Warning! A needlessly long blog entry is about to follow! Consequently, I will make this introduction relatively short and thankfully absent of failed attempts at witticisms. After Warsaw, Australian Andrew and I continued our Polish adventure in the ancient royal capital of Krakow. We spent five nights in the city, exploring its historic quarters and excellent museums. Krakow is a unique destination in Europe, boasting the beauty of a medieval old town and the substance of a city dramatically affected by tangibly recent major events.
Although Polish history is usually characterised by invasion, foreign occupancy and tragedy, Poland was one of Europe’s great powers for nearly five hundred years. The Poles, a Slavic tribe from the steppes of Eurasia, first settled in Central and Eastern Europe in the eighth century. By the eleventh century, they had established a unified kingdom that roughly corresponded to the modern-day borders. Krakow became the royal capital in 1038 and retained that privileged status for more than five centuries. After the ruinous Mongol invasions of 1241-42, Poland flourished in the fourteenth century during the reign of Kazimierz III. The kingdom’s territory expanded rapidly, an extensive network of fortifications were constructed and the royal capital became one of Europe’s leading artistic centres. Kazimierz also passed enlightened laws that transformed Poland into a safe haven for Jews, which would eventually result in the largest Jewry in Europe. Poland and Lithuania formed a dynastic alliance to defeat the Teutonic Order in 1410. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth evolved into Europe’s largest state, three times the current Polish territory. To more appropriately reflect the geographical composition of the Commonwealth, the capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw in 1596. Krakow’s golden years thus concluded and the city population continuously declined.
The Commonwealth suffered from repeated conflicts with the Ottomans, Russians, Swedes and Prussians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that gradually eroded its power and lands. When Polish independence was entirely dissolved (Third Partition of Poland – 1795), Krakow remerged as the cultural and spiritual centre of Polish society. This was partly because of the relatively liberal policies of the Habsburg Austrian rulers, who had no intentions of eradicating Polish culture as the Russians and Prussians did elsewhere in the occupied Polish lands. When Poland was occupied by the Nazis during World War Two, Krakow was sparred the devastation inflicted on virtually every other Polish city. The Nazis considered Krakow sufficiently “German” in appearance to be suitable for German colonists. Consequently, Krakow’s priceless architectural heritage was almost entirely preserved. In 1978, the Archbishop of Krakow became the first non-Italian leader of the Catholic Church in 455 years. Pope John Paul II held a mass rally in 1979 in Krakow that attracted more than one million people. His implied criticisms of communism are widely credited with igniting the independence movements that swept Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Images and statues of John Paul II are ubiquitous throughout Krakow, which is still a devoutly religious city.
Krakow’s World Heritage listed old town is undoubtedly one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cores. The authenticity of its buildings is particularly remarkable considering the city suffered nearly two centuries of continual occupation, most notably by the Nazis. The layout is unusually logical for a medieval old town, featuring a grid-pattern and an immense market square in the middle. The Rynek, the largest medieval square in Europe, is dominated by a triumvirate of structures that aesthetically form a diagonal across the vast space. In the northeast corner is arguably Poland’s most historical religious building, St. Mary’s Church, a Gothic redbrick structure dominated by two asymmetrical towers. The taller tower has traditionally been owned by the city and functioned as a watchtower. A bugle call is still sounded hourly from its summit, having previously warned residents of fire or invaders. Inside the church is a magnificently carved thirteenth century altarpiece depicting the Assumption; one of the masterpieces of Gothic art. Occupying the centre of the Rynek is the Cloth Hall, a 108 metre long structure embodying both Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements. The interior hall was formerly a major hub of international trade when Krakow was the royal capital and a key interface between eastern and western societies. The Cloth Hall is reminiscent of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and is now brimming with touristic paraphernalia. The building is surrounded with arcades of Gothic pointed arches. In the southwest corner of the Rynek is the Town Hall Tower, the only remaining vestige of the fifteenth century edifice. The pedestrianised streets that radiate from the Rynek are predominantly filled with colourful Renaissance townhouses and mansions. Dozens of churches, usually with Gothic or Romanesque framework but Baroque facades and interior decorative details, are scattered throughout the old town. Despite the tourist crowds, the old town has not been excessively commercialised and therefore retained its Old World charm and authenticity, unlike the Disneyland-esque atmosphere of Venice and Prague.
The wall that once ringed the old town of Krakow was mostly demolished in the nineteenth century when it became obsolete due to modern weaponry. Usually the loss of such a historic structure would be quite tragic, but clever urban planning repurposed the area into parkland. Consequently, the old town is surrounded by an atmospheric greenbelt that functions as a barrier between the pedestrianised, spiritual centre of Krakow and the working modern districts of the city. A small section of the fortifications were preserved on the northern side of the old town, including a prominent gateway dating to 1300 and Krakow’s iconic barbican. An intriguing component of medieval defence systems, barbicans were heavily fortified strongholds located outside the city walls and were designed to protect the approach to the most important gateway. Krakow’s imposing barbican is a circular brick structure that once connected to Florian’s Gate by an enclosed brick passageway over a moat. Outsiders attempting to enter Krakow were required to pass through the barbican first before the gateway. The purpose of the barbican was to allow defenders to shoot enemies attacking the wall from an external position, thereby providing a 360 degree shooting range. Needless to say, Andrew (over) enthusiastically pretended he was a medieval soldier and shot imaginary arrows from the countless turrets and arrow slits. None hit their target.
Rising high above the old town’s southern flank is seemingly Krakow’s only prominent hill. Unsurprisingly, the glorious royal seat of Wawel Castle occupies its plateau. The castle was the residence of Polish kings for more than five hundred years and even after the capital relocated to Warsaw, it remained the site of coronations and burials. Consequently, it never lost its powerful status as the symbol of the nation. Disappointingly though, the palace that dominates Wawel Castle was constructed in Renaissance style and is thus indistinguishable from other European palaces (not a tremendous deal of originality in this field). We toured the State Rooms and found them somewhat bare and monotonous in comparison to the lavish rooms of Warsaw’s Royal Castle. The ornately decorated Wawel Cathedral, the resting place of Polish monarchs and leaders, is easily the most impressive edifice on the hill. The cathedral appears to have developed in an organic manner because of its myriad of architectural styles and mismatched towers and domes. Wawel Hill descends on the southern side to the Vistula River, which permits magnificent views from afar. Intriguingly, both Warsaw and Krakow neglect to exploit the rivers that bisect them as places of leisure and entertainment as elsewhere in Europe.
The majority of Krakow’s eradicated Jewish population resided in Kazimierz, a district immediately south-east of Wawel Castle. Kazimierz was originally an independent town established in the fourteenth century by its eponymous king and swiftly became a key regional trading centre. Kazimierz featured two distinctive communities that lived in separate quarters: Christians in the west and Jews in the east. As Polish kings guaranteed the protection of Jewish subjects, Jews migrated into Kazimierz from other European countries to escape persecution. The Nazis however destroyed the Jewish community, rendering Kazimierz into a ghostly neighbourhood sapped of the energy prevalent in the old town of Krakow. The architecture of Kazimierz is impressively old, though somewhat grim and lifeless. Numerous synagogues are located in Kazimierz, miraculously surviving the insanity and barbarism of World War Two. Andrew and I visited the Old Synagogue, a fifteenth century Renaissance-style building converted into a museum. We also visited Schindler’s Factory on the opposite side of the Vistula, which features an excellent museum detailing the Nazi occupation of Krakow and the antiheroic story of Oskar Schindler.
Forty kilometres west of Krakow in the quiet town of Oswiecim is the site of one of history’s most despicable atrocities. Internationally recognised by its German name Auschwitz, the town harbours three concentration camps established by the Nazis for the systematic extermination of 1.5 million innocent civilians, most of whom were Jewish. A visit to Auschwitz is of course extremely disturbing, but necessary to pay respect to the incomprehensible number of people murdered there. Auschwitz originally consisted of one camp, but as the scale of maddening destruction intensified, further camps were constructed. The rows of grim buildings at the central camp now consists of museums that detail the operations at Auschwitz and harrowing displays indicative of the number of civilians murdered. A hall with hundreds of thousands of shoes and another with mountains of human hair were for me the most traumatic. The Nazis collected the garments, teeth and hair of their victims, presumably for recycling purposes. The Nazis thus regarded a Jew as nothing more than a commodity that was exploitable only after death. One vaguely pleasant quality of Auschwitz is that numerous European countries have contributed to the memory of the victims by presenting exhibitions about the Holocaust in their country. Jews were transported to Auschwitz for their liquidation from cities throughout Europe. The much larger concentration camp of Birkenau forcefully conveys the scale of horror conducted by the Nazis. Countless rows of buildings at Birkenau were once either the residences of slaves and prisoners of war or functioned as gas chambers. At the height of the Holocaust in 1942-43, Jews were transported by train to Birkenau and were dead almost immediately after arriving. Nazi physicians picked out Jews fit for labour or medical experimentations, while the rest were to be terminated. The Nazis manipulated the masses into believing they were queuing for showers before their internment, but they were actually lining up for their deaths in the gas chambers. The carnage inflicted by the Nazis on humanity and civilisation is completely unfathomable. A visit to Auschwitz surely emphasises that war is absolutely justified when a regime is so diabolical that their total eradication is necessary.
