It’s been fifteen years since Krakow was named Cultural Capital of Europe. Already then the city was full of character and today this hasn’t changed. With her crooked streets and cobblestone alleys it’s still a charm to wander around. Despite the tragic and devastating past the city has kept its historical look. Proof is the medieval centre and the unique little streets. A stroll through Krakow feels like a time journey along four centuries. From the sixteenth century knights and burrows to the twentieth century Second World War. Each district has its own story and history.
The Old Town, the historical traders centre
The Old Town of Krakow (Stare Miasto) is best described as a medieval labyrinth of alleys and backstreets, which is actually weird, because the centre is so neat and accesible: the Rynek Glowny. This is one of the largest squares in Europe. A cosy string of cellar restaurants, bars en student pubs encircle this old Rynek. And when it’s nice and sunny the terraces are filled with tourists who love to explore the still rather cheap menu of Krakow.
Centrally located on the Rynek you’ll find the symbol of Krakow: the Sukiennice, better known as the Cloth Hall. A striking yellow with red colored building that used to be the traders centre for sixteenth century merchants who sold their spices, salt and cloth here. And no, I don’t mean the sheets for your bed, but the old woollen cloths. Today the Cloth Hall is still used as a merchant centre, but now it’s filled with typical souvenirs and jewelry. Polish slippers and Russian dolls everywhere. The Cloth Hall itself functions as a museum and it also offers the possibility to look at the underground warren. Pretty interesting, don’t you think?
The Royal hill of Wawel
Just outside the old city centre you definitely spot an odd-looking hill: the Wawel hill. This is actually one of the most holiest places of Poland. The mecca for every Pole and a keystone of the Polish history. From the eleventh century on Polish kings took up their residence on the hill, in the Castle of Wawel. Royal crowning and burial took place here. The location of the hill was perfect since two medieval trading routes crossed it. Merchants from all over the world came to Krakow to sell their goods. Krakow evolved into a major trading town until the sixteenth century. It was the city that put Poland on the map. Today the hill is accessible for visitors daily, but you need to buy a ticket to visit the Cathedral and the Royal tombs. Still it’s worth the effort to make the climb up the hill, because on the top you have a splendid view over the Wisla river.
And with a medieval castle comes an ancient legend. In a cave at the bottom of the Wawel hill there once lived a dragon. And for a reason, because king Krak had issued the command that anyone who could defeat this dragon was allowed to marry his daughter. A humble shoemaker decided to give it a try and ended up defeating the animal with a clever trick: filling up a sheep with sulphur as bait. The dragon took one bite and bursted into fire. Obviously this is not true, but you must say that the Dragon’s den adds some character.
Kazimierz: old & new
Further down to the Vistula you’ll find the old Jewish quarter Kazimierz. Once a thriving Jewish community lived here. But in 1940 this all changed. The Nazi occupier decided to evacuate Kazimierz and to relocate its Jewish population to Podgórze, a district across the Wisla. In a couple of days the whole district of Kazimierz was abandoned. Families had left most of what they owe behind, in the hope that they would return one day. But they never did. If you visit Kazimierz today you’ll see that this is a quite popular (and touristy) neighbourhood. A lot of walking tours visit this area. And I get that. Kazimierz is hip and has a lot of fun pubs and bars. Also I spotted some nice little food trucks and several streetart walls. Nice! So you could say that this district is a nice mix between old and new.
Podgórze, a district that experienced the unthinkable
On the other side of the Wisla, connected by a futuristic pedestrian bridge, you’ll find the district of Podgórze. A neighbourhood with a sad past. At the beginning of the twentieth century Podgórze was an ordinary area. This all changed in march 1940, when the Nazi occupier gave orders to set up a Jewish ghetto. Walls were built and endless barbed wire was sprung. What followed was the unthinkable. In an area that used to inhabite 3.000 people, now was the new home to 15.000 people. Ever day people saw violence on the streets, terror round-ups and mass deportations. Three years later the Nazis decided to put an end to it and deported or liquidated everyone in the ghetto. It’s horrible to think the misery and pain that took place here just a little over seventy years ago.
Up until recently nothing in this district reminded of the horrific history. This changed in 2005 when a striking monument was revealed on the Plac Bohaterow Getta (translation: Square of the Heroes of the Ghetto). ‘The lost chairs‘, a dozen of iron chairs spread out on the square which light up at night. A painful reminder of the thousands of jews that waited here to be transported to nowhere. A second reminder is the nearby museum Schindler’s Factory. Although the movie has been recorded in Kazimierz, the story actually took place in Podgórze. At the museum you find out more about Oskar Schindler and his factory, but you can also see some photographs of Krakow in times of war.
Have you ever been to Krakow?