Barbican and City Wall

The Basilica of the Holy Virgin Mary

The Church of St Peter and St Paul

The Old Synagogue 

Wawel Castle and Cathedral




Barbican and City Wall

The City Wall around Krakow in Medieval Times consisted of 39 towers and 8 gates.  With a length of around two miles it was 10 metres high and 2.5 metres thick.  With an additional lower wall the whole city was also surrounded by a moat 8 metres deep and 22 metres wide. Later, at the height of its existence, the wall contained 47 watchtowers and eight gates.

Most of the defences were dismantled at the beginning of the 19th century although the Brama Florianska, which was the main gate, and three adjacent towers with their interconnecting walls have survived, as has the 16th century arsenal and the barbican, which is situated in front of the main gate.

The Brama Florianska Gate is a rectangular Gothic stone tower 33.5 metres tall, which was built around 1300 as part of a protective rampart constructed around Krakow after the Tartar attack of 1241 - an attack which destroyed most of the city. Named after St. Florian the gate became the main entrance to the city.

In 1565 - 66 a municipal arsenal was built next to St. Florian's Gate.  Also, around this time, a bas-relief of St. Florian was placed on the south wall of the Brama Florianska Gate. In the late 17th century it was topped with a baroque roof, which still exists today. In 1882 a stone eagle – the symbol of Poland’s first rulers carved by Zygmunt Langman and based on the design by the painter Jan Matejko,  was placed on the north side of the gate. Also to be found in the gate is the chapel, constructed in 1885 – 86 which is located on the first floor, and the Altar to the Holy Mother of Piaski.

Each of the towers was allocated to a specific trade guild to defend.  The Brama Florianska Gate was defended by the Guild of Furriers. Along this stretch of wall today are a number of pieces of art.   Local artists use this as a display area in which they offer their works for sale.

Visitors are able to ascend to the wall through one of the other towers and walk along the length of the wall. 

Connected to the Brama Florianska gate - originally by a drawbridge and walled passage - was the circular Gothic style barbican, which was surrounded by a 30 metre wide and 6 metre deep moat. The barbican (a fortified outpost or gateway) is one of only three such fortifications still surviving in Europe, and the best preserved. 24.4 metres in diameter, with its three metres thick walls, it is topped with seven turrets. It contains 130 loopholes arranged in four rows, the lowest being used by artillery while the others were used by archers.  Constructed between 1498 – 1499 it withstood the attack of the Habsburg troops in 1587, and the invasion of Poland by the Swedes in 1626.  However, the city ultimately fell as a result of scarcity of food and ammunition.

There is a legend relating to the barbican, which tells of a local burgher - Marcin Oracewicz – who was defending Krakow from the Russians in 1768. It is said that he shot and killed the Russian commander, Colonel Panin, from the barbican, using a coat button; a plaque on the eastern side of the fortress commemorates the incident.

Apart from being a popular tourist attraction, the barbican is also used for an annual fencing tournament, for concerts and as a theatre. It also houses a historical museum and is the venue for re-enactments of medieval tournaments, complete with swordfights, and includes a demonstration of an execution.  This is of course a simulation!

Basilica of the Holy Virgin Mary

The Basilica of the Holy Virgin Mary, also known as St Mary’s Church and the Church of our Lady Assumed into Heaven, stands in the centre of Krakow by the main Market Square.

A church on the site was built originally in the 1220’s but was rebuilt following its destruction during the Mongol Invasion of Poland in 1240 – 1241. This is commemorated to this day when every hour, a trumpet signal - called the Hejnal mariacki - is played from the top of the taller of St. Mary's two towers. This breaks off suddenly to commemorate the fact that the trumpeter was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city.

The Gothic Church replaced the original Romanesque design but used the original foundations. Constructed in the years 1290 - 1300 it was not consecrated until 20 years later in 1320.  In the years between 1355 and 1365 in the reign of Casimir III (1333 - 1370) the church was completely rebuilt.  In 1365 a chancel (or presbytery) was added with its splendid large stained-glass windows, three of which are still in place.

In the first half of the 15th century, the side chapels were added and the northern tower was raised in order to enable it to serve as the watch tower for the city. In 1478 a helmet was added to the tower and in 1668 a gilded crown was placed on top, raising its height to 80 m (262 ft). It is said that the crown contains the written history of the city. The lower tower is 69 metres high with a roof in Renaissance style built in 1592. This houses five bells two of which date back to the late 14th century.

The main body of the church was completed in 1395 - 1397 when a new vault was added.  However, the vault over the chancel collapsed in 1442 which was believed to have been the result of an earthquake.

