Krakow, a Medieval City with a Twist

Kraków is a quaint magical city that kept me enticed the whole weekend. I knew nothing about the city before going, but that is what made my experience phenomenal. Like most European cities, Kraków has a rich history that is told through the architecture and the neighborhoods. The city center kept me busy the whole weekend, but I would have loved to see more. We also visited a communist town that the Soviet Union created called Nowa Huta that was 20 or 30 minutes outside of the city center.

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While the city center is small and quaint, it has a lot to offer. The best way to get around is by walking around Planty Park because it surrounds old town Kraków. The park used to separate the medieval city from intruders. The main entrance to the old town is St. Florian’s Gate. It has been the main entrance since the city was built. This was the best way to make sure they knew who was coming and going from the city in the Middle Ages. It also used to have a moat around it. It was as if I stepped back into history.

The main square holds St. Mary’s Basilica and a market that is abundant with beautiful Polish gifts. The basilica has an interesting history: apparently, a rivalry developed between two brothers over who could build the highest tower.  The youngest one knew that he was not going to win, so he stabbed his brother and then decided to take his own life with the same knife. That knife is hanging outside of the main entrance to the markets. There is also a trumpeter that plays every hour from the top of the church because during the Tatar invasions the watchman started playing his trumpet to warn the others.

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The most interesting thing about this city is how it was founded. The legend is that the mythical ruler Krak defeated a dragon that was terrorizing the town at Wawel Hill, where the Royal Castle was built. The dragon has become the symbol of the city. There is a dragon statue placed under the castle, where it supposedly lived. The dragon statue also breathes fire every 15 minutes.

The old town is a big part of the city center, but there are also trendy areas that surround it. The Jewish district of Kazimierz, Kraków used to hold the ghettos where the Jewish populations were placed by the German-Soviets in 1941. The Jewish populations of Poland were crammed in these ghettos, resulting in 15,000 Jews living in a place that was once inhabited by 3,000. It was one of the five major metropolitan Jewish ghettos created by Nazi Germany. It holds a gruesome past and used to be run-down until a recent revival. The district of Podgórze has been slower to develop, but brings a historical perspective because it gives the impression that these events happened not too long ago. The Kazimierz district is now a very trendy part of the city where you can find art, restaurants, and pubs.

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The University population in Kraków is very large, which makes the city not only historical—with notable people attending universities in the past like Nicholas Copernicus who went to Jagiellonian University. The students bring a new life to the city. These universities have been established since the 1300s and have been bringing in the best and the brightest ever since. This also creates a young feeling to this city with many things for college students like me to do.

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Our API group also went on a wild communist tour that had us riding in a bus from the Soviet times. They took us to Nowa Huta, a city that is now incorporated in Kraków, but used to be its own city during the communist regime. It was created to be the ideal town for communist propaganda. The name Nowa Huta translates into The New Steel Mill and it was also created for that purpose. There is a massive steel mill in this city that is still operational today, but in the time of the communist era it was populated with industrial workers. We saw a restaurant that hasn’t been redone, a museum that had an exhibit of what people did for fun under communist rule, a bomb shelter that was created because the fear of nuclear attacks, and I rode in a Trabant, which is a car that was produced in East Germany that was exported to countries both inside and outside of the Eastern Bloc. The city has not really changed since communist times and it was like stepping back into history.

Kraków exceeded my expectations. It was a magical time filled with pierogis, dragons, and history. I did not get to see everything I wanted so I will definitely be coming back. It is on my list of favorite cities.

Gracie Finlayson is a student at Hofstra University and an official API Blogger. Gracie is studying abroad with API in Budapest, Hungary.

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