The Polish city of Krakow has just been granted the status of UNESCO City of Literature – only the second non-Anglophone city to receive the honor, and the first in continental Europe. This puts Poland’s southern metropolis and historic capital into the same bracket as Edinburgh, Norwich, Dublin, Reykjavik and the somewhat more curious choice of Iowa.
Krakow was Poland’s capital from 1038 to 1569, and capital of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1596. It also survived World War Two relatively unscathed compared to Warsaw, although both Roman Polanski and Oskar Schindler are associated with its wartime experience under the Nazis. Later, Karol Wojtyła, cardinal archbishop of Krakow, became Pope John Paul II.
Alongside historical credentials, UNESCO City of Literature status also requires a living literary culture and a thriving local literary community of libraries, bookshops, publishing companies, literary festivals, etc. Krakow certainly scores on those counts. According to Edinburgh’s extensive tribute to its new fellow City of Literature, “Krakow organises not one but two large literary festivals (an annual Conrad Festival and a biannual Milosz Festival) and hosts an annual Book Fair which attracts over 35,000 visitors. The city is also linked with several Polish Nobel Prize winners in literature – Henryk Sienkiewicz (Quo Vadis), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1905; Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont, 1924 (the author of The Promised Land and The Peasants); Czeslaw Milosz (The Captive Mind, Family Europe), and Wislawa Szymborska (Calling Out to Yeti, People on the Bridge), 1996 … Krakow is the cradle of the Polish language and Polish literature. The first scriptoriums appeared there in the 11th century, the first prints in Poland were published there, and the city boasts library collections unique on a global scale.”
Krakow’s own submission for the UNESCO program describes itself as “the most recognisable Polish city in the world, the cultural capital of the country, a city of literature and poetry … Krakow is one of the largest Polish academic centres: 23 institutions of higher education operate here, including the oldest and the most important one – Jagiellonian University (Universitas Jagellonica Cracoviensis), established in 1364 as Studium Generale. After Prague University, it was the second university established in this part of Europe.”