Krakow is noted for it's wonderfully preserved original Old Town, containing dozens of magnificent churches, and for the amazing Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral, possibly the most significant single site in Poland. Also not to be missed is the old Jewish area of Kazimierz, where several significant Jewish buildings have survived although the Jewish population hasn't. A little further afield are a couple of day-trips you can make from Krakow which I went on.
Krakow Old Town is laid out in a fairly regular grid pattern, with the Town Square at its heart, and bounded on all sides by the Platny Park, which follows the line of the old defensive walls and moat. The park itself is dotted with various statues and memorials and makes a pleasant afternoon's walk, or a nice place to sit down with a beer and a book.
Krakow's Central Square, the Rynek Glowny, is the largest and most impressive of its kind in Poland. It is also home to what is, reputedly, Europe's second largest pigeon population after St Mark's Square in Venice. As in Trafalgar Square in London you can come here and watch frisky pigeons crawling over excited young children (I'm sure there's scope for a pay-to-view website in there somewhere....). Apart from the pigeons there's plenty of other interesting things in the Rynek.
Standing in the middle of the square is the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), originally built as a covered market the present building dates from the mid-16th century, with some 19th century additions (the arched galleries down either side). It's an attractive renaissance building that looks particularly impressive when lit-up at night. The ground floor of the Cloth Hall has now returned to its original function and now houses an decent collection of market stalls selling all kinds of high-quality tourist tat, including amber, jewelry, hand-carved wood, chess sets, lace, and various other bits of arts and crafts. People who know more about this kind of thing than me tell me that the amber jewelry is particularly good value for money. The arcades down the outside of the Cloth Hall now mostly hold cafes, as well as a tourist information centre.
On the first floor is a department of Krakow's National Museum, the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Painting and Sculpture, which holds some paintings by Poland's best-known 19th century artist (within Poland at least) Jan Matejko. The gallery is closed on Mondays.
The most imposing building on the Rynek is the towering, brick St Mary's Basilica (Kosciol Mariacki) on the eastern edge of the square. Construction on this church started in the 14th century, on the foundations of an earlier church. You can see how the walls of the church start about a metre below the current ground level of the square, showing how the level of the square has risen over the centuries. The outside of the church is impressive enough, with its tall (but uneven) pair of towers (70 and 80 metres high respectively), each of which has totally over the top baroque decorative spires on top. The taller tower, imaginatively called "The Higher Tower" is the scene of one of Krakow's more enduring traditions, the hejnal. Every hour on the hour a member of a special section of the local fire brigade plays a short, simple bugle tune from the top of the tower; the tune is played 4 times, to each point of the compass and can be heard from most of the city centre. Legend has it that the tradition dates back to the 13th century and commemorates a local watchman; the point where the hejnal ends rather abruptly is supposed to represent the point at which he was shot through the neck by Tartar raiders. Whether true or not (and to shoot someone playing the bugle from the top of an 80 metre tower would have taken a hell of a shot), it's a nice story and a charming tradition, although possibly not quite so charming if you've got a hotel on the square and keep getting woken up by the bugger every night (it's played 24 hours a day).
Inside the church is even more stunning than the outside. If you go in the through the main entrance at the front of the admission is free, but this doesn't allow access to the Presbytery (although you can still see it from a distance). It's definitely worth paying the small fee (4zl) to enter through the door in the south side which gives full access to the church. Quite simply the interior is breathtaking, every inch seems to be covered in some kind of decoration; a combination of the 14th century stained glass, richly painted walls and ceiling, extravagant statues and tombs, wooden carving, and plenty of gold-gilding make it hard to take everything in. The undoubted highlight though is the High Altar a huge (43 by 36 feet) piece of incredibly detailed medieval carving that took its German creator, Veit Stoss, 12 years of his life to complete. The results were worth it though, and you can spend hours contemplating it. The interior of St Mary's is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Krakow.
Standing in the shadow of St Mary's on Plac Mariacki, St Barbara's Church (Kosciol Sw Barbary) slightly to the south-east is easy to overlook, but it's also worth a visit; it has a nice collection of sculptures on the outside next to the main entrance, and an impressive set of frescoes and paintings inside. It was supposedly built with bricks left over from the building of St Mary's.
The final and smallest church on the Rynek is the tiny St Adalbert's (Kosciol sw. Wojciecha) which stands on its own at the southern corner of the square. It dates from the 11th century (supposedly built on the site of a pagan temple), although it has been much altered since then. Its age is apparent when you look at the church's original entrance which is now nearly 2 metres below the current level of the square. The church's attractive, uncluttered interior is very small so try not to get stuck in there at the same time as a large group of rotund German tourists.
The other free-standing building in the Rynek in the Town Hall Tower (Wieza Ratuszowa). The 70 metre high tower is all that remains of the old Town Hall, the rest of which was pulled down in the early 19th century. It could also be known as "The Leaning Tower of Krakow", as it is apparently slightly crooked, although nowhere near to the same degree as the tower in Pisa. You can climb up the tower for views of the Rynek which aren't really that great as you're only allowed to look out of the window. Probably more interesting are the various exhibits inside, including a model of what the Town Hall looked like before they pulled it down, and old photographs of Krakow. In common with most other buildings in the Old Town the vaults underneath the tower have been converted into a cafe, although they once held the city's jail. The clock-face on the tower looks pretty old, but the clock itself is linked to an ultra-accurate atomic clock in Germany (one of those that's accurate to a fraction of a second every million years, which begs the question "How the hell do they know?", or equally "Who the hell cares?").
