Hacktreks in Krakow
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.
with excitement the towering St Marys Church. It was standing room only,
with the average age of the congregation probably no more than about
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 couldnt
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 its cloisters in which Poles hawk traditional
souvenirs, which look authentic to the untrained tourist eye but to
their sellers they are, Im 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,
St Florians 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 its own way
brutal statement American cultural imperialism can muster.
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.
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 evenings
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.
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 Krakows most beautiful.
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
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 lateforties
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
With the memory of Auschwitz still fresh I decided to re-trace the steps
of Krakow Jewry back to source. I dont 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 Schindlers 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 arguments sake well 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 wasnt there martial
law? I protested. Didnt 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 werent 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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