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Krakow's architectural and cultural richness is unprecedented in Poland. Not surprising, because Krakow was the royal capital of the country for over five centuries. Fortunately, large part of the city was spared during the devastations of the Second World War. In 1978 the center of Krakow has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Since then much has been done to restore the historic houses, churches, chapels and palaces.
The medieval city wall has almost completely disappeared; most of it was demolished at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Barbakan wasn't demolished, a beautiful medieval city gate with three meter thick walls and seven watchtowers. Opposite the Barbakan stands the Florianus Tower which was built in 1317 and raised in the seventeenth century. A detail with the holy Florianus was added at the same time.
The Florianus church from the twelfth century is located outside the city walls and for a reason. The pope had donated the remains of the holy Florianus to Krakow, but still outside the city they were suddenly so heavy that the carriers couldn't continue. It was considered a sign of God and therefore a church was built on that site.
Where once was the city's defence moat, is now the location of Planty Park. This park is a green zone around the old town and you can easily lose two hours if you want to walk through the entire park. In the park you can find several statues, including one of the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who spent some time studying at the then famous university of Krakow.
The center of the old town is the Rynek Glowny, a large square of 200 by 200 meters. It is surrounded by restaurants and bars and there are often festivals, concerts and other events organized on the square. Located in the center is the large Lakenhal, in Renaissance style. It used to be the commercial center of the city. Nowadays a tourist market is held under the vaults. Housed in the top floor is the National Museum with Polish art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Gothic Church of the Virgin Mary was built in the sixteenth century on the spot where once stood a Romanesque church. You can view art works from different periods inside, including the wooden altar by Wit Stwosz from the fifteenth century and murals by Jan Matejko which were made in the nineteenth century. Remarkable are the two towers of different height. From the highest every day at noon trumpets sound which suddenly seem to be interrupted. It reminds of a tower guard who grabbed his trumpet when he saw the Tatars approach the city. At the fourth tone the alarm was abruptly aborted because the man was hit by an arrow.
The Baroque St. Peter and Paul Church is located on a square near what is probably Krakow's most beautiful street, the Ulica Kanonicza with Renaissance houses.
Krakow has the largest collection of art works from all over Poland. An estimated 2.3 million pieces, most in museums, but some in churches and convents. The oldest and most important museum is the Czartoryski Museum. Besides works from Polish artists, it has Rembrandt's Good Samaritan and Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine on display. Furthermore, there is a large collection of Turkish weapons and other weapons of war, which were captured during the battle of Vienna in 1683.
Just outside the center is the Wawel, the citadel of Krakow. The royal apartments were located at the courtyard. In 1594 the complex was struck by fire and the king decided to move to Warsaw. However, the Gothic cathedral remained the royal cemetery.
Situated about 15 kilometers north of Krakow is the Ojcowski National Park in a valley surrounded by high limestone cliffs. It is primarily the rocks that gave the park fame. They have turned into particular shapes due to erosion. Also, there are hundreds of animal and plant species in this park.
Located not far from the city either, about 15 kilometers southeast of Krakow, is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It is a huge underground complex and a popular attraction. Tens of meters below the ground you can walk through passageways that connect larger spaces to each other and where figures have been carved from salt. One of the rooms is an underground church, so the miners could attend Mass during their work hours.
Approximately 60 kilometers west of Krakow is Oświęcim, better known as the site of the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. It is a silent witness of a painful past and a museum commemorating the victims who perished in the gas chambers. In the museum the horrors of Auschwitz are almost palpable. The inscription above the entrance to the camp feels cruel: 'Arbeit macht frei'.
The old city center is largely pedestrianized. You can park your car in one of the guarded parking garages. Near the center are two such garages: on the plac Szczepański and the plac Świętego Ducha. Shortly after the fall of communism many roads in and around Krakow were in miserable condition. That now belongs to the past: most roads are excellent.
Balice Airport is the name of the Krakow International Airport, 12 kilometers west of the city center. You can reach the airport with a rental car from the center of town in twenty minutes via the Królowej Jadwigi. The A4 motorway too, south of the city, runs along the airport.