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Dzhen Dobri from Krakow, Poland

Folkloric dancers in Krakow

Market flowers

Krakow's Cloth Hall
A Return to Our Roots

by Sue Kowalski

[From Summer 2008]

My paternal grandparents hailed from a small Polish town near Russia called Machover. And my husband’s paternal grandparents came from somewhere in Silesia, in the lower central part of the country. So he and I were doubly excited to finally visit Poland. Since my husband and I are, in fact, Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski – “Smith” in Polish and after Novak apparently the second most popular name here – we were always enveloped in big smiles and hearty greetings.

From the end of the 15th century till the start of the 17th, Poland enjoyed world-class status. Its empire stretched from the Baltic almost down to the Black Sea: it produced timber, rye, salt, coal, and other coveted exports. But then an incompetent Swedish king took over, and the empire declined during the remainder of the 17th century. Incidentally, for over 120 years around this time, there was no Poland whatsoever! Partition occurred in the 18th century, when both Russia and Prussia helped themselves to parts of Poland; many other partitions would ensue over time. The 19th century saw the start of an Industrial Revolution that helped Poland regain its footing in the world: by the 20th century, the country was strengthening and did not experience the Great Depression that ravaged the U.S. and parts of Europe. Of course, then WW II occurred, and the country was almost decimated. What is important to keep in mind is that Poland has seven neighbors, and each one at one time made claims to its lands, attesting to its turbulent history. The fact that it is so rebuilt after WWII is truly a testament to the country’s strength and will to survive.

Our visit to Krakow, said to be the country’s most beautiful city, was the highlight of our 2-week long visit to Poland. The former royal capital, on the Vistula River, is the third largest city after Warsaw and Lodz and combines a fascinating mix of ancient and modern.

Krakow was originally a medieval trading center, rich in textiles, minerals, and salt. The virtual hub of the city is Main Square. Two hundred meters along each side and surrounded entirely by a park that used to be a moat, it is reportedly among the largest medieval market squares in Europe. Dominating the vast expanse of the Main Square is the 16th century Sukiennica or “Cloth Hall”. Originally this area consisted of two open-air rows of merchant stalls/guilds where textiles were sold. Renaissance architects enclosed the stalls within a colossal, Neo-Gothic-arcaded building, crowned by a sort of parapet and decorated with carved masks. Today, inside the Hall are rows of traditional crafts and … well … souvenir stands. But all sorts of goods are available, and we had quite a nice time browsing -- and buying.

In addition to Cloth Hall, Main Square boasts the sole standing tower of Krakow’s 13th-century Town Hall, plus the lovely Basilica of St. Mary, from whose highest tower a lone bugler heralds each hour. St. Mary’s is topped by two, very different towers of totally disparate style and elevation (one is pointed, and the other is domed). A popular legend has it that two architect brothers were charged with the task of constructing the towers. One brother completed his, the shorter one, first. He became afraid that his sibling would out-perform him and create something even more spectacular: sure enough, the second brother’s accomplishment turned out both taller and more intricate. Therefore, the first brother murdered the second one. Beset by guilt, he committed suicide by leaping from the taller of the two towers. St. Mary’s crowning glory is its immense, Gothic wooden altar whose enormous, golden statuary depicts the various stages of Mary’s life.

Around the cobbled Square are myriad flower stalls, shops, cafés, and restaurants: seas of colorful umbrellas shade tables for sitting and people watching. Businessmen meet here, and in nice weather there are outdoor concerts and theatre productions. The atmosphere is always lively and busy.

On our first evening in Krakow, we settled into dinner at our small hotel, the Amadeus. The chef at this charming boutique property must be from the Cordon Bleu: first we were presented with artfully arranged salads of artichokes, avocados, and capers drizzled with light vinaigrette. I kept marveling at the delicious produce, which indeed must be mostly homegrown. Next, I had chicken medallions stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes atop a bed of lentils, from which ‘rays of the sun’ made of carrots and zucchini emanated around the oversized, engraved plate. The entire dish was covered with the most delectable sauce, a sort of buttery tarragon. Mike’s pork cutlets in sauerkraut were also beautifully presented, and everything was seasoned to perfection.