The spacious Rynek also has room for the Adam Mickiewicz Monument (Pomnik Adama Mickiewicza), a statue commemorating the great 19th century Polish romantic poet. He's a national hero in Poland so it'd be somewhat pedantic of me to point out that he never actually set foot in Krakow (at least not while he was alive; his remains are in Wawel Cathedral). The statue had a miraculous escape in the war; the monument was torn down by the Nazi's but the statue was found intact on a German scrap-heap after the war and was returned. North of the statue are a collection of flower stalls (the Poles seem very keen on their fresh flowers), all that remains of the market that once covered the Rynek. Krakow's pigeons tend to congregate in this area, and there are a couple of stalls selling pigeon food, which is completely unnecessary as the greedy buggers will mob you with or without it. Surprisingly the entire Rynek is remarkably free of pigeon shit. Along the northern edge of the square you'll usually find a kind of taxi rank made up of up to a couple of dozen horse-drawn carts waiting to take romantic or rich tourists on a tour of the Old Town. On Saturdays an antique market is held on the western side of the Rynek; you have to pay to get in and browse, and remember that you need official permission to export anything from Poland made before 1945. Keep an eye out for some of the buskers too, several of them are pretty good, ranging from classical musicians to folk-music groups. Our favourite was the fat bloke dressed in sheets with his face covered in white make-up who stands on a pedestal by the entrance to Plac Mariacki and mimics the facial expressions of passers-by; he's very funny, give him some money for a pie.
Perhaps the real reason why the Rynek looks so attractive is the remarkable collection of buildings that surrounds it. These are mainly former town-houses, now for the most part converted into shops and restaurants. Although most of the houses appear to be renaissance in many cases these are just facades concealing considerably older buildings. Many are brightly painted, lots have ornamental architectural decoration, and they all appear to have been given a make-over relatively recently, As a result although no two buildings are identical they stand together very nicely.
Finally on the Rynek is the Historical Museum of Krakow (Museum Historyczne Krakowa) housed in the former Kryzysztofoty Palace at Rynek Glowny 35, which includes paintings and scale-models of old Krakow, as well as historical documents and objects. It's closed on Monday, admission is 4zl.
Several roads lead off the Rynek. The main road to the north is ul. Florianska, now highly commercialised and almost completely consisting of shops, bars and restaurants (and a very good kebab stall). There are a couple of museums on this road though, the Museum of Pharmacy, which is apparently more interesting than it sounds is it at number 25. They have 18th century condoms! Actually, I made that up, I've never actually been in there. Further along at number 41 is the Jan Matejko House (Dom Jana Matejki), the birthplace and subsequent workshop of the 19th century painter. The house contains some of his personal effects but to see his paintings you'll need to go the National Museum in the Cloth Hall.
ul Florianska eventually comes to an end at the Florian Gate (Brama Florianska), the only one of the city's original gates still surviving, built in the 13th century (although the smell of piss as you walk through it is probably more recent). As well as the gate there's a section of the city's wall, complete with a few defensive towers. The inside of the wall has now been turned into a virtual art gallery by some of the cities artist, eager to display and sell their work. Some of the stuff is quite good but in olden times they could have hung some of the paintings on the outside of the walls and it would have repelled any attacker.
Just outside the Florian Gate is another remnant of the cities defences, the Barbican (Barbakan) a circular, moated fort built in the 15th century to support and protect the Florian Gate in case of attack. Its attractive appearance is surprising in view of its purpose. Normally you can have a look round this building, including a tour of the parapets.
If you continue on through the Florian Gate and past the Barbican you'll be leaving the Old Town behind. The street you see directly in front of you is Plac Matejki. The big statue in the middle of the two carriageways in the Grunwald Monument (Pomnik Grunwaldzki) originally put up 1910 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald in which the Polish army trashed that of the (German) Teutonic Knights. Not surprisingly the first thing the Nazis did upon entering Krakow in 1939 was to tear the original down (sore losers), but the Poles put it back up again in the 1970s. At the top of Plac Matejki is St Florian's Church, originally built in the 12th century but badly damaged and rebuilt several times since, the current structure is a mostly 17th century affair.
Back to the Old Town. There are numerous places of interest in the streets around ul Florianska.
From the Florian Gate if you head west down Pijarska you'll come to the early-18th century Piarist Church (Kosciol Pijarow), also known as the Church of the Lord's Transfiguration; it's baroque exterior is not as impressive as some of Krakow's other churches but it's well worth poking your head round the door to have a look at the inside, which is beautifully decorated with some bright, colourful frescoes.
