The more you know about Krakow, the more curiosity it instills about the secrets that have been left untold to you. While the mysteries, legends and myths of Krakow are one thing, this time we will stick to facts – even if the background of some of them is of a legendary nature itself. Check a bunch of interesting facts about Krakow and, if you still wish to discover some miscellaneous curiosities about this royal city, click here for another, figure-based portion of them!
1. THE MYSTERIOUS NAMES OF KRAKOW
Kraków [ˈkrakuf] had been identified by the speakers of English as “Cracow” for a long time. After the city’s popularity with tourists skyrocketed in the 21st century, the use of “Krakow” became commonly accepted instead. Other popular variations of the name include Latin-based Cracovia, Krakau, Cracovie, Krakov, Краков, or even 克拉科夫 and クラクフ (that are unpronounceable for most of us). The earliest mention of Krakow was recorded in the 2nd century (“Geography” by Ptolemy). It was then dubbed “Carrodunum”, with its “-dunum” suffix meaning “a city” and, most likely, being of Celtic origin.
After the area had become taken over by Slavic tribes, the most famous mention became the 966-record of “Cracoua”, drawn by Ibrahim ibn Yaqub after the christianisation of Poland. Some theories say that the “krak” stem used to be associated with the sound crows make (in Polish “krakanie”). Some other point to “krak” as denoting the tributary of a river, with others arguing that “krak” stood for a “sacred oak”, marking the area of Wawel Hill as important for pagan beliefs and practices or the concept of their genealogy.
The most famous name-forming legend, put in writing in 1190 in the Chronicles of Wincenty Kadlubek, says that Krakow was named after the semi-legendary Prince Krak (or: Krakus, which is also a humorous nickname of a regular Cracovian in Poland), the slayer of the dragon of Wawel and founder of the city. The remains of the prince are said to be buried under the massive Krakus Mound, while “Krakow” itself means “the town of Krak” with its archaic possessive suffix. When it comes to more poetic names of Krakow, it used to be called “Little Rome” (due to the impressive number of 138 churches) or “Polish Jerusalem” (because of the once-thriving Kazimierz Jewish quarter).
According to some Poles, Cracovians – alike Scots, according to the English – are known for their frugality. This is why Krakow may sometimes be called “Centusiowo” (“Pennytown”), particularly by Warsaw dwellers. What may come as surprising, Krakow used to be a very popular destination for the religious refugees of Scotland in the 16th century! Actually, as you come to Krakow, you will only discover the hospitality of the its people instead of any symptoms of stereotypical stinginess.
2. THE OLD TOWN OF YOUNG PEOPLE
It is not only for the popularity of Krakow among the participants of Erasmus programme that has been gradually on the rise. It is also due to the reputation of the universities of Krakow among young Poles. The 28 Krakow institutions of higher education make over 200,000 students attend various programmes there, with merely 4 times more (761,000) residents of the city constituting its official population. This is why your perception of Krakow will often make it seem a young, blooming and dynamic city – which it is indeed!
The most renowned university of Krakow (the Jagiellonian University) was founded in 1364 as “Akademia Krakowska”. It now invites thousands of tourists a day with its excellently-preserved building of Collegium Maius. This main headquarters of the second-oldest university of Central Europe and one of Europe’s oldest is where you may see the scientific accessories of Nicolaus Copernicus himself. Paradoxically, the student life in medieval Krakow was not much different to what it looks like today. Krakow dormitories of the 1300’s 1400’s had their inhabitants divided into nation-based fraternities whose members would often not be the quietest guys around.
The student “Juwenalia” festival (the original invention of the students of Krakow), held annually in May, proves that the springs of Krakow belong to its creative students!
3. KRAKOW MAIN MARKET SQUARE: THE AWARD COLLECTOR
Whatever your taste for architecture is, it is hard not to fall in love with the Main Market Square of Krakow. This place provides the essence of universally European lifestyle, culture and heritage with its spacious, Cloth Hall-embellished 200 x 200 metres square, filled with monuments, museums and the sound of medieval Hejnal Mariacki played from the top of Mariacki church each hour.
