Travels & Traditions: Krakow, Poland - #509

BURT WOLF: Krakow is the third largest city in Poland with a population of 750,000. And for hundreds of years it has been one of the great cultural centers of Eastern Europe.

Krakow is a compact city with almost all of its major attractions within easy walking distance of each other. And the place to start walking is the Main Market Square. It’s one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. For centuries it was at the center of the commercial routes used by traders working between northern and southern Europe. The square has been the city’s commercial and cultural center for almost a thousand years. Today it’s lined with dozens of shops, flower stalls, restaurants and cafes.

The impressive houses and palaces that surround the square were once owned by Krakow’s wealthiest merchants and royal families.

The palace at number 35 is now the Museum of the City of Krakow and houses a collection of paintings and decorative arts that present the city’s cultural history.

Three of the buildings on the square have been turned into Wierzynek the city’s most historic restaurant.

In the center of the market square is the Cloth Hall. The original building was put up in the 1200s as a covered market where textiles were sold. It was replaced by the present structure during the 1500s. The building is still filled with shops only these days they sell folk art, leatherwork, amber and silver jewelry.

The arcades on the sides of the building are home to a number of cafes including the Noworolski with its slightly faded turn of the century elegance and matching clientele.


BURT WOLF: Every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter opens a small window in the nearby tower of St. Mary’s Church and plays a short tune.

After a few notes there is a pause, then the music continues.

The tradition commemorates a time when a watchman began blowing his trumpet to warn the tower that the Tartars were attacking. As he started to send the signal he was hit by an arrow. It took a few moments to find a replacement and continue the alarm. Today’s brief pause is a reminder of that event.


BURT WOLF: When prehistoric tribes were looking for a nice place to live they always preferred a spot that was easy to defend, higher than the surrounding area and near a source of fresh water -- Wawel Hill overlooking the Vistula River is a perfect example and people have been living on this hill for over 10,000 years.

For centuries Wawel Hill was the spiritual and intellectual center of Polish culture. The Wawel Cathedral has been here since the year 1,000. The chapel also contains the tomb of King Kazimerz Jagiello, one of the great heroes of Polish history.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1973, a group of sixteen scholars opened the tomb to investigate its contents. Within a short time all sixteen died. The word around town was that the King had put a curse on them for disturbing his sleep.

BURT WOLF: At the center of the Cathedral is the shrine of St. Stanislaus, who was the bishop of Krakow in the 11th century.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Boleslaw the Bold, was the king at the time, and it appeared that he abducted another man’s wife and smuggled her into the castle. Well, this upset the Bishop so much that he decided to punish the king by stopping the mass every time the king came into the cathedral.

BURT WOLF: The king then decided to punish the bishop by chopping him up into small pieces. Then the bishop decided to punish the king by becoming Saint Stanislaus the patron saint of Poland.

The Bishop’s tomb is the nations alter -- the place where the coronation ceremonies for Polish kings have taken place for centuries. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At the top of the cathedral’s tower is the Zygmunt Bell. They say if you are holding the clapper of the bell you are holding the bell’s heart and at that moment all issues in connection of your own heart will be resolved with the possible exception of your cholesterol level.

BURT WOLF: Next to the Cathedral is the Wawel Castle, which was built in the early 1500s. It was the time of the Italian Renaissance and what was going on in Florence was being felt in Krakow. It was Krakow’s Golden Age. The architects who designed most of Wawel Castle came from Italy and they used Italian masons and sculptors to execute their designs. You can feel the Italian style throughout the building.

The Royal Apartments contain an unusual collection of 16th century tapestries that were produced by the finest artists in Antwerp and Brussels. One group presents the story of Noah and his arc. At the time tapestries were used to cover the walls of every important room and were continually changed in accordance with the season and important events. 

The Queen at the time came from Italy and she influenced the court in Krakow in many ways -- the architecture, the art, the music, the clothing; even the food showed her Italian preferences.

She introduced the court kitchen to potatoes and tomatoes which had recently been brought to northern Italy from the New World by Columbus. She also showed her palace cooks how to prepare cabbage. All three ingredients, potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage are now central to Polish cooking. 

The castle also houses a collection of Turkish tents which were captured when Polish troops broke the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.

Most students of history tend to think of the siege of Vienna as a military and political event, but for me it’s greatest significance was as a gastronomic occasion.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: After the Polish Army had saved Vienna, a Viennese baker who had warned of the attack was given the right to bake something to commemorate the event and to receive a royalty on each one he sold. He decided to make a roll in the shape of a crescent like the crescent on the Turkish flag to show that the Viennese could devour the Turks at any time. And that is how the croissant was born.


BURT WOLF: Starting in the 11th century, Krakow became interested in the quality of its architecture, and over the centuries it has been able to preserve examples from each of the most important periods. As a result, Krakow offers an outdoor textbook for European architectural history.

