Leaving Krakows main Market Square, there are plenty of other sights to explore around the city, as we headed for the imposing Castle Complex, via some local churches…
Leaving the Market Square, you can follow a famous road known as the Royal Road, which leads all the way to Wawel Hill, atop which sits the enormous Castle complex. As you explore the road, it takes you past a number of landmarks, including the Square of St Mary Magdalene, shown above.
This area would originally have been the central square in a completely separate settlement called Okol, which would later be swallowed up as Krakow expanded to encompass a much larger area. The name sake of the square, the actual Church of St Mary Magdalene no longer exists, as it was destroyed in 1811, however 2 other Churches survive, with the 1st shown above. This is the Church of St Peter & St Paul, and dates back to 1619, the culmination of building work which began in 1597, instigated by the Churches designer, Giovanni Maria Bernardoni (1541 – 1605, Italian Architect), working off earlier plans by Jozef Britius.
The Church of St Peter & St Paul lies at the Eastern end of the square, and directly South of it along the same edge of the square sits the Church of St Andrew’s, predating the other building by a few hundred years. Thought to be 1 of the oldest buildings in the entire city, this fantastic building was completed in 1098 in a style known as Romanesque (whereas the other is Baroque). Its present day form however differs from that which you would have seen when it was 1st completed, as the twin spires at the front of the building were only added in 1639. It quickly became 1 of the most important Churches in Krakow behind only the Cathedral inside the Castle Complex, and it remains 1 of the most well known.
In the centre of the square, standing atop a tall column and enjoying possibly the best view into the square itself, is a statue of Piotr Skarga (1536 – 1612, Polish Preacher who was a champion against religious intolerance in the country).
Emerging at the end of the Royal Road, you will no doubt be awestruck by Krakow Castle which looms ahead, the main buildings of which sit atop Wawel Hill, surrounded by an impressive and solid brick cliff.
Our tour of the Castle Complex was prearranged, as we had joined a tour for the day which took us around some of Krakow’s most famous sights, starting at the Market Square, followed by the Castle and then several other areas of note around the edges of the city. The tour included in the price entry into Krakows main Cathedral in the Market Square, the Castle and the Castle Cathedral, which works out much cheaper than visiting each individually. You can find out more about the various city tours available in Krakow here. The following day we would be joining another tour, to the notorious Nazi Concentration Camp Auschwitz, located around an hour to the West of Krakow…
The main entrance into the Castle is via the Senatorska Tower, 1 of many which line the Castles battlements. Senatorska translates as “Senate”, meaning it would be the Senate Tower in English. The name derives from the rooms that lie within the complex next to the Tower, where the Polish Senate once met. Krakow was of course the capital city of Poland for many years, so inside Wawel Castle the political institutions of the country would meet and shape it for years to come.
This route also brings you out on top of the Castle walls looking South West across the city away from the centre. Snaking its way across this area of the city, and acting as a natural defence for the Castle itself is the Vistula River. Famous as the longest river in the whole of Poland, its journey begins at the top of Barania Gora, a large mountain in the South of Poland not far from Zakopane, the Winter Capital which we would also visit in the coming days. From there, it makes its way North along almost the full length of Poland towards the city of Gdansk via the Capital Warsaw, where it finally enters the Baltic Sea. The other side of the river here from the centre is much more modern, and you can see the Krakow International Conference Centre just past the road bridge. Just outside it sits a large hot air balloon, used to give flying sightseeing tours of the city! You can find out more on their official website here.
Our new vantage point also allowed us an up close and personal look at 1 of Krakows most fiery residents, the great Dragon of Wawel Castle! Its inspiration comes from a local legend which told of a large Dragon who once lived in Krakow, attacking the locals and spreading fear amongst them. It is finally killed by 1 brave Knight called Skuba who fed it a lamb full of Sulphur. The Dragon’s throat burns and it is forced to gulp copious amounts of water, until it apparently exploded through the sheer amount it drank!
To commemorate the tale, Bronislaw Chromy designed this 20 ft tall bronze statue, which even genuinely breathes fire every few minutes. We were lucky enough to catch it doing so as we walked past, and it’s quite an impressive sight!
Proceeding into the Castle’s main courtyard, we gazed across at Wawel Cathedral, the 2nd of Krakow’s major Churches. This is far more than just a Cathedral however, as it has overseen some of the major moments of Polish history, and could be seen as the Polish equivalent to Westminster Abbey.
The present building you see before you was built in the 14th century, after its predecessor was destroyed by fire in 1305. Throughout history it’s importance grew, with the Royal Courts moving to Krakow. It traditionally became the place of coronation of a new Monarch (hence the Westminster Abbey reference), and their final resting place. It was also the centre point of the new Archdiocese of Krakow, which cemented it’s status as a Cathedral. Many of the exterior chapels were later additions, characterised by the various domes that adorn their roofs.
The Cathedrals importance was diminished somewhat after Poland was partitioned at the end of the 18th century, as King Stanislaw II (1732 – 1798) became the final King of Poland (which at that time was in a Union/Commonwealth with Lithuania) upon his coronation here in Krakow.
Outside of the main entrance to the Cathedral you will find 1 of Poland’s most famous sons, Karol Jozef Wojtyla. You may be more familiar with him under his other name however, Pope John Paul II (reigning from 1978 until his death in 2005). He made history as the 1st ever Polish Pope, and the 1st Pope who wasn’t an Italian since 1523.
