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Krakow: The Original Polish Metropolis
Citizen reporter Derek Monroe walks through the streets of this beloved, culturally rich Polish city
Derek Monroe (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-03-25 12:01 (KST)   
Krakow is located on the banks of Poland's biggest river, the Vistula.
Located in southern Poland, Krakow was the first capital of a united Poland. The earliest written account of the city originates from 965 AD, when the Arab traveler Ibn Yaqub first wrote about the settlement in his chronicle. Strategically based on the banks of Poland's biggest river, the Vistula, the city quickly became the capital of the region of Little Poland, or Malopolska.

The meteoric growth in size and population coincided with Poland's acceptance of Christianity and the establishment of the Royal Castle at Wawel mound, today at the historic center of the city.

Krakow became the capital of the Piast dynasty in 1038. Its original character was changed after the 1241 Tatar invasion, which left the wooden city in smoldering ruins. The city however was quickly rebuilt in stone and mortar, owing its present character to the Gothic and Renaissance styles that followed.

The golden age of the city coincided with the height of the Renaissance when the city became a metropolitan center in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom. Its importance was also underlined by the establishment of Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest in Central Europe. An influx of Jews fleeing persecution from other parts of Europe helped establish the city as a multi-ethnic center of culture that embraced cultural and religious tolerance.

But Krakow's golden age would not last forever. The move of the capital, instigated by political reasons in 1596, ended the city's prosperity, bringing it into slow and steady decline. A series of wars followed by the disappearance of Poland from European maps for 121 years brought the city under the consistent foreign rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Central Square and the Sukiennice textile market
The most humane and liberal of the three foreign powers that occupied Polish territory, Austria-Hungary nurtured the city by designating it a center of Galicia province. Along with economic and political development, Polish culture was allowed to flourish, and with its existing university, Krakow became the backbone of the newly risen nation of Poland in 1918.

World War II decimated the Jewish population of the city, with the majority being shipped to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp nearby. However, thanks to a Russian fast advance in 1945, the city was spared the fate of Warsaw and remained virtually unscathed from the war .

Present Day

St. Mary's Church
I have been to Krakow over 10 times over a 30-year period and it still never ceases to amaze me. With beautifully restored old buildings in the center, the city is a place of business and constant construction, more Hong Kong than Europe. It's the most evident in the central station area, where a huge economic and entertainment complex is currently being built. The city has also undergone a major cultural and physical renovation and is once again becoming a cultural center of Poland.

The best place to start is on a walking tour from the tourist information kiosk, 200 meters from central station. The staff there is very helpful and fluent in English, French and German. From there it's only a 400 meter walk to the Old City Square, which is renowned for its Mariacki Church and Sukiennice textile market, made over in 16th century contemporary Italian Renaissance style.

From there it is 600 meters to the Wawel Royal Castle district, which features the Royal Cathedral and tombs of major Polish kings. For those seeking Jewish roots, Krakow's Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is a must-go area. Currently under restoration, the area features many cafes, art galleries and restaurants that keep the tradition alive, despite the fact that a very small Jewish population currently resides in the city.

Places to visit:

Central Square
Wawel Castle
Florian Gate and Barbican: Well-preserved elements of medieval fortifications.
Kazimierz Jewish Quarter
Wyspianski Museum: Named for Stanislaw Wyspianski, a famous Polish playwright, poet and painter.
Manggha Museum: Museum of Japanese culture founded by award-winning Polish film director Andrzej Wajda.
Nowa Huta: A Social-Realism-inspired suburb meant to be a worker's paradise. Constructed in the 1940s and 50s by the Polish Communist authorities, it still retains its original authoritative chill.

Day trip suggestions:

A tower of the Royal Castle at Wawel mound
The Wieliczka salt mine: It's one of the world's longest ongoing industrial operations, started over 700 years ago. The tour is a truly unforgettable experience.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp: The place of death of over 1 million victims of the brutal Nazi regime. It's one of the most horrific sites I have ever seen.

Places to stay:

As in Warsaw there is a wide array of accommodations, from youth hostel beds to luxurious five-star establishments. You can get all the info at the tourism office kiosk or at the reservation center near central station.

Places to eat:

There are menus to fit every budget. From cheap Polish fare at numerous small restaurants like Bar Mleczny (milk bar) or Jadlodajnia (food stall) to expensive Japanese restaurants or top-of-the-line venues in the Old Market Square. For those seeking respite from Polish food there is always a McDonald's or pizzeria nearby.

A visit to Krakow would not be the same without a stop at one of the city's many famous cafes. The must is Jama Michalika (off the central square), where artists, painters and the Polish intelligentsia congregates to drink their black coffee and complain about everything and nothing. Cafes are the places that set the tone for the city style and visiting them is a must.

Foreign consulates:

For any type of service the United States, Germany, Austria, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary and France have their legations here.

Costs:

US$1= 3.10 PLN (Polish zloty)
Prices in the city have been on constantly spiraling, and Poland accession to the European Union on May 1, 2004 made the situation worse than ever before. The prices for food and souvenirs are quickly approaching West European levels, not to mention a 22 percent sales tax (VAT).

For budget travelers it's advisable to eat in local bars or supermarkets that are a little outside of the center. Public transportation is good and relatively cheap and it's easy to get around.

Safety:

For a city its size (population: 750,000), Krakow is a very safe and orderly city. Occasional incidents involving pickpockets do occur, so it's best to keep watch in crowded areas such as in the central square or while using public transportation.

Derek's Poland Travel Tips

  • Try to explore as much as possible on foot since you can miss a lot while taking public transportation.
  • Forget the car, you don't need it.
  • Plan day trips at least one day ahead. Cancellations due to weather conditions or strikes are common.
  • Put your most important possessions in the hotel safe; if staying in a youth hostel keep them on you.
  • Always get travel insurance.
  • Be friendly with locals but be careful while drinking alcohol; Polish vodka can knock the sense out of a person.
  • Polish food is delicious but also very heavy on the digestive system. It's better to clear your system every 3-4 days by taking a break and eating light.
  • Polish Women: it's easy to lose one's heart, so be extra careful.

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    For further information it's best to refer to:
    www.krakow.pl
    www.polandtour.org

    Derek Monroe is an international business consultant/installation artist based in Chicagoland, USA.
    ©2005 OhmyNews

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