Right before the New Year, we took a three day trip to Kraków. From our base in Budapest, it’s a 400 kilometer trip, mostly non-motorway; so the journey takes about six hours each way. The route is almost due north following Route E77 most of the way, bisecting Slovakia en route. The countryside is not very scenic; much less so than Croatia; we passed through innumerable hardscrabble small towns and villages. It really didn’t matter; we were enveloped by fog and mist most of the way there so our visibility was shrouded. We had booked the Sheraton Kraków for our stay, contemporary, sleek and soulless; but it was convenient for sightseeing and had onsite parking.
Before Warsaw became Poland’s capital city in 1596, Kraków was the seat of power for the previous six centuries – and most believe it is still this nation’s spiritual heart. Today the city has 750,000 residents and a well preserved historic center. Kraków, like most European cities, suffered dramatically during World War II, but endured much less infrastructure damage – more on this later.
The Wisła River forms a winding southern border for the Stare Miasto, or old city, and sightseeing is centered on three areas. The anchor is clearly the Wawal Castle, positioned at a sharp bend in the river – a strategic vantage point for millennia. Heading north from the castle, the pedestrianized Grodzka forms the spine of the old city, leading to the Market Square, or Rynek Glówny. Finally, south of the Wawal Castle is the historic Jewish quarter.
Since 1038 this plateau has been a citadel of sorts and a seat of power. In the 16th century rulers transformed the Gothic fortress into a magnificent Renaissance palace, hosting coronations and royal burials over the ages.
|Kraków Cathedral Exterior|
|Shrine of St. Stanislaw|
MARKET SQUARE (Rynek Glówny)
From the castle, one moves north along the Grodzka. About half way or so, there is a smaller square housing the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, twin domed and one of the most beautiful examples of early Baroque in Poland.
|Church of St. Mary|
THE JEWISH QUARTER (Kazimierz District)
Kazimierz was founded in 1335 and soon developed into a thriving Jewish neighborhood. Czech and German Jewish refugees joined the community in the 15th century; the area bears witness to centuries of co-existence with Polish Christians. The Jewish population centered on Szeroka ulica, later known as New Square; a hub of Judaic culture and learning. Synagogues dot the surroundings. We only visited the Temple Synogogue, but walked the streets to see many others including the Old Synagogue and the adjacent Synagogue on the Hill; and the High Synagogue, unfortunately in much distress. There is also a large walled cemetery on Jakuba ulica.
Much of this area suffered greatly in the early months of Nazi occupation, but it has recovered somewhat, even if more slowly than the other areas of the old city. Galleries, cafés and bars are numerous.
DARK SHADOWS OF WORLD WAR II
Early on in the war, Kraków became the capital of a Nazi pseudo-state, which included the southeastern half of present-day Poland, and southern Ukraine. Overseeing it all was the infamous Hans Frank, who took Wawel Castle as his base. The Nazis under Frank’s leadership delivered a reign of terror on the populace, but infrastructure was preserved. The Jews suffered most; in 1941 the Kraków Ghetto was established in the Podgorze district south of the Wisła River.
The ultimate horror that followed is well known. At the nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau, just 70 kilometers west of Kraków, one and a half million people were murdered, a quarter of those who died in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow us a visit here.
But we did visit a death camp in 2004. On May 2 of that year, we travelled to Buchenwald, 8 kilometers northwest of Weimar in Germany. The day fit the visit - dark, cold and drizzling; as we remembered where 250,000 passed through and 50,000 perished. The memorial, including the crematorium, barbed wire, foundations of prisoner barracks and the museum were a moving experience that still sticks with us.
These were not mankind’s best moments; nor are the present barbarities of ISIL. But we also can take some hope from the past; Oskar Schindler saved hundreds of his workers at his Kraków enamelware factory from extermination. The Schindler Museum is now located in the sprawling administration building of the defunct plant at Lipowa ulica, 4; in the city’s grim industrial district of Zabłocie on the right bank of Wisła River. It seeks to retell his story against the backdrop of such horror.
We saw a lot in what amounted to just one full day of sightseeing. The drive was long, but our memories will be longer. The city has an upbeat vibe; people seemed to walk the streets with purpose. Capping things off, we had a few good meals. A nice dinner on our first night at “Szara Kamienica” in Rynek Glówny; and even better, dinner on the second evening at the Relais & Chateaux’s “Restauracja Copericu”. Nicolaus Copernicus, the renowned Polish mathematician and astronomer lodged in this residence during his stays in Kraków in the 16th century. The food was “heavenly.”
|Kraków at Night|