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.
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 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.
Sculpture of Piotr Skrzynecki outside Vis-à-visOn your perambulations around the square, you are likely to notice a life-sized sculpture of a rather rakish looking elderly gentleman sitting outside a bar called Vis-a-Vis. You may also notice that every now and then he is joined at his table by visitors having their pictures taken with him or seasoned and vaguely dissolute looking characters toasting his health.
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.
Market SquareEntering Krakow’s superb Market Square is never less that a pleasure, and often an inspiration – even for Krakowians who do it daily. For the visitor, it’s pure gravy.
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.
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 Krakus MoundOver in Podgorze you’ll find the Krakus Mound, in which according to legend the bones of Prince Krak or Krakus, legendary founder of Krakow, are interred. It was constructed in the eighth century, not long after Krak or Krakus had taken out the dragon who’d been bothering the populace.
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.
BielanyNot far from the centre of town, in the southern part of the Las Wolski forest park, lies the Camaldulensian church of Bielany, its magnificent façade rising high above the Vistula on Srebna Gora (Silver Mountain). This is the centrepiece of an extensive array of monastery buildings established in the seventeenth century by Mikolaj Wolski, Crown Marshall of Poland.
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.
The BarbicanThis bastion, built in 1498-9, is one of the most characteristic Krakowian sights, looking great since its recent renovation. A turreted ‘rondel’ with an inner courtyard, this is widely considered to be the most spectacular surviving example of its type in Central Europe.
Piotr Skarga and his statuesThe Place of St Mary Magdelene (plac sw. Marii Magdaleny), situated cosily between Kanonicza and Grodzka by the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. is a good place to rest up and take stock of things if you are circulating in the area – as you are likely to be at some stage. Here there are benches, a bizarre miniature water feature and a statue. It is the latter which has made this recently renovated little plaza, pleasant as it is, a site of cultural conflict and controversy.
WawelIf Krakow is the cultural, religious and patriotic centre of Poland, then Wawel Hill, overlooking the Old Town, is its heart. No site in the country offers a richer insight into Poland’s past and national mythology.
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.