Krakow Old Town

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Kraków Old Town is the historic central district of Kraków, Poland. It is one of the most famous old districts in Poland today and was the center of Poland's political life from 1038 until King Sigismund III Vasa relocated his court to Warsaw in 1596. The entire medieval old town is among the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's original World Heritage List, inscribed as Cracow's Historic Centre.

The Old Town is known in Polish as Stare Miasto. It is part of the city's first administrative district which is also named "Stare Miasto," although it covers a wider area than the Old Town itself.

Medieval Kraków was surrounded by a 1.9 mile (3 km) defensive wall complete with 46 towers and seven main entrances leading through them. The fortifications around the Old Town were erected over the course of two centuries. The current architectural plan of Stare Miasto – the 13th-century merchants' town – was drawn up in 1257 after the destruction of the city during the Tatar invasions of 1241 followed by raids of 1259 and repelled in 1287. The district features the centrally located Rynek Główny, or Main Square, the largest medieval town square of any European city. There is a number of historic landmarks in its vicinity, such as St. Mary's Basilica (Kościół Mariacki), Church of St. Wojciech (St. Adalbert's), Church of St. Barbara, as well as other national treasures. At the center of the plaza, surrounded by kamienice (row houses) and noble residences, stands the Renaissance cloth hall Sukiennice (currently housing gift shops, restaurants and merchant stalls) with the National Gallery of Art upstairs. It is flanked by the Town Hall Tower (Wieża ratuszowa).

The whole district is bisected by the Royal Road, the coronation route traversed by the Kings of Poland. The Route begins at St. Florian's Church outside the northern flank of the old city walls in the medieval suburb of Kleparz; passes the Barbican of Kraków (Barbakan) built in 1499, and enters Stare Miasto through the Florian Gate. It leads down Floriańska Street through the Main Square, and up Grodzka to Wawel, the former seat of Polish royalty overlooking the Vistula river.

The first mention of Kraków dates back to the second half of the 9th century. By the end of 10th century the city was incorporated into the Polish state under the rule of Piast dynasty. The episcopal bishopric was awarded to Kraków in 1000 and around that time, it became the residence of Polish kings for centuries to come. The history of the old city of Kraków revolves mainly around its Old Town District of today. Here, the regalia were stored and, back in early Middle Ages, a cathedral school was erected.

Around 700 A.D., local tribes initiated the process of forming the Vistulan State by uniting with each other. Numerous remains of a once massive earth embankment encircling Wawel Hill survived till this day. A chest with 4,200 iron axes weighing about 4 tons was found in a basement of a house at Kanoniczna 19 street. These axes were commonly known under the name of "płacidłos" which is a word derived from the Polish verb "płacić" – to pay. As it happens the axes were a main legal tender in the neighboring Great Moravian State. The value of the treasure chest is the greatest to be discovered thus far and testifies to Kraków's significant wealth and power in the region. At Wawel's foot, in the place where now Kanoniczna, Grodzka and other neighboring streets are located, remains of a Vistulan settlement called Okół were found. This settlement, the beginnings of which can be dated at least back to the early 9th century, was surrounded by an enormous oak palisade and, in the place where now the Straszewska and St. Gertrude's streets run, by one of Vistula's arms. Near Main Market Square – specifically near Church of St. Wojciech and Church of St. Mary and Bracka street - another discovery was made. Found were the relics of craft workshops and of dwelling houses which were originally raised near Vistula. What is more, under St. Wojciech's Church parts of a wooden temple were discovered. In those days Vistula had many arms which in turn formed several little islands in Kraków's center. Kazimierz was one of such islands. It is also possible that Okół, Wawel and the Main Market Square were islands separated from the main land by moats or Vistula's arms. Also, many structures were found on Wawel but it is extremely difficult to establish when they were built.

The bishops residing at Wawel and the prince's court provided a strong intellectual atmosphere. Since the 14th century, Kraków was the site of royal coronations. Under Kazimierz the Great the Jagiellonian University, one of Europe's oldest institutions of higher learning, was founded.

In 1380 the Polish throne was entrusted to Lithuanian prince Władysław Jagiełło, husband of Queen Jadwiga. Jagiełło founded the next Polish dynasty, the Jagiellon dynasty. Kraków instantly became the capital of a large monarchy which propelled the city's political and cultural development. Many great artists did their work in Kraków at that time.

Today the Old Town attracts visitors from all over the world. The historic centre is one of 13 places in Poland that are included on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The architectural design of the Old Town has survived many cataclysms of the past and has retained the original form that was established in medieval times.

Throughout the year the Old Town is lively and crowded. There are many tourists, indefatigable florists, and lined up horse-drawn carriages waiting to give a ride. The place is always vibrant with life especially in and around the Main Market Square, one of the biggest squares in Europe, which came into existence when the city was given Magdeburg Rights in 1257. Tourist attractions such as the Town Hall Tower, the Sukiennice (also known as the Cloth Hall), old tenements with fine shops, and Adam Mickiewicz Monument are all located there. While near the monument, one can listen to the heynal, which is played each hour from the highest tower of St. Mary's Church.

There are many cafes, pubs and clubs, which are located in medieval basements and cellars with vaulted ceilings. The most famous places include "Wierzynek" restaurant and Club "Pod Jaszczurami". Numerous events, concerts and exhibitions are organized there.

Obwarzanki (English: bagels) are undoubtedly a symbol of Kraków. On the Square there is a bagel seller every few steps. Famous Obwarzanki from Kraków, which were also known as "bajgle" before the war, are a traditional Hebrew snack which is served on a Jewish holiday called Shavuot. Traditional bagel is sprinkled with poppy-seeds. Today, sellers offer a whole variety of them; apart from poppy-seed there are also sesame seed, rock salt and even pizza sprinkles. One can eat them while strolling or in a horse-drawn carriage while cruising around and glancing at yet another symbol of the old city, namely Kraków pigeons. One can also come across various buskers and mimes.

Numerous legends purport to explain the presence of numerous pigeons on the Main Square. According to one legend, Henry IV Probus, who tried to take over the Senioral Province during the period of regional disintegration of Poland, attempted to go to Rome with financial offerings in order to gain papal approval for his coronation. However, a certain enchantress turned his knights into pigeons. They pecked out some pebbles from the walls of St. Mary's Church, which then turned into gold. With these riches the prince set off to Vatican, but while on his way he lost everything and never managed to reach his destination. He returned to Kraków. None of his knights ever regained a human form.
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