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Hacktreks 2

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Hacktreks in Krakow

Philip Seddon

The countryside between Krakow and its airport is green and empty, with handsome houses dotted at generous intervals. Krakow has a Tesco. Following a swift and businesslike checking in at the Wyspianski hotel I arrived, to my awestruck joy, in Rynek Glowny – the main Krakow market square, the largest mediaeval square in Europe.

Krakow Square

I surveyed with excitement the towering St Marys Church. It was standing room only, with the average age of the congregation probably no more than about forty. There was a full service in progress. I sensed at one point that the Lords Prayer was being said and thought it might be a mark of respect to join in until I realised, like a good Anglican (lapsed), that I couldn’t remember the words. Rather than continue with the John Redwood impression I slipped out of the door. The locals probably thought I was drunk.

On to the magnificent Renaissance Cloth Hall. This impressive structure houses a market within it’s cloisters in which Poles hawk ‘traditional’ souvenirs, which look authentic to the untrained tourist eye but to their sellers they are, I’m sure, pap. Still, Poland hopers to kick start its economy through tourism and I did aid the effort a little by purchasing a shot glass emblazoned with the Imperial Polish eagle. Rynek Glowny houses a remarkable collection of architectural feats – in addition to St Marys Church and the Cloth Hall there are the squat domes of St Adalberts Church which huddle modestly in the south eastern corner, and the clock tower, the only remains of the town hall which burned to the ground in 1680. The centrepiece of this beautiful city, Rynek Glowny is surely one of the great accomplishments of western, Christian civilization.

St Florian’s Gate off Rynek Glowny is a splendid sight, and is the only remaining fragment of the thirteenth century city walls. The beautifully symmetrical Barbican beyond it was constructed as part of an early-warning system against attack and was originally accompanied by a moat approximately, I think, where the main Krakow town centre ringroad, Westerplatte, is today. Back through the archway of St Florians Gate on the right, local artists attempt to sell their works. On the left lies McDonalds. The highest example of mediaeval Polish civilization stands almost adjacent to the most eloquent and in it’s own way brutal statement American cultural imperialism can muster.

Back to the hotel. The Wyspianksi was formerly known as the ‘Dom Turysty’ or ‘Tourist Hotel’ in your best James Bond villain falsetto. The Communist era exterior is quite astoundingly ugly but the reception has a professional and very welcoming ambience. The Stalinist feel returns, though, upon ascending the stairs, which are broad enough for a May Day parade, tanks and all. Each floor is populated by ugly chairs and carpets in ‘seventies brown and Red Army khaki. The rooms were however, clean and comfortable and put that shabby hole in Surrey where I had stayed before flying from Gatwick, thoroughly to shame.

The back end of the local evening news in Krakow features volleyball (one of those enthralling sports that women play in their underwear), basketball and ice hockey. I also caught ‘Millionerzy’, compared by a suave Kilroy-Silk type who seemed to pop up everywhere during the evening’s entertainment. Mr and Mrs Sikorski from Zabrze were on 32,000 zloty. On another channel was an imported German soap which was dubbed by a notably unenthusiastic, deadpan baritone male voice, which comically seemed to take on all the parts, including the females.

Krakow comes into its own, like most great European cities, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The Planty (park) provides a semi-rural heart to the city and is surrounded by Westerplatte. Obviously I was seeing this through the eyes of the leisurely traveller, but even Westerplatte is beautiful. At about 8.00am, which is the best time to undertake such a walk, I headed down Kopernika Street, described by many guidebooks as Krakow’s most beautiful.

It is the hub of the tree-lined, well-to-do residential area of Wesola and the sights are well worth seeing. I passed the Jesuit Church and the Church of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns but decided to turn back upon finding the Jagiellion University Botanical Gardens locked and bolted. Never mind.

My visit to Krakow also incorporated Wawel Castle, the renaissance courtyard of which is, along with the Collegium Maius of Jagiellion University, among the architectural wonders of the world. Standing in the centre and viewing the arches in all their majesty, and resplendent in the warm autumn sunshine chilled with the suggestion of eastern winters, one truly feels alive. I thought of those courtyards that evening while viewing the city from the balcony of the Wyspianski at about 11.00pm. There was the tower of St Marys Church peeping over the bare trees of the Planty, the gasoline smell and bustle of traffic and alcohol in the streets below, the cool night air with its particular aromatic qualities and flocks of quarrelsome ducks retreating overhead. What a joyful place.

Krakow is a city of monuments, testament to the political storms it has witnessed and the painfully brief spells of independence it has cherished and grabbed with both hands. The Grunwald Monument in Wesola Square commemorates the Polish victory over the genocidal Teutonic Knights in 1410. Standing immediately next door is an archetypically Stalinist tribute to the Red Army victory over that modern genocidal Teuton, Adolf Hitler, in brutalist concrete blocks. Krakow was and is in every sense, a spectacular prize. I visited the Czartoryski Museum, which brought to mind the tombs of the Polish Kings at Krakow Cathedral next to the castle on Wawel Hill. The exhibits engendered thoughts of the old Poland, before the second world war. The Poland of Pilsudski and the Imperial troops which fought the nascent Soviet Union in 1920; and earlier the Poland battled over by Swedes and Turks; the Poland subjugated by Ubu Roi.

