Kraków: Falling in Love with the Heart of Poland

We walked along Ojca Bernatka Footbridge, which carried the wishes of a thousand couples who had proclaimed their love on one side of the railing with tightly fastened padlocks . The sun-kissed railing warmed my forearms as I leaned over the Wisła River. Brushing her wind-tousled hair from her face, Kay let her eyes trace the flow of water as it met the reddening sun in the distance.

“Now I see what you mean,” she said, as memories of the day played themselves in her mind.

Early that morning, Kay and I had arrived via the PKP Intercity from Warsaw. After shuffling through the narrow corridor to the relative freedom of Kraków Główny, I suggested leaving our luggage in the lockers on the basement level of the station.

“What is it about this city that makes it so special?” Kay asked as we exited the station from the West and stepped under the warm summer sun.

Only with mere words, how could I convey the significance of Poland’s former capital, the battles and expansions it had undergone since the 7th century, along with the beauty of its monuments.

“If you think of Warsaw as the country’s brain, then Kraków’s its heart,” I replied finally.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

Crossing the tram tracks, we walked down Kurniki Street. After about 80 meters, we turned left onto Plac Jana Matejki.

Grunwald Monument proudly took up centre stage, along with the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. In the distance stood the 15th century Barbican. Formerly a defensive gate, it was now positioned a tad awkwardly due to the absence of the former city walls.

Continuing through St. Florian’s Gate, one of Poland’s most well-known Gothic-style towers, we breached the entrance of the Old Town. Along the gate’s interior wall, painters displayed portraits of horses, scenes of nature, and comical caricatures. Through rosy sunglasses, Kay studied the meticulously preserved facades along the aptly named Floriańska Street.

On the far end of the street, between buildings which hugged the street warmly on either side, loomed St. Mary’s Basilica, which housed the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world.

After traversing Floriańska, we reached Kraków’s Old Town Square, our first true stop. The Square, otherwise known as the Rynek, featured a plethora of outdoor restaurants, iconic monuments such as Igor Mitoraj’s sculpture, and horse-drawn carriage rides, which disrupted smartphone addicted eyes and dispersed jaded thoughts.

“Now I see what you mean,” Kay told me as we sat on a bench next to the statue of the poet Adam Mickiewicz.

“Not yet,” I replied, “To understand Kraków, and any city in Poland, you have to get to know its history.”

We entered the 13th-century Cloth Hall taking up the centre of the Square. Passing by the swarm of tourists eyeing Polish handicrafts for sale in the shops lining the inside of the hall, we located the entrance to the Underground Museum, called Podziemia Rynku. Only recently excavated, visitors can see the different stages of development Kraków has undergone throughout the centuries.

“It’s not just ancient history that shapes Kraków,” I said as we left the museum, “The country’s Roman Catholic heritage as well as recent wartime destruction also plays a part.”

Indeed, Kraków can be thought of as the city of churches. Nowhere is that more obvious than at the intersection of Grodzka and Dominikańska Streets, where no fewer than three churches take up point on either side of the aptly named Plac Wszystkich Świętych, meaning All Saints Square. We continued along Grodzka, passing by amber shops, tour companies, and currency exchanges until its end, upon where we reached our second must-see attraction of the day: Wawel Castle.

Brilliantly lit by night, especially from the riverside, Wawel Castle was originally constructed in the 14th Century and steadily expanded upon throughout the centuries. Wawel Cathedral is the burial place of medieval monarchs as well as the nation’s war heroes. Most recently, former President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria are also buried here.

For lunch, we stopped in Hamsa, a Jewish restaurant located on Szeroka Street in Kazimierz, Kraków’s Jewish Quarter. After World War II, with Kraków’s Jewish population decimated, the district fell into disrepair. Only as recently as the 1990s has Kazimierz begun to rebuild itself, becoming a young, hip neighbourhood where one can experience a less touristic side of Kraków.

Thanks in part to the Jewish Culture Festival, Europe’s largest Jewish music and culture festival, visitors from all over the world now come to the district. A great place for affordable, tasty food, the Jewish History museum, an Old Jewish Cemetery, and a handful of historic synagogues dot the neighbourhood.

“Dessert?” I asked, getting an emphatic nod in reply.

Taking a path along Miodowa and Estery Streets had led us to Plac Nowy. Here one could see the perfect business model: a large round building containing about eight stalls all selling zapiekanki, Polish-style baguette pizzas, surrounded by hip neighborhood bars. Here, I convinced Kay to stop so we could split a pizza topped with mushroom and kielbasa.

“You have to eat this while you’re in Kraków,” I justified.

“Is this one of the things that makes the city special?” Kay asked.

I let the food do the talking, but added, “Still want dessert?”

“Of course!”

We headed for Plac Wolnica, where we could get the best ice cream in the city. We passed by Corpus Christi Basilica, a 14th-century Gothic church with a beautiful interior decor. At Plac Wolnica, we waited in line outside Good Lood.

“Wait, didn’t I see this place at the round building in Plac Nowy?” Kay asked.

I studied the menu, which, aside from standards like caramel, chocolate, and mixed berry, featured originally made daily creations.

“Yes, but we need to burn some calories.”

We walked along Krakowska Street as our ice cream dripped in the warm sunlight. At the Wisła River, we turned left until Starowiślna Street. There we crossed Powstanców Slaskich Bridge into the Podgórze district of Kraków.

Soon, we reached Plac Bohaterów Ghetta, which translates to Heroes of the Ghetto Square.

“Why are there so many chairs?” Kay asked, handing me her camera and making to sit in one of them.

“During World War II, this was a place in the Jewish Ghetto where the Nazis had forced the Jews to gather. Here some were selected to go to concentration camps. On other occasions, they performed executions.”

Kay studied the metal chair, unsure whether to sit or not.

“Anyway,” I continued, snapping a candid shot, “There’s one more important stop.”

Schindler’s Enamel Factory is an emotional ride through the former workshop in which Oskar Schindler protected his Jewish workers from the concentration camps. The museum takes one on a journey through the experience of the Jews in Kraków during Nazi occupation of the city.

After leaving the factory, we walked along Boleslawa Limanowskiego Street toward Podgórski Square.

“He lost his entire fortune bribing the Nazis so they would let him continue his work at the factory,” I marveled.

“Right, but I think it’s even more amazing that Schindler risked his life writing fake documents for his workers,” Kay added, “Ooh, what’s that?”

We gazed upon the steep spires of St. Joseph’s Church, built in the Gothic Revival style in 1909. Easily the most majestic church on this side of the river, it was also my personal favourite in Kraków.

Goosebumps raised on my arms, signalling the imminent arrival of evening. Our lodging for the night was the Let’s Rock Hostel, located on Grodzka Street. Budget was key since we were just students, so we’d chosen a place as central yet as cheap as possible. To get back, we crossed the square to Staromostowa Street, turning right on Kazimierz Brodzinski Street.

We tramped along Ojca Bernatka Footbridge, reading the names of those who had locked their love to the bridge, accenting their names with hearts meant to last as long as their love.

Kay leaned against the railing, trailing the path of the river as the sun began setting in the distance.

“Now I see what you mean.”