This is the place of the most “mosts”: the most important public space in Kraków, the most expansive Market Square of medieval Europe, it gathers everything most characteristic of the city and has its most distinctive hallmarks, and last but not least: the most beautiful, the most important, the most charming, the most…
The huge main square was staked out for the city when Kraków received its city charter based on Magdeburg Law in 1257. It was set up at the intersection of ancient trading routes, on the plan of a square, with each side slightly exceeding 200 m (650 ft). The name Rynek (Market Square), deriving from the German word Ring, was first used around 1300, and the current one – Rynek Główny (Main Market Square)– has only been in use since the end of the 19th century.
The urban design followed the distinctive cross grid layout, characteristic of mediaeval cities, with the Market Square becoming its central point. There are three streets leaving each side of the market, with only Grodzka, running along an ancient trading route and in the close vicinity of St Adalbert’s Church, receiving a different form: that of a broadway running at an angle. Some other concessions and derogations also had to be made, as there had been earlier structures standing in the area even before the charter; they obviously included St Mary’s and St Adalbert’s church. With its regular urban design retained since the Middle Ages and the central Main Market Square, Kraków’s city centre was inscribed on the original UNESCO list in 1978, which made it one of the world’s first twelve UNESCO-listed sites.
Even with all the irregularities accounted for, the plan accompanying the city charter radiated simplicity and functionality. This modern centre was designed to satisfy all the basic needs of the population connected to the functioning of the city (the town hall being the seat of the authorities), trade and economic life (the Cloth Hall), and finally the spiritual dimension (with St Mary’s being the parish church). It was also the place where executions and punishments were carried out: the rostrum for the executioner was put up between St Mary’s and the Grey House (Szara Kamienica, currently at No. 6), and the whipping post where criminals could not only be publicly lashed, but also branded, stood at the mouth of Sławkowska Street.
Although it might have seemed that the 13th-century design of the square was too big, as it made the Main Market Square the largest square in medieval Europe (today, it remains one of the largest), the Main Market Square developed quickly, mostly with stalls, where the owners traded cloth, salt, barrels, shoes, as well as coal, lead, and copper. The structures were as makeshift as they were chaotic and were hardly a source of pride for the Main Market Square. When the local authorities embarked on a campaign of ordering the city space of Kraków in the 19th century, the stalls, lean-ons and annexes around the Cloth Hall were razed, and there was a simultaneous refurbishment of the central building. Also knocked down were the buildings of the Large and Small Scales standing between the Town Hall Tower and the Church of St Adalbert. By the way, the Town Hall had been taken apart somewhat earlier, with only the tower remaining. In 1898 the Monument to Adam Mickiewicz was unveiled. This is how the look of the Main Market Square became similar to that which we know today. References to the commercial traditions of the Main Market Square include the fairs organised here before Christmas and Easter, while the stalls of Kraków florists add an indispensable dash of local colour.
From its earliest days, the Main Market Square was the centre of social and political life, the backdrop for solemn processions of monarchs and homages paid to kings, the place of triumphs, parades, and lavish weddings. The Main Market Square was situated on the so-called Royal Route leading from the Barbican to Wawel: a path for the official entries of the king and foreign envoys. Frequently, the significance of the events taking place within its confines would go far beyond the borders of the city. In 1525 Albrecht Hohenzollern, Prince of Prussia, swore allegiance to King Sigismund the Old (Zygmunt Stary), which marked the end of the 300-year-long period of disputes and wars with the Teutonic Order. It was also here that Tadeusz Kościuszko pledged to the nation in 1794, formally beginning what became known as the Kościuszko Rising. It was in the shadow of the Town Hall Tower that the Polish soldiers disarmed Austro-Hungarian army in 1918, thus making the Market Square the first expanse of restituted Poland after 123 years of partitions. In much more recent times, in May 1981, a particular silent demonstration took place here: the White March being a spontaneous protest after an attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II.
Events related to local traditions, some of which have been cultivated for decades (even centuries), lend the square a special colour. These include the procession of the Lajkonik – the Hobby Horse of Kraków, the pre-Christmas competition for the most beautiful nativity scene on the steps of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz (since 1937), and the Enthronement of the Fowler King. The square likewise cannot be imagined without the horse-drawn cabs and pigeons, the latter being knights that were transformed into birds, or so the story goes.
Nonetheless, even if the pigeons turn out to be absolutely ordinary and not enchanted, the Main Market Square remains a magical place.
Be sure to see: