The Kraków Underground

Kraków, being a major cultural center in Poland, is home to a great many really good museums. If you don’t believe me, just Google “museums in Kraków” and see what you come up with. I’ve been to several of them, but just recently, I went to what is the absolute coolest archaeological museum I’ve been to yet.

entrance to Podziemia Rynku
entrance to Podziemia Rynku

I love museums, and I always have. Even so, I completely understand how a person could roll their eyes at that last sentence. An archaeological museum? Snore fest. To be completely honest, most of them are. The Podziemia Rynku (poh-djyeh-mia rin-koo), however, left me totally geeking out.

The most striking characteristic of the Podziemia Rynku is how tricky it is to find. I’ve been to Kraków only God knows how many times, and this was the first time I figured out where the entrance was. To be completely honest, I cheated a bit. I asked the receptionist at the hostel I was staying at where to find it. The entrance is on the outside of the Sukiennice, next to the souvenir shop, just across from the Bazylika Mariacka. The door has a poster plastered over it, so it looks like an advertisement for the museum – thus all the times I’ve walked past it without finding it. In order to get in, go around to the Town Hall side of the Sukiennice and purchase a ticket at the tourist information office (19 złoty for adults, 16 złoty with a student card), then come back around to the Mariacki side and go through the door that looks like an advertisement. One floor down, you’ll be greeted by a little old man in a bow tie who will mark your ticket and welcome you to the museum.

original cobbles from the 13th century street
original cobbles from the 13th century street

It sort of feels like I’m cheating all over again just telling you where it is. I think it’s a sort of rite of passage to walk around Kraków for a few days before finding this museum. I’m not the only one who’s done it, either. If you look up tourist reviews online, you’ll see that pretty much everyone has a hard time finding it. I may have cheated by asking, but I did my fair share of time wandering around looking for it.

Starting in 2005, Rynek Główny in Kraków was an archaeological dig. The entire square was dug up, and all sorts of artifacts were found under the surface around the Sukiennice. Everything from coins and jewelry to the original wood-beam base for the road and the foundations of buildings were found down there. There were even a good number of graves that had been dug up; the rynek used to be home to several churches, each of which was surrounded by cemeteries. Evidently, not all of the bodies have been removed and reburied as the city evolved and churchyards were relocated. It was decided that a museum should be built to house these artifacts and educate the public about them, and in 2010 the Podziemia Rynku was opened.

houses that were burned during the Tartar invasion of 1241
houses that were burned during the Tartar invasion of 1241

The first thing visitors to this exhibit see is a remnant of the medieval pavement around the Sukiennice. It’s surrounded by signs describing the different layers that you’re looking at and noting which time periods they come from. You can see part of the original foundation of the Sukiennice, connected to cobbles from the 13th century, the foundations of cottages that were built around the trading center (the rynek used to be much smaller, with residential buildings surrounding it), and the remains of extra merchant stalls that were tacked on to the outside of the Sukiennice when it was realized that Kraków had more merchants than places for them to peddle. One of my favorite installments was a collection barrel from the original water system, which pumped water – yes, pumped, even in the 14th century – to all parts of the city, including the over 200 breweries within the city walls.

For all the very old things in the exhibit, the museum is very high-tech. Most of the signs are electronic, which allows you to choose the language in which you read about the artifacts. There were five or six language options, including Polish, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and French. This also allows for a lot of information to be presented to the visitors. Each station had ten or twelve slides of text, and you can choose how much of it you want to read. I read almost all of it – it was good information, and it was fun to play with the touchscreens. There are also hologram-like reproductions of what the buildings would have looked like during the 13th and 14th centuries, as well as ambient sounds, such as vendors haggling at the tops of their lungs and wagons lumbering by. One of the cooler technological additions was a section showing burning cottages, right behind the foundations of cottages that dated from the 13th century and showed signs of having been burned, probably during the Tartar invasion in 1241. One of the nearby display screens tells the story, explaining why there’s a raging fire on the exhibit wall.

rich stalls
rich stalls

For all the archaeology geeks out there, part of the exhibit is walking the length of the modern Sukiennice, ten feet underground, peeking into what were called the “rich stalls,” the stalls tacked onto the outside of the Sukiennice to house more merchants. Based on artifacts found in each stall, archaeologists were able to piece together what kind of merchant was in each stall, and those artifacts are on display in the actual stalls, which can be viewed from a sort of catwalk running down the middle of what was once an aisle between the shops.

The exhibition ends with a series of short films that describe the major eras in the history of Kraków, starting from the days of the legendary King Krak and ending with the restoration of the Mariacki altar in 1957.

This museum is definitely worth tracking down, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s a fully functioning museum in an actual archaeological dig ten feet under one of the biggest tourist attractions in Kraków. Although, if you’re like me, you’ll think the view was pretty cool, too.

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