Heritage and Festivals
Moreover, when we think about this city now and the one from centuries ago, we do so using the same images: festively decorated streets, a lively, joyful crowd in the squares, the sky shining with a feast of colours on Midsummer Night, encounters of knights, colourful fairs, churches and chapels resounding with music. Festivals are one of those ways of celebrating and socialising – but also expressing the truly festive nature of our city – which are most deeply embedded in Krakow’s history, both remote and contemporary.
Processions, parades, midsummer Garlands, historic Emaus and Rękawka fairs, the enthronement of the Fowler King, the Lajkonik procession, as well as contemporary festivals of all arts create communities and become a new, creative way of telling the story of the city.
In the circle of events
Today, Krakow is the stage for nearly 80 festivals. The shortest of them lasts two days, the longest ones go on for two months. The oldest festivals in the city have now a history of over 60 years (e.g., the Krakow Film Festival, the oldest documentary film festival in Poland). The world-famous Jewish Culture Festival was initiated just before the political transformation of 1989 (first edition: 1988). Some of them were established as a consequence of Krakow being awarded the title of a European City of Culture 2000 (e.g., The Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival, EtnoKraków/Rozstaje, and the later Sacrum Profanum festival); others emerged as a result of the demand for new high-quality events (e.g., Film Music Festival, Unsound, Divine Comedy).
Many of the new-generation festivals – modern and organised according to the best knowledge of cultural management – were created in the years 2004–2009: today, they constitute well-established, strong brands of increasing international importance.
In the circle of events
Over the last ten years, Krakow has found itself among the world leaders in the organisation of multi-faceted international festivals whose total audience today numbers almost 2,000,000 people. Nearly 80% of the residents take part in festival life, and the average Krakow citizen – according to research – participates in festivals at least three times a year. Festivals have always been points of contact, an exchange of goods, stories and ideas, setting the rhythm of the local community’s calendar.
They are a celebration of culture and a manifestation of the city’s potential. Understanding their annual rhythm, seeing how Krakow festivals draw on the sources of identity and heritage, build new meanings and fit into contemporary urban narratives – all this means to understand Krakow.
Space and time
Festivals and cultural events are one of the most common ways of using the space of historic cities in a new creative way. The artistic experience overwritten on the historic matter is not just yet another reinterpretation of the place; it is also building a cultural connection between the past and the present. The space of the heritage becomes one of intercultural contact, a development resource for new meanings, and a symbol of the continuity of the inhabitants’ cultural identity.
Crowds gathered during the traditional Garlands – Music Festival and the Christmas Fair; thousands of people watching the visually and acoustically perfect productions of the Film Music Festival or filling the interiors of churches during the Misteria Paschalia Festival – are all well-known images of the festival face of Krakow. But the Old Town is not the only location for such events. They also help to discover abandoned and forgotten spaces: many productions of the Sacrum Profanum or Unsound festivals, introducing the element of alternative culture to post-industrial quarters, abandoned hotels, and factory halls, gave these places new energy and contributed to their regeneration.
Nowadays, the real eruption of Krakow festivals stems from two important moments in the city’s recent history: from the political changes after 1989, when festivals became important platforms for European reintegration, and from the time after 2007, when they became an important feature of the city’s cultural policy, tools for the development of the entire related creative economy and new important cultural facilities, and last but by no means least, a for a powerful catalyst of cultural tourism.
Back when Poland was behind the Iron Curtain, Krakow was sometimes a window onto the world both for the audience and the artists: theatre- and film-makers, composers and writers. Soon after the democratic watershed of 1989, the fame of Krakow – the city of Tadeusz Kantor, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Stanisław Lem – began to spread beyond Poland’s borders even more.
As early as 1991, the European Month of Culture was hosted here; in 1995 – a decade before Poland’s accession to the European Community – the Council of Europe Conference of Ministers of Culture decided to grant Krakow the title of European City of Culture of the Year 2000. The series of events organised under the Krakow 2000 programme, based on the idea of Thought – Spirituality – Creativity (1996–2000), additionally contributed to the growth of international interest in the city. Festivals and concert series, meetings of the Nobel Prize winners who had settled in Krakow – Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska – with writers from all over the world, and theatrical performances in historic squares are just some of the contemporary features life for a lucky resident of Krakow.
Sources and traditions
Krakow’s festivals draw on the history of the city as well as its stories and legends: what else are annual Garlands if not a reference to remote pagan times, to the summer solstice celebration, to the eternal fascination with the regal Vistula River flowing past the foot of Wawel Hill? This annual ritual constitutes the community of Cracovians: tens of thousands of people meet by the river to welcome the summer at the symbolic moment of the wedding of the four elements.
