Krakow Timeless elegance; a modern recreation
The history! The culture! The cafés and clubs! Hanny Wahyuni reports from the charmed city of Krakow, Poland’s second-largest metropolis, home to numerous Nobel-winning writers and the city where the late Pope John Paul II grew up and where his righteous trail began.
‘So tell me, Hanny, why Krakow?’ If I had a dime for every time someone asked me that, I could have paid my return flight from Dubai, and probably had some money left over. Krakow’s appreciation for fashion and the arts, its lively nightlife, rich history and culture, and flourishing economy make it one of Europe’s top travel destinations. A city of majestic architectural monuments, cobbled thoroughfares, cultural treasures, timeless courtyards and priceless artworks, Krakow’s historic centre is the pride of Poland. As it is, today’s Krakow can offer any of the globalized commodities the modern tourist might want, while still maintaining its unique character as Poland’s cultural centre. The city on the Vistula, an ox-bowed river of great beauty, which was Poland’s capital for five centuries, includes a quarter of Poland’s museum resources. A trip to Krakow is an encounter with the most splendid moments in history. Krakow’s Old City, along with Wavel Hill and the district of Kazimierz, was entered into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. It is worth mentioning that this prestigious status has been given to as few as 12 other sites in the world, including the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China. Krakow wears its medieval raiment without fuss or complication, as a woman would strap on jewels and fur although she’s only stepping out for a quart of milk. This feisty little town of 800,000 definitely has the stuff: Europe’s largest and arguably most gracious medieval square, the Rynek Glówny; Europe’s largest Gothic altar, by Veit Stoss; the 300-foot-long neo-Byzantine Sukiennice, the Cloth Hall market; the serried Piast and Jagiellonian kings snug in their heavy stone sarcophagi under Wawel Cathedral on the 15-acre Wawel Royal Castle hill. Krakow’s infamous Nazi occupation and the grinding decades of Communist rule couldn’t eliminate all the patrimony. The Nazis unwittingly preserved the city when they chose it as the capital of the General Government in 1939, meaning they didn’t bomb it as they overran Poland. It is extraordinary that the city was likewise not bombed to smithereens by the RAF or the US Air Force after March 1944, when they controlled European skies, considering Krakow was a crucial logistical hub for the Nazis. In January 1945, the city was spared once again as the Russians harried the Nazis out with little resistance – meaning, without the Nazis blowing it up and without the trademark Soviet artillery stomping.
Three times is the charm!
By definition, any walk in or around the centre of Krakow becomes a pilgrimage through medieval history. So, despite plenty of questions, I finally stepped out from Krakow-Glowny, the main train station, ready to explore the city in spite of the freezing winter weather. Staying in the Stare Miasto area allowed me immediately to discover the gorgeous city at its best. Guidebooks list more than 300 places to raise a glass or sip a coffee in the Old City alone, where bookshops are almost as numerous as shoes stores and clothing boutiques. Any exploration of Krakow’s Old Town should start with the Royal Route, the historical coronation path of the Polish kings when the city served as the royal capital from the 14th century to the end of the 16th century. Most of the Old Town’s prime sights lay along this route from Florianska Gate to Wawel Castle. A fireman with a brass trumpet had just blown the hourly call from the belfry that towers above the red-brick walls of the Basilica of the Virgin Mary in Krakow’s main square, Rynek Glówny. As I stood in the largest medieval market square in Central Europe, I could feel that historically, culturally and perhaps spiritually, the Rynek and Wawel might be the two most important sights in the country (no offense, Warsaw). Krakow’s Rynek is a 10-acre square and functions as the city’s social gravitation point, lined with cafes and restaurants, filled with people, pigeons, street performers, musicians and horse-drawn carriages; this square is home to festivals, events, concerts and parades. The buffed and polished 800-year-old square can accommodate some 3,000 people out of doors at the tables of its chockablock cafés. The ornate pastel façades of the surrounding buildings form an operatic backdrop for the hundreds of people hurrying to work or school or the many shops, or simply to loiter in the cafés and bars that line the narrow streets here. It was set out back in 1257 when the city was founded upon the Magdeburg Law. St. Mary’s Church and the Church of St. Adalbert had been erected earlier, which explains their slanting position in respect to the main market square. Later, Cloth Hall, town hall and townhouses were built. In September 2010, Europe’s largest underground museum, measuring 4,000 square metres with a four-metre-deep tourist route with a cutting-edge multimedia show entitled “Following the Steps of Krakow’s European Identity,” was opened beneath the square. Taking centre stage on the Rynek is Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), built in the 14th century. It was effectively the first shopping mall in the world and to this day is still packed with merchant stalls selling amber, lace, woodwork and assorted tourist tat. Feel free to bargain as the vendors might give you a good price, especially if you pay in cash.
