Kraków Old Town

My next stop after Warsaw was Kraków (kra-kohv) in southern Poland. I was sad to leave Warsaw behind, but at least I still had more time ahead in Poland. I wasn’t ready to move on just yet. I took a train (the cheapest and most inconveniently timed train, of course) and bonded with some other tourists as we attempted to navigate the Warsaw train station.

Kraków flowers, for your viewing pleasure 🙂

The ride to Kraków was my first experience in a compartment train, and it was strange. Since I didn’t have a travel buddy to share the weirdness with, I wrote about it in my journal.

The compartment is too quiet, no one is talking and it would be weird if they were. I almost feel like my typing is too loud, THAT’S how quiet it is. Shouldn’t the train be making more noise?? What is this? Some newfangled electric train or something?

Also, am I allowed to eat in here? I think that if the answer was no, there would be signs making that clear. But it’s not like they’d put up a “yes, you can eat” sign… that doesn’t make any sense. At least then I’d be sure, though. If we were in rows, I would just go for it because you can kind of hide yourself. Since we’re in a compartment, I feel like there are 4 people here who would judge me really hard if I’m doing something wrong. One is a nun so maybe she wouldn’t judge me, but at least the other three would.

Supposedly eight people can fit in this compartment, but I think that would be a mess. There are just 5 of us now, and I think that’s enough. Maybe 6 would be okay. But 8?? Eek!

A couple minutes later: AH! The nun just started eating a sandwich. I assume she wouldn’t break the rules, so eating must be allowed. Okay, first I’m going to eat something because my stomach is empty, and then I’m going to get to work on my to-do list.

This one is so pretty!!

The train took about 3.5 hours, and despite the compartment weirdness, I was sad to get off because I was being incredibly productive… probably because I felt like I had to stay busy or else risk making awkward eye contact with one of my co-passengers. Eye contact means someone might start talking to me, leading to the weird “oh, sorry, I don’t speak Polish” thing and totally ruining my camouflage.

The train arrived in Kraków around 3PM, and my goal was to make it to a 4PM walking tour. Doable. I had 1 hour to figure out the trams, get myself to the hostel to drop my stuff, and sprint back out again to the meeting point. I made it with seconds to spare and only mildly sweaty from my brisk walk across the city.

While we were waiting for the tour to start, the guide asked where everyone was from. There was one other group visiting from the US – two couples, plus a girl around my age – and I started a conversation with the girl, asking what part (Florida). She ended up being super cool, and I felt good about myself for being outgoing and making a friend.

Whoa!!

Soon enough, the tour started, and the guide seemed determined to make us all Kraków history experts by the time he was finished.

Kraków as a settlement began as early as 50,000 BC, but not much is known about it beyond what archaeology has revealed until 966AD when the first written mention of Kraków appeared. By then, it was already a bustling commercial center. The Kingdom of Poland came soon after in 996AD, and Kraków was named as its capital in 1038.

The earliest settlements were on Wawel Hill, a rocky outcropping near the Vistula River (the same one that runs through Warsaw) that later became the site of Wawel Castle, the royal residence of the Kingdom of Poland until the capital city was moved to Warsaw. As the town grew, it expanded off of the hill and to the north where the heart of modern-day Kraków is now located.

View of the Vistula River from Wawel Hill

Kraków Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Warsaw’s Old Town. The difference is that Kraków’s is actually old. Unlike Warsaw, Kraków was not a major battleground during WWII, and much of the city, including many of its historical and cultural monuments, survived without too much damage.

Kraków Old Town streets

The city used to be surrounded by city walls (because what medieval city wasn’t??) with 47 towers, plus a 4km moat. Most of the fortifications were dismantled during the Austrian occupation during the partitions, and today, a ring of green space stands in their place, encircling the oldest part of the city. Only a small portion of the formerly extensive fortifications was saved from destruction – Floriańska (St. Florian’s) Gate, one of the major entry points into the city, and the Kraków Barbican. The Barbican was a defensive structure that was connected by a drawbridge, over the city’s moat, to St. Florian’s Gate.

St. Florian’s Gate

The Kraków Barbican. You can see the former location of the drawbridge shown by the pavings stones.

The Barbican from the front

A pretty church just inside of the park ring surrounding Old Town

St. Anne’s Church, located on the square. There’s a legend that during the Mongol invasion, a trumpeter warned the people of the approaching invaders in time for the city gates to be closed. Unfortunately for him, however, he was shot in the throat and killed before he could finish playing the song. In reference to this legend, the traditional trumpet call is played (by a live trumpeter) from the tower every hour on the hour and stops abruptly before the end.

In the 1200s, before the city walls were built, Kraków was invaded by the Mongols. The city wasn’t defended, and the invaders massacred everyone and burned everything that wasn’t behind fortifications. The people of Kraków used this opportunity to rebuild the city with a better layout, and the new design included a HUGE town square. It is now the largest medieval square in Europe, with 200m long sides.

One of the reasons for Kraków’s rapid growth and great wealth was its location. By law, merchants weren’t allowed to cross Poland with their goods. Instead, they were forced to sell their wares in Kraków to then be sold on the other side of the country for a profit. Kraków was also fortunate to have access to the valuable resources of salt and lead. A trade agreement with Hungary gave Kraków a near monopoly on copper as they traded Polish lead for Hungarian copper.

The large medieval square was put to good use as a market, and it also became one of the most disgusting parts of the city. The ground was covered with garbage and human waste, and when things got out of hand, a soil layer was added. The ground level is now 3m above its original level. When the government decided to redo the cobblestones in the early 2000s, they gave archaeologists permission to dig in the square for 4 months. Instead, they ended up staying for 5 YEARS, still only managed to explore about 10% of the square, and unearthed hundreds of burials and thousands of artifacts. (There’s an archaeology museum under the square that I didn’t visit, but it’s at the top of my list if I ever go back!)

Market Square!

The Cloth Hall in the center of Market Square

Bustling square!

Old Town is also home to the second oldest university in Europe, Jagiellonian University (aka University of Kraków), founded in 1364. Copernicus attended from about 1491-95, and Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, attended until it was shut down in 1939 when over 180 professors and intellectuals were arrested at the start of WWII. Some of these professors were later released, and they returned to operate the university as part of the underground education efforts until it was reopened officially in 1945.

University of Kraków

A glimpse of Kraków outside of the Old Town center

Town Hall Tower in Market Square

At some point during the tour, much to my dismay, my Floridian friends vanished. Then, at the very end, the girl popped up again and said that they ducked out for a bit to get some ice cream. That made me like them even more. She came back to ask for my number so we could hang out! And then they vanished again.

Later, she invited me to join them for dinner! I was thrilled to have made some new friends! Dinner was so much fun. The girl, Annika, had just finished a master’s degree in Sweden, and her parents came to meet her and do some sightseeing with another couple before they all went back to the States. They’re all the kind of people who make you feel immediately at ease, and they asked me about a million questions about my time in Armenia. They had a tour planned for the following day, but they said that they were considering going hiking the day after, and if I was interested in joining, they’d keep me posted. Of course I said yes! By the time we parted ways, I felt like I had been adopted and had known them for my entire life. I didn’t know if the hiking thing would actually come through, but I hoped it would because I had so much fun hanging out with them. I walked back to the hostel that night with a big smile on my face and a warm feeling inside.

A Walk Around Warsaw

My flight landed in Warsaw (Warszawa in Polish, pronounced like “Varshava”) at about 6:30 in the morning. I wanted to collapse from exhaustion, but I still had a whole day ahead so that wasn’t an option. I dropped my bags off at the hostel at around 8AM and then had to scram until the 2PM check-in time. It’s probably better that I couldn’t check in right away because I would have gone to sleep and wasted the whole day.

The best way to start off in a new city where you have absolutely no plan is to find a free walking tour! You don’t have to plan anything, they give you some historical context and make sure you hit the highlights, and you can ask your guide for recommendations of other things to check out after the tour. It’s a win, win, win. So, that’s what I did. I found one that started at 10:30, wandered across the city to the meeting point, and went to a café for hot chocolate and a cinnamon roll while I waited (I intentionally picked some extra-nutritious options to make up for all the muffins I ate the day before).

The tour was awesome… probably one of the best ones I’ve been on (if you’re ever in Poland, check them out). The only drawback was the fact that it started mist-raining halfway through, but I guess they can’t control the weather.

This photo clearly not taken during the mist-rain… I did a walk-around again the next day when the skies were nice and clear! So if there’s a blue sky in the picture, you can be sure that it was taken the next day. Heh.

We started by the statue of King Sigismund III in Castle Square in Warsaw’s Old Town. This is on the side of the river that was occupied by the Nazis during WWII, and even though it looks old, practically all of it was constructed after 1945. Warsaw wasn’t just occupied, it was destroyed. Hitler specifically commanded that the city be leveled as punishment for the resistance put up by its residents. The estimates are that 90% of Old Town, 80% of New Town, and 30% of the city on the Russian-occupied side of the river were destroyed. That’s insane. The damage was so bad that one proposal suggested leaving it in ruins as a sort of war memorial and starting fresh somewhere else.

Castle Square from above.

One of the only buildings that remained standing in the Old Town is St. Anne’s Church (below), located right near the castle.

The front facade of St. Anne’s.

The inside is awesome! Just think about how much other awesome stuff like this was destroyed… and for what purpose? What a waste.

Look at this!! It’s painted to look 3D, but that’s just a flat wall. I live for this kind of thing. I was fan-girling so hard in this church.

The Warszawians are particularly proud of the rebuilding of the city. Using historical paintings, the Old Town especially was rebuilt to look the same as it did before. Poland didn’t receive money to help with their rebuilding efforts, so the saying of the day became, “The entire nation builds its capital.” Funds were donated by Poles near and far, and those in and around the city helped to remove rubble and painstakingly reconstruct the buildings and monuments. Some people say that it’s not genuine because it was rebuilt, that it’s like a weird Disneyland, but I think it’s beautiful. It’s a testament to the determination and pride of the Polish people.

I think they did a darn good job!

One of the buildings that WAS completely demolished was the castle. This was where the monarchy moved when the Polish capital shifted from Krakow to Warsaw. The castle was looted prior to its destruction. Much was taken by the enemies, but some of the artwork and even pieces of the building were secretly smuggled out by museum workers who were already preparing for the rebuilding process. The castle was blown up in 1944.

This is the interior of the castle courtyard. Only an estimated 2% of the castle exterior is original, and you can pretty clearly see which parts are included in that. See the “white” pieces underneath the balcony that are almost black? Those are original.

The first phase of the castle reconstruction was completed in 1974 when the building’s outer shell was completed, and the clock was restarted at 11:15, the time when the original clock stopped due to the bombing.

Just off of Castle Square is St. John’s Archcathedral, an important Roman Catholic church. During WWII, a tank filled with explosives was driven into the church, severely damaging it. The surviving walls later had holes drilled into them to hold explosives, leading to the complete destruction of the original building.

The front of St. John’s

This little archway comes from the castle. After a failed assassination attempt on one of the kings, a corridor was built from the palace directly to the church. The would-be assassin was subjected a horrible public torture/execution to discourage others from following in his footsteps. Lesson learned – no one ever tried to kill a king again.

The interior of St. John’s

You know how I love my stained glass! There’s some great stuff in St. John’s.


The church’s crypt houses some of the Polish royalty, along with other prominent Poles. There used to be a graveyard behind the church as well, but it was relocated in the late 1700s for sanitary reasons and because it was right next to the palace. I guess they realized that having a smelly cemetery in the middle of your town isn’t exactly the best urban planning decision.

The former cemetery area is now a small square behind the church, occupied only by a large church bell. The bell was designed by the same artist responsible for the statue of King Sigismund III on top of the column in Castle Square. It is said that if you put your hand on the bell and walk around while thinking of a wish, it will be granted.

Wishing bell? Yeah, right… butttt while I’m here I might as well join in the fun! You know, just to be a good sport…

See the little beige strip/doorway in the corner between the green house and pinkish house?

In the same square as the wishing bell is a house with the skinniest possible facade. Back in the day, property was taxed based on the length of your facade… facing the main street. Some smarty pants designed his house to pay as little tax as possible.

Joke’s on him though, because the back of his house faced the “rubbish mountain” where people used to unload their trash and human waste. Yum. It’s also right near the palace, and kings never wanted to stay there because the smell carried. After Napoleon visited the city and remarked on the terrible smell, it was covered with earth making a nice man-made hill. This is now where some people have started leaving love locks which is funny because like… ew.

Here’s the back of the house. As you can see, it’s much bigger than the entrance would suggest.

Viewing terrace on the former rubbish mountain

Love locks on the mountain of… rubbish.

At the heart of Old Town is the Old Town Market Square. From the beginning, it was the center of the city’s social life. This was the spot for trade, for fairs and festivals, and for the occasional execution (including that unfortunate soul who tried to assassinate the king). Later, a town hall was built in the square where it remained for about 400 years. In my opinion, this is the part of the city where the rebuilding efforts are the most impressive. I. Love. This. Square. Feast your eyes on these facades, please.

I LOVE YOU!

They. Are. Unreal.

In the center of the square is the Warsaw Mermaid, the symbol of the city (she’s on the Warsaw coat of arms!). Legend has it that she’s the sister of the famous Copenhagen mermaid. Her sister got tired; that’s why she stopped in Denmark. The Warsaw mermaid kept going, swimming up the Vistula River until deciding to make her home in Warsaw. Once, she was captured by a merchant who planned to make some money off of her. She called out for help and was rescued by some locals. To say thank you, she promised that she would be there to protect them if they ever needed her.

The Warsaw Mermaid, fierce with her sword and shield

Okay, geez, I’m tired. I’m going to take a hint from the Warsaw Mermaid and stop my journey for now in Old Town Market Square. I apparently saw more in Warsaw than I realized… I really thought I could give you the full tour in one post! If I ever want you to come back though, I should stop here. So, there’s your half-tour of Warsaw. We didn’t even make it out of Old Town yet! So much for my estimation skills. Until next time