The 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. The monument to the Jesuit priest and king’s confessor Piotr Skarga (1536-1612), installed in 2001, has been much criticised for making an extremely important Polish spiritual leader and historical figure look more like a modern superhero. It is, many have also claimed, a poorly executed work out of place in what are, it must be admitted, extremely dignified surroundings.
The ire of the Krakowian defenders of culture stems from the great historical significance of Skarga himself. Born in Grojec in 1536, he later studied at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow before taking up a position as rector of a parish school in Warsaw. The historical significance of his career really began, however, upon his joining the Society of Jesus and his successful campaign to convert Protestants to Roman Catholicism in Vilnius, making him the first and key figure in the Polish Counter- Reformation. After moving to Krakow and becoming court chaplain to King Sigismund III Vasa, his influence on religious matters in Poland became considerable. Matejko’s famous painting, Skarga’s Sermon (1862), depicts the priest in full declamatory flight before the king and his court, and provides a flavour of the ideal Skarga of the Polish imagination: the powerful orator, forthright in condemning the sin, vice, corruption and hypocrisy of the court and governing classes (though he was was a passionate supporter of the monarchy itself). But there is more to Skarga than this: many of his writings are cornerstone Polish classics. His erudition, style, forthrightness, patriotism and deep religious conviction ensure that Skarga occupies a distinguished place in the literature and history of Poland. He died in Krakow in 1612 and is buried in the crypt of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, inside which there is a rather more traditional representation of Poland’s great Jesuit than can be found outside.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Krakow ZOOWhether you’re into zoos or not, as far as they go this is a good one: pleasant, interesting and small enough to be got round without knocking yourself out, maintained to very high standards by a clearly dedicated and professional staff and situated in as beautiful a spot - in the thick of the Wolski Woods - as just about any zoo in Europe.
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.
Collegium MaiusThis 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.
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.
Krakow moundsDramatic mounds - or manmade hills – are a Krakowian speciality, and one of the things that gives the city its particular visual identity and atmosphere. The local liking of these is prehistoric in origin though are now four main examples. The Krakus Mound to the north and the Wanda Mound to the south commemorate legendary figures of the eighth century.
The Kosciuszko MoundThis dramatic spot, with its commanding view of the city, is a great symbol of Polish patriotism as it is dedicated to Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), a hero of the Polish (and, indeed American) struggle for independence. It was raised constructed between 1820-23, inspired by the much older Krak and Wanda mounds. Its construction was itself a great patriotic endeavour, including the transportation of earth from battlefields on which the general himself had fought.
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.
St. Florian's Gate & St. FlorianOne of the most important architectural landmarks in the Old Town, and one of the most important Gothic towers anywhere in the country, St. Florian’s gate was once joined by a bridge to the Barbican as part of Krakow’s medieval fortification system. The original gate was built in stone before 1307, heightened in brick in the 15th century and acquired its Baroque roof around 1660 (estimates of the date vary).
Plac MariackiOne of the most beautiful and magical little spots In the whole of Krakow, Plac Mariacki could not be more central yet still somehow manages to produce an atmosphere of unhurried calm. Essentially a courtyard, it has had its present appearance since 1802, when the Austrians closed down what had been the cemetery of St. Mary’s Parish
Rakowicki cemeteryThe Rakowicki Cemetery is as beautiful as it is historically significant, and is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time to visit – especially if you happen to be in town on 1/2 November the All Souls/All Saints days when Krakowians remember their dead – loved ones and national heroes alike.
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.
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.