22 Kraków

January 23rd

According to legend, Kraków was founded by and named after the mythical ruler Krak, who built the town aove a cve occupied by a ravenous dragon.

Current population:  755,000

Average number of days with precipitation: 186 (Yikes!)

Temperature in January when I visited?  33 degrees.

It is the cultural center of Poland, and this:  It is a magical place, enchanting and affecting in ways that caught me by surprise– and anyone who comes to the European continent and doesn’t visit Kraków will be depriving themselves of one of the great experiences.

Midieval Kraków was surrounded by a 1.9 mile defensive wall complete with 46 towers and seven main entrances leading through them. The fortifications around the Old Town, like the remnant above, were erected over the course of two centuries.


The Main Market Square in Kraków, known as Rynek Glowny, is the primary square of Old Town. It dates back to the 13th century, and at roughly 430,000 square feet it is the largest midieval town square in Europe.

It is cold in Kraków, so people dress warmly. But furs like these, displayed in a storefront on the main square, would never have been seen under the communist rule, which ended in 1989.

Lights like these and shops like these just off the Main Square were unthinkable until after the Russians left in 1989.

The Renaissance Sukiennice (Cloth Hall, Draper's Hall) that divides the Main Market Square in half was once a major center of international trade, a mecca for traveling merchants and traders for hundreds of years. The Hall has hosted countless distinquished guests over the centuries and is still used to entertain monarchs and dignitaries.

The Old Town district is home to six thousand historic sites and more than two million works of art. It is a university town and has been for centuries. More than ten university or academy-level institutions offer courses in the city, with 170,000 students.

When the Nazis arrived, within just a few days, they let the renowned professors and educators of Krakow know that they would like to discuss with them their ideas about how to make the occupation run smoothly. So, under the orders of Hans Frank (a courtly and refined young lawyer who would commandeer Wawel Castle for his personal residence and who would, not incidentally, be executed at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity) they were all invited to a cocktail reception for the stated purpose of exchanging ideas. No need not to be civil, after all.

Once all the high level educators, researchers and intellectuals were gathered in a great hall in a fine university building that still stands just behind Market Square, once the Nazis were sure they were all there—they arrested them, deported them, and executed them.

“They didn’t want us for our brains,” my guide said, as she looked up to the window on the second floor where the great hall can still be seen, “they wanted us for our labor.”

This is the city of Oskar Schindler, both the man, and the filming of the movie. It is a city of art and learning with a legacy of sadness.


Pope John Paul II

Around the world he is a towering figure, larger-than-life, more a symbol and an icon than a man, but in Krakow he was the home town boy made good. No, more than “made good”: He was a local man who was known and loved first there, before he was given to the world, and who would return to this small apartment, even then, even after he belonged to everyone.

The crowds would gather, throngs really, outside this window—the one at right where you can see a cardboard cut-out of him in a perpetual wave, a kind of Papal Grecian Urn, right here on a back street of Krakow, a little behind the main square. You wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t look, or if someone didn’t point it out.

He had studied in obscurity in that room as a young man and it is a matter of wonderment the depths of faith and understanding he discovered in that room, and looking out from it, and then moving out from it.

But he would return, when he could, because it was home, and it felt like home, and to say the people of Krakow adored him is to fall short of doing it justice. He would stand in this window and smile to the people of Krakow and speak to them on occasion, and now you can walk by here and the room is always lit and the cardboard cutout stands there as a reminder. There are people who come just to sit and look at the cardboard cutout, and remember. It’s possible, too, that they say a prayer.

He was born and raised in Krakow, and they love Karol Wojtyla, Pope John II, here more than anone can adequately articulate. The cardboard cutout in the window in the photo above offers a perpetual wave from the small room where he studied as a young man.

He did much in the world, the larger world, but in Poland he did everything. Every Polish person will tell you that the reason they no longer suffer the excruciating and soul-deadening dominance of the oafish Russians is because of this man, this Pope, this hometown boy made good. If that was all he did, it would be enough, but he did much more than that.

He was remarkable to everyone. To the people of Krakow he was more than that and remains so. It is likely that he will remain so for a long time. Maybe always.


The women, young and old, many of them students, yes, but not all, in this university town, an educational nexus that goes back further than you could ever imagine, are thin, even svelte, and stylish.  They walk briskly and often have their faces framed by tight knit caps or even sometimes the big fur ones that we associate with this part of the world, especially nearby Russia.

And when you get out of the city, into the countryside, just a bit, and you cross the Vistula, things get darker quickly, and more chill, and you realize that they lead a hard life here.

Things are less pretty, and gray, and you wonder about these people and this culture, and you hope that this hard, oppressed land finds its way, and you hope for that because the people you have met deserve it.

N E X T :  Auschwitz

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