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Castles and Dragons in Krakow

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Krakow, a beautiful city full of surprising architectural details and painful reminders of its past, was one of my husband’s and my favorite cities. The city is small enough to walk, but busy enough to have a bustling nightlife, many restaurants, and lots of historic sites. The main market square, the largest medieval square in Europe, is a fun place to start exploring Krakow. (The historic center is one of the 12 original UNESCO World Heritage sites.) The square is surrounded by restaurants, street musicians, boutiques, and perfectly matched horses and carriages. The square was built in the 13th century and served as a center for trade. The Cloth Hall still serves as a busy market, although the items sold are now primarily souvenirs.

St. Mary’s Basilica towers over the square. (You have to pay to enter the church and pay an additional fee if you would like to take pictures.) We were fortunate to see a graduation procession exit the church which reminded us of a Harry Potter ceremony.) Upon entering, we were struck by the beauty and detail of the altar. The carved wooden altarpiece shows multiple Biblical scenes, many of which are in a startling blue that dominates the room. Another notable item about St. Mary’s is best heard from outside. Every hour on the hour, a bugler climbs up the tower and plays a tune, the hejnal, but stops abruptly in the middle to commemorate the ancient bugler who climbed the tower to play a warning to the community before an arrow from the Mongols stopped his tune at that exact spot. The bugle call is now spread throughout the country via radio.

Another church, the Basilica of St. Francis, has the most beautiful stained glass by Stanislaw Wyspianski. The 8 stained glass windows are wonderful example of Art Nouveau and are in stark contrast to many of the older buildings in the city.

We enjoyed walking down the historic streets shopping, often to see the many possible souvenirs. Our wanderings took us down Florianska Street through Florian’s Gate and the ancient medieval walls to the Barbican, a round fort just outside of the old town. The fort, built in the 15th century, now houses a museum but we were unable to visit since it was closed at the time.

You can’t miss a visit to the Wawel Castle which is located on a limestone hill towering over the city. It is a steep climb, but the complex and the view of the city below are worth the exercise. The castle complex was started in the 14th century and consists of various buildings, each of which has a separate entry fee which allows visitors to pick and choose what they want to see. The castle was the residence of Polish rulers before the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. The complex houses beautiful gardens that overlook a famous statue of a fire-breathing dragon. (Yes, fire actually comes out of the dragon every 5 minutes!) The legend of the dragon comes from the 7th century and tells of a dragon who reigned terror on the surrounding area. One story says that King Crack wanted his daughter to marry, but the requirement of the suitors was they must slay the dragon. A lowly shoemaker killed a sheep and filled the skin with sulfuric acid. When the dragon ate it, the dragon died. We enjoyed watching children’s expressions when fire spouted, seemingly like magic, from the dragon’s nostrils.

One evening we had dinner in the old Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz. The quarter, which had once been a separate city, was the scene of destruction by the Nazis as they took Jews to the death camps where the majority were murdered.  Many of the buildings themselves, including the oldest synagogue in Krakow, survived the war. Today, the area houses trendy cafes and bars, many of which play traditional Kazimierz music. The area is also where much of Schindler’s List was filmed since Oscar Schindler, who lived in Krakow, was instrumental in saving approximately 1,200 Jews.

In addition to being a fun city, Krakow is also a good base for several day trips in the surrounding area, but that’s for another article!

Candace Ahlfinger has loved traveling since she was little and has always been on the go whenever possible. Now she is retired and gets to do what she loves best… TRAVEL! Whether it’s traveling with her wonderful husband, or our children and grandchildren, traveling is a great experience that enriches her life. Because she always enjoys reading and hearing about others’ travel experiences, she wants to share her travels with the Ellis DownHome readers. 

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