Eastern Europe: Pt 2 – City of Krakow Part 1

Having left Newcastle Airport a few hours prior, we touched down in the small village of Balice, home to Krakow International Airport. A short journey by taxi took us into the city centre, and we immediately set out to explore…


Status: Krakow County, Lesser Poland Voivodeship, Village, Poland

Date: 01 – 05/06/2015

Travel: Jet2 (Newcastle – Krakow), Taxi, Horse Drawn Carriage, Mini Bus etc

Eating & Sleeping: Sphinx Restaurant, Dominium Pizzeria, Pijalnia Czekolady E.Wedel

Attractions: Krakow Market Square, Tram System, Krakow Castle, City Hall Clock Tower, Fire Breathing Dragon, Juliusz Slowacki Theatre, City Walls, Cloth Hall, The Barbican, Wawel Cathedral, Florianska Gate, St Mary’s Basilica, Plac Szczepanski, Hejnal Mariacki, Krakow Arts Palace etc

Happily our hotel was literally only about 5 minutes walk from the historic centre of Krakow, and it’s absolutely stunning Market Square, which showcases some of the cities most famous landmarks. The square was laid out in 1257 after a Mongol Invasion 15 years earlier had destroyed the rest of the city. At this time Krakow was the capital of Poland, and it was designed/built to match such a grand status.

The square holds the distinction of being the largest medieval square in Europe, with the dimensions of roughly 200 m by 200 m. Comparing this to other notable areas such as Trafalgar Square in Westminster which is only 110 m by 110 m then you may get an idea of its scale.

At the centre of this historical gem sits the Cloth Hall, completed around the end of the 15th century as a meeting place for traders from all over Europe, who exchanged exotic goods such as Leather and Silk. 1 of the key exports of Krakow itself was Salt, thanks to the Wieliczka Salt Mine 9 miles outside of the city, which opened in the 13th century, with tonnes of salt being excavated every year until its eventual closure 700 years later in 2007. It is now a popular tourist destination, and tours are available from Krakow.

The Cloth Hall meanwhile underwent a full restoration in the 1870’s, to designs by Polish Architect Tomasz Prylinski (1847 – 1895). It remains open today, with various stalls selling souvenirs and local goods in over 50 stalls on the ground floor. Above them sits the Sukiennice Museum, a large Art Gallery featuring pieces dating back centuries.

Krakow 3

Just outside the Cloth Hall, at the Northeastern end of the square, is a large fountain, which is a popular place for residents and tourists alike to sit and enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city. Underneath the central pyramid lies the “Rynek Underground Museum”, which showcases information about the city, and the artefacts found during an excavation of the square in the late 2000’s.

The pyramid also acts as a window, as from below you can look up into the square, and from above you can see visitors to the Museum following the exhibit trails.

In the 1st picture you may have noticed a large tower rising up behind the Cloth Hall at the other side of the square. It is the only surviving remnant of Krakow’s Town Hall, originally constructed around the end of the 13th century, which had housed the offices of the local administration for over 500 years.

It’s history was sadly cut short in 1820, when the square was reconstructed. The idea was to make it a more open space, and 1 of the buildings taking up a large portion of the square was unfortunately the Town Hall. It was soon demolished, but thanks to the protests of various members of the public, the Tower was saved.

The Tower itself is open to the public, standing a majestic 230 ft tall. There are 2 viewing galleries, 1 near the top of the building which also showcases the clock mechanism (the original was installed in 1524), and 1 further down where you can gaze out of the open windows at the many sites of the city. 1 of the best views from the Tower is over towards the Castle, particularly from the upper gallery.

If you look closely at the Tower should you ever visit, you will be able to see that the Tower is actually leaning slightly, up to 55 cm. This is the result of a major storm that hit the city in 1703, with wind speeds so high that it pushed the Tower to 1 side.

Krakow as a city is home to numerous fantastic Churches and Cathedrals, 1 fine example of which can also be found in the square, close to the fountain I showed you earlier. It began life as the local Parish Church around 1221, however due to various invasions and rebuilds the physical structure of the building changed over the following centuries.

