Festivals '
Robert Piaskowski
Reading time: approx. 16 minutes

A city of festivals

Have you been to Conrad yet? Who have you ran into at the Krakow Film Festival? Remember Jordi Savall’s concert at Misteria? Cracovians – true connoisseurs of festivals – frequently ask one another these questions. When we think about our city as it was centuries ago and as it is now, we tend to reach for the same imagery: festive streets, joyful crowds filling public squares, the sky illuminated with dazzling colours on St. John’s Eve, bustling fairs and markets, churches resounding with music… Festivals are one of the key elements of Kraków’s early and contemporary history and an expression of celebrating together, bringing a sense of community and expressing the city’s truly joyful nature.

Processions, pageants, garlands, historic Emmaus and Rękawka fairs, the enthronement of the Fowler King, the Lajkonik parade and contemporary festivals celebrating all forms of arts are all important tools bringing Cracovians and visitors together through a creative way of talking about the city. Kraków hosts events which celebrate connections between the city and its suburbs, nearby villages and reaching into the region and at times as far as the rest of Poland, Europe and the rest of the world through economic, cultural and social communities.

From the earliest mediaeval records, Kraków’s history abounds with Carnival celebration, indulgences, fairs, royal feasts and balls, grand coronations, jubilees, anniversaries, funerals of notable Cracovians and joyful festivals bringing together all generations and guests from all corners of the globe. It is no wonder, then, that in such a historic city as Kraków, festivals take on such significance. They serve as natural culminations and recall ancient customs and traditions; they are an expression of aspiration, an important element of cultural policies and a driver of tourism. They are also times when Cracovians come together with visitors to encourage them to discover the city through culture and festival experiences.

Events

Today’s Kraków hosts almost 80 festivals every year. The shortest run for just a couple of days, while the longest are spread over months. The oldest, such as the Krakow Film Festival celebrating documentaries, go back many decades. The first Jewish Culture Festival, now world-famous, was held in 1988, a year before the fall of communism. Some were founded in the wake of Kraków being awarded the title of European City of Culture in 2000 (e.g. the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival, the EthnoKrakow/Crossroads and later the Sacrum Profanum), while others emerged in response to high public demand for quality events (e.g. the Film Music Festival, Unsound, Divine Comedy).

 

Many of the new generation festivals, founded between 2004 and 2009, have grown into strong, stable brands with rapidly growing international significance and organised by experienced, skilled teams. During the last decade, Kraków has become a world leader in the highly competitive field of organising international events, reaching a total audience of almost two million. Almost 80% of Kraków residents take part in the city’s festivals; according to research, the average Cracovian attends at least three festivals every year. Many of them are “new” Cracovians: this multilingual and multicultural community forms an important element in our city and writes itself into its DNA which has been bringing together locals and distant arrivals for centuries. Festivals have always been and remain a way of keeping in touch, of exchanging goods, stories and ideas, and of marking the rhythm of the lives of the local community.

Festivals are celebrations of culture and a manifestation of the city’s potential. To understand Kraków is to understand their annual rhythm, to notice how they reach for Cracovian identity and heritage to build new meanings and become an indelible part of the contemporary city life.

Space and time

Festivals and cultural events are some of the most popular ways of spending free time while making the most of the city’s historic space. Art experienced among history provides a fresh way of interpreting city space and building a cultural continuity between the past and the present. The space of heritage becomes a space of intercultural dialogue, a space of new meanings and a symbol of the city’s enduring cultural identity. Kraków’s festivals are expressed as vast crowds assembled by the Vistula for the Wianki – Fête de la Musique or the Christmas Market, thousands of people seeing in the New Year at the Main Market Square, devoted audiences of the Film Music Festival and people filling historic churches for the Misteria Paschalia Festival. But the Old Town isn’t the only setting for major events. They also visit abandoned and forgotten spaces: many events held as part of festivals such as Sacrum Profanum and Unsound bring the vitality of alternative culture to post-industrial districts and abandoned hotels and factories, injecting them with fresh energy and contributing to their regeneration.

