Cracovia totius Poloniae urbs celeberrima
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At the heart of Europe, Kraków has received visitors from far and wide since Homo Sapiens arrived on the continent. An ancient Neolithic shrine of mammoth bones in a hillside high above Kraków drew hunters from the hill-country to pray for bountiful game. The Celts left burial mounds overlooking the river on their long migrations across Europe. Roman traders wended their way through the Vistula valley in search of the amber-rich shores of the Baltic.
When at last the Slavic tribe of the Vistulans conquered the lowlands of Małopolska (Lesser Poland) around the 7th century CE, their mighty warlord Krak built his castle on the steep limestone rock of Wawel, jutting up from treacherous swamps.
Legend has it that a dragon with fiery breath was roused from his century-long slumbers in the caverns below the castle by the noise of humans above.
In some versions of the story, King Krak slew the dragon with his sword, in others, a young shoemaker tricked the monster into eating a sheepskin filled with sulphur and salt. Whichever version is "true", the city that grew up below the castle walls was named Kraków in honour of its legendary founder.
Kraków first appears in written history thanks to a Jewish merchant travelling in an Arab caravan from Caliphate of Córdoba along the old Roman trade routes in 965 or 966 AD. Abraham ben Jacob describes the Vistulan city as "Krakva" and not yet united with the Polan tribe based in Gniezno to the northwest. Only a couple of decades later, however, Prince Mieszko I had united the two tribes into the first Polish state.
Mieszko also introduced the new religion of Christianity and, with it, scribes and priests who began writing the history of Poland in Latin.
After a period of massive social unrest in the north, in part due to the enforcement of Christianity on a still largely Pagan population, the capital of Poland was moved from Gniezno to the tamer city of Kraków by King Casimir the Renewer.
By the 12th century, Kraków was a boom town and many important monuments of Romanesque architecture survive today from this period, most famously St. Andrew’s church on Grodzka Street and the tiny chapel of St. Adalbert on the Main Square.
The 13th century saw the adoption of a western-style gridwork of streets (older buildings remain at odd angles to the grid) and the first examples of the Gothic style imported by Dominican and Franciscan monks. In the 14th century the vigorous reign King Casimir the Great brought Gothic building projects on a massive scale to Kraków. Among his many achievements was the original founding of the Kraków Academy (today known as the Jagiellonian University) in 1364.
When Poland was joined with Lithuania by the marriage of Queen Jadwiga and Grand Duke Jagiełło, Kraków was suddenly far from the centre of the territory it ruled. Krakow remained a vibrant centre of religion, culture, education, and international trade for centuries.
However, in 1596, King Zygmunt III felt need to move his administrative capital to what was then the tiny village of Warsaw, in order to be closer to an empire that threatened to break away at any moment.
From the late 17th century onwards, the Kingdom of Poland suffered defeat after defeat and watched its vast territory whittled away piece by piece. Arrogant and insensitive political manoeuvring on the part of the nobility led to a series of Cossack revolts that cost Poland the Ukraine. Royal intrigues led to a devastating Swedish invasion that swept over the land.
Finally, the aristocracy’s willingness to sell their votes in what had become an electoral monarchy resulted in a series of territorial annexations that completely divided the ancient kingdom amongst its neighbours Prussia, Austria and Russia. Poland ceased to exist in 1795.
Under the Hapsburg rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kraków prospered in spite of its lost freedom. Kraków was even briefly (1815-1846) a Free City of its own. The medieval walls of the city were torn down and the moat filled in to make the ring garden of the Planty that encircles the Old Town today. The branch of the Vistula that cut the island of Kazimierz from the main city had largely silted up and become an unhealthy swamp. The town authorities paved it and annexed Kazimierz to Kraków. In 1918 Poland regained its sovereignity as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Both town and University discovered new energy and Kraków became a hothouse of art and learning. Many of the outlying villages around Krakow developed into suburbs.
The sudden blossoming of inter-war Poland was cut short by the German invasion in 1939. Whereas the capital city of Warsaw was practically razed to the ground, Kraków was spared by the Nazis largely thanks to its ancient ties to the German-speaking world. Only 70 km away, however, loomed the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau where millions of human beings, predominantly Jews, from all over Europe died in horrifying circumstances.
Ironically, the communist liberators of Kraków posed more of a danger to the city and its lifestyle. Because of their distrust of the bourgeois intelligencia, the new regime installed a vast "worker’s paradise" of concrete housing blocks and smoke-belching steel mills called Nowa Huta on the edge of town next to one of the ancient burial mounds.
The fall of communism at the end of the 1980s was in part hastened by the election of the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyła, as Pope John Paul II.
As the city grew in prosperity, a large number of renovation projects were undertaken in the 1990s. The Wawel Royal Castle complex, the Main Square, St. Mary’s Church, the Kazimierz Jewish Quarter, and many other historical monuments have all been restored to their former glories. Transportation has been upgraded with improvements to the main train station and Balice airport. Where communism failed to bring viable industry to Kraków, capitalism has encouraged international business to put down roots. The tourist industry is booming as people all over the world re-discover the startling beauty of Kraków.