The excellent 13th-century arrangement of the Main Market Square of Krakow has been acknowledged a number of times by various expert panels or through common voting. Project for Public Spaces organisation awarded it with the first place on the list of the best public squares of entire globe in 2005! In 2010, Dutch SteddenTripper website called it one of the top 10 European must-see squares – quite an achievement, as there are thousands of European square-having cities out there, right? Three years later, Lonely Planet gave the title of the world’s most beautiful square to where the heart of Krakow beats from.
The Main Market Square of Krakow is also the reason why Krakow itself gets dozens of awards for popular and tourist-friendly destinations each year. This is why seeing it is something you should definitely put on your to-do list the following season.
4. FESTUNG KRAKAU: WHY KRAKOW IS NOT A PILE OF DEBRIS NOW
During World War II, occupied Krakow was turned into the capital of Nazi-governed General Governorate (a lot of the facts on the era may be found in Oskar Schindler Factory museum). Back then, the violent reigns over the city were assured by Adolf Hitler-nominated Hans Frank, overlooking the terror from his office on Wawel Hill.
After he Jewish population of Krakow was decimated due to Holocaust (the nearby Auschwitz Concentration Camp serving as the main death facility), the military victories of the Red Army and its advancement made the Nazis terrified. In August 1944 they decided that Krakow should be turned into a fortress (Festung Krakau) to resist the Soviet Forces at all cost. The existing fortifications of Krakow were reinforced and complemented with new trenches to wholly encircle the city. The windows on ground floors would be walled and only shooting apertures were left there. The streets of Krakow were filled with 240 anti-tank obstacles, a system of bunkers came into being as well. Fortunately (as the example of Wroclaw shows it, with 70% of its buildings destroyed), the German failures of the Eastern front, plus – the fact that the Nazis had a shortage of soldiers left in the city – made them surrender to the Soviets in January, 1945.
The “liberator of Krakow”, Marshall Ivan Konev, would later spread the myth that the forces under his command saved Krakow and Wawel from destruction caused by Nazi explosives. Even if it was neither true (Hans Frank wanted to return to Wawel one day), not far from the truth, if the Festung Krakau plan had been implemented, Krakow would definitely have lost a number of its architectural fabric due to Soviet bombings and artillery attacks. Just as it lost the entirety of its Vistulan bridges at the time. Still, it may be considered pure luck that the set of circumstances between the summer of 1944 and the winter of 1945 lets us admire the beauty of Krakow in the 21st century.
5. THE KRAKOW-MADE FOOD YOU MIGHT (NOT) KNOW
The best restaurants of Krakow are one thing – the food that comes from there and managed to cross its borders is another one. To begin with Kielbasa Krakowska (Krakauer Sausage) or Kielbasa Lisiecka, Krakow is one of those European cities that may take pride in having the cold cut produced there a brand on its own, like Prosciutto di Parma. These are the products whose taste has long been synonymous with the aroma of traditional Polish sausages.
Another specialty of Krakow you might have seen outside of Poland is the famous bagel (obwarzanek krakowski). This ring-shaped braid of bread, covered with poppy seeds, is sold at pretty much each corner of the city. Baked in Krakow since the middle ages, it is widely known all around the world, e.g. as popularised in North America by the Jewish community that migrated from the area of Krakow.
If you happen to have a Polish friend, you have probably tasted “Michalki” sweets. This is the flagship product of one of the oldest Polish confectionary factories “Wawel”, established in 1898 in Krakow. In terms of street food, Krakow is the breeding ground of Polish-conceived zapiekankas: toasted baguette-halves topped with mushrooms, cheese and ketchup, when it comes their most basic versions. The aroma of a filling zapiekanka is something that many visitors to Krakow take home as one of their multisensory memories collected in this enchanting royal city.