The eruption of festivals in Kraków in recent decades has two major roots: the fall of communism in 1989 when new festivals were important platforms for renewed integration with the rest of Europe, and the period since 2007 when they have become a major element of the city’s cultural policies as tools supporting the development of creative economy, making the most of new cultural venues and driving cultural tourism.

Back in the days when Poland was hidden away behind the Iron Curtain, Kraków provided a window onto the world for the public and artists including authors, composers and people of film and theatre. Soon after the political shift towards democracy in 1989, the fame of Kraków – the city of Tadeusz Kantor, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Penderecki, Stanisław Lem and Wisława Szymborska – rapidly gained worldwide attention. In 1991, the city hosted the European Month of Culture, while in 1995 – a decade before Poland joined the EU – the Council of Ministers of the European Union formally designated Kraków European City of Culture 2000.

Held as part of the Kraków 2000 programme, the cycle of events based on the concept of Thought – Spirituality – Creativity (1996–2000) made a huge contribution to international interest in the city. Festivals and concert cycles, events initiated by meetings held by Cracovian Nobel laureates Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska with authors from all over the globe, and theatre performances in the city space are all important elements of the contemporary Cracovian lifestyle.

Sources and traditions

Kraków’s festivals reach for the city’s history, stories and legends – what else is the annual Wianki festival but a nod towards ancient pagan rites surrounding the summer solstice and the age-old fascination with the royal Vistula River lapping at Wawel Hill? The annual ritual symbolises the community of Cracovians: tens of thousands of people gather by the riverside to welcome in the summer by bringing together the elements of earth, water, air and fire. The Dragon Parade is also rooted in legend, telling the story of the monster intimidating the city and the plucky cobbler who put his reign of terror to an end. Let’s look at the positive aspects of the story: the dragon is defeated by a local craftsman, not a knight in shining armour. In preparation for the summertime event, families, schools, theatres and whole districts build giant dragon puppets, and their joyful, noisy parade fills the city. The crowd heads towards the legendary Dragon’s Den at the foot of Wawel Hill, where a bronze statue of the beast breathes fire every 15 minutes. History and legends intertwine in many festivals: in the St. John’s Fair re-enacting life in the city in mediaeval times, in the traditional Rękawka fair at the historic Krakus Mound and in the colourful Lajkonik parade.

Festivals and early music concerts recall the history of the royal castle and the ensembles playing for the king during the Renaissance. Chambers of Wawel Castle, churches, chapels and synagogues throughout the city resound with music during events such as Music in Old Cracow and the Misteria Paschalia Festival held during Easter week. Classical music festivals have roots in performances held at salons of the aristocracy and the wealthy burghers as they gradually fell under Viennese influence, and in first music schools in Poland. Kraków is famous for its orchestras, choirs, musicians and composers, many of whom have links to the Academy of Music. And local doesn’t mean unknown! Many Cracovian composers or those who made Kraków their home are major names at concert halls the world over. In fact, there is more than enough material for an annual festival dedicated to music by Cracovian composers – how many other cities can boast such an event?

Transformations

The way festivals interact with history and identity doesn’t have to be obvious or unequivocal. The organisers of the Jewish Culture Festival reach back for centuries-old traditions of the former Jewish quarter (and, before then, separate city) of Kazimierz, and cast a look at the tragic events of the Second World War. Widely regarded as an important platform for discussing the difficult past, the festival intertwines myriad forms of expression and showcases contemporary Jewish artists from all over the globe. It serves as a reflection of the achievements of the Jewish diaspora scattered the world over by presenting them in the context of cultural phenomena. The programme features cantors singing at synagogues, workshops, lectures and discussions, and culminates with the ecstatic concert “Shalom on Szeroka Street”, bringing together thousands of Cracovians and visitors to dance to contemporary rhythms from all over the globe. The festival is a perfect example of looking towards the future while remaining rooted in tradition; although the event doesn’t shy away from nostalgia, it has been enjoying immense popularity over the years and continues to attract fresh audiences with its clever combination of artistic events with remembrance.

