Why do I enjoy walled towns so much? Perhaps because they tend to be old and mired in history. Or because walking around town walls gives me the opportunity to imagine what the town was like in the past, at a time when walls were a vital defence rather than a curiosity for tourists.
Of course, town walls were always built for defensive reasons (a bit like modern-day gated communities). But today’s walled towns are all different from one another. A few still have complete walls, while others remain only in fragments. And some, like the Kraków defence walls, seem to have disappeared altogether. Until you look a bit closer.
The Kraków Defence Walls
The defences of Kraków date back to the 13th century. A huge wall with 39 towers and eight gates encircled the town, and was itself surrounded by a moat, with a secondary wall on the far side. At one end of the town, and separated by a causeway across the moat, was the Barbican. And at the other end was the Wawel Castle, built on top of a huge mound with a commanding view of the river and the surrounding area.
Apart from the Castle and the Barbican, there’s not much left now. The Kraków defence walls, which had already fallen into disrepair, were demolished in the early 19th century. This was to allow room for the city to expand, and to provide building material for the expansion. Today only one small section of wall remains: St Florian’s Wall, a 180 metre section that is accessible to visitors. It has one gate, two towers and a small chapel.
Around the Planty
However, it is very easy to see where the walls once ran. In place of the walls and the moat is The Planty, a broad strip of parkland that runs around the Old Town. As you walk through The Planty you will see plaques showing where the gates and the towers once stood. You will also see a surprising number of fragments of walls and towers at ground level. Occasionally there is a bit more to see: for instance, the Butcher’s Gate was incorporated into the building of a Dominican convent.
The Planty makes a pleasant walk, with trees, sculptures and even a bandstand. But we were in search of the walls and, as we walked, we stopped to read the plaques. It wasn’t long before a pattern started to emerge. The Leatherworkers’ Tower, the Metalsmiths’ Tower, the Gunsmiths’ Gate… We learnt that each gate and tower had been assigned to one of the tradesmen’s guilds, who were responsible for the maintenance and defence of that stretch of the wall.
We started to build up a picture of the people who had lived here in the Middle Ages. There was even an Executioners’ Tower and a Cordovan Makers’ Tower. (I had to look that one up – according to Google cordovan was “a kind of soft leather made originally from goatskin”). Even in their absence, Kraków’s defensive walls had managed to conjure up the past.