Grand SquareEurope's largest medieval market square
One could easily forget that these halls and churches have witnessed invasions from Mongol, Tatar and Nazi forces, that this square was once even named ‘Adolf Hitler Platz’.
I rose early, just after daybreak, wanting to catch a view of Kraków’s vast Rynek Główny ‘Grand Square’ before tourists and workers began to bustle. Clutching a black coffee, I took the short walk from Hotel Stare Miasto along a neat, cobbled street to the southern opening of the square. A shard of light jutted across the entrance, its iridescent rays outlining the complex detailing of the colonnades and windowsills on the buildings to my left. The square lies at the heart of the city’s regal Old Town, and measuring two hundred by two hundred meters, a plaza of domes and classical archways, it is said to be Europe’s largest medieval square. Over the centuries since Duke Bolesław V The Bashful first drew up plans for the site in 1257, the square has functioned as a focal point for commerce, culture and architectural prowess. At first glance, the architecture of the square made me think of the growth rings of an ancient tree. Modern sculptures, baroque spires, Renaissance façades and original, medieval doorways tell of the ages this place has lived through. Shimmering in the morning sunshine, one could easily forget that these halls and churches have witnessed invasions from Mongol, Tatar and Nazi forces, that this square was once even named ‘Adolf Hitler Platz’ following the German occupation in 1939.
The plaza is dominated by the great, 14th century cloth hall Sukiennice, rebuilt in classical style by Giovanni il Mosca of Padua following a fire, and crowned by an attic wreathed in carved masks. Attached to this building is the tiny Church of St. Adalbert; fashioned in the Polish Romanesque mode of the Middle Ages, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. From where I stood, the austere and prodigious Gothic basilica of the Virgin Mary burst up from the square’s paving stones; its asymmetrical spires populated by swallows that swooped and dived through the hazy sky. On the strike of seven from Kraków’s town hall tower a trumpet blast echo from the taller of the basilica’s towers. I found out later that this hourly ritual is a tribute to a 13th century trumpeter who was silenced by a Tatar arrow while sounding an invasion warning. I spent the following few hours wandering in and around the 47 buildings that make up the Grand Square. While the crowds who began to gather were mostly foreigners, often escorted by tired looking chaperones, it was notable how many nuns and priests were also present in the area. I was reminded that Poland is a hotspot for Roman Catholicism in Europe, with well over 90% of the population practising. Even so, I found the throngs attending the numerous local churches intriguing.
I finished my tour, third coffee of the morning in hand, sitting in a small café overlooking the western façade of the cloth hall, enjoying the warmth of the sun and imagining the splendour and pomp of past coronations, state weddings and funerals, gut-wrenching battles and the construction of great buildings. Last but not least, I imagined the every-day lives and actions of Kraków’s long-suffering citizens, who have endured so much in the time since the square was built.
- Words & Photos: Robbie Lawrence