Talk of Krakow, and you'll find images welling up in Polish minds of a city of eternal greatness, basking with the distant glory of queens and princes, exotic artisans and holy mystics.
It's a city of culture, situated close to the borders of Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where the plains of central Poland run up against the Tatra Mountains.
It's also a city of faith, with more places of worship per square mile than Rome or Jerusalem — a fitting place for its most famous modern son, Pope John Paul II, who studied and served the Church here for four decades, and will be back again this June in the city he knows and loves.
For a thousand years, Krakow has been the heartland of Polish statehood, as well as the spiritual capital of Europe's most Catholic nation.
It was Poland's first Christian king, Mieszko I, who annexed the area, inhabited by Slavic tribes, into his 10th-century principality. Krakow became a bishopric in 1000, and in 1036 King Kazimierz the Restorer made it his capital.
Ravages by Tartar marauders didn't prevent Krakow from growing. By 1257, when it gained its city charter, it had acquired the basic street layout which it maintains today.
Wawel castle, built on a promontory overlooking the Viatula River, became the place for crowning and burying Polish kings, and stayed that way until the last coronation, of Augustus II, in 1734.
Of the 47 towers which punctuated Krakow's medieval walls, only four survive, including the 14th-century Florian Gate and 15th-century Barbican.
The city was looted by the Swedish army after King Sigismund Vasa had transferred his seat 200 miles north to Warsaw in 1609. And when Poland was partitioned in the late 18th century, it was taken over by the Austrians.
Yet Krakow was destined to change hands several more times in the 19th century.
United with the grand duchy of Warsaw in 1809, it was briefly occupied by the Russians before being proclaimed a free city under the Treaty of Vienna six years later. But in 1846, its independence was again revoked by Austria.
Krakow finally regained free status when Poland became independent in 1918. It was spared destruction under Nazi occupation — although its Jewish inhabitants were massacred.
But when the Polish communists took over after World War II, they attempted to counterbalance the city's elite traditions by building an industrial suburb.
Nowa Huta was intended to be a symbol of communist “monumentalism” — a feat of economic and social engineering. In the 1980s, it is ironic that the suburb became the Solidarity move-ment's strongest bastion after Gdansk.
But it also altered the city's face. Although Krakow is a spa area, its architecture and citizens' health were badly damaged by pollution until an ecological cleanup began after the collapse of communism in 1989.
While modernity has cramped Krakow somewhat, the city has retained its ancient gems.
Market Square, Europe's largest after Venice's Piazza San Marco, retains its importance. The square was used for everything from acts of feudal homage to public executions. Its Gothic-Renaissance Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, was first used by mercers in the 13th century. It was here that Poland's 1794 uprising was proclaimed by Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), the brave military leader who returned to lead his countrymen against the Russians after fighting alongside George Washington in the American Revolution.
Across town, Krakow's Kazimierz suburb, founded by King Casimir the Great in 1335, boasted Europe's largest Jewish community, a group that would number more than 70,000 by the 1930s.
“This is the only place in the world,” wrote the scholar Felix Scharf, “where Corpus Christi Street crosses Rabbi Meisels Street, and where a magnificent church stands just a few dozen meters from a Jewish house of prayer.”
It took the German governor Hans Frank two days in May 1943 to erase Krakow's six-century Jewish presence, in scenes of atrocity captured in Steven Spielberg's 1994 film Schindler's List. But Jewish remnants survive, including one of Europe's oldest Jewish cemeteries, along with kosher restaurants and Jewish facades and railings.
Yet it's in its Catholic churches that Krakow's greatest glory lies. Churches, in fact, are everywhere, and their styles recount the city's history.
They vary from the tiny 10th-century city-center's St. Adalbert's church, named after the Polish-Czech patron, to the vast Church of the Ark in Nowa Huta, which was finished only in the 1980s.
Krakow's most visited church, St Mary's, contains a Gothic altar by the late medieval sculptor Witstwosz (1445-1533). When the city was attacked in the 13th century, a Polish trumpeter sounded the alarm from the basilica's highest tower window, only to be shot by a Tartar arrow.
Poles take their traditions seriously. The same tune is played every hour from the same window in his memory, and breaks off at the same fatal note.
Krakow's 13th-century Franciscan church contains world-renowned stained-glass windows by the fin de siècle artist Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907).
The nearby Carmelite church contains the tomb of charity worker St. Adam Chmielowski (1845-1916), while the baroque St. Anna's university church is the burial place of St. Jan Kanty, a 15th-century Jagiellonian professor.
Above all, symbolically and literally, stands Wawel castle's Gothic Sts. Waclaw and Stanislaw cathedral, completed in the 14th century, a fabled place for all Polish citizens.
Legend has it that Krakow takes its name from the monster Krakus, who inhabited a cave on the Vistula River below Wawel, and was killed when a local boy shone a mirror into its fiery, alldevouring eyes.
It is said the fabled Pan Twardowski was sent to the moon from here after selling his soul to the devil, and that one of the seven holy stones cast around the world by the Buddha landed on the spot where the cathedral now stands.
Wawel cathedral houses the tombs of national leaders, ranging from King Jan III Sobieski (1629-1696), who routed the Turks at Vienna in 1685, to Marshal Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935), who turned back a Red Army advance at the “Miracle on the Vistula” in 1920.
It contains a 9th-century rotunda, dedicated to Sts. Felix and Adauctus, as well as the marble sarcophagus of St. Jadwiga and the silver shrine of St. Stanislaw.
Both saints occupied a special place in the life of Karol Wojtyla, who was ordained a priest on All Saints' Day, 1946, in the private chapel of the arch-bishop's residence — a chapel that would become his from 1964 until his election as Pope in 1978.
Father Wojtyla celebrated his first Masses the next day, All Soul's, among the royal tombs in the cathedral's 12th-century St. Leonard's crypt.
The young priest was also the last person to be awarded a habilitation (an associate professorship) of the Jagiellonian's theology faculty before its forced communist closure in 1954.
As archbishop and cardinal, the future Pope led the local Church in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, and through some of the most tense moments of the communist era, including the long battle to build a church for the people of the Nowa Huta.
John Paul has returned to Krakow six times as Pope — and will be visiting places indelibly associated with him when he goes back on June 14: Rakowicka Cemetery, where his parents and brother lie; the metropolitan's residence on Franciszkanska Street; the city-center Blonia Meadow where sheep and cattle still graze in winter.
Canonizing the Angevin-Hungarian Queen Jadwiga in the meadow two years ago, he recalled some of the city's greatest alumni, such as the revolutionary scientist Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) and the rector Pawel Wlodkowic (1373-1434), an early pioneer of human rights.
Krakow would always be, John Paul II added, his own “beloved city.”
“People studied and taught here who made the name of Poland and this city famous throughout the world,” the Pope said. “It became an important center of thought in Europe, the hearth of Polish culture and bridge between Christian West and East, making an irreplaceable contribution to the formation of the European spirit.”
Krakow has been called many other things in its time — the “Polish Rome,” “Little Paris,” the “Florence of the North.”
But the current interest in Krakow seems to ensure the future life of what the Pope has called this “city of youth” and “cradle of saints.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.
- March 14-20, 1999