Krakow, Poland

Before moving to Europe we knew nothing about Krakow, Poland, but have consistently heard how beautiful the city is and how it reminds so many people of Prague. Once settled in Germany, Prague was our second major trip.We instantly fell in love with this city that survived so much hardship in its thousand-year existence including most recently the fall of communism. After reading James Michener's Poland and his romantic history of Krakow our fate was sealed - Krakow was on our list. As it turned out, we had some unexpected free time in November and decided Krakow was our desired destination.

The Polish winter was already in full force in November, and it was extremely cold and snowy but we enjoyed ourselves just the same. The dusting of snow that covered the ancient buildings surrounding Rynek Glówny (Market Square) and Wawel Hill was spectacular. Krakow is much smaller and more compact than Prague, and is very easy to see the city on foot. Krakow seems a city of everyday people instead of a city of tourists like Prague. As a side note, something that we found quite interesting was the abundance of Mexican restaurants in Krakow. In all of our travels, we've never seen so many in one city and Mexican restaurants are one of the things we consistently look for because we really miss good burritos!

Krakow's architecture, like Prague's hasn't changed much over the years. The market square was laid out in 1257 and has basically survived unaltered. During the 15th century, the city was fortified and surrounded by a moat and double walls in order to protect itself from invasions. The main gate, where access to the city was controlled, was named for the city's patron saint, St. Florian. Today Krakow is surrounded by the Planty, which is a green belt of public gardens where the town walls used to be. Upon entering St. Florian's gate, the road to the market square leads past the gothic Church of the Virgin Mary. Every hour a trumpeter sounds the hejnal mariacki from one of the towers of this church. This is broadcast on Radio 1 across Poland and legend has it that during the Tartar invasions a watchman, having sighted the approaching enemy, began to sound the tune, but was shot in the throat by a Tartar arrow, and at this point the alarm abruptly stops. In the center of the square stands the Sukiennice - the Warehouse, which dates to 1358 and the reign of Casimir the Great who ordered it built for the sale of cloth. Today the ground level is still a market with its vendors selling Amber jewelry, wool goods as well as lace and leather and other locally crafted souvenirs. The upstairs is part of the National Museum and houses some of its painting and sculpture collections. At the end of market square past the Sukiennice sits the tiny Church of St. Adalbert. Other than the church being the oldest building in the square, it is quite unique because when entering, one must step down two meters as this was the original level of Rynek Glówny in the 11th and 12th centuries.

As we started our journey to explore Krakow and Wawel Hill one afternoon, we passed one of the most gorgeous and distinctive churches we've seen yet, the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. It was built in the baroque style (which Gabi loves) by the Jesuits, but it was not the church itself that caught our eye but the statues of the twelve Apostles in front of the church. The original statues were carved around 1723 but the statues in front of the church today are copies, like so many throughout Europe. The originals were moved and 20 years of restoration work has been done on them as they were damaged over the years from acid rain caused by pollution from the iron and steel industries near Krakow and coal-fired heating in the Old City. After taking a few pictures and admiring the statues, we carried on to Wawel Hill, the Royal Palace and Cathedral. As we were walking up the hill to the Royal Palace there were quite a few people milling about and taking in the sights of the Vistula River and we noticed a lovely young couple talking and building miniature snowmen as they made their way up the hill. Upon entering the castle grounds, the Cathedral took center stage - the sun was glistening on the snow covering the Gothic Cathedral and grounds - the scene was stunning. Of course, we had to get the perfect photograph and after asking several people to take our photo, Mike decided the best thing to do was to place the camera in the snow, snap and run beside Gabi. It worked suprisingly well! So after meandering around the city and trying to get the perfect photo, we didn't have enough time to see the Royal Palace but instead sought refuge from the cold in the Cathedral and museum. After realizing we'd been outside most of the day and were freezing, we stopped for dinner and something warm to drink at the first restaurant we saw. It was very cute, we sat near the fire, and it took quite a bit of time for us to de-thaw! This really impressed upon us how dangerous the cold can be. As soon as we warmed up, we ordered a cold Polish beer before heading home!

The Polish people were lovely and very helpful. Service is alive and well in Poland unlike some European countries. There is lot more to see around Krakow than we first realized and found the hotel staff willing to help arrange excursions or give advice at no extra charge. We chose two day trips and decided to hire a private car rather than do a crowded bus tour - we like to have flexibility in our schedule and it wasn't much more to hire a private car. Our chosen destinations were the Wieliczka Saltmine and Auschwitz & Birkenau. We feel that Auschwitz & Birkenau are so important that we have created a separate page for the photos and commentary - see the bottom of this page for the link.

The Wieliczka Saltmine was a pleasant surprise to say the least. We had no idea what went on so deep in the ground. Of course, we all know how dangerous any type of mining can be but what amazed and comforted us was the human and spiritual element here. Below is some information on the mine from an interesting website we've found. Lynn Salmon's goal is to visit all of the UNESCO sites - check out other links on her site as well.

"The Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in southern Poland near the city of Krakow, has been worked as a source of rock salt since the late 13th century. The mine consists of over 200 km of underground passages, connecting more than 2000 excavation chambers on 9 underground levels extending down to 327m below the surface, see diagram. Over the centuries, miners have established a tradition of carving sculptures out of the native rock salt. As a result, the mine contains entire underground churches, altars, bas-reliefs, and dozens of life-size or larger statues. It also houses an underground museum and has a number of special purpose chambers such as a sanatorium for people suffering from respiratory ailments. The largest of the chapels, the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, is located 101 meters below the surface, it is over 50 meters long, 15 meters wide, 12 meters high, with a volume of 10,000 cubic meters. As a testament to its historical and artistic importance, the mine has been placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List of sites designated as having ``outstanding universal value to mankind.'' It receives up to a million visitors yearly, most of them during the warmer summer months."

There are also underground lakes but the sculptures, carvings and the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga were truly extraordinary. Mass is celebrated three times a year in the Chapel and if you're looking for a very unusual place to get married, here you go!

Walking through St. Florian's gate toward the market square and the Church of the Virgin Mary:

The market square with the imposing Church of the Virgin Mary (Kosciol Mariacki):

Gabi freezing in front of the Church of the Virgin Mary:

Mike attempting to buy pretzels:

Mike standing in Rynek Glówny with the Church of St. Adalbert behind him left & the Sukiennice on the right:

Entrance to the Church of St. Adalbert - 2 meters below current pavement levels:

Statues of the Twelve Apostles in front of the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul:

Wawel Hill and the Royal Castle:

Miniature snowman overlooking the Vistula River from Wawel Hill:

A view of Wawel Cathedral from the village of Wawel:

Mike still trying to get warm from our days adventure!:

Entrance to the Wieliczka Saltmine:

In the Chaple of the Blessed Kinga - The Last Supper carved in salt by a miner:

The Holy Family - what's wrong with this carving? Check out this website for the answer and a few more pictures.

Hungarian Princess Kinga and the Polish King Boleslaw the Shy.:

Click here to see the Auschwitz and Birkenau page

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