After spending time in the Old Jewish Quarter, Krakow Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, you could be forgiven for thinking that Krakow is a place defined only by its depressing events from the past. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Krakow is a gorgeous city with an old town the equal of any out there which is just begging to be visited. The center of Poland's political life for over 500 years, the medieval old town was one of the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's World Heritage List and doesn’t disappoint. The large town square in the old town, known as Rynek Glowny, dates back to the 13th century and is surround by classical buildings, palaces and churches.
Standing in the centre of the square is the restored 14th-century Town Hall Tower, in front of the renowned Cloth Hall.
At the southern end of the square is the Romanesque Church of Saint Wjeiech which dates back even further to the 11th century AD, with its impressive Baroque dome.
But by far the most impressive building in the square, is that of Saint Mary’s Basilica. The brick Gothic church is one of the best examples of Polish Gothic architecture and was ascribed UNESCO World Hertiage status alongside the historic centre of Krakow in 1978. Every hour, a trumpet signal is played which breaks off in mid-stream, to commemorate a famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city.
Just in case the main square doesn’t hold enough to wow visitors, within five minutes walk in a number of directions are other architectural delights. One of the best of these is the Juliusz Slowacki Theatre which was built in 1893 in the Holy Ghost Square as a theatre-opera house.
Situated in the northern part of Rynek Glowny is the Krakow Barbican, which operated as a defense gateway from the 1490s. Whilst not the oldest surviving barbican in Europe, the Krakow Barbican is the best preserved and is considered a masterpiece of medieval military engineering.
Situated right round Rynek Glowny is a ring of greenery which is also pleasant to take in. Here a number of statues, trees and shade make for a nice place in which to have a picnic.
While stumbling around the heart of Krakow, we chanced upon what, up until now, is the funkiest cafe we’ve been to so far. Named after the famous Loch Camelot theatre group that performs a cabaret in the basement on weekends, Cafe Camelot definest quirky-cool and is a great place to grab some decent nosh.
Seating outside is quite limited, but its inside where all the fashionably off-beat funk is happening.
Perched alongside the Vistula River which bisects Krakow is probably its main jewel, Wawel Castle.
Also inlcluded as part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Historic Centre of Krawkow, the castle displays European architectural styles relating to the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.
You’re able to visit most of the castle grounds for free, as only the various “exhibition rooms” and small sections of the cathedral require entrance tickets. To be honest, most of what we saw for free was more than enough and if we had our time again we probably wouldn’t have bothered buying tickets. Most especially because photography was not allowed. I get a bit p*ssed when spending money and not being allowed to take photos. Sure, prohibit flash photography, but not allowing people to take photos in this day and age, when they’ve paid to visit is a bit annoying.
So, instead I satisfied myself by taking loads of pictures of the outside of the castle and Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill, or Wawel Cathedral for short. The cathedral is more than 900 years old and in addition to it traditionally serving as a coronation site for Polish monarchs, it was the church where Karol Wojtyla who later went on to become Pope John Paul II offered his first Mass as a priest.
In addition to the State Rooms and Crown Treasury and Armour, we also purchased tickets to the Dragon’s Den which is a cavern of limestone caves upon which the castle is built. Whilst there’s not a lot to see here, it is useful as it leads down a descending staircase to the riverbank below, which is where we needed to be in order to head home.
The legend that accompanies Dragon’s Den is that this was once home to the Wawel Dragon who would devour sheep and local maidens. Once the village ran out of virgins, the King promised anyone who could kill the dragon the hand of his only daughter. After numerous knights failed to kill the dragon, a poor cobbler named Krak tricked Smok into eating a sulphur infused sheep which blew up inside his gut. The dragon in attempting to put out the fire in his stomach, drank half of the nearby river and consequently burst apart. The King, true to his word, married off his daughter to Krak and the village went on to be called Krakow.
In honour of Smok, a bonze replica statue now stands at the bottom of the Den (free to visit), which is supposed to breathe fire intermittently. We waited and waited and eventually a hissing noise was heard which sounded like escaping gas, but alas, no fire was forthcoming. Maybe he’s saving it up for another day.
Away from the Old Town, there are also some other nice places to check out. Situated across the Father Bernatka Bridge is the striking neo-gothic Saint Joseph’s Church in Podgorze.
Built in the early part of the 20th century, the surrounding gardends hold sculptures of saints as well as a sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross. With plenty of benches, this is a nice place to sit down for a bit of peace and quiet.
Inside the church isn’t too shabby either.
One last place worth checking out and situated only 10 minutes walk from St Joseph’s Church is Krakus Mound, believed to be the resting place of Kraków's mythical founder, the King Krakus from our earlier Smok story. The oldest man-made structure in Kraków and possibly dating back to 200 BC, Krakus Mound is one of four memorial mounds in Krakow. It’s certainly worth tracking down one of the mounds just for the views.
Our amazing and at times emotional time in Krakow has now run its course. While we would’ve liked to have spent more time in Poland, its time to board a bus and head to Slovakia.