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Kraków, Historic Capital of Poland (6:16)

Kraków, Poland

Kraków’s St. Mary’s Church overlooks the vast, people-friendly Market Square, with its iconic Cloth Hall. The city’s sacred Wawel Hill — the symbol of Polish royalty and independence — holds Wawel Cathedral and the tombs of Poland’s great rulers and historic figures.

Complete Video Script

In the northeast corner of Europe, Poland is one of the largest countries on the Continent. We'll visit its historic capital, Kraków, side trip to a salt mine, and to a concentration camp, then head for Poland's modern capital, Warsaw.

We start in Kraków — it's like the Boston of Poland: a charming and vital city buzzing with history, college students, and tourists. Even though Poland's political capital moved from here to Warsaw 400 years ago, Kraków remains the country's cultural and intellectual center.

The city's history is rich, its sights are fascinating, and the prices are some of Europe's lowest. This is a country where the most expensive café on the most expensive perch serves drinks for a fraction of what you'd expect.

The charm of today's Kraków lies in its medieval roots.

Kraków grew wealthy from trade in the 12th century. Traders passing through were required to stop for a few days and sell their goods at a discount. Local merchants then resold their wares at a profit…and the city thrived.

In the 13th century the Tartars — a.k.a. the Mongols — swept in from Asia and destroyed Kraków. Resilient Krakovians took this opportunity to rebuild their city with a near-perfect grid plan — a striking contrast to the narrow, mazelike lanes of most medieval towns.

Eventually Kraków's power waned. Warsaw emerged as the dominant city in Poland and Kraków remained a provincial backwater of the Habsburg Empire, ruled from Vienna. While Warsaw was in the sphere of Moscow and therefore more Eastern and conservative, Kraków has long been more Western and liberal.

Kraków emerged from World War II virtually unscathed — it slumbered under communism until Poland won its freedom in 1989. Today this city is Poland's leading tourist attraction…with plenty of top-notch sights.

After the Tartars destroyed their city, Krakovians built this imposing wall. The big, round defensive fort standing outside the wall is a barbican. It provided extra protection at the town's main gate.

By the 19th century, the city wall was no longer necessary. Locals tore down most of it, filled in the moat, and planted trees. Today, this delightful and people-friendly green belt — a park called the Planty — circles Kraków's Old Town.

To get away from the tourists' Kraków, bike or hike around the Planty and up the park that lines the Vistula River. If you think you're good at chess, challenge one of these guys.

Nearby, the imposing St. Mary's Church — with its soaring lookout tower — has long been an icon of the city. Each midday, crowds gather for a medieval moment as a nun swings open the church's much-adored altarpiece. This exquisite Gothic polyptych — an altarpiece with pivoting panels — was carved in the late 1400s by Veit Stoss. One of the most impressive medieval woodcarvings in existence, it depicts the death of the Virgin with emotion rare in Gothic art.

St. Mary's Church faces Kraków's marvelous Market Square. One of Europe's most gasp-worthy public spaces, it bustles with life. This square is where Kraków lives…kids practice breakdancing, horse carriages take you for a ride, and folk bands add traditional color.

When built, in the 13th century, this was the biggest square in medieval Europe. Back then you couldn't just sell things anywhere. Everything had to be sold here on the market square.

Or in the Cloth Hall. In the Middle Ages, this was where the cloth sellers had their market stalls. Today — whether you're looking for a fancy egg, some traditional embroidery, or a little amber — it's your one-stop souvenir-shopping arcade.

I find Polish culture and history both compelling and confusing. My friend and fellow tour guide, Kasia Derlicka, is joining us to be sure we get things just right.

Kasia: Let's go to a very special place. It's close to every Polish heart. It's Wawel, and Poland actually begins in Wawel.

Wawel Hill is sacred ground to the Polish people — a symbol of Polish royalty and independence. A castle has stood here since the 11th century. Today Wawel is the most-visited sight in all Poland. The highlight of the entire castle complex is the cathedral.

Wawel Cathedral is Poland's national church — its "Westminster Abbey." To Poles, this church is the national mausoleum. It holds the tombs of Poland's greatest rulers and historic figures.

Poland is devoutly Catholic. 75% of its nearly 40 million people are practicing Catholics. Pope John Paul II was a hometown boy and served right here as archbishop of Kraków before being called to Rome. Catholicism defines the Poles, holding them together when nothing else could.

Kasia: Imagine, Poland was crunched between Protestant Germany and Orthodox Russia. During the partition in the 19th century, we didn't even show on the map but we survived — thanks to being Polish, and thanks to being Catholics. And during Communism it was also very difficult and very dark, but we expressed our freedom and our political dissent by going to Mass.

Compared to the rest of Europe, Polish churches are alive with people practicing their faith. Respectful tourists are welcome. Some come to worship and others to remember leading figures in Polish history, such as Kazimierz the Great.

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