Krakow, the City of Kings!

Krakow the great capital of Poland during the years of florescent architecture, the years of the Renaissance and Baroque, the time of kings and nobles and bishops and cathedrals and rabbis and synagogues!  And today…the place is one big party!  There are people everywhere.  The streets are packed until after midnight, there’s dancing in the streets, calypso music, Cuban music festivals, water flying into the hot summer night air to cool the sizzling hot stone plazas, kids running in the water, horse drawn buggies filled with tourists.  It’s a festival for the senses!  A back water jewel, a fraction of the size of Prague but with all the pizzazz and excitement!


Situated on the Vistula River, Krakow dates back to the 7th century and has been one of Poland’s chief centers for all things artistic, rich and powerful.  Things like academics, art, music, architecture, literature, the church, the synagogues all   flourished as a  result of an economic powerhouse unrivaled from 1038 to the middle of the 16th Century.  It was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569 and the regional capital until 1999.  It is now the capital of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship.  And how do I know all this?  HA, again “Free Tours”!  The best find so far!

Krakow has been a busy trading center of Central Europe since before the end of the 1st millennium.  With the establishment of new universities and cultural venues and the emergence of the Second Polish Republic in 1918, Kraków firmly established its role as a major national academic and artistic center.  Some big deal King named Sigismund III of the Swedish House of Vasa…and that info comes directly from my personal favorite Wikipedia…decided to move the capital from Krakow to Warsaw at the very end of the 16th Century.  The move was to appease some pissy Polish Dukes that didn’t like traveling so far, so the more central location of Warsaw was chosen.  Since that time it shares the same crazy history as the rest of Central Europe. You know, everyone took over everything all the time, as in constantly.  But the most important fact is that the capital and the power and money flowed to Warsaw and away from Krakow after the 16th Century.  Another important fact is that happened after the fluorescence of the golden age of Renaissance and the Baroque eras, when the place was on fire with building.  Krakow’s beauty remains unsurpassed in most of the rest of Poland as the “City of Churches and Synagogues”!

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Krakow was on the Third Reich’s No Hit List” as the Nazi’s believed it was their own heritage.  Warsaw on the other hand was leveled in the War along with its architectural record, which flourished since the 14th Century.  Krakow suffered literally no damage during the War and so survives as one of several pristine examples of the pre 20th Century Europe.  One of my hopes for this epic trip is to visit some of the most preserved city centers of Central and Eastern Europe.  Krakow fits that bill.  There are Romanesque and Gothic churches, Renaissance palaces, Baroque facades and interiors with most of the structures welcoming you to enter and photograph!  No sneaking around!

When Germany invaded Poland at the start of World War II, the Germans, in particular Hans Frank, took Kraków as the capital of Germany’s General Government of Central Europe.

Hans FrankSuch a nice guy.  That sour puss is the “sustainability is very serious business” look.  Very serious.  Imagine this guy with a Craig Fergusson’s German impression?  “I vont do donce wit eu”

All this background is to set the stage for a discussion about Eclecticism prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe.  When I was studying architecture in one of those east coast universities that specializes in such stuff, we looked at architectural styles in London, Rome, Paris, Berlin and France, Germany, England and Spain to understand the details of the religious and power based architectural styles.  They were all contiguous styles and periods often driven by inspirational architects and projects in a particular country.  The Romanesque with its heavy walls starting in Italy in 313 with San Apollanari in Classe (I know that because I visited it!), the Gothic cathedrals of France, the Renaissance palaces of Italy, the Baroque facades of first Italy and then Prussia, the Neo-Classical motifs of Berlin, the Art Nouveau and Rococo of France.  These were the religious and political bases of Western Europe at the time of a building boom, fueled by money and power from these powerful places.  The power politics of those times supported these clear and distinct architectural styles.  It showed the stability of church and state.

By contrast, Central and Eastern Europe have remained a crossroads of culture and power and religion for at least the past millennium if not longer.  The politics and the religions reflected in the styles are all mixed, all mashed together into a melting pot, with everything in constant flux.  So the cities I’ve visited to date in Czech and Poland show a more Eclectic Style!  Let’s call it a “Resilient Eclectic” style.  Consider this as a new phrase to expand the worn concept of sustainability.  Not only are whole buildings of completely different styles rammed right up next to each other, but even single facades include motifs of multiple styles and periods.