Just around the corner, on sw. Jana is possibly the most extensive museum in Krakow, the Czartoryski Museum (Muzeum Czartoryskich). This is another section of the National Museum and contains a wide range of exhibits, including Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities. The museum is best known though for its art collection, the highlight of which is "Lady with an Ermine" (it's like a ferret) by none other than Leonardo da Vinci, which I thought was a more interesting painting than his Mona Lisa, and without the hordes of tourists you'd get in the Louvre you'll get the chance have a good, long look at to decide for yourself. There's also a very good Rembrandt ("Landscape with the Good Samaritan"), but possibly my favourite of the lot, a quite lovely Pieter Bruegel the Younger landscape (actually a direct copy of one of his father's paintings). As well as the paintings there's plenty more to see, including collections of antique weapons, the "Gallery of Ancient Art", which includes Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts (but which was closed while I was there), and lots of European arts and crafts including glassware, porcelain, furniture, carpets, silver, wooden carvings, and various religious bits and bobs, something for just about everyone really. If you want you can just skim through and take in the highlights in an hour or so, but the museum is as good a place as any in Krakow to spend a rainy afternoon if you want to have a good look at everything. The museum is closed on Mondays, admission is normally 9zl, although cheap bastards will be pleased to hear that it's free on Thursdays.
Continue down sw Jana towards the Rynek and you'll pass the small St John's Church (Kosciol sw Jana), founded in the 12th century; it has a nice mural on the outside and the inside is pleasantly modest and intimate.
If you head east a block down sw Tomasza and then north-west up Szpitalna and you'll come to the Juliusz Slowacki Theatre, built at the end of the 19th century. It's an impressive great, big orangey building, covered in statues and topped with a big, green copper dome. That description doesn't really do it justice... The theatre has it's own website, so you can check out what's on. If nothing takes your fancy it'd be worth going in anyway to have a look at the opulent decoration.
Tucked away behind the theatre is the Church of the Holy Cross (sw. Krzyzy; what would that be worth in Scrabble?). The church dates from the 14th century and has a remarkable interior featuring one supporting pillar that, with the vaults it supports, was built to look like a palm tree, an early 15th century bronze font, and 16th century frescoes, restored at the end of the 19th century but still with some authentic original fragments. The outside is a bit odd; one end is made of brick while the other (older) end appears to be built out of rough stone. I like the pointy brick tower though.
If you really must see more churches from the Theatre head west along sw Marka, and once you've crossed the entire width of the Old Town (about 250 metres of it) you'll come to St Mark's Church (Kosciol sw Marka); notice how many of the streets in the Old Town are named after the churches on them? Not very imaginative, but it makes things easy, doesn't it? St Mark's dates from the 13th century, although it's been partially rebuilt a few times since. The statues on the outside are modern replicas of the early 16th century originals. Things of interest inside include a crucifix that supposedly has the power to cause miracles, and a heart-shaped pulpit. Sweet.
Close to St Marks (just over the road on Reformacka in fact) is the Church of the Reformed Franciscans (Kosciol Reformatow). What they were before they reformed I cannot say. This austere 17th century church's most interesting feature it's crypt, which holds several mummified bodies. They weren't mummified on purpose, something about the conditions in the crypt just makes it happen. The crypts are usually off-limits to preserve the bodies, so it's a bit pointless me mentioning it, but if you ask someone inside the church nicely they may show you around.
From here you can head back to the Rynek, sit down and enjoy a beer or two, and then head off to have a look around the rest of the Old Town.
To the west of the Rynek lies Krakow's main University quarter. Krakow has a very large student population, and the Jagiellonian University is the oldest in Poland, and the second oldest in eastern/central Europe after Prague's Charles University. Head northwest from the Rynek down sw. Anny and then turn left onto Jagiellonska and the fancy brick building you'll see is the Collegium Maius (a college of the Jagiellonian University) established in 1364 and numbering Nicholas Copernicus (or Mikolaj Kopernik, to give him his Polish name) and Karol Wojtyla (aka John Paul II) among its former students. It's housed in a 15th century building (and British Universities whinge about being in old buildings!), which you can only have a look round as part of a guided tour. The tour is well worth taking, and includes the library, the College Treasury, which include the oldest scientific instrument in Poland, an 11th century Moorish astrolabe and the first surviving globe to feature the Americas (made in 1510, America is marked as "newly discovered"; unfortunately whoever made the globe decided that America must be located around where Australia is).
Newer items that have been donated to the college include a Nobel prize for literature, an Oscar and a Palme d'Or, and a photo of the Earth taken from the Moon and signed by Neil Armstrong. There's a small room devoted to Copernicus, which includes a copy of his entry on the student register, copies of some of his books, and some of his instruments (scientific ones, not a banjo or anything like that). Other rooms hold things like antique furniture, some of which belonged to Polish Kings, and a collection of renaissance jelly molds (really!). The tour finishes in the richly decorated main hall, which has paintings of former rectors of the college and distinguished former students, and an amazing door made up of patterned wood.
If you don't fancy taking the tour (there are at least a couple of tours a day in English, it lasts about half an hour, and costs 12zl) you can pop into the courtyard (which is free!) to have a look round; it looks very nice, something like this is fact:
At the end of sw. Anny is St Anne's Church (Kosciol sw Anny); this is the University Church, dating from the end of the 17th century, where University services are held and several old professors are buried, including one who managed to get himself canonised; St John Kanty. His lectures must have been bloody good.... The outside of the church is typical baroque, with it's soaring, symetrical twin-towered facade, studded with statues. The inside is astonishing, bright and airy with lots of marble statues and carving, gold angels, and frescoes on the ceiling and on the inside of the dome.
