The fascinating subterranean world beneath Kraków’s main market square
Everyone knows the Market Square in Kraków with St. Mary's Basilica, beautiful tenement houses and the Cloth Hall.
But not everyone knows that hidden out of sight metres beneath is a treasury of knowledge about Kraków's past.
Centuries ago, the market square existed far below the current ground level. Over time, dirt and debris built up burying the medieval market square and raising the street level.
Several years ago, a major archaeological project uncovered the vibrant medieval city of Kraków.
What they found testified to the continuity of trade which has continued uninterrupted there for over 800 years.
This fascinating world can be seen today in the Rynek Underground museum, which at over 6,000 square metres, is possibly the largest underground museum on the planet.
Visitors to the subterranean world can see what existed in the centre of the market square before today’s Cloth Hall, the long, rectangular building that offers shelter to market traders.
Traders have sold their wares there since Kraków’s market square was set out by Bolesław the Chaste in the thirteenth century.
However, the current Renaissance building was built after a much simpler roofed hall burned down in the 1500s.
Kraków’s centuries of importance as not just Poland’s capital but also as a trading city – it was once an outpost of the Hanseatic League – means that, archaeologically speaking, the city hides layers of history.
Many of these layers lie under the square and have been exposed at the museum.
Visitors can see the remains of the early medieval settlement and a cemetery found by archaeologists.
They can also see how the square developed from the times of Bolesław the Chaste and Kazimierz the Great.
To get an idea of how Kraków could have existed metres below today’s street level, archaeologists have revealed one of the roads that crossed the square, with the grooves from years of wear by cartwheels clearly visible.
Also, the accumulation of refuse and debris over many centuries can be seen in a cut-away cross-section.
One of the many attractions of the museum is a glass fountain, connecting the underground with the market square in front of St. Mary’s Basilica.
Its glass bottom allows tourists on the Market Square to look deep into the underground museum and exactly under the fountain they will see a model of medieval Kraków.
Those looking from underground can see St. Mary's Basilica through the bottom of the fountain.
Objects found in the excavations are grouped, mostly by type or by occupation. Visitors can see items that a blacksmith might have used or produced in one section, personal articles like combs and hair grips in another.
The archaeological dig, which started in 2005 and finished in 2010, revealed a cemetery between the Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica.
Graves, complete with skeletons, show burials of people believed to be vampires.
Replicas of a goldsmith’s and blacksmith’s workshop, complete with sound effects, help to imagine what life was like in medieval Kraków.
Holograms allow visitors to view buildings from all sides. The lighting is dramatic and indirect, making it all seem a bit spooky, helped by a vapor machine.
A major attraction is the Loaf of Lead, a huge bread-like lump of lead used as a measure in bulk trade. The strange item was found during the archaeological worked and caused a sensation when it was discovered.
A big section of the museum exposes the foundations and cellars of the earlier market halls. Visitors can walk along a plexiglass walkway to look over the sides at the walls and down at the floors.
The Cloth Hall has undergone many changes over the centuries and its present shape is nothing like the old cloth halls.
As early as in 1257, Prince Bolesław the Chaste, when founding Kraków, built stone cloth stalls. They formed a double row of stalls, creating a kind of alley in the middle of the market square. The foundations of these cloth halls can be seen in the museum.
A new Gothic Cloth Hall was erected by Kazimierz the Great around 1358. The central hall, 108 m long and 10 m wide, had two rows of stalls added on both sides. The building survived until 1555, when it burnt down.
In the years 1556-1559, the cloth halls were restored and were later reconstructed in 1875-79 into the form we know today.
The underground museum can accommodate up to 300 people at a time, with the entrance to the tunnels on the north-eastern end of the Cloth Hall facing St. Mary’s Basilica.