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map Come with me on a walking tour of the Old Town of Cracow - Kraków in Polish - its Market Square, Royal Castle (Wawel pronounced VAH-VEL), University and other architectural treasures. Cracow was the capital of Poland from the 13th to the 17th century. It was fortunate to avoid the ravages of war during the last three hundred years, so its ancient buildings remain in their original state, designated a World Treasure by UNESCO However, except for a short fragment, the old walls were torn down in the 1830s and replaced with a delightful park - Planty - which entirely surrounds the old town. You can visit the old town only on foot, see How to get there.   Open the Photo-Tour in a separate window, then click back and forth between the two windows, so that you can see all the pictures in the same sequence as this guide.

We will start our sight-seeing exploration of Cracow at the north walls, at the Barbican. This red brick round bastion built in 1498 is one of the two remaining city fortifications. Immediately behind it stands the Florian Gate built in 1300. In those ancient times there was a drawbridge over the moat between them. The green lawns and colorful flower-beds of the wooded park stretches to the left and right around the city in place of the earlier walls and moat.

We pass through the narrow Florian Gate to enter the street of the same name. Look to the right and you will see one of the oldest hotels of the city - Hotel Pod Różą (Under the Rose) and just beyond it the Czartoryski Museum. It is well worth visiting to see its great historical collection of paintings and examples of Polish dress, and the works of goldsmiths, silversmiths, pottery makers, as well as Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine". Along the remaining wall fragment, to the right of the gate, many local artists display their works. Several old Renaissance style houses line Florianska street, including two smaller museums.

At the end of Florianska street, we enter the Rynek - the Market Square - surrounded by old Baroque houses. Today, many of them house restaurants to suit any taste or pocket-book. A long two story building, in classic Renaissance style, occupies it's center. Erected by the Cloth Merchants' Guild in the sixteenth century, it served as a market hall for the sale of textiles, hence it's name Sukiennice (SOOK-YE-NEETSE). Recently restored to its original glory, it now provides space for stalls selling folk art of the region, jewelry, and the usual tourist knick-knacks. The upper floor houses the National Portrait Gallery , which is well worth an hour of the tourist's time.
The Town Hall occupied one corner of the square, but today only it's tower remains, the rest of the building was torn down a hundred years ago to open up the Square..

The north-east corner of the square is dominated by St. Mary's Church Kosciół Mariacki (KOSH-CHOOL MAREE-ATZKI) Its two towers differ in height and style. A small gallery encircles the top of the taller one. In ancient times a guard watched over the town to warn the citizens in case of fire or the approach of an enemy. In 1241, an army of Tartar horsemen suddenly appeared out of the forest to the east. The guard repeatedly trumpeted the call to arms, until a Tartar arrow lodged in his throat in the middle of a note. To commemorate the brave guard, every hour a trumpet call - Hejnal (HAY-NAL) is sounded from the tower, the hubbub of noise dies down in the square as everyone listens.
The interior of the church is filled with art of various periods, from the Gothic to Baroque. Many tourists come to Cracow for one reason only, to see the marvelous altar carved in wood by Wit Stwosz (VEET STVOSH) in the 15th. century. This masterpiece of religious art is normally closed, to preserve it. It is opened only during High Mass and for a short period each day, at noon.

The streets radiating from the square maintain the old time character. Within a few blocks there are a dozen old churches ranging in style from Gothic to Rokoko. All of them warrant a visit.
Just one block from the corner behind the Town Hall Tower, you come to the ancient Jagellonian University. It is the second oldest university of Central and Eastern Europe and was founded in 1364 by King Casimir the Great. Its students included Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. The magnificent courtyard of Collegium Maius, with its balconies and carvings, should be visited, even by the tourist in a hurry. The university is host to Poland's greatest historical library in which many old documents are preserved, including the manuscripts and instruments of Nicolas Copernicus. A statue of the astronomer stands in the Planty, near one of the university entrances.
You should try to be there at noon when the doors open by the great clock above the door to the library. A parade of figures representing Rectors of the University in ancient garb circles around. A tour inside the old university includes the library and the museum, advance reservation is usually needed.

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Continue to Part 2, Royal Castle and Kazimierz.

 Tour of smaller towns in southern Poland

  Cracow Photoalbum
Tour Environs of Cracow
Very detailed guide to Cracow, building by building.
Official city web site, in English.
Home Army Museum dedicated to the fight against Nazi occupiers.

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Copyright © 2002 B. C. Biega. All rights reserved.

Last update August 2003