A Kracking Time
Myself and a friend are just back from visiting Krakow, Southern Poland – my first proper trip to Eastern Europe! Well, I have been to Vilnius (in Lithuania) but by post-Cold War definitions that’s actually Northern Europe and to say otherwise would be lazy journalism. Still, my initial impressions were that there is a similarity between the two places, most notably in the baroque architecture. Considering the two nations were once in fact a commonwealth some resemblance probably makes sense. As soon as we stepped out of the taxi, it was clear that we’d picked an excellent destination. Our hotel was right beneath Wawel Castle and centrally located in Stare Miasto (meaning Old Town), a district generally considered to be the ‘heart of the nation’. Cold and pale in the morning light, it felt muted but intriguing. We wandered around admiring the views and noting a wonderful lack of the normally ubiquitous Western shop fronts. Everything was unfamiliar. By a stroke of luck we stumbled quickly upon a fantastic little coffee shop serving generous portions of beautifully crafted cakes for very good prices. Actually, most things in Krakow are relatively cheap; beer is about £2 (10 zł) a pint and you can have a three-course meal in a decent restaurant for £15. Even on a budget, you really don’t have to settle for second-grade fresh. Our side of the hotel was the ‘economy’ side, so rooms were pretty basic and the location of the bar shrouded in mystery – but the grand interior and excellent breakfast room/restaurant made up for any shortcomings. The traditional mushroom soup and pan-fried Pierogi (which is a local specialty, halfway between a ravioli and a gnocchi) were seriously delicious. We were also given a free shot of some homemade lemon vodka. 🙂
Wherever you go in Krakow, you are reminded of Roman Catholicism, and the fact that Poland is a rather conservative country. Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła) was from Krakow. His portrait remains fixed in the window of a house where he lived as a young bishop. This is now a museum, containing a replica of his room and some of his personal belongings. Churches are numerous, of course. The most notable are Wawel Cathedral and St. Mary’s, home of an impressive gothic Altar and the most beautifully bright stained glass I have ever seen. The Jewish Quarter (Kazimeirz) is now home to most of the hippest bars (Alchemia was our favourite) and restaurants. But although the actual Jewish population is small, the community seem to be pro-active in ensuring their future and visibility in Krakow, including through the annual Jewish Cultural Festival. There are two active synagogues and a number of traditional shops and restaurants selling Jewish food, and where you can hear traditional music. A March of Remembrance happened to be taking place right around when we arrived, commemorating the 71st anniversary of the Krakow ghetto liquidation. Signs advertising tours of Auschwitz and Schindler’s factory are frequent but we decided to focus on the area’s present and got our share of history elsewhere. In the museums of Wawel Castle, for instance, there are many amazing treasures and weapons, including Szczerbiec, the coronation sword used in the crownings of most of Poland’s Kings between 1320 and 1764.
Very worthwhile also was our trip out on the east-bound tram to Nowa Huta. This may strike you, at first glance, as a fairly bland industrial region, an impression only confirmed by the familiar, drab landscape you pass through en route; factories, truck stops, out-of-town shopping complexes and the previously hard-to-find McDonald’s. But as with many places, there is a fascinating history when you spend a little more time digging. Nowa Huta (literally, New Steelworks) was a vision of Communist planning brought to life by the Socialist State in 1947. Built around a highly impractical but most definitely not Bourgeois steelworks complex, it relied entirely on imported raw materials. A new Proletarian workers’ city, residents would live in specially constructed housing developments with parks, tree-lined avenues and impressive but simplified architecture marking a fresh start – and freedom from the old religious and intellectual conventions. Unfortunately, reality wasn’t quite so ideal. Plac Centralny – the main square – was, after the eventual demise of Soviet control, renamed after Ronald Regan. As you might expect, there was objection from the locals to this airbrushing of their history; most refer to the square by its old name. Their engagement with the Communist era is complex. After considerable pressure was put on the then-First Secretary Władysław Gomułka, a church was built in 1960. This was finally consecrated in 1977 by the future Pope, though not without a struggle. Certainly Nowa Huta was a focal point for massive political resistance during the 1980s. Depending on which sources you read the locals either vehemently hate or fondly remember aspects of old Nowa Huta. All I can say for sure is, it was where we enjoyed the best beer of our trip (a Żywiec) in Restaurant Stylowa, catering to the older members of the community and where a small replica of the Lenin statue once located in Plac Centralny im. Ronalda Regana sits quietly behind the pumps.
Back in magical and unreal Western Krakow, I finally tried a delicious Obwarzanki (from one of a million street-corner stalls) and bought some mementos in the Cloth Hall, a beautiful 14th century building lined with booths selling colourful fabrics, wooden gifts and amber jewellery. The rest of our trip was taken up by drinking an excellent selection of vodkas in Baroque, Alchemia, and a couple of other places in Kazimeirz. I recommend Soplika! Another day to explore would have been ideal. But I suppose that’s the nature of ‘city breaks’ – you scratch the surface as deeply as you can, and plan on a return visit.