“Ah you’ve been to Poland,” says every Pole I’ve met, “where have you been?”
“Umm, Warsaw and Gdansk”
It’s at this point you get two follow-ups, “you missed the best city in the country” or, “that’s good Warsaw is so much better than Krakow.”
I had to find a reason to visit Krakow.
And then a good reason popped up and off I went.
I didn’t need an invitation when a good reason popped up. There is a triumvirate of Polish cities that most people visit – Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk. If Warsaw is the centre of modern Poland and Gdansk is the historical turning point of the country, then Krakow is the heart of ancient nation.
Krakow grew out from a hill – Wawel Hill – its history dating back to a settlement on the hill during the Stone Age. The settlement was thought to be led by a legendary king Krakus, who was the prince of the Poles and the leader of the Lechite tribe (the predecessor of the modern Poles). Legend has it that Krakus built the settlement above a dragons cave. The dragon, Smok Wawelski, preyed on young maidens. It was during Krakus’ reign that the dragon was slain, by a cobbler’s apprentice called Skuba, who stuffed a lamb with sulphur. The dragon ate the lamb and became so thirsty that he ended up drinking water from the Vistula River and later burst from over drinking.
It says a lot that the popular legend behind the foundation of the city, is not one of a white knight saving a princess, but of a poor civilian using his wits to save the town. This hill became the foundation on which kings were to be coronated to rule over all of Poland.
Krakow was already an important trading centre by 965 and was incorporated into the Polish crown by Mieszko I close to the turn of the first Millennium AD. The city was elevated within a short time, with Krakow becoming the capital of the Polish kingdom by 1038. It led the way in art, culture and trade becoming the centre of Polish trade and the modern centre of all forms of avant-garde brick based architecture.
The beauty of the city attracted the unnerving gaze of the Mongolian hordes, and the city was razed to the ground twice in 1241 and 1257. The city was rebuilt after both attacks and in 1257 when the city was rebuilt a second time, a law as introduced to built to follow a set of common laws of Germanic origin (Magdeburg rights). Krakow continued to rise in importance, with the founding of the University of Krakow (today’s Jagiellonian University) and later the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The city’s golden age arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries, a reign wherethe vast majority of Polish art and architecture was created, an the city became a hub for the intelligentsia and literati. As Krakow became rich a sense of pride and nationalism emerged, and it was then that more extremist Catholic clergy riled against the presence of Jews in the city. This forced the Jewish people to move to the town of Kazimierz just outside the city walls, a historical Jewish quarter that continues till this day.
Pride however comes before a fall, and the golden age of Krakow then followed a prolonged period of decline with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth split by a succession of foreign rulers and wars with neighbours (Russia, Sweden, Austria and France among them).
Through it all though, whenever Krakow was given some autonomy it rapidly established itself as a centre of Polish art and culture.
Then came World War 2.
Soldiers of the Third Reich marched into Krakow and swept into Poland, rapidly. Yet while Warsaw was completely devastated, Krakow was left untouched. Inspired by the stories of a beautiful ancient city build on German (Magedeburg) principles, the Nazi’s sought to make Krakow a fully German city, and portray it as a historically German city.
Krakow was the site of something horrible, it was here where the large Jewish community was reduced to bones and history and one of histories most notorious concentration camps – Auschwitz was born.
The end of Hitler and World War 2 however did not bring relief to Poland as the city then came under veil of the Iron Curtain. The most dangerous city in Poland was no Krakow, because Krakow’s maintenance as a city of art, scholarship and culture meant that it was a city full of the bourgeois, the enemy of the Socialist movement. The universities were put under strict control and in their place a new Krakow, the Krakow of the Steel Mills was built from the scratch in the eastern district of Nowa Huta.
Nowa Huta was to be the shining example of Communism, and the completion of mills in the town transformed Krakow from its educated, middle class origins into a working class city.
It was from Krakow however, that the fightback against Communism began. It started with a priest called Karol Wojtyla who was to later become Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul II, was the Archbishop of Krakow before he was elected Pope in 1978.
Wojtyla’s fought as pope to establish a church in this new industrial showpiece of Nowa Huta and eventually succeeded.
There are some cities that remain in their full glory to serve as living examples of the past, Krakow is one of them. It was rebuilt from the ashes of Mongolian invasions, and remained as it has through a few centuries of wars in Europe, preserved ironically by the Nazis and kept intact during Communist rule. The city has expanded from its medieval frontiers with every larger ring attesting to a period of European history – the medieval age, the religious age, the jewish-christian age, the age of great powers, the recent world wars, the ideological war of capitalism and communism.
This city stands like a living, breathing ode to the story of modern Europe. Come join me as we explore Krakow in all its glory!
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