Sunday, December 4, 2016

Preserved! Kraków, Poland

Kraków is really a gem. It is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. As written in Wikipedia, "Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and is one of Poland's most important economic hubs. It was the capital of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland from 1038 to 1569; the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1795; the Free City of Kraków from 1815 to 1846; the Grand Duchy of Cracow from 1846 to 1918; and Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1998. It has been the capital of Lesser Poland Voivodeship since 1999."

For a visitor, one of the best features of Kraków is its authenticity. Most cities in Poland were terribly damaged in World War II, and some, like Warsaw, had to be largely rebuilt after the war. But Kraków was amazingly spared from serious damage. So when you look at the buildings in the rynek (Main Square) you are really seeing medieval buildings, not Old Town 1950. I want to share a few scenes from my 2016 trip. My wife and I were impressed in every way: friendly and hospitable people, great food, excellent prices, immaculate cleanliness, and amazing history.
Most visitors start their trip at the Rynek Główny, the grand Main Square. This is one of Europe's largest medieval market squares and possibly the best preserved and authentic, dating back to the 1300s. The city was destroyed by the Mongols in 1241, and the Main Square was rebuilt in 1257. The elegant hall in the center is the Cloth Hall, with the Town Hall Tower behind. I took this picture from the tower at the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven (more commonly called St. Mary's Basilica). To reach the viewpoint, you need to buy a ticket and climb about 300 steps of the north (taller) tower. A fireman is on duty in the tower and blows a trumpet signal every hour, the Hejnał mariacki. At noon, the signal is broadcast by Polish radio around the world. The Trumpeter of Krakow, a 1929 historical novel by Eric P. Kelly, is based on the trumpeter and events surrounding a 1462 fire. History permeates everything in Poland.
Now let's switch to Tri-X film. This is St. Mary's Basilica taken from the Town Hall Tower. During World War II, the Nazis planned to remake Kraków into a purely German city, which may be one reason it was mostly spared from massive destruction in 1944/1945. As part of their Germanification plan, they renamed the square Adolf Hitler-Platz.
Tourists love Kraków. This was a cheerful Italian group. We saw mostly European visitors along with some Chinese and Japanese groups, but very few Americans.
Summer is the time for musicians and entertainers. We heard that Christmas was also festive despite the cold. (This is a digital photograph.)
Food vendors sell all sorts of locally-sourced foods. You can snack and skip dinner at a sit-down restaurant. We were surprised at the large number of ice cream stores.
The Jagiellonian University (Polish: Uniwersytet Jagielloński) was founded in 1364 by Casimir III the Great in 1364. In 1939, the Nazis sent 184 professors to concentration camps and closed the university for the rest of the war. Some illustrious alumni include Nicolaus Copernicus (the astronomer) and Saint Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II, Pope of the Catholic Church). As I said earlier, history permeates everyplace in Poland.
Mostowa 6, where the new and old coexist.

Cafes and historic town houses and offices line Mikolajska Street. The state of restoration/preservation was excellent.
Jewish traditions and culture are reviving in Kraków. Jewish residents played an important part in the society from the 1300s, and King Bolesław the Pious granted the Jews freedom to worship, trade, and travel via a royal charter. Most lived in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, which was a thriving economic and cultural hub until the Nazis invaded in 1939. As the war progressed, almost the entire Jewish community was sent to a ghetto and then on to concentration camps. Our tour guide told us that during the post-war Communist era, Jews were not specifically targeted or excluded, but very few returned to Kazimierz and worshiped openly. But in the last decade, Jewish families are returning, synagogues have reopened, and Kazimierz has become a popular site for tourists and scholars interested in the Jewish revival. The photograph shows the entrance to the Tempel Synagogue (Synagoga Tempel) on Miodowa Street, built 1860-1862 in Moorish Revival style.
Galeria LueLue, at Miodowa 22 in Kazimierz, had fascinating historical photographs, including ones taken during the war by German photographers.
Every visitor eventually visits the royal palaces, castle, and cathedral on Wawel Hill. This view is looking north towards the main town, with the towers of St. Mary's Basilica in the distance.
Southeast of town is the Cmentarz Podgorski. This is a Catholic cemetery still in use, but with many mid-century stones. Nearby is an old Jewish cemetery, but we were short on time and it started to rain, so we had to pass.

The square photographs (click to enlarge) were taken on Kodak Tri-X film with a Rolleiflex 3.5E camera with Xenotar lens. I scanned the 6×6 negatives with a Minolta Scan Multi scanner at 2820 dpi and cleaned with Pixelmator software. I resized the frames for this article with ACDSee pro software.


  1. I've always wanted to visit Poland, and many of my ancestors came from the Krakow area. Is it difficult to find English-speaking people?

  2. Poland is very easy to visit. Many people, especially in tourist areas, speak English, and many signs are dual language (English and Polish). Restaurants often have extra menus in English and German. Everyone we met was friendly and welcoming!

    1. Good information -- thanks!