The main road heading south from the Rynek is ul Grodzka, which runs to Wawel and forms part of the Royal Way (basically the route the King took during his coronation; it starts off at St Florian's Church, mentioned above). There are several magnificent churches either on ul Grodzka itself, or just off it. Head down Grodzka until you reach the first crossroads. From here you can either head right, along Franciszkanska, which will bring you to the St Francis' Basilica or left, along Dominikanska, which will bring you to the Dominican Church.
St Francis' Basilica (Bazylika sw. Franciszka) dates from the 13th century, although it has been much altered and rebuilt since. The highlight is the interior which was redecorated from scratch after a fire in 1850. It boasts absolutely stunning Art Nouveau stained glass windows (probably the best example is "Let It Be", an image of God creating light, which is over the main East entrance), designed by Stanislaw Wyspianski, who was also responsible for the hippy-like floral frescoes, and border-line psychadelic colur scheme on the walls. Definitely the most colourful church in Krakow. There's an attached Franciscan Monastery (although for some reason you'll see far more nuns than monks in Krakow....).
The Dominican Church (Kosciol Dominikanow), also known as the Basilica of the Holy Trinity dates from the 13th century, although most of it was destroyed in the same fire that trashed St Francis' in 1850. You'd have thought that there might have been some kind of divine intervention to prevent that kind of thing. Although most of the current building, including its towering front facade, dates from the late 19th century some older bits did survive the fire, particularly some of the smaller chapels. Head upstairs to St Hyacinthus' Chapel; St Hyacinthus was Poland's first Dominican monk and this chapel was once his cell. He must have liked this room so much that they decided to bury him in here too; that marble coffin is his. If you're in need of a miracle for whatever reason head for the Chapel of Our Lady of The Rosary; the painting in here is one of the many relics in Krakow reputed to have miraculous powers. Not miraculous enough to put fires out though, it would seem. The church contains many side-chapels and tombs of Krakovian aristos, and monk-spotters will be pleased to learn that there's a monastery attached to this church too. Given the church's previous unfortunate run-ins with flames, having so many wooden altars inside seems to be tempting fate..... Maybe it's a holy insurance scam.
The next church you reach on ul Grodzka has possibly the most impressive exterior of any in Krakow. On the wall outside Sts Peter & Paul's Church (Kosciol sw. Piotra i Pawla) are larger than life statues of the 12 Apostles (actually replicas of the 18th century originals, which can now be seen in the yard to the side of the Church). There are further sculptures in the white facade of the 16th century Church, which conceals the red brick building behind, and the whole thing is topped by a big dome. The interior is somewhat austere, mostly plain white walls with some bits of baroque decoration. The carvings on the inside of the dome are a particular highlight though. You can pay 5zl for access to the crypt which contains the tomb of one Piotr Skarga, a 16th century Jesuit priest; from what I've read he wasn't an entirely admirable chap, for example taking time to moan about "the sin of tolerance". Unless you're in some way related to Skarga, or are a crypt-fetishist, it's not worth it as there's not much to see. The church sometimes holds a demonstration of Foucault's Pendulum. Seeing as though the purpose of the internet in general (although not this site specifically) is to educate and inform I'll bore you with a quick description of its significance. Basically you take a pendulum and fix it to the inside of the dome. Below the pendulum is a clock face. When you start the pendulum swinging it swings on a determined path, say between 12 and 6 on the clock face. As time passes the pendulum starts following a different line, say between 1 and 7. The pendulum is still swinging from the same fixed point, so the reason for apparent change in direction is that the ground beneath the pendulum, and in turn the clock face, has moved. In other (much shorter) words, it's a demonstration of the earth's rotation. Well there, you've learned something useful from this site, wasn't it reading through all that crap first? You can stay and watch Foucault's Pendulum in action at the church, but as the explanation is in Polish, and as it takes at least an hour before you start to notice anything happening you may conclude that you have better things to do. For those in a hurry I've come up with own version of this experiment; stand in a fixed spot while drinking a bottle of vodka; in no time at all you'll be witnessing first-hand the earth's rotation.
Next door to St Peter & Paul's is one of Krakow's oldest Churches, St Andrew's (Kosciol sw Andrezja). Nice of them to name a Church after a golf course. The building is in the Romanesque style and was built in the late 11th century. You can guess that it's a lot older than its present appearance suggests by the number of bricked up old windows and doors. Unfortunately very little of the original interior decoration or furnishings have survived, and what you see today is the result of an 18th century Baroque redecoration, a kind of 18th century "Changing Rooms". The pulpit in the shape of a boat is quite fun though.
At the very end of Grodzka, in the shadow of Wawel Castle, is St Giles' Church (Kosciol sw Idziego). It was founded in the 11th century, although the present building is mostly 14th century, with some later renovations. Outside there is a simple cross commemorating the Katyn forest massacre.
From the end of ul Grodzka you could head south east on Stradomska which will take you to Kazimierz. Or you could climb up Wawel Hill, which stands opposite you. Or you could turn right and take a quick detour down Idziego; if you do this the next road on your right is Kanonicza, and it's well worth taking a stroll down there.