 

Another important venue for world music is the Wolnica Square – coincidentally the home of the Ethnographic Museum. It hosts the main concerts of the EthnoKrakow/Crossroads festival, founded as part of the Kraków European City of Culture 2000 programme. The event originally focused on the musical culture of the Carpathian region, but it has since expanded to cover folk music from all over the globe, reflecting the widespread trend of blurring borders in the 21st century. This refreshed formula creates new communities of musicians and listeners, introduces audiences to new music and bolsters Kraków’s image as an open, multicultural city. During the festival, Kraków resounds with music from as far afield as the Middle and Far East, Latin America, the Balkans, Africa, Yemen, Senegal, Mexico… And of course it features fine interpretations of more local Slavic folklore.

Kraków is also a city of literature. It was here that the first Polish libraries and scriptoriums were created, and the foundation of one of Europe’s oldest universities was linked with burgeoning national and European literature. The most important individuals in the history of Polish literature have always had ties to Kraków – it’s no wonder, then, that the city hosts nine literary festivals dedicated to different genres and forms. It also hosts Poland’s most important book fair, drawing tens of thousands of visitors every year. Although this is perhaps not widely known, before setting off for Marseille and onwards for his maritime and literary adventures, Józef Konrad Korzeniowski – better known as Joseph Conrad – had spent time living in Kraków. Today he is the patron of the international celebration of literature and thought; the Conrad Festival has been hailed as one of Europe’s five finest festivals by the European Festivals Association, and it has been twice nominated for the London Book Fair award. The Miłosz Festival, focusing on poetry, has roots in meetings held in Kraków in 1997 and 2000 under the patronage of local Nobel laureates Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. It is a great celebration of world poetry held in a city which is home to hundreds of poets and translators and which publishes the highest volumes of poetry in Poland. The formula, treating great authors as a starting point and context for a major international event, explores the latest challenges faced by literature, language and the modern world as a whole. The organisers of the Copernicus Festival are guided by a similar mission; the event brings together representatives of sciences, the humanities and artists, which is a fantastic reflection of Kraków’s intellectual nous in and of itself. And of course its name serves as a reminder that Nicolaus Copernicus was perhaps the most famous graduate of the Kraków Academy, now the Jagiellonian University.

Towards synthesis

Although festivals are held year-round in Kraków, they follow the rhythm of the seasons. They are driven by numerous cultural institutions and express the activities of countless foundations and associations. The city’s festivals are coordinated by the Krakow Festival Office (now KBF), founded in 1997 as part of the preparations of the European City of Culture 2000 programme. Today the institution provides support and integration services to the entire festival ecosystem in the city. The festival season kicks off with grand concerts on the Main Market Square, followed by Carnival and the Opera Rara Festival. Spring brings Easter week with its fairs and the renowned Misteria Paschalia Festival, as well as cinematic events: Mastercard OFF Camera celebrating independent cinema, the Film Music Festival and the veteran on the Polish and European scale Krakow Film Festival.

As well as being an indisputably spectacular international event, the Film Music Festival serves as a platform for educating young musicians and composers, awards industry prizes and pays homage to masters of film and music. Kraków was the first city in Poland to bring the device invented by the Lumière brothers to show a film screening; it is the city of Andrzej Wajda, Wojciech Jerzy Has, Krzysztof Penderecki, Abel Korzeniowski and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, and a city of many art schools.

 

Such way of thinking also applies to individual events: for example, Photomonth Festival showcases the inventiveness of contemporary photographers and curators from Kraków and all corners of the globe, juxtaposing it against previous generations and the stunning municipal collections presented at the Museum of Photography and the Museum of Krakow. Other events celebrating visual arts are the International Print Triennial, the KRAKERS Cracow Gallery Week and the Krakow Art Salon launched in 2018.

Kraków’s status of the European capital of culture is also reflected through festivals such as Opera Rara, Misteria Paschalia and Sacrum Profanum, surrounded with their own innovative narratives and educational and publishing programmes.

