Krakow is one of those fairytale cities of Europe that transcends time, writes Uday k Chakraborty
Krakow is Poland’s “second city”, though the natives think of it as the first. Krakow was Poland’s ancient capital long before Warsaw and it remained residence of the old kings. In reference to Warsaw, it is situated at the other end of the country, just before the flat European plain begins to rise into the wooded splendor of the Tatra Mountains. Travelers destined for Tatra Mountain resorts to the south almost always stay here longer than they had planned.
Paradoxically, losing its status as capital was Krakow’s salvation. While Warsaw was devastated in the war, Krakow came through virtually unscathed. A fact for which all of Europe should be grateful. For Krakow still maintains its great Mediterranean feel due to its unique architecture. Krakow’s splendid Mediterranean architecture was deliberate, as its princes opted for Italian architects for its development. The city is twinned with Siena, and it is not hard to see why.
The Italian influence is immediately apparent in the courtyard of Wawel castle, the great towering pile of masonry that dominates the city from its rocky eminence. King Zygmunt the Old hired a Florentine in the early sixteenth century to turn the old crumbling Gothic fortress into the renaissance-style palazzo. Although the royal court was moved to Warsaw in 1609, Wawel remained the place of coronation of Polish kings. During the World War II, the Nazis had plans to blow up the castle and the cathedral, but a surprise offensive by the Russian army prevented this wanton destruction.
You enter the castle through an arcaded courtyard. The castle’s interior comprise of 71 richly appointed rooms. The Wawel contains all that remains of Poland’s crown jewels. Also, among its treasure is a collection of 136 rare, sixteenth and seventeenth century Flemish tapestries. The nave of the cathedral has the elaborate tomb of St. Stanislaus, Poland’s patron saint and an eleventh-century crypt nearby is crammed with tombs of kings, queens, bishops and Polish national heroes.
Splendid old town
Krakow’s old town spreads out like a tear drop from the base of Wawel hill. Splendid old mansions of noblemen and merchants are clustered on streets at the bottom of Wawel Hill. Grodzka street leads right to main town square, but along the way there are dozens old narrow passageways between shops that open onto tiny courtyards with workshops and balconied houses.
Most of the buildings in the main square were built between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its heart is the market square dominated by the old Linen Hall, a wonderful example of the medieval European commercial architecture. Even today it is still in use as a covered market, with street sellers peddling everything from watches to lace underneath its gargoyles. It also houses the Gallery of Polish Paintings on the second floor.
But the masterpiece is the Mariacki (Mary’s) Church, a great towering fourteenth-century edifice in dark brick which must be one of the finest Gothic buildings anywhere. It is topped by two beautifully asymmetrical spires, the taller of which ends in a flourish of tiny pinnacles and is topped by a gold crown and helmet. Located opposite Linen Hall, it is best known for the magnificent alterpiece carved over 500 years ago in late Gothic style. This magnificent triptych of life-sized figures in gold depicts the assumption of the Virgin Mary. A series of fourteenths-century stained-glass windows above the triptych take up its theme and colours.
The Mariacki was built at a time when Poland’s main enemies were the Tartar hordes who had swept through Russia from the depth of Asia. Because the tower was the highest vantage point in town it was used as a lookout point. According to legend, the watchman stationed there was blowing his trumpet call to sound the alarm when a Tartar bowman shot him in the throat. In his honour, every hour on the hour, a trumpeter plays the same plaintive call from each window at the top of the tower, dramatically halting in mid-phrase to mark the second that arrow struck.
The red brick of St. Florian’s Gate, the Barbican, and some town walls and towers are all that remain of the medieval fortifications that protected Old Krakow. The Town Hall is a replica of the original one and houses a branch of National Museum. Another important landmark is the Jagillonian University, founded in 1364 by King Casimir the Great and one of the oldest centers of learning in Europe. A prized possession in its museum is the world globe on which Copernicus first acknowledged America. The country is indicated by the words, “America New Discovery”.
Europe’s second oldest synagogue, built in the fourteenth century by Spanish Jews, is on Szeroka Street in the Old Jewish Quarter. Krakow boasts a long and rich theater tradition. Its repertory theater groups and Opera house productions are of high repute and always get national interest.
From here many visits Tatra mountain resort towns. Of them most popular and charming is Zakopane, nestled between the Gubalowka Ridge and the towering Tatra. Here mountains are richly forested. The area also has a rich and live folk culture where many locals still wear their distinctive mountain dresses.
Krakow is almost everyone’s favourite Polish city. Its medieval charm is still apparent on every tree-shaded street. A magical feel, both natural and man-made, is what defines Krakow even today.