Kanonicza is one of the most attractive streets in the Old Town; most of the buildings have been thoroughly renovated (and those that haven't are in the process of being done-up); the brightly painted and richly decorated buildings, with the castle and cathedral looming above is one of the most attractive sights in the city. There are a couple of museums on Kanonicza. The Archdiocesan Museum (Muzeum Archidiecezjalne) is at number 19; this holds a collection of religious and sacred art, and also a collection of exhibits relating to John Paul II, who used to live in this building. At number 9 is the Stanislaw Wyspianski Museum (Muzeum Wyspianskiego). Those who have been paying attention will know that Stanslaw Wyspianski was responsible for the stained glass windows in St Francis' Basilica, but this all-round renaissance-man was also a painter, playwright, and poet. He turned into a bit of a window-licker towards the end of his short life, designing glass windows depicting royal corpses for Wawel Cathedral (not surprisingly these designs weren't adopted). The museum features sketches, designs, and models of his work.
Wawel is a low hill overlooking the Vistula. It was for over 500 years the centre of Royal life and Government in Poland. Krakow Castle, Royal Palace and Cathedral all stand on Wawel Hill, and all can be visited.
There are a couple of ways of getting up the hill. There's a path that runs up to the north entrance that starts opposite the end of Kanonicza, or there's a slightly longer path (Droga do Zamku) that curls round the southern side of the hill which starts off from Plac Bernardynski, at the end of ul Grodzka. This is the way we went, so I'll describe everything as you see it from that direction. If you go up the other route read this section backwards. The first thing that you'll notice is some of the castle towers... erm, towering over you (Senator's Tower and Sandomierska Tower, to be exact). I liked the 3 toilets that you can see running down the outside of the tower, sensibly staggered horizontally to avoid having to crap on the one below. The road also takes you around the defensive ramparts, which gives you nice views out over the Vistula. At the end of the road is the ivy-covered Thieves' Tower, one of the castle's defensive towers which now holds a souvenir stall. As souvenir stalls go it's pretty impressive. As are the views out over the Vistula.
Although a castle has stood on Wawel Hill for just about 1,000 years what you see there today dates mostly from the early 16th century, although some considerably older elements are still evident, as is a vast array of different architectural styles. Considerable damage was caused by an Austrian "modernisation" programme in the 18th and 19th centuries, (the buggers did the same thing to Prague Castle), but once the Poles got their hands on the castle again in 1918 they set about restoring it to its former appearance. Today the castle is divided up into 5 separate exhibitions, each of which needs a ticket to get into. Tickets for each exhibition are available from the ticket office in the visitors' centre which you'll find at the southern edge of Wawel, (slightly south east of the Thieves Tower). Most of the exhibitions are closed on Mondays, and there are only a limited number of tickets sold every day to avoid over-crowding. You can find more information here.
The visitors' centre also holds a souvenir shop, post office (a great place to send your postcards from as I think it has its own special franking machine), a tourist information centre, and a restaurant which in the summer has an outdoor terrace where you can sit outside drinking beer taking in the great views of Kazimierz.
The lawn and gardens between the visitors centre and the cathedral is the site of a couple of old churches, St Georges's and St Michaels, that were pulled down by the Austrians (bastards!); you can quite easily make out what's left of the foundations.
The section of the castle nearest the ticket office is Lost Wawel. To get to it from the Thieves Tower you need to head along the path that leads towards the Cathedral and then turn right at the end of the gardens on your right-hand side. Or, to put it in simpler terms, head for the snack-bar (in summer). All the exhibitions are fairly well sign-posted in any event. The Lost Wawel exhibition details some of the oldest parts of the castle, many of which are hidden away out if plain view, including remains of what's thought to be the oldest church in Krakow, the Rotunda of the Virgin Mary (these remains were in a significantly better state of repair until those dastardly Austrians got their hands on them), computer simulations of what the castle would have looked like previously. There's also a selection of finds that were..... erm, found during archaeological digs and restoration work on the castle.
From here head back towards the Cathedral, turning right going along the side of it and through the arch ahead of you. This brings you out in the castle courtyard, which is one of the most attractive buildings in Krakow. On three sides is a 3 storey palace, the bottom two levels have arched and vaulted galleries that look like some kind of Roman villa. The top floor also has an arcade, but this one has graceful pillars. Along the southern and part of western top level there's also a series of painting; as most of them appear to be portraits they may be of Kings of Poland. Then again, they could be of anyone. And don't miss the waterspouts in the shape of dragon heads. Basically, it's a stunning building but, as they say, a picture speaks a thousand words (although many of mine speak less than that), so here goes:
The other four castle exhibitions are off this courtyard. The Oriental Art section doesn't really have that much to do with Poland. There's a collection of Chinese and Japanese objects, and a large amount of Turkish loot captured at the Battle of Vienna (in 1683 the Polish army under King John Sobieski defeated the Turkish army that was besieging Vienna, possibly saving western Europe from Muslim conquest), including weapons, armour, banners, and a tent. The State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments share the same entrance, but you have to pay twice to see them both. Highlights of these two include a large collection of 16th century tapestries, the old Throne Room, and the Senators Hall. Most of the rooms have been done up to look how they would have when the Polish Kings were in residence, complete with authentic period furniture and decoration. The final section of the castle museum is the Crown Treasury and Armoury. This has a wide variety of precious objects, include the jagged sword that used to be used in Polish Coronations, yet more Turkish booty (and some presents from the Turks, given when a peace treaty was signed after the battle of Vienna), and a dazzling selection of precious stones and metal. The Armoury part contains a huge collection of weapons, ranging from swords and various gruesome pointy things through to some exquisite guns and muskets (you'd almost feel privileged to be shot by some of them) and some very big cannon. There are plenty of suits of armour too, although it's hard to see how it would have had a chance of standing up to any of the weapons on display. One for the boys, this section!
