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The city of Kraków, also spelt Cracow, is one of the (if not the) most popular tourist destinations in Poland. The city has a population of approximately 760,000, making it the second largest in the country and approximately 8 million additional people live within a 100km radius of the centre. It lies on the Vistula River in the Lesser Poland region and is one of Poland's oldest cities, dating back to the 7th century. Kraków has, throughout its history, been one of Poland's leading academic, cultural and economic centres.

Above: The Renaissance Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) on Kraków's main square (Rynek Główny).

The earliest mention of Kraków in historical records dates from the middle of the 10th century. It had been a busy trading route on the Vistula River for around 300 years until an attack by the Mongols in 1241. By before the year 992, it is known to have been incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland and in the year 1000, it became a Bishopric. In 1038, it became a capital and the polish kings used the city's Wawel Castle as their residence. During the middle ages, the population reached 30,000. In 1364, the Kraków Academy was founded, which increased the city's importance within Europe. The Academy was later to become Jagiellonian University, one of today's most renowned universities in this part of the world. During the 14th and 15th century, the city was developed further with investment resulting in a number of Gothic churches and secular buildings that can still be seen today, At the beginning of the 16th century, many of the main buildings were rebuilt in the Renaissance style. However, the city's status was reduced somewhat in 1611 when King Sigismund III moved his capital to Warsaw, but Wawel Cathedral remained the pace where successive kings of Poland were crowned and entombed and the city continued with the construction of further elegant buildings. The city suffered physical damage during the wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. Under the Partition of Poland in the 18th century, Kraków came under Austrian rule, which did allow for some autonomy, and it began to take on the role of the spiritual capital of the Polish people. Unlike Warsaw, the city was lucky in that it escaped significant damage during the two World Wars and so today has a well-preserved medieval centre containing many original buildings. In 1978, the Historic Centre of Kraków was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was named as a European Capitals of Culture for the year 2000, alongside eight other European cities.

The thumbnail gallery below shows photos of Wawel Hill. Evidence of settlements here go back as far as the stone age. By around the 9th century AD, the tribal state of the Vistulanians built a fortified bailey on the hill. It was replaced over the years by a series of buildings, including the Renaissance castle and Gothic cathedral which can be seen here today. The Wawel Royal Castle was once the centre of political and cultural life in Poland and is a symbol of national identity. The Wawel cathedral (in full, 'The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus') is over 900 years old and was once the site of coronations and royal burials; today it is regarded by Roman Catholic Poles as a spiritual shrine. In addition to the castle and the cathedral (which has a museum adjacent to it), there is an archaeological exhibition to see here on Wawel Hill and the ensemble of buildings are all surrounded by impressive fortifications which have been demolished, and reconstructed several times since the middle ages.

North of Wawel Hill lies the old city of Kraków, which is shown in the thumbnail gallery below. The centrepiece of the old city is the large main market square(Rynek Główny). The square was laid out when the city received its new municipal charter in 1257. The centrepiece of the square is the Cloth Hall, an elaborate Renaissance building which replaced an earlier Gothic market hall. Today, the lower level contains an array of cafés and souvenir shops and its upper level contains the Gallery of Polish Painting. In one corner of the main market square stands the imposing Church of St Mary (completed in 1347), which was built by the citizens of the city to rival the Royal Cathedral on Wawel Hill. The building represents an important example of Polish historical architecture and contains exceptional pieces of artworks, including a famous wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz). Every hour, a bugle call from its spire peters out after four short notes, as it did one day centuries ago when the city look-out attempted to blow a warning call that the Mongols were about to attack and whilst doing so, was struck by an arrow in the throat. Also around the square sits the City Hall Tower, the only remaining part of the former City Hall, as well as several other churches. The square is one of the largest in Europe and during the summer months, surrounded by outdoor cafes alongside the many shops, museums, art galleries and historic sights, which also include some beautiful Renaissance and Baroque residences. Beyond the immediate vicinity of the main market square lies a fairly compact historic city centre with a myriad of sights which is best seen on foot. The old streets are a joy to explore with further houses, shops, museums (including the Czartoryski Museum which contains works by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt), more churches and smaller squares all of which were once surrounded by a double ring of walls. Whilst most of the ramparts were pulled down in the 19th century, still standing today is the medieval Barbican (1498-9) and the medieval Florian Gate which it was built to protect; these lie along the old Royal Coronation Route.

South of Wawel Hill lies the historic Kazimierz district [Photos below] with its preserved Jewish quarter. For many centuries it was a place where Christian and Jewish cultures lived side by side. However, the local Jewish population was forcibly relocated in 1941 by the German occupying forces into the Kraków ghetto, across the river in Podgórze.


References/Further Reading:

1. In Your Pocket (Downloadable Guide) here

2. Information from the City of Kraków here

3. Historical timeline of the city on Kraków Travel website here (site contains other useful information)

4. UNESCO World Heritage Site information here

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