This quiet little spot is one of the jewels of Krakow, whether or not you’re an architecture buff is not to be missed. Built in 1492-7, this is one of the best preserved medieval university buildings in the whole of Europe and in its day a lively centre of Renaissance culture, with Copernicus himself being among its alumni. The exquisite, balconied courtyard has a cloister with star vaulting and carved columns and in the centre there is a Baroque well-head decorated with the arms of Poland, Krakow, Queen Jadwiga and King Wladyslaw Jagiello. On the ground floor is the paraphernalia-stuffed Alchemy room and a stairway leading to the main rooms, which are on the first floor. The luxuriously furnished and panelled Aula (hall) was completed in the early 16th century and the Stuba Communis (common room) has a fine view of the street, star vault and spiral staircase.
During WW II the Nazis did their usual thing and closed the university down, renaming it the Institute for the Study of the Eastern Territories and eventually carrying off a selection of the building’s prized possessions. However, since the war it’s been used as a museum of the university and its collections, and there are still plenty of important historic objects to be seen here. These include four 14-15th century university maces, prints, furniture and painted portraits of various kings and professors who, in these parts, almost amount to the same thing. Though it’s right in the middle of the Old Town, and very much on the tourist route, this remains a calm, quiet and inspiring place in which to really get a sense of Krakow’s Polish Renaissance heritage.
The Wanda MoundAt about the same time as the Krakus Mound was being raised, the Wanda Mound was going up in what was to become Nowa Huta (at which point any medieval ghosts or spirits lingering there must have been surprised to find themselves adjacent to one of the largest steelworks in Europe).
The battle of Grunwald and its monumentsThe Battle of Grunwald, the most famous in Poland’s long and chequered history, took place in 1410. It is impossible to overstate the significance of the outcome of this battle, which took place in the context of the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Victory in made Poland-Lithuania the major power in Eastern Europe and, equally satisfying from the perspective of Polish nationalist history, the leadership of the Teutonic knights was utterly devastated, most being killed or captured.
KazimierzOriginally founded in 1355 as a separate town with it’s own defences and town hall, Kazimierz was originally Krakow’s competitor. This sense of separateness was heightened in the 15th century, when Krakow’s Jewish population was moved here by King Jan Olbracht.
Monuments and pigeonsAs far as those monuments are concerned, we’re talking about the great Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) , St. Mary’s Church ( Mariacki) St. Adalbert’s Church and the statue of Adam Mickiewicz. And if allowing your children to wallow among flocks of winged vermin is your wont – hey, this is a free country! – there are always the pigeons.
The ''New Sukiennice'' projectNobody needs telling by now that the cloth hall (Sukiennice) in the heart of the Market Square is an architectural and cultural beauty beyond prize. It was decided some years ago, however, that the history and beauty of the thing were not matched by its state of repair or technical facilities. And so, with help from the Norway Fund and the ‘financial mechanism’ of the EEA (European Economic Area) was born ‘project new Sukiennice’.
The Pilsudski MoundThe great Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935), who led Poland to its longed for independence after WWI, is commemorated here, along with those who lost their lives in the long struggle for Polish freedom between 1772 and 1918. The mound was raised, between 1934-36, for the most part by Krakowians themselves, as had been the case with the earlier Kosciuszko memorial.
Nowa HutaNowa Huta (‘New Steelworks’), about 10km from the centre of town, was planned as a purpose-built industrial suburb on confiscated church land. In this sense it was an attempt, started in 1949, to create a Renaissance-inspired, communist version of the ideal city, which would also have the benefit of parachuting an atheistic working class into the heart of historic, bourgeois Poland.
The Jagiellonian UniversityKrakowians are justly proud of their famous Jagiellonian University (UJ), one of the most distinguished institutions in all Poland and a core element of the Krakowian identity. It was originally founded in 1364, making it the second oldest university in Central Europe (after Prague’s Charles University) and one of the oldest in Europe as a whole.
Collegium NovumThis fine and imposing Neo-Gothic building is the seat of the Jagiellonian’s Rector and houses much of the university’s administrative apparatus; as such, it is the most visible symbol of UJ’s status and significance in the life of the city. Situated rather dramatically on Planty, it was opened in 1887 following the destruction by fire of its predecessor, Jerusalem College. Its official opening served as a pretext for a symbolic patriotic demonstration, with delegations attending from all three partitioned parts of Poland.
Fountains and water featuresThe dearth of watery attractions in the centre of this often arid city (at least in the summertime, and we will not mention the recent floods by the Vistula) is finally being addressed. The conversion of two of the Old Town’s formerly neglected central spaces (Maly Rynek and Plac Sczepanski) into quiet oases in the last couple of years has seen water brought a little more into the heart of things.
Town Hall TowerA centrepiece of the Market Square, this is all that survives from the old Town Hall, most of which fell victim to modernization frenzy in 1820. The tower itself originated in the 1380s and was raised higher in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Its characteristic Baroque helm dates from the seventeenth century.
The Schindler FactoryThe story of Oskar Schindler and the eleven hundred Jews he saved from the Nazis is, of course, well known. Steven Spielberg saw to that when he made Schindler's List (much of which was filmed in Podgorze and Kazimierz). This newly refurbished site was inaugurated by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in June 2010. The state-of-the-art museum, which is part of the broader Krakow City Historical Museum, in situated in Schindler's former enamelware factory in the Podgorze district.
Market Square - Igor Mitoray's Giant Head sculptureIgor Mitoray (b.1944) is a Polish-German sculptor who studied painting at the Krakow Academy of Art. He is best known for monumental, classically-derived anatomical pieces (often giant heads), many of which have been scattered across European cities and beyond as public art. He works in teracotta, bronze and marble.
The Grey House, called Kamienica Szara in PolishThis house, which has to be one of the most beautiful and distinguished in Krakow, originated in the 13th century and features Gothic vaults, Renaissance ceilings and a large Baroque portal in its façade, this latter a legacy of a 17th century remodel. It is the oldest burgher house in the city and has had some very famous residents throughout its long history, including the first of the elected Polish kings, Henry de Valois.
SightseeingCastles and cathedrals, dungeons and dragons, an extraordinary Jewish heritage, papal history, art treasures galore, an enormous (and enormously beautiful) market square and much more – Krakow’s Old Town has the lot. Not for nothing did UNESCO designate it, along with the neighbouring Wieliczka salt mine, a World Heritage site in 1978.
PodgorzeJust acrross the river from Kazimierz lies the Podgorze district, another formerly separate town with a distinctive atmosphere now incorporated into the big city. There’s plenty to see here, and a lot of history, so it’s well worth a visit. It’s now getting the full galloping gentrification and regeneration treatment, being just over the bridge from Kazimierz, so its worth seeing now, before those processes play themselves out.