a needle,and sharp mind were his only weapons. The guards wouldn’t let him in unless he immediately went to see the king.
King Krak had heard what the boy was saying and decided to put some trust in him so he could have a go. The boy said that he would need: lambskin, some sulphur and mustard seed. The king nodded his acceptance to him.
All night long the shoemaker spent hard working on his plan. Local residents would peer through the window staring at his work. He took the lambskin, filled it with sulpher, pitch and mustard seed, and skillfully sewed up the hole of the lambs belly.
Everyone was now wondering what the morning would bring.
At sunrise the shoemaker set off to see the dragon with his bag of his ideal plan.There he laid his bait and quickly hid in the nearby bushes waiting to see what was going to happen.
The dragon awoke. The dragon knew he was hungry so he walked a bit for food. Suddenly the dragon saw a dead lamb (as it looked to him), looked at it and greedily jumped down to eat it and swallowed it whole with his jaws.
The dragon suddenly went “BANG!” and exploded. Exactly what the shoemaker had planned.
The villagers went silent. Then the sudden cheer began. All the knights ran to the bottom of the hill. The dragon was dead. But one thing was not. The river Wistula had been gulped up.
Legend of the Wawel dragon has similarities with the biblical story about Daniel and the Babylonian dragon. Same stories are known about Alexander the Great (Aleksander Wielki) but it is believed that the story has its own pre-Christian origins. In addition to attempts of explaining the legend of the Wawel Dragon simply as a symbol of evil, there might be some echoes of historical events. According to some historians, the dragon is a symbol of the presence of the Avars on Wawel Hill in the second half of the sixth century, and the victims devoured by the beast symbolise the tribute pulled by them. There are also attempts to interpret the story as a reminiscence of human sacrifices and part of an older, unknown myth.
One of the oldest university in Europe
Kraków rose to prominence in 1364, when Casimir III of Poland (Kazimierz III) founded the University of Kraków, the second oldest university in central Europe after the Charles University in Prague. King Casimir also began work on a campus for the Academy in Kazimierz, but he died in 1370 and the campus was never completed. The Kraków University is now the oldest higher education institution in Poland and one of the oldest in Europe.
The Studium Generale – as the University was then called – comprised three faculties: of liberal arts, medicine and law. Only the former two were active during the founder’s life. After the king’s death, the University ceased to exist.
Following the failed attempts to restore it in the 1390s, the University was re-founded by King Vladislaus Jagiełło (Władysław Jagiełło) on July 26th 1400. Queen Jadwiga, who died in 1399, contributed to the restoration by leaving a considerable portion of her private estate to the University in her last will. The University’s structure was already complete in 1397, with the formal establishment of the faculty of theology. The oldest, main college was at first called the Royal Jagiellonian College (Collegium Regium), and then the Greater College (Collegium Maius). The University, located in the then capital of the Kingdom of Poland, never again interrupted its educational and scholarly activity. Not only does it constitute a symbol of continuity of the Polish state, but also places Kraków among the most important educational centres both in the country and the world.
During the 15th century, the University flourished. It attracted learners from all of Europe – every year, some 200 new students enroled. Aside from Poles, the University was also attended by Ruthenians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Germans, Czechs, the Swiss, the English, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, Italians, and even Tartars. It was known for providing education in the fields of law, mathematics and astronomy. Among the professors of this age there were two brilliant lawyers – Stanisław of Skarbimierz and Paweł Włodkowic (Paulus Vladimiri) – as well as great mathematicians, astronomers and geographers: Marcin Król of Żurawica, Jan of Głogów, Wojciech of Brudzewo, Maciej of Miechów. The world famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus enroled as a student in 1491.
Poland among the ten most visited countries in the world
[i]According to Lonely Planet my country is one of the top ten visited world countries with over 16 million foreign visitors each year. To show you how much popular is Kraków I would say that over 7 million tourists visit the city every year. It makes nearly half of Polish income from the tourism.
The city’s magic consists of the unique complex of architecture, art and culture (more than 25% of the resources of the Polish works of art is gathered in Kraków). Thanks to this heritage the city was honoured with the title of the European Capital of Culture in 2000. Today Kraków, the former capital of Poland, is one of the most important cultural and tourist centres of the country, and the seat to many cultural institutions, theatres, cinemas, museums and philharmonic that make life pleasant for the inhabitants and tourists. Nowhere in Poland could one find such a rich variety of cultural and artistic events: every year Kraków is host to over 40 festivals like the International Jewish Culture Festival, the Print Triennial, the Sacrum Profanum Festival and the International Short Film Festival. Every year the city hosts over 2,500 performances and concerts. Last July World Youth Days took place there. Kraków is a special place that, like a magnet, attracts the people of culture and art who draw their inspiration from the atmosphere and rich past of the city. It became home, for example, to Wisława Szymborska, poet and Nobel Prize Winner, Sławomir Mrożek, writer, Krzysztof Penderecki, composer, Andrzej Wajda, film director, Jerzy Nowosielski, painter, drawer and stage designer, and many other well-known and valued artists.
If you want to feel genius loci, visit world heritage sites, learn the history and just enjoy yourselves, go to Kraków and you will not regret.
See you there!
Special attention will be devoted to Kazimierz, a famous Jewish district of Krakow in one of the coming articles.
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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