Krakow is the second biggest city in Poland and dates back to the 7th century. And you can tell! Despite our bumpy start to our time in Krakow, we really liked the city. We stayed on the outskirts of the old town centre which was very convenient – nearly everything we wanted to see was within walking distance.
We found our way to Rynek Główny, the main town square, which is full of medieval buildings and has the old Cloth Hall and 13th century town hall tower right in the middle. The town hall itself was destroyed in the 19th century by the Austrians, but you can still go up the tower for a view over Krakow. There are also displays inside the tower which tell you a bit about Krakow’s history and feature some costumes from different time periods.
We were pleased to see that Sandeman’s offered a free walking tour in Krakow, and our guide was fantastic. He attempted to teach us a few words in Polish (lost cause, really) and knew what he was talking about. One of the most interesting buildings we went through on the walk was the Collegium Maius, the oldest university building in Krakow. It was completed in 1400, has a beautiful courtyard and also features a museum which holds treasures such as the instruments of Copernicus and the first globe which includes America. Unfortunately, if I remember correctly, the museum was closed while we were there.
We also walked past a couple of the gates in the old city walls, such as the Barbican, and saw the house that Pope John Paul II used to stay in when he visited Krakow (where he went to university and spent much of his adult life before becoming Pope). We also visited Wawel Castle (both at the end of our walking tour, and the next day during daylight), which was built by King Casimir III the Great in the 14th century. We didn’t go inside, but walked around the courtyard and buildings including the spectacular Wawel Cathedral. Quite spectacularly, there is a wrought iron dragon below the castle walls which actually breathes fire at night!
One of the most impressive places we visited while in Krakow was the Wieliczka salt mine. It was opened in the 13th century and was producing salt until 2007, although commercial mining discontinued in 1996. The spectacular thing about it, though, are the chapels and statues sculpted into the salt and rock by the miners. In some cases sculptues have been created within natural caves, and in other places the caves themselves have been dug out by the miners. There is even a huge ‘cathedral’ within the caves, which has artworks sculpted by modern artists.
On our last day before getting the bus out of Krakow we paid a visit to Oskar Schindler’s factory, which is now a museum about the holocaust in Poland, specifically Krakow, and Schindler’s work saving Jews through his factory. I was a bit surprised that the museum, contrary to the movie Schindler’s List (although I was about 13 when I saw the movie so forgive my memory if it’s failing me), emphasised that Oskar’s actions to save the Jewish employees at his factory were initially motivated by profit. By the end of the war, however, Oskar had spent virtually all his money saving his Jewish employees.
The museum is different in one aspect to nearly every other holocaust memorial or museum I have been to (with the exception of the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin) in that I felt it gave a very human factor to the holocaust and Nazi occupation. Other museums achieve this satisfactorily, but Schindler’s Museum and the Topography of Terror museum both do very good jobs, I thought, of portraying the human experience.
From there it was a race to the bus depot to buy bus tickets back to Ostrava (this time in an actual coach), from which point we got a train on to Prague.