We gathered up near St. Florian’s gate on a morning which was showing signs of getting brighter with every hour. Not bad for September. I needed that light to elevate my spirits as my mind really wasn’t in the city I was in, a rare occurrence for when I am travelling. All I wanted then was to be rolled up in my own bed of my home.
“So where are you from?”, asked the guide of the walking tour we had signed up for. Continuing the conversation around India, its cities and its population, I felt the familiar excitement seep back in bit by bit. I was in a new city, with its own distinct look and distinct people, and I was just about to learn some of the finer nuances of its history, buildings and life in general. Walking tours is seriously the ONLY must do activity I’d ever recommend to someone.
Here we go
St Florian’s gate was one of the main entrances to the medieval city of Krakow and that is where we started off to enter Stare Miasto or Old Town. Krakow is one of the oldest cities of Poland which served as the capital of the Kingdom of Poland for a good five centuries before the capital moved to Warsaw. The earliest settlements have been found on Wawel hill, where Wawel castle, Poland’s most important historic site, stands today.
It turns out medieval Krakow was very wealthy. Over years, the city became a transit point between western and eastern Europe with many major routes running through it. Merchants entering Krakow for the crossover were required to pay taxes as well as trade their goods within the city. That the rulers had the forethought of building Rynek Główny, Krakow’s massive main square and medieval Europe’s largest, purely for commerce and future expansion of trade shows just how important it was for the city’s economy.
Stare Miasto/Old Town
Rynek Główny sits at the centre of Krakow’s old town and is truly massive housing many structures. Taking centre stage is Cloth Hall which was constructed to facilitate the aforementioned trade. Textiles no longer are sold here but a knife, which was meant to deter thieves back then, still hangs today from the roof (under which I was standing coolly before the guide pointed it out to the group). Also visible are the indentations in the walls which were used to hold fire torches at the entrance, because you know, cloth. And fire.
A little away from the Cloth hall the Town Hall tower stands a little askew (nothing like the one in Pisa though). I am not sure of the use of the tower, but its basement was half used for storing beer and the other half for torturing people. Very strange combination, I know. Though the main square was also used for executions so maybe the basement was a precursor?
St Mary’s Basilica
Then there is the highly ornate St Mary’s Basilica with its two unequal towers and an exquisite altarpiece, which is the largest in the world and took a decade to be constructed. What happened was that it was taken by the Germans during the war and then hidden in Nuremberg castle. Thankfully, it survived the heavy bombing of the castle and eventually found its back to its rightful place, because honestly it took me some time to tear myself away from it.
St Adalbert’s Church
The other place of worship in the main square is St. Adalbert’s Church which is one the oldest stone churches in Poland dating back to the 11th century. That it predates the square it sits in can be seen by its odd orientation in the square and that its actual floor is situated below the current level of the square.
Krakow is also known as the City of Churches
And why not. There are more than 100 is the city and 20 alone in the small old town area. I was on a mission to visit all, but could only manage 7 and was quite taken aback by their size and magnificence. Another thing I noticed was bold signs at all churches, and sometimes separate entrances, asking tourists to maintain silence for worshippers, something I haven’t really seen as much in other European cities.
Legend, not legend?
At the stroke of the hour, our guide asked us to focus our attention at the top of one of the towers. It was time for the hourly bugle call, also known as hejnal, which is played four times in every cardinal direction, every single hour. The guide also asked us to focus on the abrupt ending of hejnal.
Legend has it that when Mongols invaded Krakow back in the thirteenth century, the bugler alerted the city of the impending attack. However, an arrow slit his throat, thus ending the call abruptly mid-melody, and till date the bugle call is played with an unfinished note. Talk about tradition. But then, apparently, the legend is not really a legend but a tale that was fabricated more recently by a journalist who published it in his book which then went on to become quite popular. Now, believe what you may.
A lesson in history
We took two tours and there were obvious pieces of Poland’s history interspersed. A kingdom that was made prosperous by trade was constantly at war with its neighbours in part due to its location. As our guide said, “we were just Eastern Slavic tribes to the Germans, and to the Russians we were simply western Roman Catholics. So, we just kind of got stuck in the middle”. That Poland had been divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia seemed to play up emotions in both the guides. “We just disappeared from the world map for 170 years, we just did not exist”, said one of them, a slight edge in his voice.
Pope St John Paul II
Poland really was a free country for a mere 22 years before World War II came calling. That war wasn’t enough damage (a quarter of the population perished), Soviet “liberation” led to further repression. No wonder Poles revere Pope St John Paul II who created history by becoming the first Polish Pope and then again by giving a historic, peaceful address against oppressive Communist rule a year later in 1979. His future visits to Poland and his speeches (sometimes from the window of Bishop’s palace in Krakow’s old town) are considered to be the reason behind inspiring millions of Poles to rise against communist rule.
The Holy Father stayed at the palace during all of his visits to Krakow, and it is thanks to him that the window overlooking the entrance to the Bishops’ Palace in Krakow has become one of the most recognizable windows in the world, where the Pope’s chats with young people crowding outside the “papal window” quickly became a fixture of all his visits to Krakow.
Krakow has one of the oldest universities in the world
“Jagiellonian University was set up by the King Kazimierz the Great so then why is it not named after him?”, asked our guide as we stood in a university courtyard while students rushed about from class to class (nope, not weird at all). No one seemed to know the answer, so the guide carried on explaining. Even though the university was founded by Kazimierz (more on him later), its expansion stopped because of his death and later on because of lack of funds, and picked up only when Jadwiga, Queen of Poland, donated her jewellery for the university. It was then named after her husband, King Władysław Jagiełło of Lithuanian monarchy, who supported the school throughout. One of the most well known alumni of the University is Nicolaus Copernicus, the guy who gave the world a heliocentric model of our solar system and whose statue adorns the campus today.
And this walk shall continue in Krakow’s Jewish quarter