Musicians in Main Square,Krakow - photo Hector Christie
“Hey - you want to go to Auschwitz?” There is such terrible incongruity between the proffered destination and the amiable nature of the taxi driver that I actually stammer my,” No thanks.” I decide, having visited Dachau years before, that I already know the political, psychological and philosophical roads that lead to such places, and, in the light of much more recent abominations such as Guantanamo, am sceptical about their apparent educational nature-the so called “never again” lessons. These seldom seem to work with those in power, whilst the remainder of us are probably aware anyway. With a group of such friends I’m in Krakow. The infamous Auschwitz is about an hour away to the west, and is only one of the many facets of this, the most intriguing of cities, whose character and capacity to withstand adversity is ingrained wherever you look. What other city has intact 13th century fortifications which isolate the old town behind a three kilometre line of defensive walls, with 47 towers and 7 main sentry gates? What other city offers such a glimpse into both its history and personality through the titles of the tours on offer?
This tour list includes not only the Auschwitz Tour but the Schindlers’ List Tour, the Communism Tour, the Polish Vodka Tasting Tour, and the Salt Mine Tour. The Janus-like nature of the city is typified on one hand by the 70,000 students who make up part of the present population, and its mediaeval heart, where historical landmarks clearly demonstrate why the city has a place on UNESCO’s list of the twelve most important historical sites in the world. Within Krakow all roads lead to the vast Rynek Glowyn Square - the immense central plaza that has always been the hub of the city’s life. On the Communism Tour, the driver of our Trabant (a highly ineffective and thoroughly polluting communist era car) is a blonde dreadlocked student, whilst another student guides us through the old Jewish quarter and Schindlers’ factory. This generation can remember the food queues and the limited menus of pickled herring and sardines, and understandably have taken to capitalism with the enthusiasm that a drowning man has for dry land. Whilst they perform their roles as guides pleasantly and effectively, you feel that the constant reminders of the repressive past - particularly that era when Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia combined to squeeze the life out of the country-have brought them to the point of exhaustion with the cities past. They’d far rather discuss Lady Gaga’s music, opportunities for jobs in e-commerce in the West, fashion and the latest Hollywood blockbusters (of which they’re highly knowledgeable). On the plane over, the Polish girl sitting next to me who was studying in London, simply could not understand why we would bother with Krakow. This rejection of a harsh past and its’ reminders will no doubt find another level as the years pass, but right now is most succinctly summed up by a statue in the railway station. The statue is an old Jewish refugee with battered suitcases, that symbol of Polands past, and clearly was a reminder too far for someone who had inscribed the Nike logo on the sides of his boots.
Church of the Virgin Mary, Krakow - photo Hector Christie
Sometimes abroad, you can feel that tours are cobbled together out of flimsy ingredients, for tourism’s sake alone, and aren’t worth the effort. Not so in Krakow and the Salt Mine at Weiliczka is perhaps the greatest example of a reason to surrender to just being a guided tourist. Thirty five metres underground, on nine levels, it forms an underground town with chapels, lakes, sculptures, representations of religious themes such as the Last Supper, and even functioning chandeliers hewn out of the crystalline salt rock. Visited by 1 million tourists per year it deserves the comment that it is,” no less magnificent than the Egyptian pyramids”.
Salt Mines, Krakow - photo Hector Christie
We visited in October and caught an unseasonably warm few days. Nevertheless as we were leaving, the weather was on the turn and it was apparent to me that at heart Krakow is a winter city. The chilly winds that whipped down our street and snapped at our heels as we prepared to leave, gave clues that this was a city used to life in the freezer. This climate and the history of adversity combine to give it, what to me, is its greatest living legacy - its’ extraordinary café society.
There are over 300 cafes and bars in the centre of old Krakow alone. This is a café culture resplendent in any season, but one suspects, really coming into its own in winter when one can imagine the steamy windows, echoing back the din of long, loud conversations and people hovering in the candlelit gloom for hours finding sanctuary and the warmth of companionship away from the frozen streets. It is not so long ago that this underground society was exactly that, i.e. a place where people met and railed against the stultifying system that ruled their lives, and although many of the premises are cellar like or are housed in the vaults of former great houses or halls, many of those at street level also espouse the same twilight-like gloom. Krakow remains one of the few places where you can have a candlelight breakfast!
Street art, Krakow - photo Hector Christie
Talking of breakfast evokes my fondest memory of this city, which is no mean feat as there’s more interest here than in several larger cities put together.. The Café Prowincja stands in ul Bracka,one of the most charming streets in Krakow Old Town and it’s here that the best hot chocolate is to be found,i.e. if you like it the colour of a melted choc bar and a consistency that allows the spoon to stand up in the cup. The café is popular for this reason and is famous for its split level seating and cosy upstairs minstrel’s gallery. It kicks off the day with a great breakfast, and follows through with lunches, its signature dish being a broccoli quiche. My near addiction to its lemon pie, I now recognise as a microcosm of my attitude towards the city as a whole. One downside of this, new, relaxed Krakow is that it is now on the hen/stag party circuit. Though as yet this isn’t very conspicuous this might change, so if you intend to visit perhaps you shouldn’t delay too long.
How to get there.
A variety of low cost carriers including easyJet and Ryanair depart from a number of UK airports, as do traditional airlines such as KLM, Aer Lingus and Lufthansa. Costs vary and can be accessed through the websites of those airlines, e.g. www.ryanair.com or www.easyjet.com
The long Christmas in Krakow. Officially begins at commencement of December, and the glitter and carols continue till the end of January.
Midsummer Festival of Garlands on the first Saturday after June 24th.
Lajkonic Parade on the next Thursday after Corpus Christi feast.