The current Wawel Cathedral (dedicated to Sts Stanislaus and Wenceslas) is reckoned to be the third church on this site. Work on the current building was started in the early 14th century and was completed in 1364, although there have been numerous alterations and additions since then, not least of which are the numerous side chapels, which give the exterior of the Cathedral its somewhat chaotic appearance. Remnants of the first church on the site, the 11th century St Gereon's Church, have been found under the present Cathedral, and the St Leonard's crypt and part of the south tower of the Cathedral buildings are remnants of the second church, the late 11th century Herman's Cathedral. As well as being an important religious centre the Cathedral had political significance too; even after the Polish capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596 Polish Kings continued to be crowned at Wawel. Many of them are also buried here. This tradition continued even into the 20th century with many Polish national heroes being buried here. I imagine they had a spot reserved for John Paul II?
The exterior of the Cathedral is somewhat eclectic. There are 3 towers, all of differing heights, and all with different ornamental spires. The main facade of the Cathedral is lined with limestone, the other walls are or brick. Most of the side chapels have a verdigried copper roof, whereas one, the Sigismund Chapel, has a burnished roof. Despite this it's undoubtedly an attractive and impressive building. It seems a strange thing to say, but I particularly liked the clock face....
It's free to get into the Cathedral and have a look round but if you want to climb up the bell tower and have a look around the crypts, which I recommend you do, you're going to have to buy a ticket. The ticket office is in the Vicar's House, opposite the Cathedral's main entrance. When we went in the tickets were being dished out by nuns; nice to see someone's found a use for them. As you go in through the main front door keep an eye out for the huge bones suspended from the wall on your left; according to legend they're the bones of giants, and if the chains holding them up snap it's a sign that the world's about to end. Boring scientists claim the bones are more likely to be those of a mammoth, or a rhino, but I reckon that they should invest in some thicker chains, just in case...
The inside of the Cathedral somewhat matches the outside; there's a chaotic array of over 600 year's worth of architectural and decorative styles, and so many chapels, tombs, memorials and altars that the place feels cluttered. Still, what it lacks in harmony it more than makes up for in historical significance. The tombs and memorials of no less than 8 Polish Kings are in the main body of the Cathedral or its side chapels (there are more of them in the crypts). Many of them are beautifully carved, particularly impressive being the red marble effigy of Casimir the Great, the early 20th century effigy of Ladislaus III, and probably most impressive of the lot, the multicoloured marble tomb of Casimir IV (the work of Veit Stoss, who the observant will remember was responsible for the altarpiece of St Mary's Basilica). The Cathedral is the finest collection of 15th to 17th century sculpture in Poland.
There are far too many things of interest inside the Cathedral to mention on a crap site such as this, the best way to experience the place is just to wander round and try and soak in the atmosphere (if you can avoid the tour groups), and buy a copy of the well-illustrated guidebook that the nuns in the ticket office will try to flog you. There are a few things you definitely shouldn't miss though. Queen Sophia's Chapel, which is to the left of the front door has colourful frescoes and stained glass. The Holy Cross Chapel, on the right hand side, dates back to the 15th century and has some original, 600-year-old frescoes. The Sigismund Chapel in the south wall is possibly the highlight of the Cathedral. It has an abundance of statues, red marble, and the tombs of several Kings. Funnily enough 2 of them are called Sigismund. In the north-eastern corner of the Cathedral is a 14th century gothic crucifix, reputed to have miraculous powers, underneath which is an altar holding the relics of St Queen Jadwiga. Probably the hardest thing to miss in the Cathedral, partly because it's sitting right in front of you as you come in, partly because it's bloody huge, and partly because it's covered in silver is the Altar of St Stanislaus. Stanislaus was an 11th century Bishop of Krakow, killed in 1079 by Poland's King, Boleslaus the Bountiful (I guess his bounty didn't extend to Bishops). Never a good idea, killing a bishop. Bad luck followed Polish Kings for a while after that (told you), and Stanislaus was eventually canonised and made Poland's patron Saint. The Crypt of the National Poets is free to get into; only 2 of them are buried down there (Mickiewicz - his statue is in the Rynek, remember? - and Slowacki) and there's not much room for anyone else.
Right, those cheapskates who didn't pay for a ticket to get in can skip the next couple of paragraphs. If you do have a ticket it allows you to climb up the bell tower, the Sigismund Tower. It's a difficult climb, not that high but you'll be climbing up through the bells, with narrow, steep stairs, and at some points you're actually climbing through joints in the carpentry, which is a ridiculously tight squeeze. Still, if I made it up most people should be able to manage. At the end of your climb you'll find yourself face-to-clapper with the biggest bell in Poland, the 11 ton "Sigismund". Apparently the bell can be heard over 30 miles away (when they ring it, obviously) so be grateful you're not up there when it goes off. The last time it was rung was to mark the death of John Paul II. The climb down is not as difficult as getting up, and you get some excellent views out over the Old Town on the way.
