Just south across the river from Kazimierz, lies Podgórze - a large district rich in natural beauty, tragic history and unusual attractions. The name means ‘foothills,’ and its unique geography makes it one of Krakow’s greenest districts and most exciting to explore, thanks to wooded hills, limestone cliffs and ridges that offer panoramic views of the city centre. It is this same sinister geography, however, which resulted in Podgórze being the site of the city’s greatest human tragedy. The Nazis saw its natural placement between the river and the cliffs of Krzemionki as the ideal place for establishing a prison district, and in March of 1941 Kraków’s Jewish population was marched into the centre of Podgórze and walled off in what became known as the Kraków Ghetto. Liquidated two years later, the majority of the Ghetto’s residents were murdered inside, while others met death in the nearby Płaszów concentration camp, or in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Bełżec.
Traces of the Ghetto are still visible today, and Podgórze’s wartime history and 20th century connections to Oskar Schindler remain what people most associate with the district today. However, Podgórze has a long history which dates back over 10,000 years ago to the city’s founding myth. Legend explains Podgórze’s Krakus Mound as the burial place of the city’s first ruler, and scientific studies have proven it to be Kraków’s most ancient structure dating back to the Iron Age. Podgórze also has a proud tradition of independence, having been granted the rights of a free city in 1784 by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. Incorporated into greater Kraków in 1915, the district proudly reasserted its independence when on October 31st, 1918 local militants led by Antoni Stawarz seized control of the district from the Austrian Army in what is regarded as the first the action of the Second Republic of Poland following WWI.
Although slow to develop in the years after the fall of communism, the opening of the world-class Schindler’s Factory Museum in 2010 not only helped the city come to terms with the ghosts of the Holocaust, it also established Podgórze as a bona fide destination for tourists. The construction of the Bernatek footbridge soon afterwards opened the floodgates even further, creating a direct link from Plac Wolnica to Rynek Podgórski and leading to a burst of cafes and restaurants on the other side of the river. Today Podgórze is accepted as an obligatory part of the Kraków tourist trail, but still retains an evocative atmosphere of anguish and independence that sets it apart from Kraków’s other neighbourhoods. To get the most out of it, make time to explore its mysterious, lesser-known landmarks in addition to its marquee museums.