Ten Great Years

19 September 2023

One day in the autumn of 2008 the city office received a letter from Edinburgh, inviting Kraków to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Robert Piaskowski

The city of Walter Scott, J.K. Rowling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ian Rankin issued the invitation at a curious moment. Kraków – a city of major music, film and artistic events – lacked an institution coordinating any kind of literary policies. Even though the Book Fair was expanding dynamically and looking for a new, contemporary venue, you couldn’t really describe Kraków as having powerful and sustainable book circles. We didn’t have literary events and festivals. Jacek Majchrowski, Mayor of the City of Kraków, immediately rose to the challenge and brought together a team to start working on an application to UNESCO. Everyone believed that the city of Poland’s oldest literary collections – the city of Nobel laureates Szymborska and Miłosz, the city of Lem, Mrożek and Kantor, the city of Joseph Conrad’s youth – would be granted the title automatically. But it wasn’t as easy as that – we had to work to earn it.

Setting off

One of the first symposia I organised for representatives of literary circles brought plenty of new information and helped us understand just how much resentment and disappointment they experience, while also sharing far-reaching hopes. Some expressed scepticism and doubt, while others rather unfounded, boundless optimism. In the meantime, UNESCO didn’t expect promises; instead, they wanted guarantees, evidence, specific programmes as part of Kraków’s application. We took our time drafting it, introducing corrections, summaries and updates. I am proud to say I drove this process, and I look back fondly on the team I worked with on this task. It included young linguists, up-and-coming literary critics and experienced editors – and around a hundred other people representing all levels of literary circles. Our work led us to a deceptively simple yet revolutionary conclusion: it is our readers who must be at the centre of all our activities – without them there cannot be a city of literature. Everything else is simply a tool or a process.

We drafted the outline of the future City of Literature based on the belief that literature can be seen in two ways: as a source of identity, self-awareness and consciousness, and as a sector of cultural services and associated industries and profession – a market providing real employment in the city. At the same time, Jerzy Illg and Grzegorz Gauden were working on the Miłosz Festival, and the Conrad Festival was being developed by the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly and the Krakow Festival Office (KBF).

And we made it. On 21 October 2013, Kraków became the first Slavic and second non-English speaking UNESCO City of Literature.

Literary panorama of the city

Today, Kraków is a dynamic centre of contemporary literature, hosting world-famous festivals, awarding numerous prizes and home to leading authors representing almost all literary genres. The Miłosz Festival continues the traditions of the Meetings of Poets of the East and West. It is held in parallel with the Szymborska Award gala – Poland’s most highly acclaimed poetry award. The Conrad Festival, marking its 15th anniversary this year, is Poland’s only festival to have won the EFFE Award of the European Festivals Association, with the jury noting its quality programming and intellectual gravitas. New events have arisen in the last decade, including the Children’s Literature Festival, Kraków Comic Book Festival and Non-Fiction Festival. In the autumn, Poetry Night resounds with diverse voices of many generations of poets.

The International Book Fair in Kraków is going from strength to strength – it remains the country’s largest event of its kind, and its new location means growing numbers of exhibitors and guests. The Conrad Prize supports up-and-coming prose authors, the Kazimierz Wyka prize awards literary criticism, the Jan Długosz Award aims to popularise works in the field of the humanities, the Ferdynand Wspaniały and Złota Ciżemka promote children’s books and illustration, Kraków Book of the Month and the City of Literature Award support books published in Kraków, and the Szymborska and Anna Świrszczyńska prizes celebrate poetry. The Decjusz Villa, Potocki Palace and former apartments of Szymborska and Miłosz provide residential spaces. Independent bookshops are covered by Poland’s widest-reaching support programme including attractive rents and annual competitions for cultural events, promotional events and the bookshop of the year awards.

Municipal libraries have undergone a major transformation over the last decade. Previously scattered across different districts with no overreaching digital or management connections, they are now a major, modern network which continues to grow and thrive. Construction work is due to start on the Kraków Library in the Wesoła district, on the site of the former hospital. We are just steps away from completing the imposing Planeta Lem creative centre at the former salt warehouse between Cricoteka and the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art. The state-of-the-art site, dedicated to one of the greatest representatives of futurism and lifelong Kraków resident, provides a space for readers and authors of all ages.

Networks and circles of friendship

We wanted to play an active role in the family of cities of literature from the very start. We supported Katowice, Łódź, Wrocław and most recently Gdańsk in their applications to join the creative cities network. We also lobbied for Vilnius and Lviv to be awarded the City of Literature title, hoping to be surrounded by a network of friends and cities defining their development through literature. We promote human rights and freedom of expression: as part of our membership of ICORN, we provide refuge to artists who face persecution in their home countries. We helped develop a network of Polish cities offering such shelter; alongside Kraków, it includes Wrocław, Katowice, Gdańsk and most recently Warsaw.

We are delighted that our city resounds with diverse voices of authors such as Elżbieta Łapczyńska, Barbara Sadurska, Zośka Papużanka, Igor Jarek, Łukasz Orbitowski, Wit Szostak and Maryla Szymiczkowa (the latter is a pseudonym of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński). Kraków’s publishing houses are proud to print works by Nobel laureates: the news of the prize being awarded to Olga Tokarczuk was celebrated by planting the Prawiek (“Primeval”) woodland. We marked the anniversary of the passing of Adam Zagajewski by dedicating a beautiful old beech tree in Planty Park as Tree of Poetry, while on the centenary of the birth of Wisława Szymborska we opened a park given her name. The Potocki Palace is a melting pot of literary meetings, residences and festivals; the venue is ran by KBF, host of the Kraków City of Literature programme.

In the era of major divisions between the digital and tangible worlds, we are supporting our city’s defences through literature and the sensitivity which comes through reading.


The programme of the Kraków City of Literature was developed a decade ago by a relatively small team. We have built a dynamic, creative space for encounters with generations of original, inspired artists. The title of city of literature belongs to all – there is no single “owner” or single centre. I am delighted with what we have achieved in the literary circles in the last ten years – and I am even more excited by what’s still ahead!

Robert Piaskowski

photo by Adrian Pallasch

Polish philologist, sociologist, diplomat, musician, commentator on cultural life, music lover, Programme Director at KBF, currently Plenipotentiary of the Mayor of the City of Kraków for Culture. He coordinated Kraków’s efforts to be awarded the UNESCO City of Literature title and developed the programme between 2009 and 2019.


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