I will now transition somewhat inappropriately to my regular and rather frivolous discussions about food. Andrew and I maintained our gluttonous diet from Warsaw and continued to revel in the delights of Polish cuisine. On the “milk bar” scene, I sampled more “ruskie” pierogi (dumplings stuffed with cheese and onion), plum dumplings (plums wrapped in dough, fried and served with brown sugar), mouth-watering crispy pancakes stuffed with sweet cheese and my favourite Polish soup, cucumber soup. Sour, thick and surprisingly delectable, cucumber soup is made from chunks of gherkins, other vegetables and cream. On virtually every corner of Krakow’s old town are carts that sell Obwarzanski, a chewy large pretzel coated in sesame seeds, poppy seeds or salt crystals. Despite perpetual criticisms regarding their blandness, every time I turned to Andrew he seemed to have another Obwarzanski in hand. Another street-food favourite of Andrew’s (you guessed correctly… it features dough!) was zapiekanka. A specialty of Krakow, zapiekankas consist of half a baguette grilled with sautéed mushrooms, onion and cheese. Once cooked, the toastie is topped with a variety of toppings such as salami, fresh tomato, chives and spicy sauce. Hot jam donuts are incredibly popular in Krakow and are filled with custard, chocolate or rose syrup (especially delicious). Probably my favourite dish from Krakow was potato pancakes smothered in goulash sauce. The potato pancakes were savoury, thick and crispy and complemented perfectly by the rich paprika based sauce. Andrew and I discovered a Polish-style pub and enjoyed our last two dinners in Krakow at the venue. On the first night, I had a plate of fried meat dumplings and humungous cabbage rolls stuffed with pork and rice and smothered in “farmer’s sauce” (tomato and vegetables). On the second night, I had goulash in a bread bowl and pork fillet fried in batter and served with mash, vegetables and more farmer’s sauce.
Andrew and I travelled to Poland on a quest to find the ultimate cheesecake. Regretfully and despite daily (sometimes hourly) samplings, we failed to discover a WOW-factor rendition of this extraordinary dessert in its homeland. Nevertheless, we did encounter cheesecake in many guises and were obliged to try all. Plain baked cheesecake, cheesecake with peach, cheesecake with jellied strawberries, cheesecake with sultans imbedded into its creamy goodness, chocolate cheesecake and cheesecake with a lattice of pastry over the top were ubiquitous styles. The most delicious dessert I ate in Poland was actually not cheesecake, but an intoxicatingly rich cake layered with chocolate sponge, chocolate mousse, biscuit, chestnuts and cream.
Contrastingly, Andrew encountered a dessert he failed to enjoy, a concept I was previously unaware was possible. At one point in Poland, Andrew ludicrously claimed he is not a “sweet-tooth” – which is probably the most outrageous statement every uttered by mankind. In Krakow, our traditional endeavour to break our fast at a milk bar one was stymied by its hipster and trendy atmosphere (rendering it completely unsuitable). My extreme disappoint was juxtaposed by Andrew’s sense of opportunism. With alarming enthusiasm, Andrew suggested we visit a bakery and gorge on cake for breakfast. I reluctantly agreed to placate his eagerness. Upon entering a bakery, Andrew immediately blurted, “Wow! Look at that Napoleon cake!” I (correctly) surmised that the cake appeared to be just a pile of sugar six inches high. However, the pastry’s kaleidoscope of colours proved irresistible for Andrew. He purchased a Napoleon cake and with boundless anticipation verging on insanity gleaming from his eyes, he bit into the monstrous pastry. With his face smothered in a blue substance similar to meringue and cream, Andrew expressed his delight. After three bites though, he was comprehensively over the pastry that tasted somewhat like sherbet lollies. Andrew was then required to persevere and consume another fifty bites. Feeling incredibly nauseous by the end, Andrew learnt a valuable lesson not to eat cake for breakfast. He blamed the ordeal on his so-called “Andrew’s bad luck day” (which included entering the women’s lavatories and subsequently being chased out by a female janitor), but I prefer to classify it as “Andrew’s bad decision day”.
After five nights in Krakow, unfortunately my short trip to Poland was over. My itinerary in the country was somewhat limited by the minor but irritating issue of needing to attend an exam in Stockholm. Nevertheless, I enjoyed sufficient time to explore Krakow properly. Loyal Globo Trip readers may recall the “Liam’s favourite cities in Europe” list that ranked, through progressive updates, my favourite cities on the continent. Krakow would definitely challenge for a top ten entry.
Andrew and I also parted ways after twelve amiable days of travel, as he continued his Euro trip west to Prague and Berlin. I am very grateful that Andrew spontaneously decided to visit Europe, join me in Poland and embrace my innumerable eating suggestions without objection! We had lots of laughter together… usually at the expense of the dour and unhelpful Poles! Hopefully we’ll have another foreign adventure in the future.
That’s all for now,