Krakow Historic Centre

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Krakow Historic Centre

History

Smitten visitors- and locals- have dubbed Krakow the `Cultural Capital of Poland’, and there are many reasons for it. 140 monasteries and churches; 50 museums; 100 art galleries; 600 monuments; 11 universities and academies- justification enough! The Old Town of Krakow, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is designated one of the twelve most important cultural sites in the world- and it’s almost the same as it was when the Tatars attacked the city in the 1200s. The city’s medieval squares, cobbled streets and imposing churches are among the most historic in all of East Europe. Krakow, one of the oldest cities in Poland, is traditionally believed to have been established some time in the 8th century. By the 12th century, the town had become the capital of the Polish kingdom, and was an important commercial centre. Krakow’s enviable wealth attracted Tatar invaders, who invaded and sacked the city in 1241. Krakow was rebuilt and revived by the Germans, whose influence later led to Krakow’s joining the Hanseatic League. Designated a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1978 , the Old Town of Krakow is listed as one of the twelve most important historical areas in the world. The Old Town, locally known as the Stare Miasto , is where most of Krakow’s best sights are located. The heart of the Stare Miasto is the Main Market Square, the Rynek Glowny. It’s a traffic-free zone, free of modern traffic, with quaint old carriages, trams and coaches pulled by horses and chockfull of medieval buildings. Rynek Glowny, the largest square in medieval Europe, is four hectares wide and paved with flagstones. It’s surrounded on all sides by spectacular Renaissance houses, churches and villas, and has witnessed some of Poland’s most historic events- revolutions, ceremonies, invasions and more. Spreading out from the Rynek Glowny is a network of old streets and narrow lanes which lead further into the Old Town- worth an exploratory trek, if you like walking. You could spend an entire day just touring the Rynek Glowny, and a good place to start from would be the Mariacki Church (St Mary’s), a magnificent twin-towered Gothic structure which soars above the nearby buildings. Built towards the end of the 14th century, the Mariacki Church is considered one of Poland’s most important Gothic monuments. It’s topped with a series of domes, and contains a huge stone cross, a beautifully carved high altar and a chapel with a copy of the image of the Black Madonna. The high altar, one of the main features of the Mariacki Church, is a polyptych carved of limewood and decorated with scenes from the life of the holy family. It’s said that during the Tatar attacks on Krakow, a lone trumpeter atop the tower of the Mariacki Church had tried to warn the townspeople of the approaching invaders by blowing his trumpet- until he was killed by a Tatar arrow. Today, every hour, a trumpeter blows a melody from the tower, halting abruptly at the point where the original trumpeter is supposed to have been stopped. Close to the Mariacki Church, and dominating the Rynek Glowny, is the Sukiennice , a building which once housed a vast cloth hall. A gargoyle-covered 16th century attic sits atop the Sukiennice. The hall itself is today the scene of a busy indoor market, much frequented by locals and tourists alike. Also among the Rynek Glowny’s attractions is the Church of St Adalbert - the oldest extant church in the city- and the 14th century Town Tower , which is all that remains of what was once the Town Hall. Further away from the Rynek Glowny is one of Krakow’s other tourist attractions, St Florian’s Gate . The Stare Miasto had, till the 19th century, been a fortified town, but all that remains today of the surrounding ramparts are isolated ruins and the 14th century tower known as St Florian’s Gate. Close to the gate is a round stone bastion known as the Barbakan , also a survivor from days past. It’s one of the four extant towers around Krakow, and has a distinctive- and unusual- Egyptian design. A short walk from the Rynek Glowny is Wawel , the one-time capital of the kings of Poland. Dominated by a castle, Wawel was the seat of power from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, and a tour of the castle is a good way of getting a glimpse into the lives of medieval Poland’s royalty. The castle at Wawel, known as the Zamek Krolewski (Royal Castle), is a built in a basically Renaissance style, with Gothic and Romanesque elements occurring in places. Within the Zamek Krolewski is the Katedra Wawelska , the Wawel Cathedral. A Gothic-Romanesque structure, the cathedral holds the mortal remains of all of Poland’s monarchs, as well as the relics of St Stanislav, the patron saint of Krakow and of Poland. Recently renovated, the castle has exhibitions on the Polish royalty; much of the building, however, has been converted into a museum which houses a fine display of medieval European paintings, tapestries, porcelain and period furniture. The collection of Flemish tapestries in the museum is believed to be the largest in Europe. The castle’s Crown Treasury and the Armoury are also open to visitors. There is, for those who’re keen on history, an exhibition called Lost Wawel, on the excavations in and around Wawel. Krakow, in fact, swarms with churches, both old and new; the city’s got more than 140 churches and monasteries, and some of them are very unusual, very old or just `plain’ interesting. If you’re keen on churches, include these in your itinerary: St Andrew’s Church , an11th century, Romanesque, with a showy baroque interior; the Gothic Dominican Church ; and the Church of St Peter and Paul , the first baroque church to be constructed in Poland. The Muzeum Narodowe or the National Museum is Krakow’s- and perhaps Poland’s- finest showcase of historical objects d’art. The museum spreads out over a number of buildings, one of which is the well-known Muzeum Czartoryski . Whereas the rest of the National Museum is largely devoted to decorative art, 20th century Polish art, arms and national colours, the Muzeum Czartoryski is devoted to art from across the world. The bulk of this consists of art from the Orient, Greece and Egypt, although there is also a significant section on medieval European art. The most famous of the works in this section include Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan and da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. Krakow’s other important museums include the Manghha Centre of Japanese Art and Technology , the Jagiellonian University Museum (with a collection of medieval astronomical instruments, some of them reputed to have been used by Copernicus, a student at a local university); and the religious collection known as the Archdiocesan Museum .

Best time to visit

Krakow is definitely at its best in the summer, when the weather’s good and there are plenty of local festivals and events to keep you entertained. Krakow’s popularity as a tourist destination, however, means that summers are pretty crowded. If you don’t like sharing your sightseeing with scores of fellow-tourists, plan your trip for spring or autumn; the city’s comparatively uncrowded at these times, and the local parks and gardens are absolutely lovely. Late April and May, or September and October, are recommended.

Trivia

Krakow can mean many things to many people. It can be a magical, beautiful town; an unforgettable and poignant piece of the past; a slice of all that’s pure enjoyment. But what’s certain is that you won’t go back unaffected.

Timing

The opening hours are different for the many historic sites in Krakow. Usually the sites are open from 10 in the morning till early evening for its visitors. It is best advised to consult with your tour operators for the timings of this historic centre.


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