A wonderful week in Krakow

Written by Claire Messenger, Manager, International Training Programme

In May I travelled to Krakow for a week of history and culture and was delighted by my first trip to Poland.

Krakow is one of the largest cities in Poland and is well-known for its grand historic architecture and fascinating culture and heritage.  In 1978 its old town area was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO and the city’s main square, dominated by the Renaissance Cloth Hall, is a wonderful place to watch the world go by.

One of the main draws for me, was the opportunity to visit the Czartoryski Museum, founded in 1796 by Princess Izabela Czartoryska.  Housed over three historic buildings in the heart of Krakow, the museum boasts beautiful collections of Greek, Egyptian, Asian, and European art including porcelain, crystal, tapestries and an excellent collection of weaponry.

The Museum was room after room of fascinating objects from across the world, beautifully displayed and thoughtfully interpreted.

The Czartoryski Museum is also home to one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most beautiful paintings, Lady with an Ermine.  Leonardo is probably one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art and with less than 20 works attributed to him – including numerous unfinished works – it was a highlight of our visit to be able to see the painting in person.

Photograph of Leonardo Da Vinci's Lady with an ermine

Another wonderful opportunity to learn more about the history, politics and culture of Poland was a day at the 16th century Wawel Royal Castle – an important symbol of national identity and somewhere crowded with visitors on a sunny weekend. On the UNESCO World Heritage List, the palace is one of the most visited sites in Krakow.

Now a museum with five sections covering Crown Treasury and Armoury, State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Lost Wawel and the Exhibition of Oriental Art, the Renaissance palace has a challenging history of destruction and restoration. The museum focusses on collecting works historically or artistically related to Wawel, and includes paintings, prints, sculptures, fabrics, goldsmiths, militaria, porcelain and furniture.

We also travelled out of the city to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  Incredibly the salt mine has been welcoming tourists since 1722 and today is one of Poland’s most popular attractions.

The mine is a maze of tunnels and chambers – about 300km distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327m underground.  We climbed (down – thankfully) over 800 steps and only managed to go through three levels but what we were able to see was incredible.  As well as learning more about the history of the mine and those poor souls who had to risk their lives in hot, humid tunnels and chambers and take on back-breaking work, the mine is an amazing tribute to human ingenuity and creativity.

The highlight of the tour is the vast chamber (54m by 18m, and 12m high) housing the beautifully decorated Chapel of St Kinga. Every single element here, from chandeliers to altarpieces, is made of salt. It took over 30 years (1895) for three men to complete this underground temple, and about 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed.   The walls are adorned with statues and monuments – including an amazing copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Our trip to Krakow was incredible and I can’t wait for the opportunity to discover more of Poland.