Krakow, or Cracow as it is sometimes spelled in the Western languages, is the second largest city in Poland, and one of the most important places of Polish history and culture. After all, it used to be a capital of the country up until the year 1596. Also, Kraków is known to be one of the most beautiful cities of Europe, with its Old Town being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as other important landmarks. So if you find yourself in Poland, be sure to visit the city as you will find yourself surrounded by a beautiful atmosphere. Whether you want to go somewhere to learn about history, or to go to relax, Kraków has what it takes to make you feel happy about your trip there.
The History of Krakow
The name Krakow comes from the founder of the city, the King Krakus (or Krak in Polish), who was the ruler of the Lechitians, a tribe of ancestors of modern Poles. However, the history of the town itself takes back centuries before him. First, there was a Stone Age settlement on a hill near the Vistula river, now known as the Wawel Hill. Then, legend says, the ruler Krakus built his ton above a cave in which a dangerous dragon lived, known as Smok Wawelski - in the legend, the killer of the dragon got to marry King Krakus’ daughter. This story takes place sometime around the 10th Century. After this time, the city became the capital of Poland, and the centre of trade, education and culture of the country. In 1241, during the Mongol invasion, the city was burned down but it got rebuilt back into what it had looked before - which is something that Poles very often do in order to honor the architecture of the past times. Fighting off two more Mongolian attacks, the city only became stronger and stronger in its construction.
In 1364, Casimir III of Poland founded the University of Kraków, now known to be the second oldest university in central Europe, now known as Jagiellonian University due to the dynasty that ruled the Poland for many decades. As the power of the dynasty lessened and the times changed, in 1596, Sigismund II moved the capital of the then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to Warsaw. In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte made Kraków a part of the Duchy of Warsaw but in 1815, after his defeat, the Congress of Vienna created partially independent Free City of Kraków, the only piece of a sovereign Polish territory until 1846, when Austria finally annexed the city. After the end of the World War I, however, the city became free again, but under the power of the Polish Liquidation Committee. In the following years, Kraków’s importance grew back to its former glory, especially when it comes to its universities. It has also become an important place of the Jewish culture. In 1939, however, the Nazi invaded Poland, and along with that they added Kraków to the General Government, a special administrative region of the Third Reich. This all made the city completely germanised.
When the World War II came to an end, Kraków fell under the Polish People’s Republic and the town got transformed into an industrial centre. Karol Wojtyla, cardinal archbishop of Kraków who will later become the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, John Paul II, helped build the first churches in the new suburbs of Kraków, where the population rapidly grew.
Today, after the fall of communism, Kraków remains Poland’s second largest city, and the centre of Poland’s education, history, and culture. It is often the top destination for tourists visiting Poland or this part of Europe. It is also a place where most people stay when they come to visit the Auschwitz, the most infamous concentration camp of the World War II, which is about 60 kilometers away.
Krakow is a known university centre and a great place to get higher education. Saying that you went or you go to Jagiellonian University means a great deal, as it is known to be one of the oldest universities of Europe, with numerous classes to accommodate any need for education, like the studies of humanities, law, natural and social sciences, medicine etc, offering about eighty disciplines. There is also a number of other schools to choose from, open to both local and foreign students, with classes in different languages, so if you think about studying in Europe, you will find Kraków to be the perfect city for you to spend your student days.
The history of Jagiellonian University begins in 1364, when it was first founded by Casimir III the Great. A number of known intellectuals have been the alumni of this university, like the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, Polish king John III Sobieski, as well as the future Pope John Paul II, poet Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, and even the current president of Poland. The university is also known to have one of the largest libraries in Poland, housing important documents, like Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus.
Krakow Old Town, St. Mary’s Basilica and the Wawel Castle
Krakow Old Town, or Stare Miasto as is known in Polish, is not to be missed if you find yourself in the city, and it is a popular tourist route. It is the centre of history of the town and one of the most famous tourist spots, as it still has its medieval look, dating from the 13th Century. It belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage list and is an official national historic monuments. The main market square or Rynek Główny is surrounded by historic landmarks, such as St. Mary’s Basilica, the National Gallery of Art and the Town Hall Tower as well as the Kraków Cloth Hall called Sukiennice, among other important places.
St. Mary’s Basilica, or the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, is a church built in the 14th Century, known mostly for its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss, but also for the trumpet signal, called Hejnal mariacki, which is played on every hour from the top of the taller of its two towers. The melody that is played intentionally breaks off in memory of a 13th Century trumpeter who was shot in the throat as he sounded the alarm to warn about the Mongol attack on the city. The tune played in noon is broadcast live daily by the Polish national Radio 1 Station, so it is an important moment and a great honor to be able to hear it in person.
Krakow Castle or the Wawel Castle is the number one location to visit, if you only had to pick one of all. Built for King Casimir III the Great, the same one who opened the first university, it one of the largest of its kind, combining medieval, renaissance and baroque period styles. The castle lies on top of the Wawel Hill and is most known after the legend of the Smok Wawelski, who was thought to have lived in the cave below the castle. The castle is too a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the castle is open for visitors as a museum.
Before the beginning of the World War II, it is said that about 200,000 Jews lived in Kraków. As the Nazi occupation proceeded after September 1, 1939, which is, interestingly, the first day of the school year in Poland, Jews began to be eliminated. First, the Nazi arrested people that had any kind of power, like university professors - the known number is 180 people, who were then sent to death camps. Soon, the Nazi began forming Jewish ghettos around the country, and marking Jewish people with a sign of a star of David on the sleeves of their clothes. In Kraków, the ghetto was formed within the city itself, in the Zgody Square, and Jewish people were slowly forced to move there. Although the ghettos had an open form at first, as the regime got stronger, the plan of elimination became more strict and soon Jews had to stay inside. Many died of poor conditions, starvation and illness before they were finally sent to concentration camps. The last deportation took place in September 1943, one year after the USA joined the war - in December 1942.
The film Schindler’s List was inspired by true events that took place in the Kraków ghetto and there is even a museum of Oskar Schindler available to visitors. Another notable name from this period is the one of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who is also known for rescuing Jews from the Kraków ghetto.
Although the Nazi worked on liquidations of the ghetto, the remains of the ghetto wall still stand in Kraków, as a memory to all those people that lost their lives during this horror in history.
Krakow Salt Mine
The nearby town called Wieliczka is a home for one of the famous salt mines, called Wieliczka Salt Mine. The mine opened in 13th Century and produced table salt all through 2007, which makes it one of the world’s oldest of the kind. Today, the mine is a historic monument, with attractions being numerous statues and chapels carved out of rock salt. The mine is deep about 327 meters and is over 287 kilometers long. It is open for visitations, and it is interesting to see how after a while spent inside, you can taste salt on your lips. The mine is too on the UNESCO list of the World Heritage Sites and is often referred to as the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.
There is even more to visit in Kraków than mentioned, so plan your trip carefully but also don’t worry - whatever you get to see will be an experience of a lifetime as this city truly is remarkable!