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The Warsaw Voice » Other » August 18, 2005
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The Charm of Cracow
August 18, 2005   
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Cracow's Old Town, Wawel Hill and the district of Kazimierz were included on UNESCO's World Heritage List when it was originallycompiled in 1978.
At that time only twelve sites around the world were awarded this prestigious recognition, including the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

For almost six centuries (1038-1609) Cracow was Poland's capital. Kings and princes resided on Wawel Hill, making crucial political decisions that defined the country's international position. It was also a bustling cultural and academic center attracting great artists and architects. Cracow's heyday ended when the capital was eventually moved to Warsaw and a weakened Poland was partitioned by its neighbors.

The Old Town
When you visit Cracow, rather than rushing from one spot to another, take an easy stroll to savor its atmosphere of tranquility and magic, emanating from the cobbled lanes, age-old churches and scores of colorful cafes, bars and restaurants. Ancient as it is, Cracow certainly does not look decrepit. It is a vibrant city of students, culture and entertainment.

The historical Royal Way is the best point to start a walk around the Old Town, following the route once taken by monarchs and their envoys.
The first eye-catching building on your way is the Barbican, a 15th-century defensive bastion, the largest in Poland and Europe's only structure of its kind to be so well preserved. Behind the Barbican is the only surviving section of the original city wall, with the impressive Florian Gate. Built in the first half of the 14th century, it was later extended with the upper brick level and cupola.

The Main Market Square is the biggest medieval square in Europe (200m by 200 m). The Cloth Hall, town hall and burghers' mansions were added later. The last construction on the square was the statue of the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, made in 1898 by Teodor Rygier, today a popular meeting place for young people. Looking at the painstakingly restored mansions around the square, you won't believe they are 500-600 years old.

Built in the 13th century on the foundations of an older church destroyed by Tartars, St. Mary's Church ranks among the finest Gothic basilicas in Poland. The interior is decorated with a magnificent mural by Jan Matejko and stained-glass windows from the 14th and 19th centuries, the latter designed by eminent Polish artists Stanis¸aw Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer. But visitors come here mainly for the high altar, a masterpiece by Veit Stoss. At 13 m in height and 11 m in width, the pentaptych is the biggest medieval altar in Europe, made between 1477 and 1489. There are as many as 200 figures on it, ranging from 3 cm to 3 m, sculpted with great attention to detail. The central scene depicts "the Quietus", while reliefs on the side wings illustrate major events from the New Testament.

The history of the Cloth Hall, dates back to the 13th century, when it was merely two rows of stalls out of which cloth was sold. In the 14th century a 108-m hall was constructed, and two hundred years later altered into a grand Renaissance building topped with an attic. It gained its current appearance in the 19th century, when neo-Gothic arcades were added. Inside, the crammed stalls continue the commercial traditions, offering mainly crafts, silver and amber jewelery.

Wawel Hill was the main settlement of the Wi¶lanie tribe long before the Polish state was established. The first Piasts arrived here at the close of the 10th century. In 1320 Wawel saw the coronation of Władysław Łokietek.

The oldest surviving structures are St. Mary's Tower (ca. 950) and the Romanesque relics under the cathedral and St. Michael's Church. Fragments of the earliest buildings can be seen at the Lost Wawel exhibition, the displays including a computer reconstruction of the entire complex.

Rebuilt many times over the centuries, the Wawel Castle is a mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles, but what you see today is mainly the result of alteration work done under the Jagiellonians. The architects of the royal seat included Italian masters Francis of Florence and Bartolomeo Berrecci.

A gate and a cobbled vestibule lead onto the Renaissance arcaded courtyard which once served as a venue for knight's tournaments and court ceremonies. On the right is the entrance to state rooms and private apartments while straight ahead you can enter the treasury and armory. Many of the furnishings and decorations that once filled foreign guests with awe have been lost, but what remains is still impressive. Among the fine murals and ceiling paintings, coffered ceilings, furniture from various eras and a collection of portraits.

The Wawel Cathedral is a surprisingly congruous stylistic mixture with a Gothic church ringed by 19 Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque chapels. The cramped and dark interior has treasures such as royal tombs (including the magnificent tomb of Queen Jadwiga, made of Carrara marble), the silver sarcophagus of St. Stanislaus and late Renaissance stalls. The cathedral has seen 37 coronations and almost all of the Polish kings are buried here. The crypts also contain the tombs of many national heroes, such as Tadeusz Ko¶ciuszko, Marshal Józef Piłsudski and Gen. Władysław Sikorski, as well as two great Romantic poets, Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki.

Founded in 1335 by Kazimierz the Great as a separate town, from the 15th century until World War II, Kazimierz was a Jewish district. Abandoned and neglected after the war, it is now slowly regaining its former splendor. After Prague's Josefov, it is the second largest and most precious historical ensemble of Jewish architecture and culture in Europe.

A stroll around the maze of Kazimierz's quiet lanes is an unusual experience-at some places you may feel that nothing has changed for centuries. In fact, though, over the last few years many houses have been converted into upmarket hotels, cozy bars and restaurants offering Jewish cuisine and live music.

Best Accommodations In The City
Novotel Kraków Bronowice
11 Armii Krajowej Ave., 30-150 Cracow
tel. (+48-12) 637-50-44, 638-76-22
fax (+48-12) 637-59-38
e-mail: nov.bronowice@orbis.pl
Situated by the international E40 route linking the Balice Airport with the city center.

Novotel Kraków Centrum
5 T. Koćciuszki St., 30-105 Cracow
tel. (+48-12) 299-29-00, fax (+48-12) 299-29-99
e-mail: nov.krakow@orbis.pl
Located opposite Wawel Royal Castle.

Ibis Kraków Centrum
2 Syrokomli St., 30-102 Cracow
tel. (+48-12) 299-33-00, fax (+48-12) 299-29-33
e-mail: ibis.krakow@orbis.pl

Hotel Orbis Cracovia Kraków
1 F. Focha Ave., 30-111 Cracow
tel. (+48-12) 424-56-00, fax (+48-12) 424-56-32
e-mail: cracovia@orbis.pl
Situated in the city center, a short distance from international roads (E77 and E40)

Hotel Orbis Francuski Kraków
13 Pijarska St., 30-015 Cracow
tel. (+48-12) 422-51-22, fax (+48-12) 422-52-70
e-mail: francuski@orbis.pl
A hotel with a century-long history, located in Cracow's Old Town.

Hotel Orbis Wanda Kraków
15 Armii Krajowej Ave., 30-150 Cracow
tel. (+48-12) 637-16-77, fax (+48-12) 637-85-18
e-mail: wanda@orbis.pl
Situated in a quiet, green district of Cracow,
5 km from the city center.
www.orbis.pl www.orbisonline.pl
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