From Krakow: The First Place on My Cultural Journey

Updated: Sep 30

Dear FCI,


I’ve been meaning to write you, but it’s been hard finding the time! I’ve finally been able to sit down and tell you what Krakow, Poland has been like for me.


There’s a wonderful park, full of lush green trees and shrubbery, that outlines part of the city, cobblestone streets, and an ambience that will truly take you to a much simpler time period. There’s a majestic castle, a serene church with two towers–of different sizes and styles, mind you—and a statue of a dragon that actually breathes fire from its mouth.


I’ve learned a lot in my time here and couldn’t wait to share it with you!

 

First off, in “Old Town”—that’s what they call the section of the city that’s surrounded by the park, which was actually where the fortress/walls were that protected the castle back in medieval times.

The Barbakan is the remaining portion of the outlining castle wall in Krakow, Poland.

There are still some remnants of the city walls, called the “Barbakan.” To imagine a wall like this once surrounded the entire city, now that would be a site to see.


But anyhow, in “Old Town” every hour on the hour, there’s a bell chime, which comes from the St. Mary’s Basilica. The bell rings to mark the hour, and after the ring there’s a little tune that is played by a bugle player. The oddest thing was, the tune was played 4 times yet each time it was cut short. People walked around like it was nothing new, so of course, I had to ask about it.


Legend has it that back in the 13th century, when the castle’s surrounding walls were all intact, a bugle call was played every sunrise and sunset to open and close the gates to the city. The call was also played in times of danger when enemies were close by.

The famous Bugle call in Krakow, Poland

One night, a guard noticed that a Mongolian army was approaching the city. He raced to the tower of the basilica and played the tune to warn the city of the attackers, but the tune was cut short, ending mid note! The guard was struck by enemy fire, and he fell from the tower to his death. Although the player met his fate, the city was saved due to his warning, and to this day, the same tune is played in the same way–ending mid-note—to honor the guard who once saved the city.



 


As I mentioned before, the basilica in “Old Town” has two different sized towers. This was odd to me, and I knew there had to be a story behind it, and yes, it involves murder…


St. Mary's Basilica, ground view

Story goes that there were two brothers, both architects, who were commissioned to build two towers on top of the church—one tower for each brother. Construction went as planned until the younger brother noticed his brother’s tower was much larger than his own. In a jealous rage, the younger brother stabbed his own blood to death, demanding that construction of his recently deceased brother be stopped and capped with a cupola. The remaining brother finished his own tower, now notably taller, but he was so consumed by guilt that he threw himself from the towers, holding the knife that ended his brother’s life.


The murder weapon still hangs today in the church, as a reminder of the tragic events that occurred during the towers’ construction.


Neighborhood of one of the former WWII ghettos in Krakow
Another thing I found interesting… I was walking through a neighborhood. It had these old-style buildings—clearly worn brick, signs that wept with age—but they were connected with updated buildings. It was as though history met the present and they were holding each other together.


It was a quaint neighborhood with cobblestone and tile alleyways, small bridges sitting on top of archways, connecting one building to the other, doors and windowpanes made from wood that’s arched on the top, the panels connected by black iron plates, and then it suddenly hit me. I was staring at this scene—the alley is empty, I’m sandwiched between these two buildings with a staircase on the left, and in the distance there’s an arched bridge. While I see this empty alleyway, I see in my mind a grandmother with her children, hiding under that staircase. Belongings are being thrown from the windows above, shouts, screams… It’s Schindler’s List! I was standing right where it happened in the movie!

Pathway of one of the former WWII ghettos in Krakow

Of course, this was more than just a movie scene, these events actually happened in Poland circa 80 years ago and this wasn’t the only scene I recognized during my travels. You learn about these events and see depictions of them in movies, but to actually be there and see the history with your own eyes, feel the pain in the ground underneath your feet? It’s surreal. Speaking of which, I’d like to… well maybe “like” is not the right word, tell you about my experience in Auschwitz, but there’s too much to put that in this letter, so it will have to wait until the next one.



 

I also want to tell you about the market in “Old Town,” called “Sakennice.” Inside the building, it’s a market that’s open year-round. There are all sorts of divine Polish food, handmade crafts, and treasures. Speaking of treasures, one thing I discovered is that Poles treasure amber and salt. A lot of the crafts and items you see, whether it be jewelry, plates, silverware, there are fragments of amber in them, and sometimes the amber has salt pieces as well. Beautiful shades of green, red, and orange—not flashy but rather representing the pure beauty of nature and what she can produce.


There are also sculptures made from salt! In fact, there’s a huge salt mine, called “Wieliczka Salt Mine” that’s deemed a World Heritage Site. The salt mine is absolutely incredible (marked that one off the bucket list) but that story I’ll have leave to another letter as well.


One more note I’d like to add before I put my pen down for the night, the thing that I felt was truly unique about Krakow was this overall sense of calmness. Let me explain. People are always walking. If your destination is under an hour, you walk!


People walking in "Old Town" in Krakow, Poland

The average workday (and week) is shorter, and people start work in the later morning, circa 10 AM. In addition, they don’t have what is called “Happy Hour” they have “Happy HOURS.” Sometimes there are performers in the streets showing their talents, venders walk around selling quality items, and there’s an overall essence in the air that simply breathes serenity.


A lot of things seem on-the-go, on-the fly. If you were to ask someone in the morning what they have planned for dinner, locals would say that they’ll figure it out on their way home. It seems as though their way of life is much simpler, more at ease.

It is much different from what I’m used to in the States, and if I’m honest with myself, this is the way things should be.


Needless to say, Krakow is surely a place I would like to see again in my travels. That’s all for now,


Dobranoc FCI!


Sincerely,



Atlas in front of Wawel Castle
 

Have you ever travelled to Krakow?


What was it like for you?


Share with us your travel experiences!


 

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