Your ticket also allows you to enter the crypts, the oldest part of the Cathedral. Several Polish Kings and Queens are buried down here, as are assorted other members of the Royal family, and a few other Polish National heroes, including Wladyslaw Sikorski (the Polish leader during WW2, a sort of Polish de Gaulle only nicer and without such a big nose), Jozef Poniatowski (who was a General under Napoleon Boneparte), Tadeusz Kosciuszko (who managed to fight for both Polish independence and in the American War of Independence), and Jozef Pilsudski (the man who arguably saved Europe from Bolshevik Communism in 1918 when he beat Stalin's Red Army in "The Miracle on the Vistula"). After wandering round the crypts for a while you'll emerge blinking into the sunlight outside the Cathedral.
If you haven't had enough sightseeing yet you could have a look in the Cathedral Museum, which includes coronation robes and paraphernalia, and other religious bits and bobs. From here you can leave Wawel through the north entrance (or, in this case, exit) the Vasa Gate. If you go this way you'll notice a big statue of a man on horseback standing in the shadow of the Cathedral. This is a monument to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who's buried in the Cathedral crypt. The path from the Vasa Gate runs down the north side of the hill and deposits you on Podzamce, just opposite Kanonicza.
There is an alternative and more fun way of leaving Wawel, and that is to through the Dragon's Lair. The entrance to this is in a little turret in the castle's outer walls where they look out over the Vistula (more or less next to the Thieves' Tower); you have to buy your ticket from the machine, which is fairly straightforward and has instructions in English. You then get to go down a low spiral staircase (I kept banging my head and it bloody hurt!) until you find yourself in the Dragon's cave: Basically, there's a series of caves under Wawel Hill (hardly surprising as the hill is limestone), which according to legend was the home of the Krakow Dragon. The dragon had terrorised the city for a while until an enterprising shoe maker tricked it into eating a dead sheep stuffed with sulphur and tar, causing it to explode (a trick that could be replicated nowadays by feeding it a vindaloo). As in the best fairy tale traditions the shoe-maker got to marry the princess, and the dragon became the symbol of the city, as you can tell by his appearance on t-shirts and tourist tat stalls. In the past the caves have housed such attractions as a pub and a brothel; nowadays only a small section of the caves is open to the public, and there's nothing much to see, although it's atmospheric enough as caves go. The entrance to the cave (or its exit, in this case) is by the path along the Vistula, and when you emerge there's a modern sculpture of the dragon, which every couple of minutes breathes out a short gust of flames. They should put it in the Rynek and sell barbecued pigeon. The statue isn't that big, but the shooting flames made a few small children scream. Or maybe they were screaming because they'd seen the Scotsman.....
The banks of the Vistula haven't been developed in this area, but there are paths along the river banks and a small park, and it's a pleasant enough place for a stroll, or to watch the old men playing chess. In summer you can also take cruises along the river, or hire a pedal boat, if you're feeling adventurous.
From Wawel it's a 10 minute walk to Kazimierz, south-east along Stadomska. On the way there are a couple of churches you can have a look at. First is the enormous Bernardine Church (Kosciol Bernardynow), just to the south of Wawel hill. This was built in the late 17th century, although elements of an older church on the same site survive, it has a beautifully proportioned, symmetrical exterior, the interior is typical extravagant, over-the-top gothic decoration. A little further down the road is the early 18th century Missionaries Church (Kosciol misjonarzy). This doesn't look too impressive from the outside, a bit grey compared to some of Krakow's other churches, but it's worth having a peep inside for the paintings on the ceiling, and the mirrors that are alos up there which give a surprisingly light and airy atmosphere. Once you've crossed the dual-carriageway, Dietla, you're in Kazimierz.
Up until 1800 Kazimierz was actually a town in its own right, separately administered than Krakow. It had long been the home of Krakow's Jews, particularly after their expulsion from Krakow itself in 1494, and by the time of the Nazi occupation there were an estimated 65,000 Jews living in Krakow, mostly in Kazimierz, almost a quarter of Krakow's population. Less than 1 in 10 of them survived by 1945. After the war the area lost its Jewish character, although many of the buildings survived, and was basically left to rot away as another dodgy, dingy suburb. Ironically it was a film about the destruction of Krakow's Jews (Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler's List mostly in Kazimierz) that marked a turning point in the areas fortunes. The Jewish heritage was slowly rediscovered, money was poured in and buildings renovated. Today there is a well defined Jewish heritage trail; each site has a plaque outside giving a short description, and a map on to the next site. It's so well marked that even the Scotsman and myself managed to follow it in the pissing rain without getting lost. Well, apart from when we tried to find the New Cemetery.
The starting point is the Tempel Synagogue at ul. Miodowa 24. The late 19th century building is the newest of Kazimierz's surviving synagogue. The interior has just been thoroughly renovated and has some marvellous stained-glass windows, painted walls, lots of gold-leaf and carved wood. It's well worth paying 5zl to get inside and have a look round. The next stop on the tour is around the corner on Warszauera you can see one of the exterior walls of the 17th century Kupa Synagogue. It is no longer in use and is closed to the public.
