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Background on Kracow
One of Poland's oldest cities, Krakow is also ranked as the country's most beautiful metropolis. From the heights of Wawel Hill to the banks of the meandering Vistula, the city is a veritable jewel box of one-of-a-kind historical treasures.
Krakow reached its Golden Age in the 14th century. For the next two hundred years it remained one of the biggest centers of culture and power in Europe. Many monuments from that era have weathered the storms and the ravages of time and battle, and remain intact to the present day. Among them is the Krakow Academy, established by King Casimir the Great in 1364. Perhaps more familiarly known as the Jagiellonian University, it has never ceased to function since that time, attracting its pick of scholars from all over the world.
If Krakow has a focal point, it undoubtedly is the Market Square, a gathering place for visitors and locals alike. At its center stands the Sukiennice, a Gothic-style exhibit hall with a Renaissance attic. A forerunner perhaps of today's shopping mall, it was a place where traders sold their wares and services. Nowadays, it houses shops and boutiques, offering popular, hand-crafted folk art souvenirs, elegant glassware, silver and amber jewelry and handsomely embroidered linens. All around the hall, the square is vibrant with life day and night. Outdoor cafes invite you to slow down and relax over a cup of rich, aromatic coffee and scrumptious, calorie-filled whipped cream cakes.
Just across from Sukiennice, the twin towers of St. Mary's church watch over the comings and goings of visitors to the square. A 16th century Gothic cathedral, the church brings in the faithful and the curious to admire the altar triptych on the life of Christ - creation of the renowned Wit Stwosz. The opening of the altar never fails to attract a 'standing room only' audience. Every hour on the hour throughout the day, all of Krakow comes to a halt to listen again to the poignant, interrupted melody of the bugle call from one of St. Mary's towers, high above the city. It commemorates a dramatic event in Krakow's past.
Streets radiating from the Market Square bring visitors to other places of interest. Florianska street leads to St. Florian's gate and old defense walls. Prominently displayed on the defensive walls around the gate, Krakow's contemporary artists show their output, an always lively collection of many styles for many tastes. Past St. Florian's gate, one can admire the Barbakan, an intact round bastion from medieval times.
Without a doubt, Krakow's major drawing card is Wawel Hill. An ideal defensive spot, its Gothic castle guarded the city and its inhabitants, until fire destroyed it late in the 15th century. The present castle was re-built in the 16th century, a four-winged edifice surrounding a spacious courtyard. Its apartments, galleries and throne rooms exhibit invaluable collections of armor, tapestries, paintings and oriental art.
Adjoining the castle is the Gothic Royal Wawel Cathedral. A collection of twenty chapels, the cathedral is most famous for the gold-domed Sigismund chapel. Silver, marble and stone sarcophagi protect the sleep of Polish kings on this hallowed ground.
Southeast of Wawel Hill lies Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. People who have seen Spielberg's film, 'Schindler's List,' which was partially filmed in the area, will recognize familiar landmarks, including the late 15th century Alt-Schul Synagogue and the neighboring Remuh Synagogue with its ancient cemetery.
More than mortar and stone, Krakow is a city alive with cultural events. Art lovers have a choice of more than 30 museums. Not to be missed is the Czartoryski collection with its rare da Vinci and Rembrandt canvases. The Wawel Castle collections, including world-renowned Flemish tapestries, are another must-see exhibit.
Music to satisfy all tastes abounds in Krakow. From jam sessions at small, private jazz clubs to an evening of great orchestral masterpieces by the world-class Krakow Philharmonic, a true connoisseur will find something to his liking. Musical festivals are held in Krakow every year in venues of historic or architectural interest, including churches, palaces or an intimate salon in a private mansion. Among the most Popular are the springtime 'Days of Organ Music', 'Music in Old Krakow' in the summer and a 'Solo-Duo-Trio' jazz festival. Theater, too, is alive and well in Krakow; with more than a dozen theaters staging works from the classics to the contemporary, numerous festivals and the famous actor's studio, Krakow is regarded as a major theatrical center in Central Europe.
Two of the most popular fairs in town are the traditional parade of the Hunter King and the light-hearted 'Lajkonik' parade: a pageant of costumed, medieval actors on hobby horses reenacting the expulsion of the Tartars from 13th century Krakow.
Some eight miles southeast of Krakow lies the Wieliczka salt mine. Registered in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, this subterranean world today operates as a still functioning salt mine, as a sanitarium for the treatment of lung diseases and allergies, and as a world class monument museum. The nearby town of Wadowice is the birthplace of Pope John Paul II and has many mementos from his years there. To the west of Krakow lies the town of Oswiecim, site of the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau; the martyrology museum is a vivid reminder of all the atrocities committed there. Sixty miles due south is Zakopane, the four-season resort high in the Tatra Mountains, where Poles come to hike or camp in summer, ski in winter and mingle with the colorful Highlanders, who still cling faithfully to their traditional and original way of life.