Famous People and Krakow

Krakow was once Poland’s capital, and has been regarded as the beating heart of Polish art and culture for almost a thousand years. It’s not surprising, then, that the city has seen more than its fair share of the great and the good of Polish history walking its streets and lounging in its legendarily laid-back cafes and bars.

Among the many royal personages who called Krakow home before the capital was moved to Warsaw, Casimir III is probably the most revered. The only Polish king to have earned the sobriquet ‘the great,’ Casimir III ruled Poland from Wawel hill for almost 40 years. Other colourful nobles include Casimir III’s son, Wladyslaw I the Elbow-high, and Jadwiga, a woman who managed to earn the titles of both saint and king (rather than the more usual ‘queen’).

Krakow’s association with the arts goes back to its earliest days. A well-known character from Poland’s past, Stanczyk the court jester, was renowned for his wit and wisdom and served three of Poland’s greatest kings in Krakow in the 16th century. His image appears around the city, and in the paintings of 19th-century great and another Krakow native, Jan Matejko.

Many of the most important of Poland’s cultural movements were centred on Krakow. The modernist movement known as Young Poland was based on a manifesto published in a Krakow newspaper in 1898. One of the most spectacularly talented of the Young Poland bunch was Krakow native Stanislaw Wyspianski. A playwright, painter, sculptor graphic artist, furniture designer and stained glass artist, Wyspianski remains one of Krakow’s favourite sons.

The tradition of literary excellence has continued in Krakow up to the present day. The Polish writer who became one of the greatest novelists in the English language, Joseph Conrad, spent much of his early life in Krakow. The best-loved Polish poet of the 20th century, Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, also lived in Krakow for most of her life, dying here in 2012.

Although little known outside Poland, the country has a rich and long-established tradition of both broad and satirical comedy. The place that started it all, Michalik’s Den, still stands on Krakow’s Florianska Street. Something like a pre-World War I Comedy Store, Michalik’s Den was home to the Green Balloon – the first Polish comedy cabaret.

Another den of subversive hilarity and song, the Cellar under the Rams, was founded in 1956 and became the core of political cabaret in Poland throughout the Communist era. It’s still there today, and still going strong. One regular performer, Krzysztof Komeda, went on to become a legend in European jazz and the composer of scores for many of Roman Polanski’s movies, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Knife in the Water. Polanski, of course, is another of Krakow’s sons.