Thursday, September 25, 2014

Krakow, Poland - Things to See and Do

History from early medieval times through the post World War II period has left its mark on the architecture of Krakow, Poland. The castle area, Jewish quarter and historic district are compact, laid out in a grid and easy to navigate on foot. The people are friendly, the food is good, there's lots to see making Krakow a very affordable and worthwhile place to visit.

Nikolaus Copernicus
Krakow was home to the famous astronomer Nikolaus Copernicus. During his lifetime, astronomers who developed theories of the universe which were contrary to the teachings of the church were severely punished. Copernicus developed a model of the universe which placed the sun in the center, but didn't have his work published until the last days of his life. The University area of Krakow contains a monument memorial to Nikolaus Copernicus.


A barbican is a fortified structure which lies just outside a city boundary. Barbicans were built during the middle ages and served as a front line of defense for the city. The city of Krakow has a well preserved barbican which is a rarity as not many are left.

Wawel Castle
 The country of Poland and the city of Krakow have a history riddled with occupation by outsiders. The Wawel Castle reflects this history in its architecture. Just looking at the above photo, it is evident from the exterior construction materials and styles that the castle was constructed over a long period of time. The most recent portion, on the right hand side of the photo, was constructed during World War II and severed as a headquarters during the war.

The courtyard portion of the castle dates to the Renaissance period. Tours of the staterooms begin in the courtyard and proceed around the rooms inside this portion of the castle.

St. Mary's Cathedral

The trumpeter still plays every hour from the peak of St. Mary's Gothic Cathedral as a signal that all is well.

The Trumpeter of Krakow is a historical fiction children's book set in the middle ages. After a young boy and his family seek refuge within the city of Krakow after fleeing from the Tarters, he becomes the trumpeter.

The amazingly carved alter within the church stands much higher than this photo indicates. The figures in one of the panels are over 3 feet tall.

Inside, the walls and ceilings are covered with bright and beautiful decoration.

Church of Saints Peter and Paul
Krakow contains many churches including the Renaissance style church of Saints Peter and Paul shown above. This church is most famous for the statues of the apostles in the front and it occasionally gives nighttime orchestral concerts.

Franciscan Church
Pope John Paul is from Poland and spent lots of time in Krakow. His image is visible all over the city; as a statue outside the cathedral at the Wawel castle, as a statue inside the salt mine a 20 minute drive from the city, and on banners, plaques and postcards within the city.

The Franciscan Church contains a plaque on one of the pews stating that John Paul once sat here. Inside the walls were painted with large, bright geometric and floral designs in the Art Nouveau style.

Jewish Quarter
Long before World War II Krakow was a safe haven for Jewish people. When Jews were persecuted in other locations, they not only sought refuge in Krakow, but thrived.

Unfortunately we are all too aware of how that all changed during World War II. The Jewish population of Krakow was virtually wiped off the map. Concentration camps were too close and the horrors of war descended upon the city.

The photo above was taken outside the gates of Oscar Schlinder's factory. Schlinder was a German member of the Nazi party who ran a ceramics factory in Krakow during the war. Once he understood the horrific nature of what was happening around him, he went on a mission to hire and thereby protect as many Jewish people as possible. In comparison to the death toll his efforts were futile. However, he was able to save hundreds of lives and his efforts had lasting impacts on many generations of people. His story is told in the Hollywood movie Schindler's List. (Recommended for adults.)

The Jewish people of Krakow were imprisoned in an area of the city by a concrete wall. The rounded edges of top of the wall were built to resemble the tombstones found in Jewish cemeteries; an especially cruel mental tactic.

Today there is a small Jewish population living in Krakow. The area of the city contains many decorative wrought iron fences featuring Jewish symbols.

Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)
 The Sukiennice was built in the Renaissance style in the main square as a place for merchants to sell cloth.

Today the building is still used for sales; only the products now sold are items desired by tourists.

Polish Food
Poland is a northern country and therefore, potatoes, beets, cabbage, pork, and wheat (foods which grow in cold climates) were ingredients in many dishes.
 This beet root soup contained beets and dumplings filled with pork.

Stir-fried potatoes and pork were sold in the village square as fast food. In the background, a plate of pierogis is visible. Pierogis are the Polish version of ravioli. Basically they are stuffed with cheese, spinach, or pork and served without tomato sauce.

The city was filled with street vendors selling pretzels. Although they were in rings, they still tasted like pretzels.

Polish Folk Art
Much of Polish folk art and traditions are linked to Christianity. The images contained many bright colors and both orange and blue were prominent in many paintings.

Traditional Polish clothing consisted of a vest, skirt and jacket. Depending on the time frame and region of Poland, the styles were quite different. Some used embroidery, others lace, sequence, beads, or a combination. All were extensively adorned like the beaded vest in the above photo and the hat below.

Hand painting of eggs was perfected in Poland and the Folk Art museum contained a large display.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

About 20 minutes drive outside the city of Krakow there is a salt mine. Inside miners carved over 100 figures and panels into the salt rock.

This figure shows a miner burning off hazardous gas in the morning before other miners arrive for work. As you can imagine, this was the most dangerous job in the mine.

This child-sized elf is one of several which can be found in the mine.

This Bible scene is carved into the wall of one of the three underground cathedrals. The mine contains rooms large enough for banquets and each year it hosts special events such as bungee jumping and weddings.

Traveling is hands-on way to learn. One weekend trip can be packed with enough reading (signs and displays), history, science and PE to easily count as a week of school..... and when it's over, writing about it in a journal makes a nice keepsake.

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