A similar genesis gave origin to the Dragons Parade, born from the legend of the monster threatening the city and finally tamed by a modest cobbler. Note the positive dimension of the story: it is one of the city craftspeople who turns out to be the dragon buster; here, we learned to cope on our own, without the participation of knights in shining armour. Schools, districts, and theatres build great effigies of dragons and the joyful, noisy procession fills the city. It heads towards the famous Dragon’s Den, in front of which the figure of the mysterious dragon (or, as some say, the dragons) breathes fire every quarter of an hour.
History and legends meet in many festival editions: at the Midsummer Fair that recalls the life of the city in remote centuries, the traditional Rękawka Festival near the historic Krakus Mound, or the colourful March of the Lajkonik .
Festivals and concerts of early Polish music evoke the history of the royal court and the first royal bands that played at the Wawel court during the Renaissance. The Wawel chambers, churches, chapels, and synagogues resounding with music: all are concert venues for one of the city’s oldest festivals: Music in Old Cracow, as well as the Easter celebration of early music: the Misteria Paschalia Festival.
The history of the first aristocratic and then bourgeois parlours, the Viennese influences and the experiences of the first music schools in Poland, provide the basis for today’s classical music festivals. Krakow is famous for its orchestras, choirs, musicians, and composers, associated primarily with the environment of the Academy of Music. Local does not mean unknown: composers from Krakow and those who, to a greater or lesser extent, connected their lives with our city, are names known in concert halls in Europe and worldwide.
The festival’s game with history and identity need not be unambiguous or self-explanatory. The organisers of the Jewish Culture Festival offer a convincing example. Today, it reflects the achievements of the Jewish diaspora scattered around the world, presenting them against the background of global cultural or even pop-cultural phenomena. Its program combines the cantors’ singing resounding within synagogues with the always-ecstatic Shalom concert on Szeroka Street, where thousands of Cracovians enjoy contemporary world music rhythms.
This is a perfect example of a tradition-based look into the future which makes the festival – without avoiding nostalgic threads, of course – attract unceasing interest year after year and capture new audiences; besides its artistic values, it successfully plays the important role in restoring memory.
Another important place for meeting the world music, a place that expresses the multicultural character of Krakow, is the Wolnica Square (where the Ethnographic Museum is also located). This is precisely the location of the biggest concerts of the EtnoKraków/Rozstaje festival, created as part of the Krakow 2000 European City of Culture program. Initially focused on the musical culture of the Carpathians, it presents today a variety of forms based on widely understood folk music from nearly all over the world, which is a reflection of the shortening of the distances and the blurring of borders at the threshold of the 21st century.
UNESCO City of Literature
Krakow is also a city of literature. It was at the foot of the Wawel Hill that the first Polish libraries and scriptoria were established, while the activity of one of the oldest European universities provided the context for the emergence of national and European literature. The largest book fair in Poland, attracting tens of thousands of readers, is held here as well.
Józef Konrad Korzeniowski, or Joseph Conrad, was connected with Krakow – even though that fact is not well known to the international readership. it was from here that, in his youth, he went to Marseille, where his maritime and literary journey began. Today, he is the patron of an international festival of literature and thought, the Conrad Festival, recognised by the European Festivals Association as one of the top five European festivals, twice nominated for the London Book Fair award as part of the largest book fair in the Anglo-Saxon world.
The tradition of meetings of poets in 1997 and 2000 under the patronage of Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska – Nobel prize winners living in Krakow – evokes the Miłosz Festival that focuses on poetry. It is a true celebration of world poetry in a city where several hundred poets and translators live and work, and where the largest number of Polish poetry books is published. This formula, treating the great writers’ achievements as a starting point and context, allows us to face the most current challenges of modernity, literature, and language.
A similar concept of mission can be found among the organisers of the Copernicus Festival, an extraordinary meeting between artists and the representatives of the sciences and humanities –which in itself is an interesting reflection of Krakow’s intellectual strength – and which, with its very name, reminds us that one of the most famous graduates of the Krakow Academy, now the Jagiellonian University, was Nicolaus Copernicus himself…
Towards the synthesis
Although Krakow festivals take place throughout the year, they can be presented in the rhythm of the seasons in which their energy accumulates. They are the result of the activities of many cultural institutions, as well as an expression of the activity of countless foundations and associations. The Krakow Festival Office (KBF), established in 1997 to prepare the programme of the European City of Culture in 2000, is responsible for the coordination of the city’s festival activities. Today, KBF supports and integrates the entire ecosystem of city festivals.