Statues of him are to be found all over Poland, but it was here in Wawel Cathedral on November 1st 1946 that he was officially ordained as a Priest, beginning his long journey to become head of the Catholic Church.
The other major feature of the Castle are the former Royal Apartments. In an earlier picture I showed you of the exterior defensive wall of the Castle as we left the Royal Road you could see the exterior of the apartments, where many treasures of Poland are kept, including great tapestries. You aren’t allowed to take pictures unfortunately so I can’t show you any of the incredible artefacts, but its certainly worth having a looking round should you ever visit.
The Monarch and their advisors regularly met here until 1596, when the reigning Monarch, Sigismund III (1566 – 1632) moved to Warsaw, which was officially proclaimed the new capital city. The original Castle was built in the 14th century, with the various towers being added over the following years. It was after Sigismund III left for Warsaw that it began to fall into disrepair, worsened by the Partition of Poland and subsequent occupation. When Poland finally briefly reunited after WWI it became the official residence of the Polish President until WWII when it became a national museum and was heavily restored.
We left the Castle Complex by the Northern exit, via a path that leads down to street level, passing underneath the main Clock Tower of the Cathedral. Aside from a stunning view of the Cathedral itself, we also spotted another statue, that of Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746 – 1817, famous Polish Military Leader who made a bold attempt to try and secure liberation for Poland from the Russians in 1794).
The statue was designed by Leonard Marconi & Antoni Popiel, however it wasn’t until the 1920’s, 20 years after it was completed, that it was brought to the Castle. This was because at the time the Austrians were still in charge of this section of Poland and refused to allow such a figure to be commemorated, so it wasn’t until the end of WWI and Polish Reunification that it was hoisted into position.
The best overall view of the Castle can perhaps be obtained just up the road by the Vistula, where you get an unobstructed view up Wawel Hill to the various spires and towers.
Our tour also took us out of the city centre to various other sections of the city, with the most notable being Kazimierz, which like Okol was originally it’s own settlement, a city in its own right. It is notable as having a historically significant Jewish population, which was sadly all but destroyed when the German army occupied Krakow in the 1940’s. Most of the Jewish residents were forced into the Podgorze Ghetto, however they are slowly returning to the area, and you can still visit a distinctly Jewish area, shown above. Indeed in June every year you can visit the Jewish Culture Festival, the largest celebration of Jewish culture in the world.
There are various Jewish shops/restaurants, as well as a Memorial which states:
“Place of meditation upon the martyrdom of 65 thousand Polish citizens of Jewish nationality from Cracow and its environs killed by the Nazi’s during World War II”.
The Memorial is topped by the 6 pointed star of David, which Jewish people were forced to wear during the war to identify themselves to the Germans.
Kazimierz covers quite a large area, and even though the tour didn’t have time to take us to much more of it (with the Jewish areas being the most popular thanks to the history of the area and the relative proximity of Auschwitz), there is a large Market Square which houses a centuries old Town Hall, reminiscent of an era when it governed itself.
Whilst we walked around most areas of Krakow (save for a few trips on the mini bus as part of a tour), you may choose to take 1 of Krakows numerous Trams, which run along 27 different lines throughout the city. They do avoid certain areas, such as the main Market Square etc however they serve the rest of the city well.
The history of the network began in 1882 when a horse drawn tram began operation, terminating at the train station. The line was improved over the following decades, with new routes being added. The main driving force for the Trams was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was 1 of the main powers in charge of the partitioned Poland. After the collapse of the Empire at the end of World War I Poland gained its independence and inherited the large tram network around Krakow. By now it was becoming dilapidated, and needed a complete overhaul. This was accomplished by the 1930s, and it is still as popular today.
In the pictures above you can see 2 different types of rolling stock. The older looking 1 is called a Konstal 105Na, built at the end of the 1970s in Poland. These are being replaced by much newer models called the Bombardier NG, of which 2 different types operate the routes. The 1 shown is the NGT8, a longer version of the similar NGT6.
Our final stop in Krakow was the main train station “Krakow Glowny” where you can board trains bound for various destinations around Poland, including the capital Warsaw, Czestochowa, Wroclaw and many more. It is also a hub for international destinations as well, as you can travel to Budapest in Hungary, Kiev & Odessa in Ukraine, Berlin & Hamburg in Germany, Prague in the Czech Republic, and Vienna in Austria. This makes Krakow a great stop off on any tour of Europe, bridging the divide between East and West.
Architecturally, the building is quite impressive, and dates back to 1847 when the designs of P. Rosenbaum were completed, making Krakow the Northern Terminus of the Krakow – Upper Silesia Railway. Upper Silesia became part of Poland after World War II in 1945, prior to this it was a part of the German Empire.
So here we are at the end of our voyage of discovery around the stunning city of Krakow. It has incredible architecture around every corner, world famous landmarks including the Castle and Market Square, and transport connections that allow travellers to criss cross Europe with ease. It is certainly 1 of the highlights of our travelling year, but our trip to Poland doesn’t end here, as we have yet to visit the chilling remains of Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the Winter Capital Zakopane, and maybe even a neighbouring country…