Krakow: Old Town, Wawel Hill and Vistula River | Subhash Motwani

After a long day and a late night, we did a tour of the Old Town in the morning on our penultimate day in Poland and our last day in Krakow. The Old Town of Krakow was built by many generations of artists from Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau times and is truly a treasury of World Heritage. Lined up on Krakow’s main square of Rynek Glowny you will find the horse carriages who are in no rush and not far away you see the Wawel Hill which overlooks this beautiful city. On Wawel Hill stands the Renaissance Royal Castle and the Wawel Cathedral which has witnessed the crowning and burial of Polish Kings. Also known as the national Pantheon, this area has also been the place of burial for eminent artists and national leaders.

The St. Adalbert’s Church on the Main Market Square of the Old Town and the St. Andrew’s Church date from Poland’s early Middle Ages, the 10th and the 11th Centuries. The town is flocked by several students across the world as it is a place of higher education and also is the home to one of Europe’s oldest Universities- the Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364. We had the opportunity to visit this historic building and later in the Old Town hear the hourly bugle call from the tower of the Gothic St. Mary’s Church which has richly ornamented interiors with the high altar carved in wood, a masterpiece of Gothic art. The St. Mary’s Basilica is in Gothic style and was built in the 14th Century.

It stands over 262 feet tall and is adjacent to the main market square and the interior of the church is particularly famous for its wooden altarpiece which was carved by Veit Stoss during the latter part of the 15th century and is the largest Gothic altarpiece in Europe. Another famous icon of the Old Town is the Cloth Hall, the Renaissance monument of Commerce and one of the oldest shopping malls which has been in existence for over 700 years in the Main Market Square. Around the square you have over 750 bars and restaurants which lend the old town Krakow its mix of Gothic, Romantic and Renaissance elements.

Nearby is Kazimierz, the area that was once inhabited by the largest Jewish community in Europe and today Kazimierz hosts concerts and exhibitions that display Jewish tradition. Krakow was once part of the “Amber Road” which used to run from Rome to the Baltic Coast along the Vistula River and here you find many articles made of Amber even today and you can get it at a good price as well. Besides being on the trade route, Krakow from the 11th until the 16th Century, was the political centre of Poland as its capital. The capital was later moved to Warsaw in 1596. The city of Krakow is also a great spiritual centre with more than 111 churches and over 20 seminaries. Krakow which has around 770000 inhabitants receives 6 million tourists every year and is estimated to go up to 9 million visitors by 2009.

Krakow’s Old Town was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978. With the largest market square in Europe, historical houses and churches with fine interiors and fascinating history of its fortification, the oldest University as well as the medieval site of Kazimierz with its ancient synagogues and the Wawel Cathedral is what makes the Old Town worthy of its UNESCO listing.
As you drive around the old historical centre, it is surrounded by a narrow dark path which reaches to about 100 metres in width and in some places around 200 metres and which extends to about 4 kilometres. At the end of the 19th century there were demolitions of the fortification remains around the old city centre and what remained were these dark paths. Originally, the old city was protected by tower walls comprising of 6 gates and 43 towers and a large mouth which carried the Vistula river feeding to the nearby mountains. To enter the Old Town you have to drive around it as the Old Town is open for only pedestrians, carriages and vehicles carrying goods for the various stores within the Old Town. Krakow is the only big city which wasn’t destroyed during the Second World War. The city was never bombed and there were no battles here.

The Castle became the residence of the Governor and the official residence of the Government when it was taken over by the Germans during the Second World War. Fifty years of communism were very difficult for the preservation of heritage due to the heavy pollution which was related to the presence of the new big foundry and aluminum factory. The state owned the property and most of the houses. After the war, houses were not renovated for 50 years. Everything was renovated mostly after 1989.

Krakow is not only a tourist centre but there are industries as well such as the pharmaceutical industry, information and sciences, telecommunications, centre for the two most important web service providers in the country and there is alsoan electromechanical industry.

Krakow is a big study centre with over 100000 students every year who study in Krakow’s schools and Universities, some state owned and some private. The Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest in Europe is where over 41000 students study every year. Recently the University has been extended and new faculties have been added. As we took a short tour of the University, the guide told us that in the late 15th Century a very young boy came here from Poland to study and he was from a very rich family of merchants. He paid for all his 4 years of study in advance and his name was Nicolaus Copernicus. After studying here for 3 years he moved to Italy. From Copernicus times Poland had one of the most famous traditions of Science and Astronomy. Even foreign students study here as some of the faculties are in English and one of the famous faculties is medicine which is cheaper to study here compared to Western Europe or even Scandinavia and on the other hand the level of teaching is very good indeed.
The Wawel Hill was the residence of the Polish Kings from the 11th to the 16th Century and this was built by Italian architects. Krakow was a multi-national city with Italians, Germans, Jews, Armenians, Hungarians, Czechs, amongst other nationalities during the 16th century and it still continues to be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Poland. The city started its existence from the footsteps of the castle and slowly moved northwards.

After a visit to the Old Town, we embarked on the horse carriage which took us up the Wawel Hill to see the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. It is said that people lived on the Wawel Hill as early as 50000 years ago and the settlements were that of traders with assorted crafts with farming. The rulers of Poland took up their residence here during the early 16th Century and then the splendid Renaissance Castle cum Palace was created. The Wawel Cathedral was the coronation site of Polish monarchs and lies adjacent to the Royal Castle and is the most interesting place to visit with its 1000 year old history. The Cathedral houses objects of art from Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque.

Our next stop was on the Vistula river from where you get one of the best views of the Wawel Hill. Our cruise took us along the Vistula river and after having lunch on the cruise boat we visited the Galeria Krakowska, one of the trendiest shopping malls in Krakow which houses all the well known international brands besides displaying the latest apparels thru fashion shows organized within the Galeria. There are regular events organized at the Galeria and one can spend the entire day shopping and getting excellent deals at better value than you would find in similar malls in Western Europe. We then boarded the Intercity train which took us to Warsaw.

The train ride between Krakow and Warsaw takes under 3 hours. On our last day we had the opportunity to meet some of the local Tour Operators and visiting the Arkadia shopping mall before having our last Polish meal in Delicja Polska which serves traditional Polish cuisine. It was time to say goodbye to our hosts, the Polish Tourist Organization who ensured that we got the flavour of this wonderful country and we also gathered that there is lots more that Poland has to offer to travellers across the globe such as the Tricity along the Baltic coast or the several national parks that this wonderful country boasts of. Many head back home and some of us flew to Berlin to explore the beautiful region of Saxony which lies in former East Germany.

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