Krakow is a shining gem in the centre of Europe. It's a city both firmly rooted in its long and deep history, and yet a city embracing modern lifestyle, culture and comforts. Nestled in the rolling hills beside the Vistula River in the south of Poland, it's the beating heart of Polish cultural life. To tell the story of Krakow, one needs to tell a bit of the story of Poland's history.

Caught between the warring, mighty beasts of Russia and Germany, Poland's been swallowed up, liberated, reunited, disunited and reborn enough times to justify one mother of an identity crisis. Yet if anything, it's always emerged from a skirmish, whether it be with the Tarters, Swedes or Soviets, ballsier, bolder and a great deal wiser.

And while Warsaw may be top dog, Krakow's the country's spiritual home and often was Poland in many Polish hearts when the nation was deftly erased in a stroke and replaced by the competing corners of Prussia, Russia and Austria on maps of the 19th century. The Stare Miasto with its turrets, towers, gargoyles and colonnades kept the dream of a united Poland alive throughout the years when it ceased to exist. During these turbulent times Krakow played the role of keeper of Polish tradition and dreams.

Today's Krakow (pronounced Krahkoof and often spelled in English as Cracow) has a population of around 750,000, including more than 100,000 students, and recently trounced Lodz as the second biggest city. It pulls in the eagle's share of tourists drawn to the medieval, renaissance and baroque castles, churches and buildings, which survived the onslaught of Hapsburg, Napoleonic, Nazi and Soviet artillery. Not for Krakow the disunification of the city after WWII, as in blitzed-out Warsaw - Nazi retribution for its 1944 rising, when architects scurried to reassemble streets and alleyways, often as best they could remember. Instead, Krakow emerged from the 1939-45 bloodbath to claim its place as the beating heart of Polish national culture and pride.

The city's roots go back to the seventh century when it was the main seat of the Slav Vistulanian tribe and was established as the capital. It lay on an important trade route for merchants travelling from the Baltic to the fabled Byzantium lands, coined the Amber Road for the precious jewels the traders had wrapped in their saddlebags. It was around this time that the city gained two of its oddest features, the Krak - named after the city's first King - and Wanda mounds, mounds, grassy humps in what are now Nowa Huta and Podgorze.

Krakow came of age under Boleslaus the Chaste, best remembered for laying out a pattern of streets with a main square at their centre that survive today, than for his all-night revelries - as his nickname suggests. Next, up went the city's walls and defences, encircling it and enthroning the jewel in the crown, the Wawel on a hilltop, where it stands, ceremoniously aloof, to this day. Boleslaus' successor Casimir the Great, whose bearded chops adorn the 50 zloty note, gave the castle a fourteenth-century, Gothic-style make-over.

This was Krakow's highpoint as the savvy Casimir founded the Krakow Academy (later renamed Jagiellonian, after Queen Jagiellona another revered Polish monarch), a place where the city's intellectuals could scratch their whiskers together in peace, and the suburb of Kazimierz in 1335, which was named after him. By the 1930s, 60,000 Jews had settled here encouraged by Poland's remarkably liberal attitude towards Jewish culture and immigrants during the 19th century. With Kazimierz's 150 synagogues, ritual slaughterhouses, markets and processions it must have seemed to many Jews, who had been given the heave-ho from elsewhere, that they had found a natural home. It took only a few years in the 1940s for this centuries-old way of life to be obliterated. Auschwitz, an hour's journey from the city, will sear the barbarity of the Nazi genocide into your mind.

From the mid-14th to 16th centuries Poland was a key player in central Europe. The city grew prosperous on the trade of amber and reaped the rewards of salt mining from Wieliczka, while Casimir's canny move to set up a university was paying dividends as arts and sciences flourished and intellectuals flocked to soak up the hedonistic renaissance atmosphere. However, the capital shifted to Warsaw in 1595 and the city lost its political clout.

Poland's landscape is made up of great meadows and plains, with no natural barriers as defence lines. Come 1773, Russia, Prussia and Austria were licking their Hapsburg lips at this geographical folly and took a carving knife to Poland, tearing the country apart. As a consequence Krakow overnight went from being Polish to Austrian. On the other side of the river the Austrians then set about constructing a rival town - Podgorze - today one of the up and coming hotspots of the city. It was during this period that Krakow's intelligentsia fanned the flame of Polish resurgence and independence. One of the most famed of the city's sons was Stanislaw Wyspianski and his play 'The Wedding' is an ode to the resurrection of Poland.

Fortunately for its future citizens - and the 21st century tourist - the city was spared destruction by the Nazis. However Krakow's luck in keeping its beloved architectural style couldn't last forever, and hanging round the corner were those concrete-loving Communists. In 1949 the first gray bricks were plastered into place in, Nowa Huta a hodge-podge of tranquil countryside hamlets on the edge of the city. Stalin's dream was the perfect Socialist self-contained utopia built 'by the workers for the workers,' its steelworks giving a job for life and a reason to stay.

In 2004, Poland joined the European Union, a move that wasn't welcomed by all Poles as many feared the loss of Polish values and ideals; a fear that may have been symbolised in 2005 by the death of one of the nation's best-loved sons Pope John Paul II.

Tradition, betrayal, pride, fortitude and faith - they've all shown their hand during the city's lifetime and there're key ingredients that make up the DNA of Krakow today.

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Thu Sep 29 2016

Sightseeing tours in and around Krakow - information and reservations

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