Saturday, 19 December 2015


St Joseph's, Rynek Podgórski
Podgórze district sits on the other side of the Vistula River from the main body of Krakow. For many years it has been neglected, run down and its place in history stained by the fact that it became the Jewish ghetto during World War 2.
Sad and neglected Podgórze

Sad and neglected Podgórze

Look closely - buildings still pockmarked with bullet holes
However, it is rising like a phoenix, assisted by the new Bernatek pedestrian bridge which links it directly to Kazimierz, allowing it to feed off the regeneration the latter is basking in. For many visitors to Krakow they may whizz around Podgórze by means of one the myriad of electric tour golf carts like Bubba Watson on steroids. However, there are several notable sights to visit here, as well as some lesser known attractions, that require time and consideration.

Krakus Mound

The district dates from over ten thousand years ago and evidence of this age can be found at the Krakus Mound, excavations of which have dated it to the Iron Age. This is one of two prehistoric mounds found in the city (the other being the Wanda's mound) and its pagan associations are surrounded in mystery. It is basically Kraków’s answer to Stonehenge. Research suggests that both mounds were actually erected between the 6th and 10th centuries, by either Slavs or Celts. They were probably burial mounds which later became cult sites. However, the Stonhenge connection is because at daybreak on the 21st June (summer Solstice), if you stand on top of the Krakus mound the sun rises behind the Wanda mound. Equally, on the same day, if you stand on top of the Wanda Mound, the sun sets behind the Krakus mound. This cannot be coincidence as this day is connected with a prehistoric feast when bonfires were lit for the dead and all sorts of weird, magical rites and sorcery were enacted.
Another legend connected with the mound is that it was made to honour the death of Kraków's mythical founder, King Krak or Krakus. Apparently noblemen and peasants filled their sleeves with sand and dirt, bringing it to this site in order to create an artificial mountain that would rule over the rest of the landscape. This is why the Rękawka or "Sleeve" Festival occurs here to this very day on the first Tuesday after Easter.
Whatever the history of the mound, it is certainly a superb viewpoint of the city and makes for a refreshing yomp away from the hussle and bussle.
Podgórze's position on the other side of the river meant that it always functioned as a separate settlement. Even during the Partitions, it was awarded the rights of a free city in 1784 by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II when it established itself very much as a distinctly different town to Kraków. However, it eventually became Kraków’s fourth district in 1915.
A building to note from this period is the very impressive giant brick Fort Benedict. It sits atop an excellent viewpoint on cliffs on Lasota hill. This is no coincidence, as it was constructed to defend the important bridge over the Vistula that existed below it and the road to Lwów . Next to it is the quant, miniture St. Benedicts Church. Its tiny interior however can only be viewed twice a year when it is open: July 16th (St Benedict's Day) and during the above mentioned Festival of the Sleeve (Rekawka).

St. Benedicts Church
Fort Benedict
A lovely place to soak up the Podgórze atmosphere is in triangular market square (Rynek Podgórski) dominated by the super gothic St Joseph's church which dates to between 1905 and 1909.
After 1915, Podgórze rapidly industrialised with many quarries and brickworks established. However, the district's darkest era came with the invasion of the German Nazis. This was because on March 21, 1941, the entire Jewish population residing in Kazimierz were marched across the metal bridge still standing today (the Silesian Uprisings Bridge), and crammed into what became the infamous Podgórze Ghetto.
For visitors to the area it is still possible to find remnants of the Ghetto.
A good starting point is the Plac Bohaterów Getta. During the days of the ghetto it was called Plac Zgody. Its history goes back to 1836, but in its ghetto era it became a place for people to meet, chat and get out of the hideously overcrowded tenements they were squashed into. However, on a more grim note, it was also the site famously portrayed in "Schindler's List" of where families were torn apart, beaten up, executed or deported on mass to the death camps. Indeed, during the final liquidation of 1943, most of the ghettos residents were murdered on this very spot, leaving the square rather hauntingly strewn with the furniture, clothes and luggage of the victims.

