Words to describe Kraków ... wow. How many words are there in the dictionary?
Kraków is such a huge and wonderful place, that I took over 200 pictures there, and most of them were taken in a rainstorm. Picking the best five was a real challenge, because any combination of less than dozen photos would not do the city justice. The capital of Poland may now reside in Warsaw, but majestic Kraków will have you convinced it is still the real capital.
The main pedestrian zone is simply huge -- running about two kilometers from the Rynek Glówny marketplace (shown at left) to the massive Wawel Castle, plus several blocks in both sides. The zone is marked with a park that used to be the city's moat, and remnants of the city's seventeen towers and outline of the wall remain as evidence of the city's past.
Rynek Glówny is surrounded on all sides by an open square laden with shops and places to eat. Many of them are absolute class, yet very reasonable in price, and nearly every cuisine the world over is represented (surprising how fast the area opened up after the Berlin Wall fell, well maybe not).
On the opposite side of the market lies the St. Mary's Cathedral, which is significant for several reasons. First, the interior is decorated unlike any cathedral you'll have ever seen. Brightly painted in blue and gold and filled with portraits of Polish nobility throughout history, St. Mary's makes the grand stone cathedrals elsewhere in Europe appear cavernous and dull. Second, St. Mary's was John Paul II's home cathedral prior to his election to Pope. The Krakówians have erected a plaque with the pontiff's likeness on the outside wall (it's actually slightly visible in the above photograph -- look at the dark area on the right side of the facade, just above head level). Third, St. Mary's greets the hour not with church bells, but with a live trumpeteer who blows a tune out of three different windows in the hexagon-shaped tower -- a unique and neat little tradition!
As a capital during the heyday of Catholicism, Kraków is loaded with churches, as each subdenomination sought its own footprint in the city. The Franciscans, Jesuits, all of them had their own church(es) along the main drag. The University of Kraków (where Copernicus himself taught) has a huge church on the grounds as well. (Yes, there are a lot of references to Copernicus throughout the city, but the old scientist and heretic must nowadays take a back seat to the Pope... a notion I somehow find rather ironic methinks).
At the southern end of the downtown, sitting on the Wista River, is the Wawel Castle (VAH-vuhl). The castle was the royal seat of Poland, and is the city's main tourist attraction. The grounds consist of the palace, a huge Cathedral (yes, the royals had a cathedral of their own, as a form of competition with the merchant-populated St. Mary's), and a large garden (seen below).
The palace is fascinating in the way it was constructed -- with clear influence from a number of architectures and decorative styles (similar to the Pieskowa Skala, where each style has a room to itself). My greatest memory of Wawel included the throne room, with the dozens of wooden heads mounted in the ceiling looking down at you -- look for the one that is gagged and ask the tour guide about it, it's a great story!
I found the Poles to be a very proud people, proud to be Polish and proud of their heritage. As additional evidence of this, I offer the below, which is a classic Polish restaurant, specializing in medieval-style cuisine -- served by waiters and waitresses in medieval-style dress, and the insides decorated in period antiquity. Places such as this abound off the beaten track.
Kraków easily ranks among the "Top 5" of personal travel experiences. I loved everything about the city, its people, its history, and its pride. I strongly recommend it for any traveler willing to go the extra mile to eastern Europe -- you will not regret it!
Trip taken 1-2 September 2001 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin