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

Exploring Old Town

Nutritious lunch

In case you were wondering (or worried), no, I didn’t fall off a cliff. I’m alive and well and just very, very far behind on writing. I’ve been keeping up my journal at least because if that’s a sloppy mess, no one besides me is going to read it… which is good because more than once, I’ve fallen asleep while typing and woken up to unintelligible nonsense on my computer screen.

I’m going to attempt to get back into the game because I’ve missed it! Writing about the things I’m seeing and doing forces me to learn so much more about them than I otherwise would, and that has added so much value to my travels. I know, I could just learn for the sake of learning, but when you’re learning to explain to someone else, you have to have a much fuller understanding of the subject. That makes me try way harder than I otherwise would to really get the complete picture.

During my morning run along the Bosphorus

Flowers!

So, excuse the side note, and let’s get back to Istanbul! My first few days were not the most sightseeing-efficient. Day 1 was a complete mess because I was so tired. It basically consisted of me eating, trying to keep my eyes open until my bed was ready, and taking a very long daytime “nap”… and then waking up from that nap, sitting in bed for a couple of hours, and going to sleep for the night. I kind of considered going for a walk during the “sitting in bed” time, but it was raining and ugh and instead I just sat.

I was determined to make day 2 better… and it was raining again. I told myself that the day would be counted as a success if I just managed to make myself leave the hostel (I know, this is not a realistic life I’m leading at the moment), and that was enough motivation to make me step outside. I attempted, and failed, to take a guided walking tour of the city (I couldn’t find the meeting point because I was still a mental mess), so I defiantly decided that I didn’t need a tour guide anyway and found a self-guided walking tour online.

My journey started in Old Town at the site of the old Hippodrome, center of the Roman Constantinople. The Romans always crack me up because they always have the same priorities when it comes to outfitting newly-conquered cities to the Roman standard. Essential parts of a city, according to the Romans: sporting facilities, aqueducts, baths. So fancy.

Hippodrome

Obelisk of Theodosius

Of course, one of the first things to be constructed were baths because hygiene and what on earth are you supposed to do with your social life otherwise? And then, what is a city without a hippodrome for chariot races?? That was constructed near the beginning as well, and it was eventually expanded by Constantine to include stands for 100,000 people and epic columns and statues and gates to make it worthy of being the hippodrome of “New Rome”. This was the social and geographic center of the city from around the 200s-1450s AD when the Ottomans took control. It started to fall into disrepair and was eventually turned into a park, which is its current state today. Most of the Roman monuments are gone, but a few still live in the park: two obelisks and a broken column.

The first obelisk, the Obelisk of Theodosius, is covered with hieroglyphs and, like practically every single “Roman” obelisk, was stolen from Egypt. This one dates back to 1450BC! It was moved to the Hippodrome in 390AD, and only the top 1/3 of it remains which is completely insane because it’s still huge. The rest was damaged, they think, during transportation and re-erection… and my response to that is, DUH! What do you expect when you try to move a 60m tall piece of granite???

Base of the obelisk. It shows Theodosius crowning the winners of chariot races

Serpentine Column

The broken Serpentine Column is situated next to the obelisk. This was built in the 400s BC by the Greeks after a battle victory, and supposedly it’s made from the melted-down shields of the Persian soldiers who they defeated. It was 8 meters high, and the twists in the column are the bodies of three serpents, formerly with heads that held a golden bowl. Unfortunately, it was plundered 300 years ago, and this little stump is what remains, though they did manage to find a piece of one of the serpent heads.

Finally, the Constantine Obelisk sits on the other side of the column. It’s a bit sad looking now, and I’ll give you one guess why… That’s right, it was plundered! It seems like everything in the Roman universe is somehow tainted by theft. It was built in the 10th century by Constantine, and that sad stone exterior used to be covered with gilded bronze plates that depicted the military triumphs of his grandfather, Emperor Basil I. During the Crusades, these were stolen and melted down.

The very sad looking Constantine Obelisk

There used to be many other monuments in the Hippodrome. Many of them were probably stolen before they were placed there, and later they were stolen again to be placed elsewhere. The whole concept of stealing a monument still just baffles me. How? And why? And how?? “Ah, this million-ton bronze sculpture would look fantastic in my garden, right next to the million-ton pointy rock that I acquired in Egypt. Men! Load it up!” That’s how I imagine those decisions took place. That was the ancient way I guess.

The Hippodrome also contains a not-stolen and not-Roman gift from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II after he visited in the late 1800s. Eh. He probably stole it from someone. Anyway, it’s a fountain with a beautiful gold mosaic ceiling. I don’t know about you, but no one’s ever given me a gift like that. Also, what to do with it? “Thank you, Kaiser, for this wonderful gift. We will put it… uhhh… in the Hippodrome! Right in the center of the city and mostly because we have a bunch of open space there so why not.”

German Fountain. They built it in Germany, deconstructed it, shipped it, and reconstructed it here.

Looking up into the German Fountain

Constantine’s Great Palace was right next to the Hippodrome, and almost nothing remains… except for some amazing mosaics that were discovered in the 1930s underneath shops in the nearby Bazaar. More mosaics were found in the 50s, and they were brought together to form the Mosaic Museum. I’m personally a huge fan of mosaics, so I was completely sold on going. The most substantial mosaics formed the floor of a courtyard in the palace and date back to 450AD.

The Bazaar where the Mosaic Museum is located

They estimate that the floor used 75-80 million cubes with about 40,000 per square meter. They’re very small, about 5mm per side, and that allows for some spectacular detail. It also must have taken forever to make. The main part of the mosaic is composed of a series of scenes of varying subject matter: people hunting, animals fighting, mythological stories, pictures of rural life, etc. It’s pretty spectacular. I can’t even imagine seeing it in its original form with columns lining the sides. I bet you were even allowed to walk on it back then.

So tiny!

The grand mosaic floor

Check out the detail!

The surviving portion of the floor is about 250 square meters… and guess how big they think the entire thing was? SEVEN TO EIGHT times that size. That’s more than the area of 1.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools. How do you even start that project? How do you make images that actually look how they’re supposed to look?? I thought that painting was hard on a large scale, but this is next level.

The Mosaic Museum

Some mythological creatures, some animals devouring other animals… the usual.

I seriously don’t understand how they made these

The main portion of the Grand Palace once stood on the site of the famous Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, when I visited, it was closed for renovations and I don’t want to think about it or I’ll be sad. The mosque was completed in 1616AD after only 7 years of construction! That may seem like a long time, but when you think about the fact that so many of the world’s epic churches took centuries to complete, it was basically finished in the blink of an eye.

There are six minarets, and this is what the Imams (worship leaders) used to climb to sing the Call to Prayer. Five times a day, right before the five Muslim prayer times (dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, night), the Imams sing to invite people to come to the mosque to pray. Back in the pre-loudspeaker days, the Imams would climb to the top to sing, but now they just use a microphone that’s connected to the speakers in the minarets. Kind of a bummer in my opinion. The five daily prayers each take about 5-10 minutes and are meant to purify the soul, teach discipline and humility, and remind you to think about God throughout the day.

With the construction, only the courtyard leading into the mosque was open. At least that was something. I’m sure the inside isn’t that cool anyway (lies I tell to myself. I’m sure it’s amazing).

Ignore this man who walked right in front of my picture

Ceilings around the courtyard

Between the Blue Mosque and another iconic structure that I’ll talk about in a later post, Hagia Sophia, is Sultan Ahmet Park. This is the site of the old Roman Baths of Zeuxippus (those Romans have to have their baths!), and there are Turkish bathhouses nearby that you can still visit today.

Sultan Ahmed’s tomb, located next to the Blue Mosque

It was under restoration when I was there, so I couldn’t go in, but you can see how crazy intricate even just the outside is

Blue Mosque from Sultan Ahmed Park

More Blue Mosque

Me, kind of with but mostly in front of the Blue Mosque (this is what happens when you ask strangers for pictures)

Hagia Sophia

With my Old Town tour basically finished, I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather (sarcasm… it was still gross out) and go on a Bosphorus boat cruise. Why? Don’t ask me. These are things that you should do on a nice, pretty, clear day. But sometimes opportunities present themselves at less-than-ideal times. I got a good deal on the ticket, so I went despite the weather. Enjoy the pictures and pretend that it’s not cloudy or foggy or gross.

Pretending I’m not cold

Dolmabahce Mosque

Dolmabahce Palace

Hagia Sophia and the old city walls

Topkapi Palace

More city walls and palace views

Failed attempt to take a night photo with my phone camera