Plac Bohaterów Getta
Plac Bohaterów Getta
Plac Bohaterów Getta
Old bus terminal building
After the war, its name was changed to Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square). When I first visited Kraków, it was a rather grubby, sad bus terminal. However, in 2005, the life of the square was reinvigorated with the installation 70 large metal chairs. These are meant to symbolise the departure and absence of the victims of the Kraków Ghetto. In what used to be the bus terminal building, there is now a place for lighting candles and quiet reflection. Sadly however, on my last visit it was locked and the floor strewn with leaves and rubbish that had blown in through the mesh door. After visiting the square, an absolute must is to visit Apteka Pod Orłem (The Pharmacy Under the Eagle).
This pharmacy and its Polish owner Tadeusz Pankiewicz inadvertently found themselves at the very heart of the ghetto after its formation. Pankiewicz and his staff were the only Poles allowed to live and work in the ghetto. Over the two years of the ghetto's existence, Apteka Pod Orłem became a bit of a centre for resistance communication, falsified documents and provided aid in the form of food and medicine to the ghettos inhabitants. As a result, Pankiewicz is recognised today as one of the 'Righteous Among the Nations'. He and his staff risked their own lives with the operations out of the pharmacy. He is also one of the key witnesses to the horrendous events outside his window during the final liquidation of the Ghetto.It is now part of the Kraków Historical Museum, and its innards have been recreated to look as it did during Nazi occupation. There are displays of very moving eye witness accounts, visuals and Information on the ghetto, the pharmacy and the liquidation making for a very humbling visit.

Ghetto wall

Ghetto wall
From here you can trace the remnants of the ghetto in fairly close proximity. The first remnant is across Na Zjeździe on ul. Lwowska. Here you will find a 12-metre stretch of the original ghetto wall. It bears a commemorative plaque which reads in Hebrew and Polish: “Here they lived, suffered and died at the hands of the German torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.” This stretch of wall is frequently visited. However, top tip, there is another much longer, rarely visited stretch of wall lurking in a children's park found off ul. Wielicka behind the primary school at ul. Limanowskiego 60/62.

Ghetto wall at ul. Limanowskiego 60/62
Other "must see" sights in Podgórze are the Schindler Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (Mocak). To access this you need to cross Na Zjeździe from Plac Bohaterów Getta and walk down ul. Kącik. You will shortly approach a railway embankment with underpass. Continue through the underpass onto ul. Lipowa. Don't be put out by the grubby, run down surroundings. It is perfectly safe. In fact this area is rapidly gentrifying and has already developed way beyond how it appeared in 1990! In fact, before you enter the underpass there is a rather odd concrete art instalation bearing the name Auschwitz cut out on its roof. On the other side of the underpass there is an old railway line that vanishes into undergrowth. Given that this Lipowa area operated with many profiteer factory owners during the Nazi operation, I have always wondered what sort of war remnant this is? Were people herded onto trains on this line to transport them to Auschwitz?
On Lipowa you will clearly see the name Mocak ahead of you on the left. Just beyond this is the Schindler museum. In actual fact, it is housed in the very factory Schindler operated which was called the Oskar Schindler Enamelled Goods Factory ‘Emalia’. If you have watched "Schindler's List", you will immediately recognise the entrance gate which still retains its original look (Speilberg used this original factory extensively during the filming).

 Schindler factory in 1990
The museum itself is not entirely dedicated to Schindler, but mostly documents what life was like under occupation by the German Nazis for the people of Kraków in a very moving, clever, well presented, high tech, hands on sort of way. Of course, an important part of it is dedicated to the ghetto, Schindler and Plaszow Concentration camp. It is set up so the the visitor starts their visit in rooms arranged to give the happy atmosphere of inter-war Kraków. The exhibition then very effectively directs you from room to room whereupon you descend into the world of occupation. This theme does not just apply to the German Nazi invasion, as it is made very clear that Poland at the end of the war unfortunately traded one invader for another: that of the Soviet Empire.
Behind the Schindler Museum is the excellent Mocak (Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków) . Its exhibits vary, but is most definitely worth a look! Check out their website for what is currently on show.
Another distinct building in Podgórze is 'Cricoteka'. It is a very bizarre structure which appears to be entirely constructed out of rusting metal which hovers over an old power station. It pays homage to the revolutionary Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) who was an avant-garde artist, and director said to have reformed theatre in the twentieth century. It is pretty cavernous and empty inside, but the floor housing some of Kantor's theatre sets really is worth a look. Extremely bizarre!! To be recommended is the top floor cafe simply for the superb view over Kraków.


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