Kazimierz - The Old Jewish Quarter of Krakow
Originally laid out by King Kazimierz as its own town on the other side of Stary Wisla (a lesser branch of the river Wisla which was eventually filled in), Kazimierz has always had its own distinct atmosphere separate from that of the Old Town. Established in 1335, Kazimierz once had its own defensive walls, main square and town hall and only became incorporated as a district of Krakow in 1791. Still it was not for another 90 years that the two parts of the city were physically joined together, when the riverbed that ran beneath what is now ul. Dietla was filled in. At its peak, Kazimierz was home to some 5000 inhabitants.
Known as Krakow's Old Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz became the centre of Jewish culture in the city at the beginning of 1494, when King Olbracht ‘strongly encouraged’ the mass migration of Krakow's Jewish population to the island, blaming them for a fire that burned much of the previous Jewish district. Amidst terror from unruly Catholic youths, the Jewish community was granted permission to erect a wall around their “kahal”, whose walls stood until 1822, when they were torn down under the King's distrust of the Jewish “state-within-a-state”. Many Jews who could afford to resettle did so and the vibrancy of the district began to fade. Upon the fateful Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, this entire world was destroyed. The remaining Jews were deported to a ghetto in Podgorze (from where many were transported to Plaszow and Belzec Death Camps) and Kazimierz sank into a state of dilapidation wherein it would remain until only recently. A renewed interest in the Jewish heritage of the area has spurred a renaissance in Kazimierz and since the 1990s Krakowians have watched in amazement as the sordid neighborhood of abandoned tenements has slowly been turned into a lively district full of galleries, cafes, beer gardens, hostels and clubs; all the while maintaining an atmosphere distinctly its own.
The empty synagogues, smokey candlelit bars, ancient cemeteries (with gravestones strewn like teeth in the grass), dark-sooted facades of the townhouses, and many yet uninhabitable tenements all lend a ghostly mystique to Kazimierz, which has made it even more popular with the bohemian revelers you will find here in the evenings and early mornings. Plac Nowy, the district's centre and popular produce market, essentially becomes a giant beer garden in spring and summer; here a delicious and sobering zapiekanka (Polish french bread pizza of sorts) can be purchased at almost any hour. Several surviving synagogues will also be of interest, as well as the Skalka Monastery whose twilight mists and healing mineral spring are unmissable.