From Warszauera turn right down Kupa which brings you to Isaac's Synagogue (Synagoga Isaaka). This mid 17th century is undergoing a thorough renovation after decades of neglect. Inside fragments of the original paintings have been preserved on the walls. The are still holes in the floor where more bits of religious furniture (the bimah and stairs to the ark) are due to be fitted. There is also a museum showing photographs and films detailing Jewish life in Poland and Krakow before the war. Entrance to the synagogue and museum costs 7zl.
Heading south down Jakuba and then east along Jozefa takes you to the mid-16th century High Synagogue (Boznica Wysoka). This now houses a display of photos chronicling Jewish life in Krakow before the war, what happened to some of the survivors of the Holocaust after the war (very few remained in Poland), and a few photos about Oscar Schindler and some of those he helped to save. Inside the synagogue is bright and airy (the main hall of the synagogue is on the first floor), and some fragments of the original wall decoration have survived.
From here head north up Bartosza which brings you to ul Szeroka, once the Jewish flea-market and now the centre of Jewish Kazimierz.
The most important and impressive building on ul Szeroka is the Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga). As its name suggests this is the oldest synagogue in Krakow, in fact the oldest in Poland. The building dates from the mid 15th century, although there have been many renovations and alterations since. The building just about survived the war, and in the 1960s, after a long restoration project, it was opened as part of the Historical Museum of Krakow, detailing the history and culture of Jewish Krakow, a role it has kept until the present day. The museum (all exhibits are described in Polish, English, and Yiddish) has a lot of information and artefacts relating to the Jewish religion, beliefs, and cultural, as well as photos and information relating to the Jewish community in Krakow in particular. It's very informative but, gentlemen, don't forget to wince when you how blunt the ritual circumcision knife is.
Running alongside the Old Synagogue is a stretch of Kazimierz's old defensive walls.
Also on ul Szeroka is another former synagogue (Popper's Synagogue at number 16, now an arts centre), a couple of Kosher restaurants, a Jewish hotel, and a bookshop. Also here is Krakow's most active synagogue, the Remuh Synagogue at number 40. For 5zl you can have a look inside the 16th century synagogue itself, which is nice enough (the decorative panels on the bimah are probably the highlight), and also have a wander round the attached cemetery. The cemetery, which was used for burials from the 16th to the 19th centuries, was badly damaged during WWII when the Nazis used it as a rubbish tip, smashing most of the gravestones in the process. Many of the fragments have been embedded in the graveyard wall, turning it into a sort of giant mosaic. During restoration work in the 1960s a great many gravestones were found buried, believed to have been hidden in the 19th century to protect them from the Austrians who were then occupying the city. These were restored and are what you now see in the cemetery.
Once the Remuh Cemetery fell out of use in 1800 Jewish burials switched to the imaginatively-named New Cemetery (Cmentarz Zydowski). This at the eastern end of Miodowa, under the small railway bridge. This huge cemetery is still use, and many of the graves have fresh flowers or candles on them. Perhaps most moving are the graves dedicated to entire families who were wiped out in the concentration camps.
Kazimierz was never exclusively Jewish, and there are a handful of churches in the area too. First up is Corpus Christi (Kosciol Bozego Ciala) at the corner of sw Wawrzynca and Bozego Ciala. Work on this church started in 1340 and lasted well into the next century, hardly surprising as it's bloody huge, a red brick building with a typical stepped facade, studded with little turrets, and with a massive tower that can be seen from just about anywhere in Kazimierz. Inside it's amazing, the ceiling seems impossibly high, and even on a cold day it was very cold and clammy. The main altar is huge, stretching all the way up to the roof, and there are plenty of statues, paintings, stained glass and carvings to take in; the organ loft and choir stalls are remarkable, but my favourite touch was the pulpit shaped like a little boat. The ceiling and the top half of the church have been left more or less undecorated, giving a sort of serene feel to the place. Even in a city with as many fine churches as Krakow, this one really stands out.
OK, one last church. You'll find the Paulite Church (Kosciol Paulinow Na Skalce), also known as The Church on the Rock at the end of Skaleczna (or Paulinska), by the Vistula. If you've been paying attention you'll remember that in 1079 (I don't expect you to remember what happened in 1079, it's just that I mentioned it earlier on) King Boleslaus the Bountiful killed his Bishop Stanislaus, and as is often the way when that type of thing happens, bad things started happening to the King, and the Kings who followed him. After he'd killed the Bishop the King and some of his knights (this is starting to sound like a game of chess...) threw what was left of him in a nearby pond. The pond soon became known for its miraculous properties (causing the blind to see, and that type of thing). The pond is still there, although it now looks more like a swimming pool, with a statue of the Saint in the middle of it. Water from the pool bubbles out of a little drinking fountain; a sign says that this is a holy water; I don't know about that but I caught a distinct pong of sewage coming from it.
The church is where successive Polish Kings came to try and atone for what their predecessor had done. The present building, a typical white, twin-towered baroque affair dates from the early 18th century, and is at least the third building to have stood on this site. Its height (it's built on a rocky outcrop, hence it's name) gives it a more striking appearance that it would otherwise have had. Unfortunately it was locked when I tried to visit, so I didn't get to have a look inside (a shame as the very tree trunk on which the King beheaded the Bishop is supposed to be in there). What I did get to see was the crypt under the church; the vaults are surprisingly cheerfully decorated, and several eminent Poles are interred here including Stanislaw Wyspianski and the composer Karol Szymanowski.