Kraków’s Rynek Glowny oozes with charm. The city’s main square – the largest medieval town square in Europe – is surrounded by colourful neo-classical fronted buildings, which are today mostly occupied by restaurants with outdoor terraces.
Horse drawn carriages carry visitors past the various attractions, such as the Town Hall Tower (the only surviving part of the 15th century town hall, dismantled in the 1820s) and St Mary’s Basillica (the first church was built here in the 1220s).
At the centre of Rynek Clowny stands Cloth Hall which, as the name suggests, was once the centre of the city’s medieval clothing trade. First built in 14th century as a cover for two rows of stalls, the downstairs arcade is now occupied by souvenir outlets. But despite the tackiness of some of the shops, you can still appreciate the charm of this wonderful historic structure.
The streets of the old town (laid out 1257 following a devastating invasion by the Tatars) off the main square are filled with more restaurants, bars and shops which buzz until late into the evening. Such is the richness of the area’s history that Unesco added it to its World Heritage List in 1978.
Kraków is also a very green city. The who of the old town is surrounded by a narrow strip of parkland, called the Planty, which was created in the 19th century when the majority of the old town wall was removed.
Kraków became Poland’s capital in 1038 and – after being burnt to the ground by the aforementioned Tatars – thrived until the 14th century. The greatest king in this period was Kazimierez III, of whom it was said “he found a Poland made of wood, and left it made of brick”.
Wawel Hill, with its castle and cathedral, was the home of the Polish crown for more than 500 years. And even when court moved to Warsaw in 1596, royal coronations still took place here.
But for me the more interesting aspect to Kraków is that of the old town, which was once surrounded by three kilometres of double defensive walls, encompassing 47 towers and eight gates. As already mentioned, most of this barrier was removed in the 19th century and a park was created. You can however still catch a glimpse of the wall at the northern end of the old town, an area called the Barbican (a 16th century bastion with seven turrets), where you also find the only remaining gate – the Florian Gate (dating from the 14th century).
The reason that Kraków needed defending was that it was an important city for trade, particularly that of salt, iron, lead and cloth. Rynek Clowny has been described as the Wall Street of its day. This was where people lived and worked, where they played and where they watched excavations.
To get a glimpse of Kraków’s medieval past, it’s worth a trip to Rynek Underground, an archeological park four metres below the current market square. It’s here you can see cobbled roads and walls of stalls, where luxury goods would have been traded, as well as personal items, such as jewellery and dice. Multimedia displays bring the city’s history to life.
The roads found essentially divided the market square into four quarters, influenced by a Roman tradition that was initially used to plan out legionnaires’ camps. And it became clear these were far from dirt tracks, but constructed cobbled causeways, with wooden kerbs and in places even gutters for diverting water.
Archaeologists found traces of wooden cottages, with mud floors, as well as fireplaces, domed clays stoves and doors with locks (keys were discover too).
Dating back to the time of when Kraków was a major metal exchange, the Great Scales – which housed the “office of weight” – used to exist on the south of the market square and it was found that ground floor of one of these structures survived. In addition, archaeologists also discovered a lead bar (known as a “loaf”) which had originated from a mine at Olkusz, with markings suggesting it had been weighed in the 14th century.
Hundreds of human skeletons were found during the excavations under the market square, including what is believed to be remains of Swedish Army soldiers who occupied the town between 1655 and 1657.
Decline and rise
Krakow survived the re-location of the Polish capital to Warsaw in 1596, but as with the rest of the country it fell into decline when from 1795 to 1918 it was a mere province of Austria. For those years Poland as an independent nation ceased to exist.
It then thrived again until the Second World War. Although Krakow’s old town didn’t see the same level of damage as its counterpart in Warsaw which was pretty much burned to the ground, its people suffered at the hands of the Nazi occupiers, particularly Jewish citizens.
But since the fall of the communist government in 1989, Kraków has grown to become an important tourist centre. And it’s old town and surrounding areas are popular with stag parties and more discerning visitors all year round.