Friday, June 13, 2014

Travels to Krakow, Poland

Krakow is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated in the southern part of the country on the Vistula River, the city dates back to the 7th century. Krakow has traditionally been one of the leading centers of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and is one of Poland's most important economic hubs. For many centuries Krakow was the royal capital of Poland, until Sigismund III Vasa relocated the court to Warsaw in 1596.


After an overnight train ride from Prague, we arrived early the next morning in Krakow.  It was too soon to check into our hotel, so we dropped off our bags and hit the streets ready for sight-seeing.  But first, I spotted a little babcia (grandmother) with a cart full of something...It's round, has a big hole in the center and is made of thick, chewy dough. But is it a bagel or a pretzel? It is actually a hybrid of sorts called obwarzanek krakowski, and was the perfect breakfast snack for only 1.50 zloty or 50 cents.

Florian Gate
The city district is bisected by the Royal Road, the coronation route traversed by the Kings of Poland.  The route begins at St. Florian's Church outside the northern flank of the old city-walls in the medieval suburb of Kleparz; passes the Barbican of Kraków (Barbakan) built in 1499, and enters Stare Miasto through the Florian Gate.

St. Florian's Church was built between 1185 and 1216. Legend has it that in 1184 oxen carrying the remains of St. Florian – the future patron saint of Poland – came to a halt at a place where the church now stands. The relics miraculously grew too heavy to be taken any further into the city and remained in Kleparz until it was decided for the church to be built at that exact spot.

The main square of the Old Town of Krakow is the principal urban space located at the center of the city. It dates back to the 13th century, and is the largest medieval town square in Europe. The center of the square is dominated by the Cloth Hall, rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style, topped by a beautiful attic or Polish parapet decorated with carved masks.




In the main square and in the covered hall area, one can find all kinds of Polish souvenirs and snacks.  We grabbed lunch here and picked up a few gifts to bring home.  Beware of the tourist trap horse buggy rides - they were everywhere and overpriced.  The horses did have some fancy headgear on though.



On another day, we walked further north and checked out the Stary Kleparz for a Polish farmer's market experience. This is an open air fresh produce market where you can buy fresh fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, bread, cheese, meat and a host of sausages at reasonable prices.  We wish we discovered this area sooner, as we could have grabbed some items for a picnic.  Keith was drooling over the packaged sausage and wanted to buy some to bring back in his suitcase.  A quick google search told him that packaged meat of any kind is prohibited by US Customs., so alas we left empty-handed.

St. Mary's
On one side of the cloth hall is the Town Hall Tower, on the other the 10th century Church of St. Adalbert and 1898 Adam Mickiewicz Monument. Rising above the square are the Gothic towers of St. Mary's Basilica.  In addition to the old town, the city's district of Kazimierz is particularly notable for its many renaissance buildings and picturesque streets, as well as the historic Jewish quarter.

The Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill constitute the most historically and culturally important site in Po­land. The Gothic castle was built at the behest of Casimir III the Great, who reigned from 1333 to 1370, and consists of a number of structures situated around the central courtyard. For centuries the residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood, the castle is now one of the country's premier art museums. Established in 1930, the museum encompasses ten curatorial departments responsible for collections of paintings, including an important collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, among them the Sigismund II Augustus tapestry collection, goldsmith's work, arms and armor, ceramics, Meissen porcelain, and period furniture.  The only painting by Leonardo da Vinci on display in Poland, entitled Lady with an Ermine (1482-1485), is located here and available to see for a nominal fee.


Wawel Cathedral, home to royal coronations and resting place of many national heroes, is a Roman Catholic church more than 900 years old, and is considered to be Poland's national sanctuary. The Cathedral comprises a nave with aisles, transepts with aisles, a choir with double aisles, and an apse with ambulatory and radiating chapels.


Just outside the city is the Wieliczka Salt Mine that was built in the 13th century and produced table salt continuously until 2007 as one of the world's oldest salt mines still in operation. The mine's attractions include dozens of statues, three chapels and an entire cathedral that has been carved out of the rock salt by the miners. The oldest sculptures are augmented by the new carvings by contemporary artists.

Auschwitz I
Auschwitz II - Birkenau
For a day trip, we visited Auschwitz that was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II.  The network consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration / extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps. The prisoners remaining at the camp were liberated by the Soviets on January 27, 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  In the following decades, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences in Auschwitz, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust.  In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We took a full day tour of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  It was a humbling experience to say the least.


On our last night in Krakow, we had to do a vodka tasting.  In Poland, wódka has been produced since the early Middle Ages with local traditions as varied as the production of cognac in France, or Scottish whisky.   Some Polish vodka blends go back centuries.  Most notable are Żubrówka, from about the 16th century and flavored with the leaves of local bison grass; Goldwasser, from the early 17th century; and aged Starka vodka, from the 16th century. While most vodkas are unflavored, many flavored vodkas have been produced in traditional vodka-drinking areas, often as home-made recipes to improve vodka's taste or for medicinal purposes.   We tried apple, mint, hazelnut, cherry, raspberry, mango, and quince flavored vodkas at Wódka Cafe Bar - highly recommend you check out this quaint bar.

View from my seat on the train.
From Krakow, we continued our European adventure and took another train north towards Warsaw.  Stay tuned for the next chapter, after we arrive in the capital of Poland.

Here is a map of the stops we made in Krakow- feel free to use it to build your own itinerary:


For more Krakow eats check out my restaurant reviews. Just like Prague, we really enjoyed the mix of old and modern in this Polish city, and it was very worthwhile to take the mini-day trip outside of the city.  Have you visited Krakow before? What are some of your favorites things to do and places to eat? Please share in the comments below!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Pin It button on image hover