Located behind the High altar is the Altarpiece of Veit Stoss for which the church is famous.  The Altarpiece is the world’s largest Gothic altarpiece (about 13 metres high and 11 metres wide) and is one of Poland’s National Treasures.  It was carved between 1477 and 1489 by the German sculptor Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz) who lived in the city for 20 years. In 1491 he sculpted the stone crucifix that now is part of the late-Baroque altarpiece in the south aisle, and is credited with the large crucifix above the nave. 

In the 18th century,   the interior was rebuilt in the late Baroque style. This involved the replacement of its 26 altars, equipment, furniture, benches and paintings. The front porch dates from the mid-18th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the cemetery near the Basilica was closed and became a public square. In the years 1887 - 1891, the church was redesigned to the neo-Gothic design.

In 1941, during the German occupation, the Altar was dismantled and shipped to Bavaria where it was recovered in 1946 in the basement of Nuremberg Castle.  The Altar was returned to Poland and underwent major restoration work; it was reinstalled in the Basilica in 1956.

Today the Basilica’s twelve chapels house numerous Sepulchral artefacts and its ornate stalls in the chancel are a good example of early-Baroque woodwork. The wall paintings of Jan Matejko date back to the 1888 - 1891 renovation. Its treasure-house contains a priceless collection of objects, including some 300 masterly embroidered ancient vestments.

The Church of St Peter and St Paul

Located in the Old Town district of Krakow, the early baroque Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul was built during the period of 1597–1619 by Giovanni Maria Bernardoni. In terms of seating capacity, it is the largest of the churches in Krakow. It became a Catholic Church in 1842, prior to this it was Orthodox. 

The church was the first building in Krakow to be designed entirely in Baroque style and one of the first Baroque buildings in Poland. It was consecrated on 8 July 1635 and was raised in rank to a Smaller Basilica in 1960.

Behind its metalwork gates and railings can be seen the ornate white stone façade - a break from the normal red-brick commonly used – with its columns and statues, and the emblem of the order of the Jesuits over the main door and statues  of Saints Sigismund of Burgundy and Ladislaus I of Hungary in niches to the side.

In front of the Church are a number of plinths with sculptures of the 12 apostles. The railings and plinths were designed by Kacper Bażanka. The limestone sculptures were completed in 1722 by Dawid Heel. These have now been replaced with copies, as the originals sustained substantial damage from acid rain.  The originals now stand in the yard at the side of the church.

On entry, the broad single-nave stretches before you with it decorative stucco of the overhead vaults. At the side are two aisles which contain a number of chapels. Also to be seen is the transept with a dome at the intersection. The side pillars supporting the dome were designed to create the impression of the theatre stage. In 1638 the Jesuits formed a musical ensemble there, which featured around 80 to 100 singers.

The decorations are mainly stucco, depicting scenes in the lives of the Apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul. These were created by Giovanni Battista Falconi,
At the end of the nave is the Late Baroque high altar designed by Kacper Bażanka and dating back to 1735.  This contains the painting by Józef Brodowski “Giving Keys to St. Peter". Around the altar is a short rectangular chancel, with semi-circular apse covered with a hemispherical vault.

In the apse of the chancel (presbytery), there are scenes from the life and death of Saints Peter and Paul, and the statues of patrons of Poland – Saint Wojciech and Saint Stanisława. 

In the Crypt below the church floor is the sarcophagus of Father Skarga, a famous 17th-century Jesuit preacher who was a significant Polish academic and religious historian, and the priest to King Sigismund III.

The church has excellent acoustics, and is frequently used as a concert hall for classical and Baroque ensembles and makes an excellent venue for such events. 

The Old Synagogue 

Located in the Kazimierz district of Krakow, the Old Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Poland, and one of the foremost pieces of Jewish architecture in Europe.

Until the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Old Synagogue was one of the most important synagogues in Krakow and served as the main religious, social, and organizational centre of the city’s Jewish community.

It was built in the 15th century (the exact date being debated due to conflicting sources which state it was 1407 or 1492) next to the 14th century city walls.  It was rebuilt mid-16th century following it having been destroyed by fire in 1557. With its attic wall with loopholes, the rebuild included highly placed windows and thick, masonry walls with heavy buttressing designed to withstand siege. It took on the features taken from military architecture, making it a fine example of a Polish Fortress synagogue. Construction was completed in 1570, then later the cantors’ room was added on the southern side, and the women’s hall to the south.  Although the exterior took on a Renaissance look the interior was to retain its Gothic appearance.

Over the following centuries, the building was ravaged by fire or war on a number of occasions. Despite it being renovated after such events, it was affected by deterioration and in 1888 then again in 1904 – 1913 it underwent a major overhaul which included the reconstruction of the roofs.

