Krakow History Tour!

Originally published on 9 May 2012.

The fun is only beginning! The company is Free Walking Tours Krakow, and the guides are licensed, local experts. I feel confident calling them experts because they’ve all had to take a rigorous 8-month course all about the historical significance of Poland, the politics of the country, and just all kinds of things about Krakow. They have to pass up to 20 exams, and the very last big exam is very difficult–only 10% of the people who take it pass each time! That fascinated me, since I haven’t had to take any tests or rigorous courses for my tours!

I took notes the whole time and got along well with the guide. He was not what you picture when you think of a professional historian–early 30s, nose ring, tattoos, long hair, baggy clothes… but he was awesome! He was so funny and spoke English better than just about anyone else I’ve met on this trip! There were people on our tour from Spain, France, Great Britain, Australia, and various other countries, but the tour was in English because that was the common language for us all.

Come join us on the tour!


The Spanish are always late. Our tour guide said so, and surely enough, we had some stragglers come along and guess where they were from–Spain! The guide asked them when they walked up, “Spain, right?” They said, “Yes, how did you know? Oh, we’re late.” At least they know. Too funny!

Krakow was established even before the 10th century, but the first written reference to Krakow was from 966 A.D. We began at St. Mary’s Cathedral on the main market square. There are many, MANY Catholic churches in Poland because 90% of the people are Catholic; at one point in time, the ratio of churches to people was 1:100–Wow! That’s like protestant churches in the Southern US! They say if you throw a stone in Krakow, you’ll hit a church. One of the reasons there are so many in Krakow alone is because noblemen would often donate land to build a church. They thought if you gave generously to the church, you could basically buy a better afterlife. So that’s what many nobles did!

Poland changed hands several times through the centuries, and even ceased to exist as an nation around the end of the 18th century. When they regained their country, the officials made all the people say four certain Polish words to find out if they are really Polish. The words all had to do with mill houses, because that’s what the Polish people did back then, so they would all know how to pronounce them correctly.

If you pronounced the words correctly, you got to live, if you pronounced it wrong you would be either tortured or executed! So, our guide asked each of us to pronounce one of these words and told us whether we’d live or die. Most people did poorly, but he gave me a long word (wish I knew how to spell it!), and he was very impressed with my perfect pronunciation! He even asked me if I was Polish! When I said no, he asked if I was of Polish descent, and when I said no to that, I think he didn’t believe me! And he really didn’t believe it when I said I’m American–apparently, we have a problem pronouncing long Polish words or something. 😉 Anyway, I completely owe my ear for pronunciation to Dr. Ablamowicz, my Polish communications professor in college, and Dr. Slotkin, my linguistics professor. It pays to pay attention in class!


So, Poland ceased to exist as a country from the 17th century until the end of the 18th century; the land was divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary–Krakow was part of Austria. During this time, there was a woman who wanted to preserve her Polish past. She began collecting historical Polish items, and even went so far as to rob graves! All these things are now in the first Polish history museum, which is in Krakow.

Next stop: the Planta Gardens. There’s a path all the way around Krakow, beginning and ending at the Florian Gate and the Barbican. The path exists because that is where the city fortification walls used to be. The walls were torn down sometime a couple of centuries ago, but people decided to preserve the path, so now it’s a beautiful 4 km walk around the outside of the city.

The Florian Gate is the place where future kings used to enter into the city to be coronated. The Barbican, across the way from the Florian Gate, was the main gate into the city–the one that was armored and exceedingly difficult to break into! I plan to go on a tour of that and get more info on it soon. Our guide called it an “architectural marvel.” The entire Barbican included 7 different gates that needed to be broken though just to get into the castle, and Krakow was never defeated when this system was in use.

The Barbican Gate

Moving along! I asked the guide a burning question: Why is Krakow sometimes spelled with c’s and sometimes spelled with k’s? (Cracow/Krakow) He said that C is the German way of spelling it, and K is the Polish way. It is used interchangeably for some people, but the Pols prefer the spelling with a K, for obvious reasons.

While Krakow and the surrounding parts of Poland were part of Austria-Hungary, you could only actually “be” Polish in the Hungarian part. There’s a statue of a poet in the middle of the main square. He never came to Krakow in his life, but there, in Krakow, in the Hungarian portion, was the only place where his statue was allowed to stand. Anywhere else, it was illegal!