The next day, we decided to take an organized walking tour of Krakow. We began at the 14th-century, pale stone Florian’s Gate, historic entrance to Krakow and built as part of the city’s fortifications. The Royal Road begins here, ending at Wawel Hill and the Palace, site of the coronation of all the kings of Poland. One side of the Gate features a stone eagle, symbol of Poland; on the other side, a recessed, renovated, colored statue of St. Florian himself. Personally I found the latter to be a bit garish: I preferred the stately eagle.

Later, we trundled past a beautiful theatre with a vast red flower garden in front of it. This is interesting: while city mailboxes are uniformly red, this one blue box has a special purpose: it invites monthly contributions from aspiring poets. At the end of each month a jury reads all submissions, and a prize is awarded to the winner.

Continuing on the Royal Road, we next stopped at the venerable Jagiellonian University, named after the Polish king who founded it and for 600 years the educational beacon in Poland, alma mater to such notable students as Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. We entered the Collegium Maius, the oldest college within this, the oldest university in Poland. The 15th century- building is a gorgeous example of late Gothic architecture, with a vast cobbled courtyard surrounded by arcades. Professors worked and lived upstairs, and taught/lectured below. Today the Collegium Maius is no longer part of the university but a museum. It is constantly thronged with tourists, who love to see its special second-story courtyard clock chime the hour and then open to feature painted wooden kings and noted professors parading to solemn music.

Collegium Novum, built in the 19th century in Neo-Gothic style of red brick with white trim and standing proudly amid tall trees, is today the heart of Jagiellonian University. “Sophie’s Choice” was filmed near here.

Leaving the University on our way to Wawel Hill, we drove by the pale cream St. Peter’s and Paul’s lovely Baroque church, with large sculptures of the apostles out front. Wawel Hill, the heart of Poland’s political, governmental and religious life is embodied in its splendid architecture. In front of the enclave stands a statue of the Polish hero Thaddeus Kosciusko on horseback. Kosciusko vainly attempted to lead Polish troops in rebellion against Partition, but his gallantry lives on in the hearts of Poles everywhere.

Entering the spacious grounds and lovely gardens, adjacent to the Royal Palace, one first beholds the towering, 1000-year-old Wawel Cathedral with its gorgeous, golden-domed Renaissance chapel. All Polish kings were crowned here, and are buried here as well in lavish crypts. The Royal Palace is artfully hidden behind a long, pastel yellow building/façade: I’m not sure why, because apparently this was not done as protection against possible military attack. Home to kings of Poland from 1038 until 1596 and site of the Polish government, the Palace hosted many religious and state ceremonies. Delicate and colonnaded, it struck me as purposely tucked away from prying eyes.

By the way, there is a legend regarding the Wawel Monster. He reputedly lived in a cave at the bottom of the limestone Hill, and would emerge to terrify and kill people, upon whom he then feasted. Everyone thought of ways to get rid of him, including the greatest minds in Poland. Finally, a lowly shoemaker came up with a plan: he killed a sheep, and then filled it with sulphur. The monster then came, ate the sheep, and realized his stomach was on fire. Quickly he raced to the river, and drank and drank until he exploded with a mighty “KRAK!” And so the name, Krakow.

Details: organized our trip to Krakow. Highly recommended. Visit their website at

Photographs by Sue Kowalski

Sue Kowalski has been an attorney, founder of an international adoption agency, and more recently, a travel agent. She combines her love of travel with her knowledge of several foreign languages, in an effort to reach out beyond organized group tours and connect with people in each country she visits. Sue obtained her BA in French from Mt. Holyoke College, and her JD in law from University of Santa Clara. She and her husband reside in the Silicon Valley area of California.

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