The (almost) twin towers of St Mary’s Basilica have dominated the skyline here since it was finally rebuilt by Casimir III (1310 – 1370, King of Poland from 1333 – 1370) during the 1350s and 60s. Upon completion, the iconic towers were in fact the same height, however during the 15th century the Northern Tower (to the left) was heightened to act as a watch tower across the city. In 1666 a large metal crown was added to the spire atop the tower, around half way up, which you can still see today if you look closely at the pictures.

Just across from the Cathedral sits the Adam Mickiewicz Monument, dedicated to Adam Mickiewicz (1798 – 1855, Polish Poet) who could be described as the Robert Burns of Poland with regards to his popularity and legacy. The original Monument had been built in 1898 by Teodor Rygier (1841 – 1913, Polish Sculptor), however it was later destroyed by the Nazi’s during their occupation of the city. Many of the original statues were later recovered, and the Monument was rebuilt during the 1950’s. Mickiewicz himself is buried in the crypt of Wawel Cathedral (see below).

Indeed the view from the top allows you to see far beyond the city itself, to the surrounding hills as you can see above.

In the 2nd/3rd pictures you can just see a tall high rise building in the background, which is actually Krakow’s tallest building at 302 ft, despite it never having been completed since construction began in 1975. A combination of economics and politics saw building work halted in 1981, leaving it as a mere skeleton of a building, leading to its nickname by the locals as “Szkieletor” or Skeletor. It was originally intended to be the home of the “Naczelna Organizacja Techniczna (NOT)”, the Polish Federation of Engineering, however those plans have been put on hold indefinitely and as of 2015 the Skeletor is still in limbo, with an uncertain future.

Also in the 3rd picture, at the far right is another high rise, albeit a much more modern 1, which appears to be tinted blue. This is the Cracovia Business Center, and at 344 ft it is the tallest structure in the city, however if the antennas on the roof are discounted it is shorter than the Skeletor. It does however qualify as the tallest completed building in the city.

The final picture shows a view of Krakow’s incredible Castle complex, complete with its own Cathedral, all sat atop Wawel Hill next to the Vistula River, but more on them as we explore the area later on in our trip.

The taller of the 2 towers is also associated with a famous tradition here in Krakow, which occurs every hour throughout the day. It is known as the “Hejnal Mariacki” in Poland, which translates as the Dawn Call.

Whilst the origins of the tradition are unknown, it was a common feature across European Cities to represent the opening of the city gates at the start of the day, and their subsequent closure at the end. The Hejnal Mariacki plays a short tune in 4 different directions from the tower, which line up with the locations of the 4 main historic gates into the city, although not all of them still exist today. The call was also used as a warning signal, as mentioned earlier the tower was used as a lookout post.

Today the tune has become an hourly tradition, as opposed to the original call played only twice a day. During World War II and the German occupation the call was banned, but soon reinstated after the War.

Krakow 6

The other major building in the main square may not be on quite as grand a scale as the others, however it is no less important. At the South East corner of the square, forming a triangle with the Cloth Hall/Cathedral lies the small Church of St Wojciech, built in the 11th century. The dates for its construction makes it 1 of the oldest stone Churches in the entire country, and takes its name from St Wojciech (956 – 997, or St Adalbert in English), who was also once the Bishop of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

Despite it’s history, the building has been forced to adapt to changing times, particularly changing architectural tastes which saw it remodelled at the start of the 17th century, to make it fit into the Baroque style, which also saw the addition of the Dome. Before 100 years had elapsed, it would also have to be raised by a few metres when the pavement across the square rose around 2 metres, nearly 1.5 times the height of the average male in Poland, which is currently around 1.785 Metres.

Outside various landmarks in the square (and around the rest of the city) are these stunning metal models. In the 1st picture you can see the model of the Cloth Hall (complete with a Gemma to give you a sense of scale!), alongside those of the Cathedral and the Town Hall, which depicts it as it would have appeared before the demolition of the rest of the building, which shows what a mammoth construction it would have been.

