The 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.
Two pieces of commemorative art are especially important in relation to Grunwald. Firstly, there is the great painting by the Krakowian artist Jan Matejko. This painting is the centrepiece of the Polish national iconography and is the most famous and celebrated example of the artist’s endeavour to provide Poland with the standard visual representations of its key historical events. Unfortunately, you will have to go to the National Museum in Warsaw to see it.
However, while in Krakow you can visit the Grunwald Monument which is, logically enough, to be found in Plac Matejki. This monumental representation of the battle in stone was dedicated in 1910 by the great patriot Ignacy Paderewski upon the occasion of its 500th anniversary – an example of the capacity of the Austro-Hungarians to tolerate a certain degree of Polish nationalism. The Nazis, of course, destroyed the original as soon as they got the chance; what you see now is a 1976 reconstruction. Below the Grunwald monument is the much more modest Monument to the Unknown Soldier, complete with Eternal Flame.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Parks, gardens and green spacesThough Krakow is on the whole a dense and compact city, it’s not short of natural beauty and green spaces in which to relax (or, if you prefer, exert yourself). First and foremost is the Planty. This almost continuous strip of green, almost completely encircling the Old Town, ensures that entering or leaving the centre is always a minor event.
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.