Vistula or the source of Krakow
As in every major historic city in Central Europe, Krakow’s landscape is defined by the river. The Vistula River, Poland’s longest river and one of the country’s symbols – is to Krakow what the Vltava, spanned by the Charles Bridge, is to Prague and what the majestic, blue Danube is to Budapest.
Meanders of history
The upper Vistula valley was advantageous for the pioneers of settlement in Krakow in terms of both communication and defence. The city, which was founded around the Wawel Hill, developed thanks to navigation on the river, which was used to transport goods, for example salt that had been extracted since the Middle Ages in nearby Wieliczka and Bochnia. The Vistula of those days, however, didn’t resemble today’s river: numerous branches created islands, meanders and oxbow lakes covered with reeds.
Let’s take Kazimierz – once a separate town, today one of Krakow’s most unusual districts – which used to be an island surrounded to the north by the Vistula riverbed, which was removed in the 19th century and is now reflected by the run of the wide Dietla Street. Filling up of the riverbed and creating in its place an innovative arterial road with a green belt in the middle was the idea of the then mayor of the city, Józef Dietl, and a milestone in the development of a city previously plagued by pestilence and immense clouds of mosquitoes infesting the river’s backwaters.
The earlier era is reminded by the historic railway viaduct at the Grzegórzecka Street, which was originally built as a bridge, as well as the name of Starowiślna (Old Vistula) Street. On the other hand, some of the city’s squares, such as the Na Groblach (On Dikes) Square, which functions as a sports complex, or one of Krakow’s most atmospheric markets, the Na Stawach (On Ponds) Square, bear in their names the memory of drained wetlands.
By the river
The regulated Vistula became in the 19th century a popular recreational area. Crowds used to visit the Vistula’s ‘health baths’ at a time when the city had no access to running water: it was a combination of recreation and hygiene, which was being popularised in this period. Beach chairs and volleyball courts filled ‘Alligator Beach’, named after an ancient reptile that escaped from a travelling animal show and was later fished out… from the Vistula. As late as the 1960s, the grandmothers and grandfathers of the current young generation of Cracovians used to relax on the picturesque beach opposite Wawel Royal Castle.
The political transformation of 1989 brought a new perspective on the Vistula, long marginalised in the life of the city. The multi-year strategy of revitalising the Vistula Boulevards from the cosy Dębniki district to the post-industrial Zabłocie brought a ring of cultural institutions to the right bank of the Vistula.
Turning to the Vistula
The Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, designed by Arata Isozaki, was the first one built , inspired by the eminent Polish film director Andrzej Wajda, and it set the standard for the architecture of Polish cultural institutions for many years. Another important moment in the city’s history was the creation of the ICE Krakow Congress Centre at the Grunwaldzkie Roundabout, an award-winning facility hosting the world’s most important congresses and conferences, including the 41st Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2017 and the 15th World Congress of the Organisation of World Heritage Cities (OWHC) in 2019.
In later years, the panorama of the Vistula boulevards at the height of the Podgórze district was enriched by the bold silhouette of the Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor Cricoteka, suspended above the former power station building. In the future, the list of cultural venues along the river will be completed by Planeta Lem. Literature and Language Centre – a multifunctional literary centre named after Stanisław Lem, classic author of science-fiction literature and a great philosopher-futurologist who for most of his life was associated with Krakow.
Another equally important milestone in bringing life back to the Vistula was the 2010 opening of the Bernatek Footbridge connecting the districts of Kazimierz and Podgórze. The footbridge opened a new era in the history of Podgórze, once a separate town founded by the Austrians. Two more such connections are planned: a footbridge at the level of the Ludwinów district and a crossing linking the districts of Salwator and Dębniki. Pedestrian bridges will complete the panorama created by the 12 existing road bridges, led by the blue openwork structure of the historic Józef Piłsudski Bridge.
Today’s Vistula River in Krakow is a 40-kilometre-long ribbon of water running from the early medieval Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec to the area of the 13th-century Cistercian Abbey in Mogiła. Including pedestrian and cycle paths along most sections, it’s a space for daily recreation, numerous runs, and marathons; its waters are also a popular canoeing destination. There is public transport on the Vistula – the Krakow Water Tram; numerous cultural events take place on its banks.
The best known of them are undoubtedly Wreaths, held near Wawel Castle during the summer solstice since the 19th century. The idea of Wreaths is inspired by the custom of braiding and floating wreaths of flowers and field plants: an ancient practice dating back to pagan times. Since the very beginning, the floating of wreaths was accompanied by live music, and in recent years the celebration has developed into a city-wide Music Festival with chamber concerts in various city squares.
Another event that draws crowds to the Vistula is the annual Dragon Parade, organised by the Groteska Theatre in reference to the famous Polish legend of the victory over the Wawel Dragon by a brave and clever cobbler. Another symbol of Krakow, the Lajkonik, is also somewhat associated with the Vistula. The annual march route of this mysterious Tartar horseman [see: Lajkonik’s tour] includes a cruise along the Vistula River, where he’s assisted by Krakow’s włóczkowie, i.e., descendants of rafters who used to float wood down the river.
The growing ecological awareness and concern of Cracovians for rivers as a common good at a time of accelerating climate change is excellently expressed by the Water Critical Mass, an original event during which self-constructed rafts and pontoons are floated down the river by local residents.
The water spine of the city
‘As long as the Sigismund’s bell tolls at Wawel / our Vistula flow from here to Gdańsk’, says an old patriotic song from the 19th century. Its adaptation became the anthem of one of the two (besides Cracovia) oldest sports clubs from Krakow – the club that bears the name Wisła (Vistula).
The history and identity of Krakow is inextricably linked to the river. Taking a holistic, integral view on heritage, the Vistula River is an element of the landscape as important as the towers of old churches and the urban layout unchanged since the Middle Ages. After all, the banks of the Vistula River are the place that creates the atmosphere of today’s Krakow and determines the direction of the daily walks of Cracovians.
The river is therefore a true beginning of the story of Krakow – the pearl of Central Europe. Let’s get carried away by its current!