Sculptures, statues, monuments and memorials are seemingly tucked into every corner of Kraków.
First impressions when walking into Kraków’s bustling central square, Rynek Główny in Polish, is that it is a great place to people watch, enjoy a meal and literally surround yourself with history. There are dozens of horse-drawn carriages lined up in the square that cannot be missed. The horses most often seen in the city are the beautiful somewhat stocky Malopolski Horse which comes in some striking color combinations. The Malopolski reminded us of the North America Clydesdale but with gorgeous Appaloosa coloring.
The main plaza is the site of the Cloth Hall, a Renaissance-era trading market we wandered through that had a few dozen stalls full of Polishmade amber jewellry, dishes, crystal, toys, food and many other tempting local products. We thought a better place to shop for gifts than the traditional souvenir shops.
Until the 19th century, Kraków had massive medieval city walls and where the walls once stood the city created Planty Park, a green belt following the same path encompassing 52 acres and a length of 2.5 miles. Today it is a local favorite destination for a scenic walk or run. There are nearly 40 parks made up of 800 acres (320 hectares) and 5 nature reserves covering 120 acres (48 hectares) in the city, providing wonderful natural environments for its residents. Unfortunately, especially in the winter months, both Kraków and Wrocław, Poland suffer from Europe’s dirtiest air pollution, primarily because of the smog caused by burning coal for heating.
Poland does not yet use the Euro so we had to again buy local currency. Polish currency is called the złoty, meaning golden. The larger paper currency and 1,2 and 5 coins are złoty (zł) and the coins .50 or less are groszy (gr). The currency code is PLN. Banknotes come is sizes of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 zł. Coins are 1gr, 2gr, 5gr, 10gr, 20gr, 50gr, 1zł, 2zł, 5zł. During our visit 10 USD purchased ~40 złoty.
Poland’s changing borders
After learning much more of Poland’s history we were curious about the actual size of Poland before it’s borders began to be partitioned by its neighbors and rivals: Russia, Austria and Prussia.
The Wikipedia map below shows the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum size superimposed over today’s countries and borders. In the early 17th century the territory in red was ruled by the influential Polish monarch of the time. Poland was indeed once a powerhouse being one of the larger countries in Europe at that time. In today’s terms, 17th century Poland was made up of most of Poland, Ukraine and Estonia, all of Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and parts of Russia, Moldova and Romania.
Wawel Royal Castle
In 1978, the first year UNESCO’s World Heritage protection program began, Wawel Royal Castle and Historic Centre of Kraków were declared a World Heritage Site.
Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, Wawel Castle is one of the largest castles in Poland and for centuries was the residence of the kings of Poland. During the early 16th century the castle was redesigned and became a lavish and important royal residence. In 1784 the Prussian Army occupied the castle, stole much of the royal treasures and changed and demolished buildings and walls. In 1905 the troops finally pulled out of Kraków and after WWI, the newly independent Poland slowly began the restoration work.
Unfortunately no photos were allowed of the interiors of any part of the castle or the small collections of military history, art or royal artifacts we visited.
The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus is popularly called the Wawel Cathedral. The first cathedral was built in 1000and destroyed, a second was built in 1142 and lost to fire and the third and final cathedral was constructed in 1320-1364, making it more than 650 years old.
For 400 years all but two Polish Kings were crowned at the High Altar and many Polish Monarchs are buried in the Cathedral.
Wawel Cathedral is the burial site for bishops and national heroes, including Tadeusz Kościuszko, leader of the Kościuszko Uprising and the Battle of Racławice that we wrote about in an earlier blog.
No photos were allowed in the interior of the church.
Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie
The National Museum in Kraków, opened in 1879, is one of Poland’s prized art galleries with items and collections numbering in the several hundreds of thousands spread across a dozen buildings around the country. The Main Building, which we visited, features a gallery of 19th and 20th Century Polish Art. We viewed nearly 500 wonderful paintings by Poland’s leading artists, most of whom we were previously unfamiliar with and cannot emphasize enough our delight in discovering each country’s masters and our new favorites.
The museum has an interesting display of 16th century Polish armor, sabers, firearms, medals and 18th century military uniforms.
We also enjoyed the decorative arts and crafts exhibited including books and manuscripts,musical instruments, furniture, glassware and jewelry made of gold, silver and precious stones.
The pièce de résistance of the Museum however has to be Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’. No long lines like at the Louvre when you visit the ‘Mona Lisa’; here it was just us and two guards and we were able to appreciate Da Vinci’s talent for as long as we wished. One genius idea from this museum was, in a separate room, next door from the original painting, was a large framed high quality photograph of ‘Lady with an Ermine’ where photos were allowed. We certainly appreciated this opportunity.
Former residents include Academy Award winning Polish film director Roman Polanski and Helena Rubinstein, founder of the cosmetics company, Helena Rubinstein Incorporated.
Pope John Paul II was born Karol Józef Wojtyla on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland less than an hour’s drive from Kraków. During WWII and the German occupation of Poland many Universities were forcibly closed. Wanting to become a priest, John Paul began studying at a secret underground seminary run by the archbishop of Krakow. After the war ended he finished his religious studies and was ordained in 1946. He became the bishop of Ombi in 1958, the archbishop of Krakow in 1964 and was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1967. In 1978 he became the first Slavic pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He died in Italy in 2005 and Pope Francis announced Pope John Paul II would be canonized in April 27, 2014.
As the leader of the Catholic Church, he traveled the world, visiting more than 100 countries, advocating human rights and spreading his message of faith and peace.
Saying pożegnanie (farewell) to Poland is bittersweet. We relished the two cities we visited and hope to one day visit some of the smaller towns as well as Gdańsk and Warsaw. However, as always, we are looking forward to the many adventures that await us at our upcoming locations.
Pożegnanie Kraków, pożegnanie Poland,
Na zdrowie (Naz-droh-vee-ay) from these Krakowianin / Cracovians
Ted and Julia