After a pleasant four hour train trip from Warsaw, we arrived in Krakow around 4.30pm on a beautiful sunny spring day. Our BnB was a lovely studio apartment that was completely Ikea furnished and decorated. It was just across the river from the castle and the main part of town. One of the reasons this placed grabbed my attention when booking was that it included the free use of 2 bikes. The men’s bike was really big and the seat was up really high with no tools in the apartment to change it, so it was a no-goer. The other bike looked ok for me to ride so I left Antony at the apartment to do some work and I decided to explore a little.
First the brake wire was loose so I tied it round the handlebars to prevent it getting caught up in the wheel, then after 300m of smooth riding, all of Krakow could hear me coming unfortunately as the bike screeched something awful! I proceeded past the castle and into the main square of the old town, turning heads wherever I went with random high pitch screeching. The town centre looked glorious and we were to venture back several times in our 5 days in Krakow. I found a really helpful bike mechanic just off the main square who had a quick look at the bike and gave it some oil and explained that it might need more serious attention. Once home we contacted our host about the bike issues and he recommended we take them both to a nearby bike shop the following day, which we did.
Giving up on the bike, Antony and I ventured off on foot on our first evening to find something for dinner. We first went to a place in the neighbourhood recommended by our host, which looked great but was out of food! It was a Sunday and some kind of holiday in Poland where it was obviously popular to eat out at lunch time. We encountered this at the next restaurant we found and the next, they had all sold out of food or were closed! Finally we crossed the river and found a place which didn’t look too popular- indeed we were the only guests. But we were so hungry by this time and actually the food there turned out to be very good. While at this restaurant Aneta (who we’d met at Angloville the week before) called to see if we’d arrived safely in her hometown. We assured her we had and mentioned the saga of trying to find a restaurant. After dinner we got another call from her asking for our address. This dear new friend had got what she could from her fridge (knowing many shops were closed) and drove to our place to drop off food for us so we had something for breakfast the next morning. SO sweet of her!!
Fueled up on breakfast we explored the city on reliable hire bikes from the friendly bike mechanic near Rynek Glowny, the market square. Despite the weather being a bit changeable we managed to escape the downpours and see what we could, starting with Poland’s oldest university building, the Collegium Maius, built as part of the Krakow Academy which is now the Jagiellonian University, just a stone’s throw from the square. The building originates from the 14th century (foundation date is 1364) and was rebuilt in Gothic style in the late 15th century, with a courtyard bordered with arcades.
We escaped from the rain, first admiring the arcaded courtyard before venturing inside for a self-guided tour of the building. We started in the lovely Old Library Chamber and progressed though all kinds of interesting rooms with displays before finishing in the beautiful Assembly Hall, which featured an original Renaissance ceiling and loads of portraits of royals and benefactors of the university. My favourite part of this final room was the beautiful inlaid wooden door from 1593 under the Portal from 1600.
Alumni of the university include Pope John Paul II and Nicolaus Copernicus (of Copernican Revolution fame) who studied there in the 1490s. Some of his cool astronomical devices from later in his life were on display, also a Moorish astrolabe from 1054 and the oldest surviving globe featuring the American continent, dating from 1510.
The rain had mostly cleared up by the time we exited the Collegium Maius so we had a look at the Professor’s Garden just outside and a nearby church (the name of which I can’t find). Copernicus is not buried here but there is like a tomb in his honour there.
Next we explored some of Planty Park which rings the Old Town and includes remains of Medieval Krakow’s fortifications. The city walls, construction of which began in the late 13th Century, were originally two miles long and as high as 10 metres and 2.5 m thick. They once featured 39 towers, 8 gates, lower walls and a 22 metre wide moat, but in the 19th Century most of it was pulled down. The main city gate Brama Florianska survived along with three nearby towers and the walls between them.
We checked out the exterior of the Great Barbican, a circular military marvel from the start of the 16th century which was connected to Brama Florianska by a drawbridge over what was once the moat. The Brama Florianska gate marked the beginning of the Royal Road, where royals and other people of distinction would begin their parade up Florianska St. to the grand square Rynek Glowny then further on to Wawel Royal Castle. We followed in their footsteps, taking in the atmosphere of modern day Krakow with its beautiful buildings, hoardes of tourists and many souvenir shops.
In Rynek Glowny, Europe’s largest market square, there’s a lot to take in above and below ground. Coming in from the Royal Road the first thing to grab your attention is the brick St Mary’s Basilica with it’s two towers of different heights. The orginial church here was built in the 1220s, the one you see today was built in the 14th century and it really commands attention in one corner of the square. We didn’t pay to go inside so missed out on the apparently exquisite interior and carved wooden altarpiece.
In the centre of the square is the Cloth Hall. The original Cloth Hall was built here around 1300, extended about 50 years later but burnt down in the 1555 fire. It was then rebuilt in Renaissance style. There are still shops here selling all sorts of things. It was rather crowded during the downpours when we all sheltered from the rain!
At the other end of the square from the church is the Town Hall Tower from the 13th Century. It was once attached to the Town Hall but that got pulled down in the 1820s, just the tower remains. In 1685 the tower got an additional 6.5m added to it and the following year the baroque roof was complete.
Under this square is a museum well worth a visit, the Rynek Underground. It features excavated medieval market stalls, foundations of the city, an 11th century burial ground (with vampire prevention burials!!) and lots of innovative multimedia displays in its 6000m. I am pleased someone recommended this to us as we wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise and it is very popular- requiring booking timed tickets online in advance. They only allow 300 people in at a time. Once you’ve got tickets booked, look for the entrance opposite St Mary’s Church, on the other side of the square.
Following the ‘Royal Road’ takes you beyond the Rynek Glowny to Wawel Castle, perched on the banks of the river. Lovely views from here and a nice place to stroll around. I paid to see the Wawel Cathedral including the crypts and bell tower which holds a giant bell from 1520, one of the world’s largest bells apparently, certainly the largest in Poland, requiring 8 strong men to ring it. Many Kings and Queens were coronated and buried here in the Royal Cathedral and its many chapels.
That’s enough for now… stay tuned for Krakow Part 2, coming soon 🙂