Old Town Krakow’s Market Square: Rynek Glowny

“There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world.” (Thomas Merton)

To visit the ancient cities of Poland is to experience two completely different worlds which are diametrically opposed. One world is filled with a time honored spirituality. Its foundation is predominantly Roman Catholicism. It is the world described by the American mystic, Thomas Merton. Its evidence can be seen in the holy places, in the traditional celebrations, and in the visible religious devotion of the Polish citizenry. It fills the hearts of visitors with joy and hope for the future of mankind. It reassures each that the flowers, the seed, and the wheat described by the Trappist monk Merton, are all assurances from a loving creator.  It makes one feel that all is well and that evil will never prevail.

The second world is one that makes every attempt to invalidate the first. It is a world that symbolizes indescribable evil born of the belief in racial superiority. Visitors to Krakow, the second largest city in Poland, would find it difficult to deny this second world. It is evident when one tours the Oskar Schindler factory or sees the destruction brought upon ancient buildings during the World War II occupation by Hitler’s Third Reich. It is clearly visible in the Krakow Ghetto where the liquidation of the city’s Jews occurred during the final stages of Operation Reinhard. Most of all, it is evident only a few miles from Krakow where in Auschwitz-Birkenau approximately 1,100,000 innocent victims were sacrificed on the altar of genetic purity.

About Krakow’s Market Square

Located at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, Krakow is nestled alongside the Vistula, the river that also flows through Belarus and Ukraine. Traditionally, the city is known as a center of academic, cultural, and artistic life, as evidenced by Jagiellonian University which is one of the world’s most respected centers for higher learning. As one of the major cities of Poland, a country which borders the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia, Krakow has long been a great economic hub of central Europe.

To visit to the first world, one begins in Krakow’s Old Town, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List . Surrounded by the tree lined walking paths of  Planty Park, Krakow’s Market Square, Rynek Glowny, is the largest medieval square in Europe. Within the square, tourists bustle about anxiously purchasing souvenirs, horse-drawn carriages plod lazily down the streets, couples sit in sidewalk cafes sipping coffee, and children play as their parents visit with friends. It is a scene of a peaceful existence, accentuated by thousands of brilliantly colored flowers, old-fashioned buildings, delightful street musicians and mimes, and an old world charm that allows one to lose touch with the hectic 21st century reality, if only for a short time.

 

Rynek Square Horse-Drawn Carriage

Rynek Square Horse-Drawn Carriage

 

Rynek Square Chess Store

Window of a Chess Shop in Krakow’s MarketSquare

 

Rynek Square Street Entertainer

Krakow’s Market Square Mime

The Spiritual World of Krakow’s Market Square

Poland is second only to Malta as the most Catholic country in all Europe. Throughout the beautiful Old City, one will find fascinating and inspiring places of worship, many built in the 12th through 14th centuries. These intriguing structures are a combination of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Poland’s cathedrals are extremely ornate, rich in sacred art, statues, and shrines erected in honor of the saints. Although traditionally there have been those who would argue against such icons, Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, now known throughout the world as Saint John Paul II, stated, “Sacred art must tend to offer us a visual synthesis of all dimensions of our faith.” In essence, it is not designed for veneration of the saints and the Virgin, but rather to honor them.

 

There are few cathedrals more adept in doing so than St. Mary’s Basilica, the Gothic 14th century cathedral often called Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven. With its twelve chapels, many sepulchral monuments, and famous altar designed by the Bavarian Viet Stoss, it is the most famous religious building in Krakow. Once each hour from the top of the cathedral’s tallest tower, a single musician sounds his lonely bugle over the Old City. From Krakow’s Market Square, visitors can see him as his lovely melody drifts hauntingly through the air and then abruptly stops on a very unlikely note. The tradition comes from a legend from long ago, when a young bugle player was sounding the alarm warning of a Mongol invasion, but was suddenly killed by an arrow before he could complete his song.

On the day when I first visited Krakow’s Market Square, a long line of worshippers were attending St. Mary’s in celebration of Palm Sunday, which the Polish call  The Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. They carried blooming pussy willow branches combined with limbs of birch, raspberry, and currant. Dry grass and flowers mixed with multi-colored ribbon were draped around the branches, symbolizing the resurrection and immortality of the soul.

St. Mary's Basilica, Rynek Square

St. Mary’s Basilica, Rynek Square

 

Palm Sunday Celebration

Krakow’s Market Square Palm Sunday Celebration

 

Traditional Pussy Willows Symbolizing Resurrection and Immortality of the Soul

Traditional Pussy Willows

 

Only a short distance from Krakow’s Market Square, one will find the St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. Made of the ornamental stone dolomite, this Baroque structure has a unique Foucault Pendulum which daily provides evidence of the earth’s movement. If one proceeds up the cobblestone street a bit farther, he or she will see the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century cathedral that is directly across the street from the Bishop’s Palace, the home in which Pope John Paul II stayed during his frequent visits to Krakow.

 

St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral with Saints Adorning the Exterior

St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral with Saints Adorning the Exterior

 

Church of St. Francis of Assisi

Church of St. Francis of Assisi

 

Any tour of Krakow would be incomplete without a visit to the fascinating Rynek Underground Museum in Rynek Glowny Square. Located only a few meters underground, tourists will encounter Krakow’s history through archeological evacuations and historic layers that make one feel he or she is actually in the past. Displays include objects used over six hundred years ago, including, medieval tools, coins, clay figures, and toiletry articles, as well as Tartar arrowheads left behind during the Mongol invasions of Krakow in 1287 and 1288. Reconstruction of 11th century burials leaves a lasting effect, causing one to pause and consider the lives of those who lived so long ago.

 

Holographic presentations and mockups allow one to walk through medieval scenes of peasants going about their daily lives. It seems that the visitor can reach out and touch the squawking goose, comfort the crying child, or purchase bread from the baker, all of which are holographic illusions. You find yourself inside a village scene that, in reality, does not exist. However, it seems so authentic, that initially I was hesitant to step into the amazing scene, for fear that I would interrupt the villager’s daily lives.

 

One of the most moving displays was two skulls from long ago. The first was that of a soldier who was killed in the Swedish occupation of Krakow in 1637. The metal rings displayed around the skull represented a component of a suspension bandage designed to shield his genitalia during battle. The second skull was that of a victim of trepanation, the act of surgically removing a piece of the skull for purposes such as curing illness or, in some cases, expelling spirits from the body. Krakow’s Market Square was a fascinating experience, and one that I will not soon forget.

 

Rynek Underground Museum

Rynek Underground Display

 

Ancient Burial Rynek Underground Museum

Ancient Burial Scene

 

Skull of Polish WWI Vet in Rynek Underground Museum

Skull of Polish Soldier Killed During Swedish Occupation of 1637

 

Skull of Trepanation Victim Rynek Underground Museum

Skull of Trepanation Victim

 

Rynek Underground Museum

One of the Many Corridors filled with Displays

Suggested Resources

Krakow’s Market Square

 

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