Krakow has more than one thousand years of history. The city is first mentioned by the chronicler Ibrahim ibn Jakub, in 966. Krakow was the seat of the rulers of the Polish state until 1611 and the capital of Poland until 1795. From 1815 to 1846, the city was the capital of the Free City of Krakow, a ‘city republic’ artificially created by the Congress of Vienna (1815) and controlled by Russia, Prussia and Austria. That was a time of rebuilding and expansion for the city, which still had its mediaeval urban layout. Although many historic buildings were demolished, some have survived, including the Barbican, several gates and the Gothic town hall tower.
Chopin went to Krakow just once, and only because it was on the way to Vienna. That was the young virtuoso’s first major artistic journey abroad. Chopin set off for Vienna, in the care of Prof. Romuald Hube, as soon as he had passed his final exams at the Main School of Music. Hube recalled: ‘The responsibility of accompanying young Chopin to Vienna befell me. Even then, he was well known for the amazing talent that would later set the musical world alight’. Chopin was also accompanied by his friends Alfons Brandt, Marceli Celiński, Ignacy Maciejowski and (only as far as Krakow) Mieczysław Potocki.
They probably left Warsaw on Tuesday 21 July and passed through Sękocin, Tarczyn, Grójec, Bełsk, Mogielnica, Nowe Miasto, Drzewica, Opoczno, Końskie, Radoszyce, Łopuszana, Małogoszcz, Nagłowice, Sieńsk, Żarnowiec, Miechów and Wilczkowice.
Chopin mentioned the trip in a letter to Tytus Woyciechowski: ‘I thought that you would find out about my grand voyage verbally, which would have pleased me more, because I would sincerely rather chat with you, but since it is like this, then know, my dear, that I was in Cracow, Vienna, Prague, Dresden and Wrocław. Our first week passed in Cracow with nothing but strolls and touring the environs of Krakow’. The ‘environs of Krakow’ referred to were Wieliczka, Ojców and Pieskowa Skała, in the Prądnik Valley.
Not much is known about Chopin’s stay in Krakow. A few references in his letters have survived, as has his entry in the visitors’ book at the Jagiellonian University dated 23 July 1829. From this, the group is known to have seen the Collegium Maius and the Jagiellonian Library, which was then housed in a building on the corner of ul. św. Anna and ul. Jagiellońska. Hube, who had attended a Piarist School in Krakow, no doubt showed his young charges the sights, including the Old Town Market, the Cloth Hall, the Barbican, St Mary’s and Wawel, which in the nineteenth century was in a very dilapidated state. The castle hill had been converted into a barracks for the Austrian army. Porches had been walled in, castle interiors altered and some buildings (including St George’s Chapel and St Michael’s Chapel) pulled down. A year later, the Krakow Castle Reparation Committee was convened, and the Krakow Senate appealed for donations to restore Wawel.
While Krakow was in no way comparable with Vienna, the city still made a considerable impression on Chopin, as can be seen in this letter he wrote to Tytus Woyciechowski: ‘In merry company, even if it was partially unknown to me, I reached Vienna, and if Krakow so occupied my attention that I was able to devote only a few moments to thinking about home and you, then Vienna so overwhelmed, intoxicated and beguiled me that, sitting there for more than two weeks without a letter from home, I didn’t feel any longing’.
Chopin had originally planned to go to Vienna via Krakow again in the autumn of 1830: ‘And so, I will probably go in the course of the next few weeks by way of Krakow to Vienna’. He ultimately changed his mind, however, and went via Wrocław, leaving his homeland forever.