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Gilded Krakow: ancient capital of polish culture.

The rains stop as we reach the largest medieval square in Europe. The sounds of a Polish band echo off cobblestones. Behind the drums march troupes of waving officials dressed in rich 17th century costumeswhite shirts with puffy sleeves, crimson, emerald and azure embroidered vests, violet baggy pants, feathered turbans and stunning, elegantly garbed women with pearls in their hair.

My camera? At the hotel.

Later, after a search turns up a medieval wall covered with fine oil paintings at St. Florian's Gate but no marchers. We return to the square andviola! -a brigade of young folk dancers descends on us in brilliantly sequined and embroidered costumes. Colored ribbons stream from girls' hair.

Welcome to Krakow, the capital of Polish kings for 500 years. We have found ourselves in the Crown of Flowers Festival of St. John that unfolds each June 23. All afternoon we watch group after group of 600 young, high-stepping, high-energy folk dancers as the square fills with traditional tunes. Hands clap, skirts swirl, feet prance, violins, lutes, tambourines and accordions play and the young flirt. Dance expresses national identity and is easily understood in any language.

Later, it's time to relax under an umbrella with a foamy Zywiec beer and a Zubrokaw vodka at the Okocim, a cafe in the square. "Nostrovia!" My wife and I salute Poland.

Poland's loveliest city

We had arrived on a second-class express train from Warsaw that whisked us for two hours through rolling, pastoral countryside and quiet villages. However, the robust gentleman next to me in our eight-seat compartment immediately fell asleep on my shoulder and started snoring. Yes, arrival was a relief. We checked into the centrally located Hotel Wyspianski in Poland's cultural and historical heart. Once settled, my wife and I walked down a medieval street to the Old Town, the Stare Miasto. This is the town where a Polish priest, Karol Wojtyla (later to become Pope John Paul II) served as its archbishop.

We detour into Krakow's Historical Museum of the City and its exhibition of burgher houses. Although Krakow is known as a city of kings, the proud, sturdy burghers, with their firm religious faith, were the city's pillars against invaders. They brought the town its wealth and built most of its churches and monuments.

We step into the re-created, cozy rooms of these early burghers, resplendent with handsome rugs and carved furniture, tall clocks, framed oil paintings and decorated 18th century ceilings. Other rooms display inlaid card tables, a bed with lace bed coverings, a lute, a Chinese chest, a 17th century harpsichord and rich floor and table rugs. We have the museum to ourselves.

The Main Market Square is dominated by the old Cloth Hall. Once home to the textile guild, it houses souvenir booths filled with amber, carved wooden boxes, chess sets and jewelry, anything a tourist could desire. Prices are fair and the goods authentic.

Krakow has more churches per square mile than Rome. We visit St. Mary's Basilica, dominating the square's northeast corner. Inside is an intricate altarpiece carved during 15 years by the German master Viet Stoss. It's reputedly Europe's largest wooden Gothic triptych and thought to be the continent's greatest medieval wood carving. We arrive at noon when a nun appears, opens its carved wooden panels and presses a button to illuminate it. The magnificent altar was a gift from the city's burghers.

Every hour a bugler trumpets four times from the basilica's heights. He interrupts his bugling each time to sound, as the first bugler's did in the 13th century, when an arrow pierced his heart as he blew a warning that the Tartars were approaching. Today seven local firemen take turns blowing the warning.

A walk down Grodzka Street retraces the route of Polish kings. After moving the capital to Warsaw in 1596, kings still returned to Krakow to be crowned, proceeding through Market Square to Wawel Cathedral, which houses Poland's cultural treasures and the tombs of its greatest leaders. The cathedral and its neighboring castle sit atop a hill and offer commanding views of the Vistula River. If you're not winded by the climb, proceed up the bell tower for the city's best view.

Krakow emerged in the 8th century, when a Vistulan tribe settled here and trading began. By 1000 A.D., a bishopric was established and in 1038 the town became Poland's capital. During the Middle Ages, Polish kings ruled a superlative city with the best universities, largest square and fine Renaissance and Baroque architecture. It remains Poland's loveliest city with its hilltop renaissance castle, its spacious marketplace, red-brick church towers, its cathedral's golden dome and the narrow streets edged by elaborate Gothic facades. And it has plenty of museums.

We stroll Old Town streets, many closed to traffic, and wander through the 600-year-old Jagellonian University, but now modern shops, restaurants, galleries, bars and nightclubs are reclaiming the first floors of century-old palaces. Cafes are everywhere. In the evening we join the throngs heading for the Vistula as a faint breeze blows off the river. We find an open spot on the grass and watch a spectacular fireworks show.

Although a million tourists visit annually, Krakow offers the glories of a great central European city without the crowds of better-known destinations. We see no tour groups during our visit. And it's a bargain in expensive Europe. No Polish city has more historic buildings and monuments and its vast collection of works of art is estimated at 2.3 million. In January 1945 a sudden encircling maneuver by the Soviet Army forced the Nazis to quickly evacuate the city without destroying it. So Krakow retained the wealth of its architecture and the city's tallest structures are church spires.

Everything is within easy walking distance. Though ancient, Krakow is a captivating, vibrant university city of 70,000 students. We speak no Polish, but easily find our way around town; most exhibits have descriptions in English. Sadly, we don't have the 10 to 12 days necessary to fully explore the city's treasures.

In the morning we visit Wawel Castle, a red-brick complex of copper domes, towers, and walls rising over the softly flowing Vistula. Its exterior gives little indication of its glories, including its graceful, arcaded Renaissance courtyard, considered Europe's finest, and its 71 rooms of art treasures. In its armory gleam Turkish and Persian shields, tournament armor, chain mail, javelins and armor with feathered wings to prevent its wearer from being lassoed. It's all hereswords, maces, mail shirts, embroidered velvet banners, saddles, horse trappings, breast plates, helmets, pikes, royal regalia, silver and gold, chalices, mugs and Limoges crucifixes.