The so-called ‘Art Bunker’, a concrete nod at artistic modernism constructed, in their typically clumsy, clunky way, by the Communists, has been glorified with the title of ‘ugliest building in Krakow’, although I personally think the Hotel Wyspianski gives it a good run for its money. Local youths had daubed the side of the building with graffiti, leaving the pre-1914 Palace of Culture (across the road) alone. In Krakow there is a tremendous reverence for the diverse cultures that have left their mark - with the exception of Communism. Even Emperor Franz Joseph is admired as the city seemed to reach new heights of prosperity under Habsburg auspices – an ironic shot in the eye for the ‘anti-imperialists’.

The forty-odd years following the second world war seem to have been written off as a highly unwelcome interregnum, and there has been a deliberate attempt to brush off the memory of that particular ideology. There is little trace of its presence in the city centre, although I did buy a splendid socialist realist poster in a student bookshop, so at least Communism is useful as decorative kitsch. The closest thing to a living monument is the Nowa Huta Steelworks on the southern outskirts of Krakow, a concern which is now, of course, in steep and possibly terminal decline. Nowa Huta (New Town) was constructed in the late’forties in the aftermath of a plebiscite at which the Poles strongly rejected Communist rule. The plant and adjacent housing estate were thrown up to ‘counter the revisionist social classes’, or in other words, to gerrymander subsequent ballots. However the Communists even managed to mess this up, and from its birth to the present day, the area has been a hotbed of social protest.

Anyway, the Art Bunker was hosting an exhibition of photographs, some of which were of interest if only because one could identify the artist depicted (Beuys, Koons, Magritte); others simply looked like false idol-worship of the floppy haired and pretentious. The collection included a few shots of crap artists like Gilbert and George. The Palace of Culture is in contrast a beautifully constructed building in the best traditions of civic pride and local patriotism, fronted by busts of Polish cultural heroes such as Wyspianski himself, and the national poet Adam Miczkiewicz. Inside an exhibition complimented my earlier trip to Auschwitz – a series of postmodern sculptures by the Krakovian artist Zbigniew Witek presented the holocaust as a unique chamber of horrors. In a strange way the macabre installations were reminiscent of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch.

With the memory of Auschwitz still fresh I decided to re-trace the steps of Krakow Jewry back to source. I don’t know what I expected of the Jewish district of Kazimierz – Orthodox Jews with sidelocks and Homburgs, audible Yiddish folk music…my prior expectations were completely patronizing and ill-judged. When I imagined ordering a bagel I could almost taste the cream cheese and ham. Perhaps all this comes from an innate Anglo-Saxon misunderstanding of Eastern European Jewish culture. Shamefully I paid reverence to the Old Synagogue, but as a landmark reminiscent of Schindler’s List rather than a sacred and holy place. Shortly I encountered Alef, the foremost non-kosher restaurant in Kazimierz, and visited the noted bookshop in the Naz Kazimiersku café. The proprietor told me that Spielberg incorrectly situated the Krakow Ghetto in Kazimierz. The actual historical Ghetto was some fifteen minutes walk to the south across the Vistula, at Podgorize. This was also the site of the Schindler factory and, more distantly, the Plaszow forced labour/transit camp. Unfortunately it was growing dusk and I had been walking since 8.00am. The Ghetto would have to wait until I returned to Krakow.

I was fortunate enough to be driven back to the airport by a man in his late ‘forties who spoke excellent English. To my eternal shame I did not learn his name but for argument’s sake we’ll call him Jan. So what was life like in a Communist state? "Oh, it was not too bad" he shrugged. "Not when compared to places like East Germany or Czechoslovakia." But wasn’t there martial law? I protested. Didn’t General Jaruzelski impose martial law in the early ‘eighties? He frowned to himself. "Well..yes. But it was not too bad." The police were too powerful but "everyone had jobs." There was however still a great deal of antipathy towards Russia – the Red Army invasion that established Communism seems to have been viewed as a continuation of the historic Russian imperialist oppression of the Polish national identity. Strangely Jan gave the Germans much less stick - Poles in Krakow during the war could survive as long as they weren’t Jewish.

It turned out Jan had been a mixture of company lawyer and state manager under the Communists. Now he drove a taxi. To his mind democracy had brought a great deal more freedom (a good thing), particularly for young people. The elderly however had much more to fear, with more crime and generally less security. Jan grumbled that Poland did not seem to produce anything anymore, that tourism was the only growth industry and even that was undergoing something of a recession. He dismissed the Polish football team with a chuckle, labelling them ‘robots’, for their disastrous performance at the World Cup. We discussed the Solidarity Movement. Jan warmed to the fact that it was apparently returning from its existence as a political party to its original incarnation as a campaigning trade union with workers’ interests at heart. The Solidarnosc government of Lech Walesa came in for severe criticism – Walesa had been a ‘bad president’, with ‘no contacts’. Interestingly in Communist days managers of state enterprises had to be adept at building such ‘contacts’ as a source of additional funds. Perhaps Polish political life is still based on this principle. One cannot imagine Britons rating Tony Blair according to the number or quality of his ‘contacts’. Jan reminisced fondly about the Gomulka years, ‘socialism with a human face’ being to him the ideal compromise between freedom and security.

We bade farewell and Jan wondered about me returning to Krakow and possibly getting a job! This is indeed an interesting notion: the cost of living is eminently affordable and only recently I saw a hotel in Southern Poland for sale at £56,000! I will certainly return to Galicia in the coming years. My visit did not incorporate the Wieliczka Salt Mine, nor the beautiful Tatran mountain resort of Zakopane.

© Philip Seddon November 2003

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