Krakow, The Old Town and Castle

After lunch and with the sunshine getting the upper hand over the clouds we walked around the square and past the grand St Mary’s Church which has a tower where on the hour a bugle call sounds out.

We weren’t sure if there was a real bugler at the top providing the music or whether it was just a recording but there is a legend connected with this tune, which ends unexpectedly in the middle.  The story says that it was played by a guard during the Tatars’ invasion in the thirteenth century, who used it to warn citizens of an attack. He was shot in mid tune and since that day the melody breaks off just at the moment he died and then starts again a few seconds later when someone else picked up his bugle and carried on in his place.

Suffering invasion hasn’t been unusual for Poland, which has had an unlucky history of entertaining uninvited guests.  This is especially true of the last two hundred years because it has had the misfortune to sit between the two super powers of Germany in the west and Russia in the east, both bursting with testosterone and taking it in turns to beat the crap out of their unfortunate neighbour and the legacy of all of this aggression is quite plain to see.

Before this, the sixteenth century was Krakow’s golden age when it became established as a European centre of science, culture and the arts.  This didn’t last long however and in the seventeenth century there was a return to troubled times and after being invaded in turn by Russia, Prussia, Austria, Transylvania, Sweden, and France, it went through a phase of various forms of political control. These included being part of the Duchy of Warsaw, established by Napoleon, and becoming an ‘independent city’. However, for most of this time it fell under the sphere of influence of the Austrian Habsburg Empire, in the province of Galicia.

During the First World War, Józef Pilsudski set out to liberate Poland and the Treaty of Versailles established an independent sovereign Polish state for the first time in more than a hundred years. This only lasted until the Second World War, when Germany and the USSR partitioned the country, with German forces entering Krakow in September 1939.  This was catastrophic for the city and during this time many academics were imprisoned and murdered and historic relics and monuments were destroyed or looted although fortunately, because the Germans found it rather to their liking,  the city itself escaped total destruction.

Krakow is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of course and we walked around the square and then through the University gardens towards the Royal Castle at Wawel Hill and then climbed the steep path to the main gate and went inside.

We didn’t visit the state rooms or the museum on this occasion but we enjoyed the magnificent external views from within the courtyard and from outside the main castle walls and after that we walked around the outside of the Cathedral next door which is an interesting structure with a potpourri of architectural styles all belonging to different periods as towers, domes and statues as well as building extensions had been added randomly over the years.

From the top of the walls of the castle we could see the River Vistula looping its way around the city and providing a sort of protective cradle around the west and south.  This is the longest and one of the most important rivers in Poland at a little over a thousand kilometres in length, the eleventh longest in Europe, it has it’s source in the Carpathian Mountains and then continues to flow over the vast Polish plains passing through several large cities along its way before finally draining into the Baltic Sea in the north.

From the castle we walked back to the busy intersection where more trams were clattering past and then we followed the road out of the city centre back to Kazimierz through pot holed streets and abandoned buildings all screaming out for renovation and repair.  This place felt poor, the shops looked grateful for customers and the whole area had an authentic eastern 1960s European feel about it.  I am not sure why that should be because Poland receives millions of Euros in European Union subsidy so I couldn’t help but wonder what they must spend it all on.

In the EU budget for 2007-11 it turns out that Poland receives a net benefit of sixty-five billion euros and that is the largest subsidy of all.  To put that into some sort of perspective Greece is the second largest beneficiary at what seems in comparison a modest twenty-five billion.  Poland it seems is doing rather nicely out of European Union membership and judging by the pace of improvement I for one am dubious that it is being spent all that wisely.  For the record, eighteen out of twenty-seven member countries make a profit out of membership and the United Kingdom of course isn’t one of them because after Germany at eighty-six billion euros the UK makes a whopping contribution of fifty-seven billion.  The others that make a loss on membership are France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Finland.

After a drink at a pavement café where the girls wrapped themselves in blankets as the sun slipped away for the day we made our way back to the Crocodile,  had a final drink of the afternoon and agreed that we should return to the Casablanca later so that Sue could have the salmon that she had missed last night.  After a quick shower and a change we were (surprise, surprise) back in the Crocodile for pre dinner drinks although I noticed that on this occasion Sue, not wanting to end up in the same state as the previous evening, stuck sensibly to soft drinks.

If last night had been a success (except for Sue getting drunk that is) tonight was a dreadful disappointment.  The food was fine, it’s just that an hour and a half is an awful long time to wait to be served.  The owner explained that he had kitchen staffing problems but a free shot of a local cocktail and a 10% discount offer for tomorrow night didn’t really compensate, by the time it arrived Sue was too tired to eat the salmon and the rest of us ate our meals and left without leaving a tip.

If you are going to eat at the Casablanca I suggest you take a chess set or a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle with you to while away the time waiting for the food to be served.

21 responses to “Krakow, The Old Town and Castle

  1. Heading to Krakow next week! Can’t wait.

  2. My mother would fight tears when she would day, “I remember how my mother cried the day Germany invaded Poland.” All my grandparents immigrated from Poland to the U.S. when they were in their teens. Poland is on my long list of places to go.

    I enjoyed reading your piece on on Krakow.

  3. Polish history sounds much like that of the Baltics.

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  5. Andrew I LOVE the perspective on the photo. Really brilliant shot.

  6. Poland is becoming more and more interesting. Both my parents were born there but I have never been. Thank you for a wonderful tour and condensed history. Must add to my new travel list. 🙂

  7. Which part of Poland were they from?

  8. Andrew, thanks to a sunny day, a clear view, and a good zoom I saw not only the living, breathing bugler in the St. Mary’s tower, but he was also nice enough to give us a cheerful wave. ~James

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  11. Love this post on Krakow, and appreciate you concentrating on the city itself rather than it’s famous neighbor, Auschwitz. Being a rather uniformed traveler, when we visited, I thought the heart-rending concentration camps would be the totality of our visit, but ended up falling in love with Krakow.

  12. Rosa Ave Fénix

    I was in Poland in 2012 and I must say I enjoyed a lot all the cities, but Krakov is spectacular and very interesting. This entry is very good, you give us part of Poland History, thanks.

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