The festival season begins with great concerts on the Krakow Market Square, when then segue into carnival games and the Opera Rara Festival. Spring brings the Misteria Paschalia Festival associated with the Holy Week, but also a vibrant celebration of film in which the Mastercard Off Camera independent film festival combines with the Film Music Festival and the Krakow Film Festival, renowned for Polish and European cinema.
The Krakow Film Music Festival held in the spring is not only a spectacular event of international importance – this is beyond any doubt – but also a platform for the education of young musicians and composers, an environmental impulse (through the awards) and an expression of homage to the masters of the cinematic music genre.
Krakow film festivals – let us mention also the internationally recognised Etiuda & Anima – take place in the city of the first film screening using the Lumière brothers’ camera in Poland, the city of Andrzej Wajda and Wojciech Jerzy Has, but also Krzysztof Penderecki, Abel Korzeniowski and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; all in the city of thriving artistic education.
Such synthetic thinking is also transferred to individual events – for instance, to the Krakow Photomonth which perfectly integrates the inventiveness of contemporary photographers and curators – Cracovians and guests invited from different parts of the world – into the achievements of generations of local masters of the lens and the wonderful urban collections of the Museum of Photography and the Museum of Krakow. The visual arts are also vigorously celebrated with the Print Triennial and the CRACKERS Cracow Art Week.
In the pandemic year 2020, Sacrum Profanum was one of the first festivals in the world to have so much thought and careful planning put into an online event. The end result exceeded expectations and met with an enthusiastic reception from the audience and critics alike. Similar feelings are aroused by Unsound and Patchlab opening up new musical and virtual spaces, experimental in both their spirit and form, to their audience.
The stage and the street
The Divine Comedy festival, presenting the most outstanding theatre productions of subsequent seasons, has for years been recognised as the most important showcase of the achievements of Polish theatre. You can see here the works of debutants as well as those of recognised creators of Polish theatre. The institution in charge of the event is the Łaźnia Nowa theatre which itself has become one of the most interesting places on the map of Nowa Huta, created in what once had been a metallurgical workshop. The ULICA festival, organised by the KTO Theatre in the city’s open-air locations, also remains close to the audience’s hearts. The Groteska theatre, in turn, offers the original Materia Prima festival that focuses on a variety of theatrical forms and is held every two years.
Krakow is what jazz is all about. Dedicated jazz clubs and a vibrant, varied jazz scene yield six festivals held at different times of the year. The rich Krakow jazz traditions could be discussed for a long time: this is where, since 1954, Krakow has been the home of the world’s oldest uninterrupted continuously-operating jazz festival, the Krakow’s All Souls Jazz Festival. Since the mid-1990s, everybody on the Polish jazz scene has performed at the Krakow Summer Jazz Festival. The Jazz Juniors that showcases new talents along with the avant-garde Krakow Jazz Autumn complete the jazz spectrum of the city.
Krakow shares its best practices within the Festival Cities Network comprising Adelaide, Edinburgh, Krakow, Montreal, and Singapore. In these cities, festivals are grassroots initiatives or a result of strategic decisions. Anchored in a local context, they grow out of local conditions, traditions, and specific spaces. Such a consistent and coherent strategy of action allows cities to grow into globally oriented leaders.
Festival cities are characterised by an extraordinary intensity of cultural life, inscribed on the city calendar, in all the public spaces, and in the residents’ hearts and minds, but also in strategic documents and in the policy on tourism. Festivals are becoming a medium thanks to which the city’s brand gains works up an intense synergy in terms of attracting talents and new residents as well as tourist and business promotion.
Festivals are arranged into seasons and interconnected through collaboration; they engage in and promote research, and they help develop innovations. Together with the tourism industry, they turn towards precisely defined audiences, surrounding their offer with a whole range of festival-related services. What makes them equally important, however, is their power to transform the city’s reality. Festival cities design districts, parks, and infrastructure that consider the balance of various elements and cultural activities in non-festival seasons.
The festivals also have their important centres: in Krakow, those are certainly the ICE Kraków Congress Centre – the place of numerous congresses and conferences, as well as music events and shows – and the Potocki Palace, which opened in 2021: a cluster of festivals, events, a meeting place for organisers and the public.
The history goes full circle – the city does not abandon its festival ideas, nor does it treat them instrumentally. It supports the most valuable brands in the long term, stimulates their further development, and redefines its cultural policies in symbiosis with them. The relevance of such a strategy was confirmed in the eyes of the International Festival Association (IFEA): Krakow was awarded the title of IFEA World Festival & Event City as early as 2016.
By Robert Piaskowski
The article was written for the Krakow Culture project.
Compiled by: Krakow Heritage team