An excellent example of the Romanesque style is the tiny St. Adalbert’s Church in the center of the Market Square. It was built in the 1100s. Romanesque buildings are massive with few windows. Semicircular arches are used for doors and arcades. Rectangular spaces are often topped with a half cylinder called a barreled vault. Poor old St. Adalbert’s is sinking. You can see the original front door which is about three yards below the present street level. 

The next architectural style to evolve is known as the Gothic. Krakow’s St. Katherine’s Church is a good example. The Gothic style was popular from the middle of the 1100s to the end of the 1500s. The name Gothic was introduced by a group of Italian writers who used it as an insult. Barbarian Gothic tribes had destroyed the beauty of ancient Rome, and they felt this new style was destroying it all over again -- so they called it Gothic.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the biggest problems facing medieval stone workers was how to support heavy ceilings over wide spaces. The earlier Romanesque solution had been to use massive amounts of stone but that created a great deal of weight and pressure pushing down and out and often caused the buildings to collapse.

BURT WOLF: Krakow’s St. Katherine’s Church is an example of how Gothic architects solved the problem by using ribbed vaults that supported a ceiling of thin stone panels. The ribbing reduced the weight of the ceiling. The round arches of the barrel vault were replaced by the pointed Gothic arches that did a better job of distributing the weight. The arches also allowed them to introduce larger windows. In addition, they developed the flying buttress -- a series of half-arches that stood outside and leaned against the upper exterior of the building and carried the weight of the ceiling. Gothic masons used this technique to build larger and taller churches than ever before.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Since the Golden Age of Krakow and the Italian Renaissance took place at the same time and there were lots of Italian architects working in Krakow you’d think the city would be filled with Renaissance churches but in fact there is not a single Renaissance church in Krakow. The reason is that the Gothic style was so popular and they built so many Gothic churches that they didn’t need a new church for over 200 years.

BURT WOLF: Isaac’s Synagogue however is a fine example of Renaissance architecture. The objective of Renaissance architecture was to re-create the ancient classic culture of Rome and to illustrate harmony and balance in the design of the building -- proportion was everything. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The legend of Isaac tells of a poor man who dreamed of a great treasure hidden somewhere in Poland. He went searching for that treasure unsuccessfully. When he got home he discovered that all along the treasure had been hidden behind his oven. And he used part of the treasure to pay for this synagogue.

BURT WOLF: The next architectural style was the Baroque. It was the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. The objective of Baroque architecture was to build a church so elaborate and so ornate that it overwhelmed the observer and made it clear that this was where God really belonged. For a Baroque architect more was never enough.

After the Baroque came the Neo-Classic. It was the architecture of the Age of Reason. A good example of the Neo-classic in Krakow is the Slowackiego Theater -- reminiscent of the opera houses of Paris and Vienna. Neo-Classic looks back to the forms of ancient Greece and Rome. Even the curtain is a major work of art.

The building opened in 1893 and was the first building in Krakow to have electric lights. While I was in Krakow I saw a performance of Aida here that was staged in a contemporary setting.


BURT WOLF: There are over two and a half million works of art in Krakow and most of them can be seen in the city’s public museums.

In the center of the main square is Krakow’s National Museum which houses a collection of paintings and sculptures by 19th century Polish artists. At the time of its construction in 1883, Poland had been divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia. The museum became a site for the preservation of Poland’s national heritage. There are a number of huge historical paintings that were used to illustrate important moments in Polish history. Their size was key to impressing the viewers with the significance of the events.

A small but interesting museum belongs to the Archdiocese of Krakow. It houses a collection of religious art including some of the oldest surviving Polish painting. The building also contains the actual room in which Pope John Paul II lived before he became Pope.

PROF. ZDZISLAW KLIS ON CAMERA: Oh it is just a place which looks like in 1952 when Father Wojtyla was an ordinary priest in our Diocese. And he shared that place with his professor Father Staroweijski. He wrote his doctorate here, small place, with desk, with some kinds of wardrobes, a collection of pottery and the pictures as a child and two different skis.

BURT WOLF: Was he a good skier?

PROF. ZDZISLAW KLIS ON CAMERA: I think so. I’ve never experienced.


BURT WOLF: Krakow’s main commercial street is Florianska, which was originally part of the trade route between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. As early European trade routes developed, Krakow found itself situated at a key point, and for hundreds of years it maintained substantial commercial contact with the ancient Roman Empire. One of the commodities traded at the time was amber. Amber was thought to bring its wearer good luck, youth and longevity -- it is Poland’s national stone.

In medieval times each part of the town belonged to a different craft guild and its members were responsible for maintaining the defensive walls and gates in their neighborhood.

The Florianska Gate is the longest section of ancient city wall still standing. During the 1800s, most of the great cities of Europe pulled down their ancient walls and gates to make room for commercial development.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But even then, there were people who were opposed to the destruction of historical buildings. The lead player at the time was a professor at the University. But when his logical approach failed he came up with a rather unique bit of reasoning. He said that if the walls were taken down the wind from the north would blow through the city with such force that respectable women of delicate breeding would have their skirts blown up subjecting them to the most immodest of circumstances.