Heading North away from the square/Cathedral is “Florianska Street” which leads up to the Florianska (St Florian’s) Gate, seen in the 1st picture which I took from the top of the Cathedral Tower.

It dates back to the end of the 13th century, after much of the city was destroyed during an attack in 1241. New defences were planned for the reconstructed city, including 8 large gates around the old town, of which this is the only survivor. Dotted at regular intervals between the 8 gates were 47 towers, constructed over the following few centuries.

The grand walls around the city still existed as late as the 19th century, when they were sadly demolished, leaving just the Florianska Gate and 3 of the towers remaining (1 is shown in the 2nd picture, connected to Florianska). The rest of the area covered by the wall was turned into a large park which forms a ring around the old town.

Also a part of the original Walls is a large circular structure called the “Barbican”, seen in the 3rd picture. It lies just past the Florianska Gate, although it was constructed much later, around 1498. The main building was encircled by a moat, and it was connected into the rest of the walls via Florianska. Another metal model can be found outside Florianska, which shows both the Gate, and the Barbican together in relation to each other.

All over the old town of Krakow, there are architectural/historical gems dotted around, including the stunning Slowacki Theatre, shown above. It is named after Juliusz Slowacki (1809 – 1849, Polish Poet and 1 of Poland’s most famous Poets alongside Adam Mickiewicz), and was designed by Jan Zawiejski (1854 – 1922, Polish Architect) at the end of the 19th century. It would open for business in 1893, just 1 year after the previous building on the site, an old Church converted into housing, was demolished. The name Slowacki wouldn’t be added until 1909 as the territory that made up the country was still occupied by the Empires of the Russians, Prussia and Austria, prior to their destruction in WWI which paved the way for Polish reunification.

Krakow 17

Located in close proximity to the Slowacki Theatre is the gorgeous Church of the Holy Cross, which dates back to the 14th century when it was constructed as part of a much larger series of buildings which included a Hospital. The whole lot was run as a monastery, which eventually wound down and the Church became the new Parish Church of this area of Krakow.

The building was very badly damaged in a fire around 1528, ripping through the entire complex, the Church, the Hospital and all of the other buildings, although repair work was completed within a decade. As an architectural gem it doesn’t exactly stand out at 1st glance, however there is much more here than meets the eye, with some incredible detailing inside, and a wealth of history. This apparently includes a large pillar at the centre of the building designed to look like a palm tree, with the supporting arches across the ceiling spreading out from it like branches!

It is just 1 of various Churches throughout the city that we visited, but more on those later!

The final stop in the 1st part of our tour of Krakow is another public square, known as the “Plac Szczepanski”, just off the Northwesterly corner of the main Market Square. The square was only rejuvenated into its modern form in 2009, replacing what had been a large car park/eyesore in the centre of the city since the mid 20th century. Despite this, it’s history is no less as interesting as the rest of the city, as for centuries an ancient Jesuit Church was located here, until it was demolished in the 19th century. What many visitors don’t realise is that the Church also included a graveyard, and whilst the gravestones were removed, the bodies of hundreds of locals lie just below the pavement… Spooky!

It’s standout feature is the “Palace Sztuki”, which translates as the “Palace of Arts”, erected in 1901 as the home of the Society of Fine Arts Friends, to celebrate the achievements of Artists from the city throughout history, as well as immortalise their work through exhibitions held throughout the year. Various busts are located around the exterior of the building, portraying various well known artists from that era, although arguably it’s most famous depiction is of Jan Matejko (1838 – 1893, Polish Painter from Krakow, who also contributed to St Mary’s Basilica). He overlooks the large fountain outside the Palace, a new feature that was added during the revamp in 2009. As you can see in the comparison between pictures taken during the day, and the evening, it is most spectacular during night hours, with the colours of the lights beneath the jets of water changing constantly. Plac Szczepanski really is 1 of the newest major areas of the city that any visitor should explore, and it’s a great place to sit and relax without the hustle and bustle of the main square.

Of course everywhere we have been so far is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Krakow, as in Part 2 we shall be visiting the incredible Castle Complex, the banks of the River and much, much more…


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