In 1923 the ground around the synagogue was lowered to its 15th century level, and a small museum was established in the refurbished rooms of the front porch.

During the German occupation of the city, the synagogue was ransacked - its relics and art work looted - and it was used to store armaments.

Following the damage caused by the Nazis during the Second World War, which included the destruction of the Gothic vaulting and Renaissance columns, from 1956 to 1959 the building underwent extensive renovations. In 1961 it became a museum, which it remains today, and it specialises in the history of Krakow’s Jews.

On entry to the synagogue, visitors find themselves in the vestibule with its low vaulted ceiling and entrance desk. This leads to the main room with its reconstructed cross-ridded vaulted ceiling which is supported on two slender Tuscan columns. Between these columns is the bimah which is an open iron canopy on an elevated 12 sided platform for the reading of the Torah and the delivering of sermons. On the eastern wall, facing Jerusalem is the original 16th-century stone Aaron Hakodesh - the Holy Ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept. This is framed by a late-renaissance portal with a richly decorated crown. Also on display in this room is the candelabrum which dates back to the 17th century.

Leading from the main room are a number of display rooms, devoted to specific aspects,  such as birth, prayer rituals, diet, divorce and death. The museum contains a fine example of the relics of Krakow’s former Kazimierz Jewish quarter; items relating to religious rites and family traditions, pictures, old photos and documents. Each exhibit is accompanied by a description and the Jewish traditions are explained. The museum also houses temporary exhibitions which are held in the Women's Prayer or Female Room with its barrel vaulting and stucco decoration.

Over the centuries, the Old Synagogue, the main house of prayer of Kazimierz Jews, has been the site of many significant events in Poland’s history, events that are represented in the museum. 

Wawel Castle and Cathedral

Wawel Castle is located in the heart of Krakow, at a bend in the Wisla River. It was the location chosen by the first king of Poland, Mieszko I (965-1025), as his royal residence. Around the beginning of the 11th century it became the site for the construction of Wawel Cathedral.
The Castle itself dates back to the 12th century,  when it was constructed by King Casimir III the Great (1333 to 1370) and included a number of buildings constructed around the central courtyard, which was,  during its history,  used for tournaments and various court events.

Krakow became the royal capital at the beginning of the 14th century under King Wladyslaw Lokietek (1320–1333) which made Kraków and Wawel the cultural heart of Poland. The golden age came in the reign of King Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370), who expanded the castle,  which was added to in the 14th century by King Jogaila (1386 -1434),  who added a number of defensive walls and towers. 

Originally in Gothic style, in the early 16th century the castle was refurbished by King Sigismund I (1506–1548) to create a palace in Renaissance style. In 1595, the north-east part of the castle was destroyed by fire. The castle was rebuilt by King Sigismund III Vasa (1587-1632), but only the Senator Stairs and fireplace in the Bird Room still exist.

In 1609 King Sigismund III moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw, which resulted in the neglect and deterioration of the castle. The Swedish invasions of 1655–1657 and 1702 led further to the decline of the castle.

In 1794 the place was occupied by the Prussian Army, who stole the Royal Insignia.  This has never been retrieved. 1n 1795, after the Third Partition of Poland, resulting in Poland’s loss of independence, the castle was used as a barracks - which included the Royal chambers - by the Austrians who modernised the structure to add to its defences to form a border outpost and also a military hospital.  The walls were redesigned in the second part of the 19th century, making them an integral part of the castle. The Austrians remained in Krakow until 1911 when they vacated.

Following the end of World War I it was decided that Wawel Castle should represent the Polish State and was then used by the Governor. Later this passed to the President and in 1921 it officially became the residence of the President of Poland. Following World War II it became a national museum.

Visitors today can visit a number of rooms and exhibitions but unfortunately photographs are not permitted either in the castle rooms or cathedral.  

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp Museum

Located seventy kilometres west of Krakow are the former Nazi Concentration and Extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau which today form the Auschwitz and Birkenau Museum. Between June 1941 and January 1945 they were used by the Nazis as forced labour and extermination camps for thousands of people shipped there from all over Nazi occupied Europe. Many of the inhabitants were killed immediately on arrival while others were set to work in one of the subsidiary camps in the area, with many being either worked to death, starved or brutally killed. The camp had a capacity for 150,000 people and over one million men, women and children died in the three main camps and forty sub-camps.

With the advance of the Soviet Army into Poland in November 1944, Himmler ordered the extermination process to stop and the dismantling of Crematoria II, III, and IV, Crematorium I was transformed into an air raid shelter. Prior to it being abandoned, attempts had been made to destroy the evidence of what had been going on there. Steps were taken by the Nazis to destroy all evidence of the killings.  The mass graves and all written records were destroyed.  The crematoria were demolished - the ruins of which can be seen today. 