Walls are still up.


BURT WOLF: The people of Krakow are serious about eating and drinking, and having freed themselves from the perpetual gastronomic boredom that was imposed on the city by communism, they have returned to their culinary roots.

Krakow’s favorite street food is obwarzanki, a ring shaped roll sprinkled with poppy seeds. They also do mini bagels on a strip.

Krakow has a great love of cafes and coffee houses. My favorite was Camelot, which has an eat-in window. They are well known for their typical Polish cheesecake and apple cake.

And everyone in Poland seems to appreciate Piszinger, a half dozen or so layers of wafer with chocolate filling. It’s Poland’s gourmet answer to the KitKat.

Hawelka was established in 1876 as a shop dealing in high quality foods. Eventually it added a restaurant that specialized in traditional Polish dishes. A few examples: Bigos is a hunter’s stew, often considered the national dish of Poland -- game, smoked sausage, cabbage and sauerkraut.

Pierogi are boiled dumplings that come with dozens of different fillings from potatoes to cherries.

Krakow’s Old Town is filled with bars that offer a wide selection of the national drink which is vodka. Szara on the Main Market Square is a small charming restaurant with a perfect bar for tasting vodka.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The flavored vodkas should be served at room temperature -- chilling reduces their flavor. They also have a wonderful local drink called the flagship.

BURT WOLF: It’s made by slowly pouring vodka over thick pomegranate juice. It’s drunk as a quick shot. And the juice is so intense that it is the only flavor you sense.


BURT WOLF: The first mention of Krakow in writing appears in the diary of a Jewish trader from Cordoba Spain who came to Poland in 965 to buy salt, copper and silver. And there has been a relationship between Krakow and the Jews ever since. The old Jewish section of the city is called Kazimierz and was founded in the 14th century by King Kazimierz the Great.

The local graveyard is one of the oldest in Europe. Many of the tombs are marked with symbols that tell us something about the person buried below. Hands raised in prayer designate the grave of a member of a rabbinical family. Bowls and jugs are the symbols for people who worked in the synagogues. Snakes for doctors. A broken rose for those cut off too early. The small stones placed on top of the headstones signify that a visitor has come by and the departed is being remembered.

Part of the wall enclosing the graveyard is made of fragments of old headstones that had been crushed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Before the Second World War over 70,000 Jews loved in Krakow, now there are less than 100.

In the center of the district is the Galicia Jewish Museum. Galicia was the name given to a region of Eastern Europe that at different times was made up of different parts of Austria, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. But it was always a homeland for Eastern European Jews. The museum houses a collection of photographs by Chris Schwartz, an Englishman who founded the museum.

CHRIS SCHWARTZ ON CAMERA: This picture actually opens the exhibition. This picture was at Plaszow which was the site of the former slave labor camp. It was built on the site of two Jewish cemeteries. You’ll be familiar with the name Plaszow because it was featured in Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. If you go there now you’ll see only one stone left out of the hundreds that were here before. This stone remains. It’s a symbol of the random chance of survival.

There’s an incredible story about this photograph here. I was photographing in a place called (Starry Jarof) and this Polish fellow comes to me and says that his father-in-law had just died. Just after the war he had taken these tombstones from the Jewish Cemetery and had used them to pave the entrance to his house. Well it’s interesting he was then saying, “Well what do I do with them?” I said, “Look, there’s only one thing to do. Take them back to the Jewish Cemetery and when you are there say a good Catholic prayer and everything will be ok.”

This is the Synagogue at Wiecbork. At on time Weicbork had a community of 2,000 Jews. Today there aren’t any. This Synagogue during the Second World War was used as a stable by the Nazis and it’s been renovated since then. As you can see it’s completely beautiful. A remarkable testament to the Jewish culture that existed here.

This last picture I’m showing you maybe something of a surprise to see in an exhibition about Kazimierz Jews. It’s actually taken in a Catholic Cemetery. You can see all the crosses. It’s the tombstone of a woman called Maria Dzik who died in 1976. During the Second World War she took in a young Jewish girl. At the risk of her own life, saved this young girl’s life. Her name is Basia. Then when Dzik died, Basia put this little monument next to the cross. And here you’ve got the menorah. See you’ve got the two great symbols the menorah and the cross side by side. And it’s nice to finish on a really positive note.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Catholics saving Jews.


BURT WOLF: Almost every night, the restaurants of Kazimierz, offer concerts of Jewish music.

And every summer an extraordinary concert takes place in the streets. Experts on Jewish music come from all over the world attend. It is a festival that attracts an audience of over 10,000 people. It is a concert that celebrates life and the history of the Jews of Krakow who have been part of city’s history for centuries.

From Krakow, Poland, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m Burt Wolf.