Krakow: Castles, Churches and Cellars

Outdoor cafes, the Old Town Hall Tower and Cloth Hall are hallmarks of Krakow’s historic Market Square.

 KRAKOW, Poland — Warsaw has been Poland’s capital since 1609, but Krakow to the south was the country’s previous capital for longer — more than 500 years.

As a result, Krakow is a fantastic repository of historically important churches, houses, university halls and castle buildings dating from medieval and late-medieval times.

Additional points of interest are linked to Pope John Paul II who was born near Krakow. The late pope (as well as Copernicus) was a student at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, Poland’s oldest university.

I had visited Krakow in 1989, just before the end of communism. Last spring, I returned with a North American press group to update my memories.

We visited top tourist attractions and sampled a few eateries.

The hilltop Wawel Castle, once home to Polish royalty.

• Wawel Cathedral is the most important of Krakow’s churches, and it sits atop an outcropping, called Castle Hill, in central Krakow.

The cathedral dates back 1,000 years, but the current structure is a 14th century gothic (1320-1364).

More precisely, its base is gothic, but there are other styles, including baroque as represented by its 17th century altar. This overdone piece shelters relics of St. Stanislaus, Poland’s patron saint and bishop of Krakow, murdered in 1079.

We saw a handful of sarcophagi of dead kings and one queen, but there are perhaps 25 more in the crypt below.

As for side chapels, I was impressed that one still had its painted ceilings and walls, an indicator of how gothic churches

The courtyard inside Wawel Castle, the former residence of Polish royalty.

looked in medieval times. As with any cathedral in the 14th century, paintings originally covered the stonework here.

Another chapel is dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II.

For a fee, tourists can visit the crypt or climb the bell tower, but we chose not to take the time.

• To enter Wawel Royal Castle, next to the cathedral, we were subject to airport-style X-ray security.

The castle reflects 16th century Renaissance style. We visited various, generally large, rooms that were used by the kings and their counselors to conduct affairs of state.

Access to all rooms originally was via outdoor staircases and the galleries lining the courtyard. These days, doors also connect the rooms inside.

Initially, everything was painted. On exterior walls, some very attractive painted decorations still remain near the top.

Paintings also remain on interior walls near the ceilings, and this artwork is original. One ceiling features a series of carved heads representing ordinary people.

Furnishings were authentic to the times when the rooms were built. One room featured a short bed, reflecting the practice of sleeping sitting up. There were many Belgian tapestries — and paintings, too, including one showing Mary nursing Jesus.

Outside the castle, there is a large open space at the heart of the hilltop complex with remains of foundations for missing buildings. Austrian occupiers knocked them down in the 19th century, when Austria was the overlord of this part of a partitioned Poland.

Outdoor cafes in Krakow’s historic Market Square are merely more obvious than the scores of eateries and clubs below the square’s environs in centuries-old cellars.

• Krakow’s Market Square at the heart of Old Town is a short walk from Castle Hill. We made this walk via the archbishop’s residence that had been Pope John Paul II’s home when he lived in Krakow

The Market Square covers about 10 acres and is sometimes described as Europe’s largest surviving medieval square.

Its centerpiece is the distinctive 16th century Cloth Hall, clear

The Cloth Hall, at the center of Krakow’s Market Square.

evidence of the city’s importance as a trade center. It now features a first floor lined with shops, all billed as selling authentic goods.

Our local guide said the lovely, varicolored houses that surround the square date from the 14th century onwards.

The Old Town was laid out with a grid in 1257, but — amazingly — remnants of 13th and 14th century structures are underneath the central square and now part of a a new museum.

St. Mary’s Basilica, well known for its altarpiece, is almost as astonishing for all the color throughout its interior.

• St. Mary’s Basilica, a gothic church from the 13th to 15th centuries, anchors one corner of the Market Square.

This is a small parish church, but brilliantly decorated. It provided the best indicator yet of what it would have been like to see medieval gothic churches with all their stone surfaces painted.

The main attraction here, however, was the 15th century carved wooden multipaneled altar, which also is painted in vivid colors — and gilded. Measuring 36 feet by 42.65 feet, the human figures on this altar are about 8.9 feet tall.

The sculptor depicted a variety of deformities that illustrate various illnesses. They suggested arthritis to me. A host said one figure illustrated syphilis.

It was permissible to take photos inside, without flash and for a fee.

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