Kraków is one of Poland’s most celebrated cities, and its center brims with a cache of cultural wealth that has been on UNESCO’s world heritage list since 1978. To discover this vibrant city with a skyline of belfries and a patchwork of tranquil courtyards, begin by visiting its famed cultural focal point.
A Dragon’s Tale
The robust Wawel Castle dates to the 11th century when it originated as a small residence for King Bolesław Chrobry. It later received a Gothic make-over by King Kazimierz but succumbed to a fire in 1499, only to reemerge thirty years later in Renaissance design. Since then, it has withstood marauding invaders, reconstruction, preservation and wild-eyed tourists.
Besides strolling through the grandeur of lavish state rooms and royal apartments, a tour of the Castle wouldn’t be complete without exploring its damp, 70-meter long cave—fire-breathing dragon at the exit included.
As the story goes, a dragon lived under the castle, wreaked havoc on the villagers—as you do if you’re a dragon—and naturally had an insatiable appetite. Prince Krakus, founder of Kraków as his name suggests, commanded his men to fill a blazing sheep’s hide with sulphur and heave it into the cave. After the dragon had gobbled up the flambéed snack, it suffered a severe case of heartburn and raced to the Wisła River to quell the burning in its stomach. The dragon gulped down so much water that it finally burst, giving the villagers a pyrotechnic show they would never forget.
Once having visited this famous Castle and its adjacent cathedral, take an introductory course in Kraków’s Jewish history.
Kraków’s Jewry—What Once Was
Kraków’s Jewish history is a prominent theme in the city. An estimated 6,000 out of 65,000 of the city’s Jews survived WW II; however, the current population barely reaches 200. The seven original synagogues in Kazimierz’s small Jewish quarter stand as reminders of a flourishing life that fell silent.
The district of Kazimierz, named after the king himself, is where a Jewish population began to trickle in after the establishment of this former, independent town outside Kraków in 1335. The Jewish community took root in a small area just beyond the Christian quarter, yet it wasn’t until the late 15th century that the neighborhood grew after their expulsion from Kraków proper and other cities around Europe. Kraków ultimately incorporated Kazimierz into its administration in the late 18th century and later tore down the wall that had separated the Christian and Jewish quarters.
For a glimpse into the city’s Jewish history, visit the late 15th-century Old Synagogue, also known as the Stara Synagogue—the oldest in Poland.
The Synagogue’s Jewish Museum houses not only precious ceremonial items, but it also focuses upon Jewish development in Kraków. The Synagogue suffered looting and some destruction during Nazi occupation, but, today, a reconstructed Bimah dominates the center of the Museum, along with the original Aron Kodesh in its proper place facing Jerusalem. With the aid of technology, visitors may also transcribe one verse from the Torah onto a scroll in their own language.
Kazimierz is showing clear signs of redevelopment with an artsy flair. Cafés, restaurants, boutique shops and small hotels line the district’s main artery, Ulica Józefa, and its intersecting streets. However, a scattering of old building façades still retain their crumbling charm.
To learn what Jews and Poles had to endure during WW II, ride the tram across the Wisła River to where a heroic story inspired a film.
In 2010, Oscar Schindler’s enamel factory became a museum with a permanent exhibition, entitled “Kraków under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945.”
The exhibition begins with the outbreak of the War and gradually brings to life the extreme circumstances citizens faced during the transformation of Kraków under Nazi occupation. The exhibition also leads visitors down the dim, cobblestone streets of the re-created Jewish ghetto—complete with walls and quotes by those who lived in this enclosed sector: “I suddenly realized that we were to be walled in. I got so scared that I eventually burst into tears”—Roman Polanski, aged 8.
Old wooden planks creak underfoot as you pass through Oscar Schindler’s personal office and that of his secretary on the second floor. A glass-encased exhibit holds the enameled pots, pans and other items his factory manufactured, including the inscribed names of his workers.
Kraków by Night
Darting swallows usher in the evening as dusk settles over the city, and the spirited night comes to life. A hum of activity envelopes Kraków’s Market Square (Rynek Główny), where street performers amuse small crowds, oblivious tourists narrowly escape the hooves and wheels of horse-drawn carriages and the hourly five-note bugle call echoes from the tower of St. Mary’s Church.
Rynek Główny is Poland’s largest medieval town square and is a focal point day or night. Yet many of Kraków’s inner courtyards are the urban hideaways that offer respite from the flurry of visitors. Many host small bars, quaint cafés and restaurants that offer tasty Polish dishes and international cuisine.
Send me a message to receive recommendations for dining at an amazing Italian restaurant amid a beautiful garden with soft jazz music in the evening, a Polish restaurant in a quiet inner courtyard and a tucked-away location to relax among the locals with a frothy Polish beverage.
From Wawel Castle to the new life emerging in the district of Kazimierz, stroll down the cobblestone streets of one of Poland‘s most beloved cities and discover an architectural and cultural wealth that spans a millennium.