Saturday, April 11, 2015

Krakow's rich history in newly opened underground museum

At last it was sunny in Krakow. However, we weren't going to take advantage of the sun for the first part of our day since we had decided to visit the Krakow Underground Museum under the Cloth Hall on the Main Market Square. We were four metres under the surface of the square to explore the recently excavated medieval merchant stalls, and to experience the city’s entire history - from its first settlers right up to the death of Pope John Paul II.

We followed a trail that wound through some 6,000 metres of remarkable multimedia exhibits displayed in what is essentially an archaeological site. Relying heavily on touch-screens and holograms, highlights include a fascinating look into life before Kraków received its charter and the market square was laid out, and the remains of an 11th-century cemetery replete with 'vampire prevention burials'  — Tip: “chop off the head off the corpse”. There are plenty of artefacts among the virtual exhibits, including coins, clothing and other earthly remains. The part I liked the best was the short, subtitled documentaries covering different ages of Krakow's history. We sat in little stone chamber-like rooms for each one. A lovely, old Polish gentleman chatted to the characters and narrated the tales of the time. One thing we noticed here and in other museums was that very little is said about the post war communist period. It was almost as if it didn't exist, although we could have visited a soviet era industrial town.

Once outside again, we crossed the square to visit St. Mary’s Basilica, a very busy spot. In the early 15th century one of the towers was raised to 80 metres and made into a watchtower for the city. It is from here that the hejnał mariacki - the city's famous bugle call - is played every hour. One of the city's most enduring traditions, the tune ironically breaks off mid-melody in honour of the mythical trumpeter who was shot in the neck while belatedly warning the city of Mongol invaders.

Inside the basilica was very impressive with the altarpiece, stained glass windows of the nave, and the blue, starred ceiling. The magnificent wooden altarpiece with pivoting panels actually opens and closes. It depicts the death of the Virgin.

The Poles are very religious, and as it was Easter the church was crowded with people praying, kissing the head and torso of Jesus on a cross that was lying on the floor. There were also many like us just visiting. We had seen people in the Square with little baskets covered with white linen cloths with sprigs of boxwood sticking out. We knew that they were an Easter tradition. Here in the church was a huge table covered in a white cloth where locals were leaving these baskets for the poor. Nuns were taking some away but the table was soon covered again.

In Poland, blessing of the baskets is known as święcenie, a practice dating to the 15th century or earlier, and one which is still maintained by most families in Poland on Holy Saturday. The baskets can be filled with bacon, Easter bread, butter, a candle, cheese and ham. We did go into another smaller church right behind St. Mary's where another table was also piled high with these baskets.

Outside the sun was still shining so we left the square for a walk in nearby Planty park. Centuries ago, Krakovians built a wall to protect their city. By the 19th century, it was no longer necessary, so locals tore down most of it, filled in the moat, and planted trees. Today, this delightful and people-friendly green belt stretches two and a half miles around the perimeter of the city.

After another not very good meal, we wandered over to the Jagiellonian University, where Copernicus once studied. Unfortunately, we didn't see the inside as it closed early but we were able to walk around a balcony and admire the beautiful courtyard.

Back in the Main Square, throngs of tourists and locals wandered around the many stalls; food vendors did a great trade. Wherever we looked were beautiful buildings and lined up along the roadway were majestic horse-drawn white carriages that were taking passengers for rides around the old town. It really is a stunning place.

For us there was just time for a final coffee and tasty crepe Suzette in the Wentzl, our favourite coffee shop on the square, before saying good-bye to Krakow and heading for the airport.

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