Rooms are crowded with mortars, cannons, bolts, quarrels and crossbows. In its Treasury is Szczerbiec, the coronation sword of Polish kings, a jagged sword of iron and gold that reputedly got its name when an invading Polish king banged three times on the gates of Kiev, damaging its blade.

Like so many Polish treasures, its history is circuitous. The sword was returned to Poland just before World War II, only to be smuggled out to London and then Canada.

The castle's 136 16th century tapestries, ordered from Brussels by King Sigismund II Augustus, are its most valuable collection. Brilliant in color and design, they decorate many rooms. Some are said to be the work of Peter Paul Rubens who destroyed their patterns to ensure they would be unique.

Wawel houses one of the world's largest collections of Turkish and Persian tents. The Chamber of Deputies' ceiling holds carved wooden heads, some historic, some allegoric. The earliest structure on Wawel Hill dates to the 11th century, but in the 16th century Italian Renaissance touches gave it its present splendor. Tickets limit times in rooms, but guards allow visitors to return.

After a coffee and croissant, we stroll into cool, flamboyant Wawel Cathedral, burial place of Polish kings and filled with renaissance and baroque chapels. The crowning red marble Sigismund chapel holds the sarcophagi of Sigismund I, his son Sigismund II Augustus, and Queen Anna, daughter of Sigismund I. Nearby is the tomb of Casmir the Great, who established Krakow's Jagellonian University. A marble statue of the king rests peacefully atop it. The magnificent Holy Cross Chapel, where the carving of the dead king Casmir IV stands, is the work of the master carver Stoss.

Another morning we head for the Czartoryski Museum. Among its many valuable paintings are Rembrandt's "Landscape with the Good Samaritan," a Bellini "Madonna and Child," a Giordano "Flight Into Egypt" and Da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine."

Thought to have been painted in 1482, the identity of the Da Vinci subject has long been debated. It may have been the enigmatic beauty, Beatrice D' Este, mistress of French King Francis I, or the Duke of Milan's 16-year-old mistress. X-rays reveal the painting has been heavily altered over time. Unlike Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre, we marvel at this masterpiece alone.

Krakow's small attractions delight: the little, 11th century stone St. Adalbert's Church, a plaque in the Town Square marking the spot in 1794 where patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko urged rebellion against the Russians who had partitioned Poland; the round, towering Barbican, called by the Poles the "Krakow stew pot," a reminder of Krakow's 15th century red-brick defensive walls and Arab fortifications. The 115-foot St. Florian's gate survived 19th century demolition thanks to a preservation-minded professor. Taking the place of Krakow's destroyed walls and towers is a swath of green grass called the Planty, where students sun, chat and study, mothers push strollers and children race and play ball.

Recalling Krakow's darkest hours

When World War II began, a quarter of Krakow's population was Jewish, almost all of it settled in Kazimierz, a 500-year-old enclave of narrow, winding streets. By war's end, it was virtually deserted. Its Old Synagogue, started in the 15th century, was damaged and looted, but none of the district's six synagogues was destroyed. After the war, Kazimierz became working class, and by Polish standards roughstreets sprinkled with broken vodka bottles. Recently, workers restored abandoned buildings and slapped fresh paint on walls. Today, for all its ghosts, Kazimierz is "in."

While in Kazimierz one should visit the Ethnographic Museum in the Old Town Hall at Wolnica Square and two enormous Gothic basilicas, the Church of St. Catherine and the Pauline Church and enjoy the music at local cafes.

We tour the area where Steven Spielberg filmed many scenes in the Oscar-winning "Schindler's List." Small parts of the eerie, deserted neighborhood look much as they did after 65,000 Jews were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When in Krakow, Oskar Schindler lived upstairs at Straszewskiego 7. The Schindler factory, and later his living quarters, were in Podgorze and still stand at ul. Lipoua 4, now the Telpod electronics factory. Nearby is the only building remaining of the Plaszow Concentration Camp.

A museum in the ghetto's reconstructed Stara Synagogue shows relics of the Jewish culture that flourished here for 600 years. The Remu'h cemetery, adjoining its synagogue, contains a high wall studded with fragments of tombstones the Nazis smashed.

Things are constantly improving. Nowa Huta, the gigantic steel mill complex built by the Communists at the city's edge, is gradually being closed. With a little time remaining, we were able to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp [see the May 2010 issue of this magazine] but were unable to tour the salt mines of Wieliczka and other legacies of the 20th century's darkest hours.

Further Information

The easiest way to get to Krakow is to fly into Warsaw and take one of 15 trains daily to Krakow. The trip takes under three hours. Our tour to AuschwitzBirkenau cost $50 a person. We enjoyed our stay at the moderately priced Hotel Wyspianski Rates include a buffet breakfast.

Krakow has a rich cycle of events, including Organ Music Day in April, the Student Song Festival in May, Short Films Festival in May and June, the Jewish Cultural Festival in June, the International Festival of Street Theater in July and the Jazz Festival, Music in Old Krakow in August and many more. We attended the Festival of St. John in June. Many students act as guides.

To splurge, go to the restaurant Wierzynek, considered the best restaurant in Poland. A favorite cafe is the bohemian Jama Michalikowa. For tours, go to The Nova Huta's steelworks can be toured. Go to For the Jewish Cultural Festival go to, For the jazz festival go to

Best books include "Polish Cities" by Philip Ward, "Exit Into History" by Eva Hoffman and "Poland" by James Michener.

Harvey Hagman is a freelance photojournalist, travel writer, international correspondent, and frequent contributor to The World and I Online.
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Author:Hagman, Harvey
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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