The word Krakow originates from ‘Krak’ or ‘Krakus’, and he, Krak, was the fabled ruler of the Vistulan tribes. According to legend, he founded the city some time around 700AD, built Wawel Castle, slayed the Wavel Dragon (more about him a bit later) and beat back the armies of the Roman Empire. Quite a busy guy.
Like many cities the world over, Krakow hosts its own Hop On Hop Off Bus. Wow! You may be thinking. Well that’s what Krakow thought too, because that’s exactly what they named the bus route – Wow Krakow – and that’s what we are going to use today to get around. It costs around $30 for two days of sightseeing, a load cheaper than the little electric carts you can rent and it seems to go to a few places off the beaten path, which I always enjoy.
But first up, there are a couple of things close to our hotel to check out – The Barbican and Rynek Undergound.
The Barbican was once a fortified outpost connected to the city walls. Now it remains as a tourist attraction and as a marker to the entrance of the old town. It was built in around 1498 and is one of only three surviving fortified outposts in the world Europe and this one’s the best preserved.
Rynek Underground is a 4,000m2 exploration of medieval Krakow, where you can walk along authentic age old streets, 5m under the Main Square. The museum combines modern technology with original world class artefacts. The tour starts with a fog screen that allows you to walk through a thin wall and participate in the life of a medieval Krakow market. You can hear all the sounds of market trade around you and see layers of actual cobble-stoned ground from the 13th and 14th centuries. There are all sorts of audio visual and interactive guides to lead you on your journey and it’s really quite a brilliant trip to take.
There was all sorts of interesting facts and information, like – do you know why medieval folk carried little pouches for their money? That would be because medieval robes had no pockets! And at one point Krakow’s dandy’s wore shoes so pointy that it was actually impractical to walk in them.
Rynek Underground runs from the corner of the cloth hall towards St Mary’s Basillica. From one point within the room, if you look up to the ceiling, through the splashes of water spouts from the waterfall in the main square, you can see the spires of St Mary’s. The market remains were excavated from 2005 through to 2010 and you would never know this museum was there unless you read about it. A very informative and clever exhibition. If you are in Krakow, make sure you go!
So now to the Wow Krakow bus and our first stop is Kosciuszko Mound located in Salwator. It was constructed between 1820 and 1823 using soil from the battlefields where Tadeusz Kościuszko, the national hero of Poland, fought – the costs covered with donations from all over the country. It was initially called Kościuszko’s Tomb. Seen from just about anywhere in the city, it’s one of those places that most tourists consider to be unimportant, but let me tell – the effort is worth it.
From the mound you can see the city. I mean the WHOLE city. At 333m above sea level, it’s the symbolic burial place of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, General, Polish & American national hero, freedom fighter and leader of the Polish Uprising. The Mound itself is 34.1m high – hence the view. It offers beautiful vistas of the entire Krakow and – in bright weather – also of the Beskids and the Tatra Mountains 100 kilometres away, which we could see today – if we knew which way they were!
And if you’re wondering why the name sounds familiar Aussies, it’s because the highest mountain in Australia was named in 1840 by Polish explorer Paul Edmund Strzeleck as Mt Kosciuszko, because of its resemblance to the Kosciuszko Mound.
I’m glad we made the effort!
After the climb, we ascend the Wow bus and drive through the streets of Kazimierz, full of interesting architecture. Kazimierz is a historical district of Krakow which is home to the city’s Jewish quarter. Named after King Kazimierz the Great in the 14th century, it’s world came tumbling down in September 1939 when Hitler made his mark on it. As late as the year 2000, much of Kazimierz was still in ruins. But it is undergoing a bit of a facelift at the moment and is fast becoming one of the hippest places to visit.
When we arrive back in the old town, there’s a classic car display. Engines are revving, cameras are going off and people are showing off. There are some beautiful cars and the smell of fuel is intoxicating. One by one they pull out on the road surrounding the square and do an honorary lap, before driving off into the sunset.