During the pandemic of 2020, Sacrum Profanum was one of the first major international festivals to devise and implement an entirely online programme; the results exceeded all expectations and were enthusiastically received by the publics and critics. Unousd and Patchlab present their audiences with musical and virtual spaces which are as experimental in form as they are in spirit. Such festivals provide an important space for cultivating alternative cultures and discovering new topics and trends in music and new media all over the globe; with time, they become esteemed brands on the international scene. The Unsound instalments held in New York, Australia, Germany and the UK help build an international community of contemporary flâneurs, while international Patchlab co-productions bring together artists working in interactive and digital arts from cities such as Istanbul, Seoul, Montreal and Budapest. The cosmopolitan dimension of these festivals draws audiences hungry for new experiences and discoveries form all over the globe.

Stages, bandstands, streets

Presenting some of the finest theatre productions from the past season, the Divine Comedy festival has long been regarded as the most important review of Polish theatre. It shows stage productions by up-and-coming directors and masters of Polish theatre: spectacles by Lupa, Warlikowski, Jarzyna, Strzępka and Demirski rub shoulders with those by debuting artists. The festival is coordinated by the Łaźnia Nowa Theatre – one of the most fascinating places on the map of Nowa Huta located in former steelworks workshop buildings. The ULICA International Street Theatre Festival is organised by KTO Theatre in the city space, while Groteska Theatre presents Materia Prima – a biennial festival showcasing myriad facets of theatre of form.

Kraków lives and breathes jazz. The city’s clubs and thriving scene produce six festivals held throughout the year. Kraków has a long, proud tradition of jazz: it is home to the “All Souls” Zaduszki Jazz Festival, Poland’s longest-running event of its kind held every autumn since 1954. Poland’s entire jazz community has been coming together since the 1990s for the Summer Jazz Festival Kraków culminating with the New Orleans Sunday with a parade taking to the streets and squares of the Old Town, rooted in local traditions and celebrated by favourite ensembles. The jazz spectrum also features the Jazz Juniors promoting up-and-coming musicians and the avantgarde Krakow Jazz Autumn celebrating improvised and experimental music.

Kraków shares its best practice as part of a network of festival cities which also includes Adelaide, Edinburgh, Montreal and Singapore. The cities host events ranging from grassroots initiatives to strategic municipal decisions, rooted in local contexts and founded in local conditions, traditions and urban spaces. Such a consistent strategy allows those cities to rise to the rank of global leaders in the field.

Festival cities abound with cultural life throughout the year, making their mark on public space, the lives of residents and visitors alike and the development of strategic and tourist policies. Festivals become a medium through which the city brand gains fresh energy by endorsing local businesses, attracting talent and new residents and promoting tourism. Festivals turn into seasons, work together and introduce innovations. Together with the tourist industry, they approach precisely defined target groups and produce a full range of events accompanying the main festival.

They are also powerful in terms of transforming the city reality on the levels of aesthetics, attitudes of residents, flexibility of the service industry and shaping the city space to support the development of festivals now and in the future. Festival cities design districts, parks and the entire infrastructure by taking into account myriad elements and cultural events outside the festival season. Festivals also have important centres: in Kraków this is undoubtedly ICE Kraków hosting myriad conferences, congresses and music events and spectacles; the Potocki Palace, due to be opened in 2021, will be a cluster bringing together festivals and events, organisers and the public.

 

History runs in circles: the city keeps developing its festival ideas and providing long-term support to the most recognisable brands; by working together with event organisers, it constantly redefines its cultural policies. This strategy has been recognised by the International Festivals and Events Association (IFEA), awarding Kraków the title of IFEA World Festival & Event City in 2016.

Robert Piaskowski

Cultural manager, curator of festival programmes and international expert. During his time at KBF he was responsible for events such as the Misteria Paschalia Festival, the Film Music Festival and the Kraków UNESCO City of Literature Programme. Plenipotentiary of the Mayor of the City of Krakow for Culture.

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