“Has anyone here been to Warsaw?” asked Pavel, our tour guide. No hands went up.
“Good,” he continued. “I hope that you never have to go there.”
Our Kraków walking tour group had assembled between St. Florian’s Gate, the 700-year-old gate into the old town, and the impressive Barbican. Built at the end of the 15th Century to protect Kraków against the Turks, this is considered to be the best-preserved barbican in Europe.
According to Pavel, it was streets ahead of Warsaw’s Barbican. His passion for Kraków, its history and its burgeoning craft beer scene – and his cheerful disdain for Poland’s capital – was evident during our 2.5-hour walking tour along Kraków’s Royal Road. This route, beginning at St. Florian’s Gate and ending at the Wawel Castle, was that used by monarchs to move around the city.
St Mary’s Church – Kraków’s temple to God
From St. Florian’s Gate, the sole survivor of the eight fortified gates built into the city’s walls, it is a short stroll along Floriańska Street to the Market Square. St. Mary’s Church dominates this main square and is Kraków’s geographic and spiritual beating heart.
Whereas Wawel Cathedral was the seat of the city’s bishopry, St. Mary’s was Kraków’s parish church. This Gothic basilica was built to inspire awe and display the city’s wealth, its calling card if you like. At the top of each hour, a bugle call (hejnal) sounds from the taller of the two towers which pierce the ash-grey sky like giant exclamation marks.
But it is the interior of St. Mary’s Church that is truly extraordinary. Stuffed full of outstanding works of art, its star turn is the late 15thCentury wooden high altar, depicting scenes from the life of Christ in a dramatically expressive fashion. Get there just before midday to witness the middle shutters of the altar opening in all of their glory.
Cloth Hall – Kraków’s temple to commercialism
Across the Market Square from St. Mary’s Church is the Cloth Hall. First opening for business in 1257, this covered market is the oldest shopping mall in Poland. This temple to commercialism now houses souvenir stalls and the coats of arms from Polish cities embellish its walls. Even here, Warsaw and Kraków are having a face-off.
Exiting the other side of the Cloth Hall, across the square is a Gothic tower built with the red brick and local limestone. This is all that remains of the old town hall, which was destroyed in the 19th Century.
The adjacent sculpture of a giant head – Eros Bound, known as “The Head” – was created by the celebrated Polish artist Igor Mitoraj and is the subject of controversy. Many people dislike this sculpture and it was destined to be positioned in the square outside the Galleria Krakowska.
However, indignant that his work of art should be displayed outside a shopping mall, Mitoraj insisted that it be relocated. Despite howls of protests from historians and locals alike, this 12-year-old sculpture found its way to its current location.
Its hollow interior is perfect for kids to crawl through, poking their heads out of its unseeing eye for proud parents to capture an image. It also serves as a bed for the night for the homeless of Kraków in the winter. “The cheapest hostel in the old town,” as Pavel, our tour guide put it.
Turning our backs on “The Head”, we continue along Jagiellońska to the Collegium Maius, the oldest college of Poland’s oldest, and some would say best, university. Rebuilt in the late 15thcentury around a Gothic arcaded courtyard, it counts Copernicus and Pope John Paul II amongst its alumni.
Make sure that you arrive there shortly before 11 am, 1 pm or 3 pm (plus 9 am and 5 pm in the summer months) for the show put on by the courtyard clock. Watch the wooden figures of kings and professors solemnly parade to music.
Art Nouveau in Kraków: Stansilaw Wyspicński
At the end of the 19thCentury, Polish artists were caught up in the Art Nouveau wave sweeping through Europe like a new broom. This injection of style and modernity into Poland’s cultural landscape resulted in the Mloda Polska (Young Poland) movement (1895 – 1914).
Kraków was at the heart of this movement and at the fore of this group of visionary artists was Stansilaw Wyspicński, who was responsible for the interior decoration of the Franciscan Church, the next stop on our Kraków walking tour.
The first church on this site (pl. Wszystkich Świętych) was built in 1255, 18 years after the arrival of the Franciscans in Kraków. Following damage wrought by the Great Fire of Kraków in 1850, the church was rebuilt in a Neo-Gothic / Neo-Renaissance style.
But the murals and stained glass of Stansilaw Wyspicński are its most striking features. Take, for example, the stained glass image – Let It Be– of God emerging from the sinuous, elemental cosmos. My visit was perfectly timed with a performance by the Sicilian Choir in front of this masterpiece. Unforgettable.
If you are visiting Kraków at Christmas, take a look at the live Christmas Nativity that takes place outside the Franciscan Church, featuring live animals and singing children. What could possibly go wrong?
Kanonicza – the best address in town
Leaving the Franciscan Church behind us, we now make our way along Grodzka on our final approach to Wawel Castle. At the magnificent baroque church of St Peter and Paul, we cross Mary Magdalen Square and turn down Kanonicza, one of the oldest streets in Kraków.
This street gets its name from Kraków’s canons who lived there from the 14th Century onwards. As each canon took up office in the chapter of Kraków, he was given the use of one of the houses on Kanonicza for life. That’s better than most pensions nowadays!
In a medieval version of Grand Designs, each successive inhabitant would modernise his abode. This has resulted in a vast array of architectural styles along this narrow street.
At the end of Kanoniczka we reach Wawel Hill, home to Wawel Cathedral and the Royal Castle. Kraków was the capital of Poland from 1038 until 1596 and Wawel Castle served as the royal residence and seat of power. When the capital of Poland moved to Warsaw at the end of the 16thCentury, the castle began to fall into ruin. But mercifully, Wawel Castle, in common with most of Kraków was saved from destruction during WWII and has been restored to its former glory.
Enter the Wawel Dragon
I couldn’t finish this post about the old town of Kraków without mentioning the Dragon of Wawel Hill. Local legend has it that Kraków was founded on his defeat and that his lair was in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill.
Today, a fire-breathing dragon sculpture stands guard at the foot of Wawel Hill in honour of him. I wonder if Warsaw has any fire-breathing dragons?