The camp was liberated on the 27 January 1945 although 58,000 of the detainees had been evacuated ten days before and sent on what became a ‘death march’ to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.   38,000 died en route!

After the liberation, Auschwitz I served as a hospital for liberated prisoners. In the initial months, Soviet and Polish investigators documented the war crimes of the SS. In the following two years the Soviets dismantled and took some of the factories back to Russia and the Birkenau barracks were looted. Parts of the camp were used as a prison by the Soviets until they handed it over to Poland in 1947. On 2 July 1947, the site of Auschwitz I and II became a museum and the first exhibition in the barracks was opened. Exhumation work commenced in 1947 and lasted for over a decade. 

Among the items found by the Soviets were 370,000 men's suits, 837,000 women's garments, and 7.7 tonnes of human hair, numerous pairs of shoes, suitcases, spectacles and artificial limbs, some of which can be seen in Auschwitz I together with many other personal effects.  Also on display are canisters of Zyklon B pellets and a model to show the design of the gas chambers, all of which form the displays in the museum. 

The exact number of victims at Auschwitz is difficult to determine with certainty, as many prisoners were never registered and much evidence was destroyed by the SS in the final days of the war. The corpses of many of those killed were burned, making it difficult to gain any accurate number. A display in Auschwitz estimates the number at 1,100,000, 90% of whom were Jews, with the majority of them being killed in the gas chambers.

Around 1.5 million people visit the museum each year. Visitors do need to be part of an organised group and therefore, individual visitors are grouped with an authorized guide who provides the tour in a number of languages.
The camp actually consisted of a number of camps although Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau form the museum.

Auschwitz I was the administrative centre for the whole complex. It was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who started to arrive in May 1940. The gates to Auschwitz I displayed the motto “Arbeit macht frei” (Work brings freedom). The extermination of prisoners started in September 1941. Many of those who did not meet their deaths in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labour, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.

The camp consists of a number of Blocks which are visited on the tour. Block 11 was a punishment block.   It contained a number of very small cells where some prisoners were made to spend the nights. These cells were about 1.5 m2 (16 sq ft), and held four men; the lack of space meant that they could not lie down but only stand, and these were known as the standing cells.

In the basement were the "dark cells", were people sentenced to death for attempting to escape were incarcerated. They were given neither food nor water and many suffocated due to the lack of oxygen. Outside, in the courtyard, stood the wall against which prisoners would be shot.

Also to be seen are the blocks where a wide variety of medical experiments were undertaken on prisoners. Many of these were undertaken by the infamous doctor Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death". 

There is a square where detainees would report twice a day and where they would remain until all were accounted for.   There is a wooden frame where prisoners would be hanged, in order to make an example of them, and there is a wooden hut which allowed the inspecting officer to shelter from the rain.

The gas chambers and the crematoria can be seen and just outside is the gallows where camp Commandant Rudolf Höss, was executed following his war crimes trial after the war.

The distance between Auschwitz I and Birekenau is approximately 3km and there is a complementary shuttle bus to take visitors between the two sites. It is usual to first visit Auschwitz I and then move onto Auschwitz II.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau was constructed from October 1941 to ease congestion at Auschwitz I.  It was intended to house 50,000 prisoners of war, who would be used as forced labour.  By May 1942 Hitler had decided to annihilate the Jewish people, so the role of Birkenau was changed to a combination of labour / extermination camp and become a major site of the Nazi "Final Solution to the Jewish question". 

From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camps in cramped carriages, (the like of which is on display) where they were selected for work or extermination.  The first gas chamber at Birkenau became operational by March 1942 and anyone not able to work would be sent straight to the gas chamber where they were killed with what was originally a pesticide - Zyklon B. At least 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, around 90 percent of them Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Other groups sent to the camp included gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Soviet prisoners of war. 

Auschwitz II-Birkenau is where the frequently photographed camp frontage is seen with the railway lines passing through.  This was where people were disembarked on arrival.  They then underwent a brief assessment to determine if they were capable of working. Those who were deemed not to be fit were taken to the gas chamber where under the misapprehension of being taken to a shower block, they were gassed.  

Those selected for work would be taken to the accommodation, some of which can still be seen. Auschwitz II camp contained 300, mainly wooden, barracks. The original wooden huts are no longer there, although a number have been reconstructed, including a toilet block, and some of the brick buildings can be seen and visited.

Today, there are a number of monuments to those who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau as the site is not solely a museum but it is very much a monument, a shrine and a place of education, and one which provides a very emotional visit. 

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