And then we were in for a special treat: we heard the bugle call! Every hour, on the hour, for centuries, a fireman plays the bugle from the top of St. Mary’s church. It’s always a fireman, and there are five different buglers (I guess they take shifts). The legend goes that a fireman saw that Krakow was about to be invaded sometime in the 16th century, and he sounded the bugle call to alert everyone. And so they do this in honor of him. An American Journalist wrote a book about this called, “The Trumpeter of Krakow.”


Our next stop was exceedingly interesting: it was the original level of the main Market Square. It’s actually about 3 meters lower than where the current square is today. It’s now a small archaeological museum. I went back later to explore it some more. It’s tiny, but quite a treasure!


Next he pointed out the City Hall Tower. It has been built and renovated at different times, ranging from the 14th century to the 20th century. There is a pub in the basement, and back in medieval days, you could go down, get your drink and look out the window into the other room: the torture chamber! Kind of a graphic show! Our guide said that as you went clubbing in the middle ages, you could also SEE clubbing. 😉 Anyway, the tower is the only part of the old city hall that still exists. The rest of it had been torn down by the various people who ruled over Krakow over the centuries.

On to Cloth Hall! The reason Cloth Hall is so important and is still a market place today is because cloth was a very profitable business in Poland, and especially Krakow. The building is in the Rennaisance style, which looks a bit different from the other buildings around. If you sold cloth, you were sure to make a lot of money, and they still use the place for markets today. There are lots of shops set up in small booths inside that sell everything from mugs to amber to clothes to pottery and cut glass.

And then we got to some more modern stuff. Russia and Germany invaded Poland on September 17, 1939, and one of the first things they said was that there was to be no more higher education. Professors from universities were taken into a room, informed that they would be arrested, and taken away to prisons. But there was a lot going on in the Krakow underground. People took their lives into their own hands when they studied in the underground. The most famous student of the time was a man who wanted to become a priest. He did become one after WWII, then he became a Cardinal and all the other steps as he progressed in his career, and then in 1978 he became… Pope John Paul II.


We saw the place where he studied and the window that has his picture on it. He would stay there once a year, and people would always gather to see him because he would open the window and wave to the people at least once on his visit. Mr. Tour Guide said that 88% of Poles are Catholic, and one of the smallest religious groups is the Protestants. There are only around 22000 Protestants in all of Poland.

Anyway, WWII was obviously devastating to many, including Poland. But afterward, things didn’t really improve while they were under Communist rule. But since Communism fell, they now have democracy and are part of the EU. This is the first time in 500 years that Poland has been truly “allowed” to be Poland!

Next stop: Back to the Castle Wawel! This is where Polish kings were coronated, as well as where they were burried. Each king had a chapel built for himself, so there are dozens of chapels there today.  Sigismund I built the most impressive chapel, with the golden dome. We also saw Kochuszko’s statue. He is Poland’s very first national hero because he started the first Polish uprising (sorry, I don’t remember the year!).

Interesting architecture of the castle: dragon drainpipes. They’re cool and medieval looking, sure, but think about it… when there’s a lot of rain, water comes rushing out its mouth. They are affectionately called “pukers.”


The castle has withstood a couple of fires. The most famous one was in 1595. King Sigismund III, an amateur alchemist and scientist, started a fire in the basement of the castle. Instead of fixing it, he decided to move the capitol up to Warsaw, where there was already another castle he could live in! There is no paperwork officially giving permission for this, only the fact that he moved the whole operation from one city to the other. Krakowians despise Warsaw for this reason–they are always in a competition! But Krakow definitely declares itself still as the ROYAL Capitol of Poland. =)

During the Krakowian occupation by the Prussians (I think he said in the 18th century?), the Wawel Castle was used as a hospital and stable for soldiers and their horses. The Prussians took the Royal treasury (over 4000 items) from the palace, sold some, and used the rest of the treasure to melt down and make things out of. No more crown jewels in Poland. Oh my.

And next up was one of my favorite things we saw: the FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON!!!!


Yep. There’s a fire-breathing dragon back behind the castle! It is the unofficial symbol of the city. Legend has it that the “real” dragon ate young girls. The prince of Krakow sent his noblemen out to conquer the dragon, but it ate them, too! So the prince then offered a reward to the person who could defeat the dragon: He would receive the princess’ hand in marriage and half the kingdom! A young shoe cobbler heard about this, and he tricked the dragon. He took sheep’s wool and filled it with all kinds of nasty things like tar that would poison the dragon. He ate the “sheep,” then got very thirsty because it tasted bad. So he drank half the river… and exploded! The shoe cobbler got the girl and half the kingdom! Love triumphs!

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