It creates such unique cities and spaces!  Universally there are cafes, alcoves, shops, beer gardens, brat stands, and kiosks in every niche!  You walk and find such places everywhere.  Much like Prague, squares abound in every direction.  The social life of the city is first in the order of importance, and so there in lies the sustainability.  Sustainability from the construct of the Triple Bottom Line the 3 X BL I’ll call it, creates individual silos that seemingly encapsulate and separate economics, environment and social fabric.  These evolving cities of Central and Eastern Europe show infinitely greater complexity in their development from ancient times, as a result of the constantly changing winds of politics and religion represented in their urban fabric .  There were no freedoms, no choice of religion, or politics.  Whomever was in power built and rebuilt the cities.  Today our appreciation of all things called “sustainable urbansim” allows us to enjoy livable, walkable, activity generating city centers that are alive with multiple uses and visuals.  We’ve returned to the concepts that people prefer people within our city centers.   We’ve returned to some of the resilient concepts developed in the architecture and city planning ,of the “days of yore”.

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In Krakow no where is this more evident than in the “eclectic” nature of the castle reflected in a potpourri of styles, built more like a wedding cake made of cupcakes of different flavors, colors and sprinkles.  It started with a Romanesque chapel then a 14th Century Gothic cathedral “addition”, then all sorts of pieces were stuck onto it, until it reads like a beautifully preserved museum of every major style of the last 700 years.  The latest addition: the Nazi’s took one of the old palace renaissance facades and added the National Socialism spin to the works, mainly  characterized by over simplified Neo Classical motifs.  Albert Speer the architect of the Nazis really liked Frederick Schinkel, another German Schinkel Images.  Speer tried to expand his influence through emulation with varying degrees of success.  The end result for the castle integrates another layer on this eclectic architectural spanning from the Romanesque to the 20th Century!



Sustainability in both Prague and Krakow are similar yet different.  The concepts of resiliency remain universal between them both. Resilient neighborhoods, street-scapes, plazas used for varying functions over time and need remain present in both places.  Prague is a much larger city and power center, having been the seat of power for kings, dukes, cardinals and bishops for the entire time, Prague showcases a continuum of development based on sound economy and trade.  That political base supported a lavish built environment focused on providing public spaces for royals, clergy and the public to admire the powerful.

So the 3 X BL model is just too simple to be effective in analyzing current sustainability within these cities. Let me suggest that the successes of these cities today lies within these concepts of resiliency and sustainable design transposed into today’s places.  These places do not wax and wane as our projects do in the US.  These cities do not disintegrate and become Detroit or Buffalo or any of the Rust Belt hollowed out shells.  The neighborhoods do not fall onto hard times and become the slums.  They are maintained in their viability over time.  The city becomes itself resilient in order to stand the test of time.  Sustainability is expanded it to include the built environment’s history and use use over time and expanding that to today’s culture.  These old eclectic centers then become the pristine model for sustainable city living in today’s world.  The concepts of sustainability remain in constant flux when combining these eclectic city centers with the concepts of today’s “sustainable urbanism” and city living within their architecture and city plans.

One of the areas of pride of Krakow beyond the beautiful buildings, is the Jewish culture, synagogues, squares, shops, houses that abounded within the city. Prior to the War, 68,000 Jews, after the War and into today, less than 2,000 Jews.  Why do I know this?  Yes, yes, again “Free Walking Tours” The Jewish Quarter is the oldest and most densely populated part of the city, with twisty truny streets, narrow sidewalks and narrow walk-up houses.  The locals in previous times just kept building and building into the street until some were mere twisted alleys.  The resultant alleys form all sorts of alcoves for cafes and sidewalk seating.  The houses fell into disrepair in the later 20th Century, but have now become the Greenwich Village of the Krakow with lofts and shops springing up within the old buildings.  Of the 12 synagogues there before the War, only one is currently in operation.  The other 11 are now all museums of everything from Jewish art to the city’s history.


The trams and trains are a work of art.  Clear, precise maps spell out the labyrinth of trams, trains and busses that cris-cross the city in every direction.  You buy a 3 day ticket once and ride any tram, bus, or train in the entire city.  LCD screens display the stops and a very slow speaking voice in calm tone almost chants the stops in beautiful Polish.  Polish sausage is simply the best, the Polish beer even better and only $.80/ half liter bottle; AND the perogies are to die for…duhhhhhhhh!  Best of all? It’s all far cheaper than staying in the States. You can earn money by not staying home and traveling to Krakow!  You can pay for your plane ticket by coming to Krakow!  And if you’ve never heard an accordion orchestra play Beethoven or Tchaikovsky well, just walk around the square and follow the music.  I watched these 4 guys do 3 symphonies in 15 minutes!  Kind of like “5 Minutes of Shakespeare” plays.  Krakow, another place not to miss on your itinerary!  It’s a real jewel of Central Europe!

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