Soaring into the sky is the regal St. Mary’s Basilica. It didn’t matter how many times I saw it, the altarpiece, stained glass windows of the nave and starred ceiling of the cathedral took my breath away. After spending almost four hours in the square it was time for me to taste the Krakow delicacies and specialties on offer at the many excellent eateries and restaurants in the city. They were lodged in every available space of the area’s old palatial residences and stately burgher houses – upstairs, downstairs, in those vast ancient cellars. No doubt, the exquisite and picturesque period interiors were a premium. I found a warm, timber-framed, two-level eatery that happened to be one of the most popular on the market square, thanks to a reputation built on Michelin recommendations, friendly service and a cosy atmosphere. If it weren’t for the tourists and all the clinking glasses, I might have thought that I’d actually crashed a Polish wedding party. The menu was classic Polish cooking done exactly the way it was meant to be, with a goose breast to die for and pierogi, commonly translated as dumplings but in fact closer to ravioli, with a variety of fillings: pierogi ruskie – filled with potato and cheese; pierogi z miesem – definitely for meat lovers; and pierogi grzybami – filled with mushrooms. The night was still young and the sparkling vibe in the air made me forget about the freezing weather as I strolled through the area to a local pub. I heard about a place called Wódka Bar, a small bar located at Mikolajska Street near the Old Market, which serves Beluga vodka, the noble Russian vodka with a refined, rich taste. Bottles of gin and vodka were ordered, and the night danced by until we stumbled out of the bar before dawn and wandered through a warren of narrow lanes, our heels echoing on the ancient cobblestones. I left the bar wondering how long the city could maintain the precarious balance between luring in outsiders and supporting its own authentic culture. Prague, swamped by tourists, has seen its languorous beauty transformed in many districts into high kitsch, the result of efforts to please visitors who want Old World charm, cheap beer and Mozart quartets. Sleeping like a baby, I woke up joyfully knowing that more fascinating sites were waiting for me. I decided to start my shoestring journey by visiting the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The church was erected at the initiative of Piotr Skarga and the Sigismund III Vasa Foundation for Jesuits and the crypt below the chancel includes a silver coffin with the remains of Piotr Skarga. The church was modelled after the Roman church of II Gesu and has Poland’s longest Foucault pendulum, mounted below the dome, allowing visitors to perceive the earth’s rotational movement around its axis. The church is guarded by the 12 apostles, reproductions of statues from the 18th century. Next to this precious venue is St. Andrew’s Church, one of the oldest structures in Poland. Thick 1.5-metre walls and narrow windows are reminders of the defensive function of the building. The small interior is dazzling with its Baroque splendour, especially the boat-like rococo platform. The treasury includes priceless 13th century relics, a unique mosaic with the Mother of God from the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries and some of Europe’s oldest nativity scene figures dating back to the 14th century. After a few minutes of walking, I reached the famous Wawel Hill, a central place of the Vistulans’ land even before the Polish state emerged. A symbol of national pride, hope, self-rule and not least of all fierce patriotism, Wawel offers a uniquely Polish version of the British Buckingham Palace. The castle, restructured over the centuries, is a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles. Visitors can follow two routes around the royal chambers, suite and some of the towers. One of the most dazzling rooms is Parliamentary Hall, also known as Pod Glowami (Under the Heads), for the famous Wawel heads on the ceiling coffers. It is worth seeing the crown treasury, including the ceremonial sword called Szczerbiec. Another site not to be missed in this huge historical compound is the Cathedral. The majestic and dark cathedral interior draws visitors with its royal sarcophagus, silver confession of St. Stanislaus, late Renaissance stalls and the beautiful St. Hedwig Crucifix. The church hosted 37 royal coronations and almost every Polish king is buried here. I was recommended by a friend to climb Sigismund Tower to see the famous Sigismund Bell, weighing 12.7 tons and made from melted cannon barrels. It took 10 people to put the bell in motion and its sound was heard within a 12-kilometre radius around Krakow. It is perhaps difficult for a foreigner to understand the depth of Poland’s attachment to the late Pope John Paul II. To many, including me, his life and work demonstrated an incredible love for mankind and hope for the future. It wasn’t difficult to find traces of Karol Wojtyla’s influence here – schools, streets and even the Krakow-Balice airport have been named after him. There are several monuments to him including a grand statue across the Wawel Cathedral and a bust in the sculpted flowers of Jordan Park.
Looking for an answer to what the city’s future holds, I stopped by Krakow’s museum of contemporary art, Bunkier Sztuki (Art Bunker), a 1970’s architectural catastrophe in poured concrete that sits near the Old City. With its art schools and huge student population, Krakow ought to be far more involved in the avant-garde than it is. Just over a decade out of Communism, Poland still has few private patrons willing to fund the more experimental arts, and artists must instead win the approval of state administrators who dispense meagre grants. Another historical site that one shouldn’t miss when in Krakow is Schindler’s factory in Lipowa Street. I watched “Schindler’s List” when I was in highschool and since then I get goosebumps every time people mention concentration camps. To see the history directly is a one-of-a-kind experience. I spent my last day in Krakow by going a couple of blocks south to another scenic downtown district, Kazimierz, famed for its past Jewish quarter and numerous eateries. Moving further to the south is the city’s newly established gastronomic frontier in historic Podgorze town across the Wisla River. Charming. That’s the word to describe this city. The people are friendly and warm, and you get the best of both worlds, witnessing the magnificent history of the city and the bustling modern version of Krakow. Tips are welcome, yet in Krakow only waiters expect extra payment, roughly one tenth above the charged sum, in appreciation of satisfactory service. Leave cash on the table or round up the bill, saying “Raeshty nye chaeba” or “keep the rest.” Sad to leave, I read the comments on my Instagram and Facebook from friends questioning my decision to visit Krakow. I was content that I gave them something to look forward to, and for myself, I managed to cross one of my 2015 resolutions off my list.
KraKow’s PoPe John Paul II International Airport has connecting flights from many European destinations; several discount airlines, including EasyJet, serve the city from within Europe. In summer, Poland’s LOT airline flies directly to Krakow from...