On my first visit to Krakow 12 years ago, I was struck by the magnificent riot of its churches. Every religious order, so it seemed, had set up shop here, and few had found reason to leave. Towers and spires pierced the skyline. Benedictine, Franciscan and Dominican priests emerged from portals Romanesque, Gothic and baroque, to stroll down the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, greeting members of their congregation by name.
The gaps between the churches spiritual had been plugged by palaces temporal, scarcely less commanding when studied individually, yet collectively blending into the 1,000 year-old architectural potpourri that was, to its inhabitants, simply Krakow.
As Warsaw prepares to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of her most famous son, Frédéric Chopin, this year, Poland’s former capital and most beautiful city, some two-and-a-half hours away by train, looks on serenely, secure in her superiority.
I was relieved to find that little had changed. No international hotel chains have arrived to colonise the former homes of nuns or Polish nobles; restaurants, bar a few notable exceptions, still serve the kind of hearty food whose fatty insulation might have fuelled Napoleon’s army on its march through Russia.
Satirical cabaret venues lurk in underground spaces, throwbacks to the days of resistance to foreign domination. Frumpy shops outnumber the occasional boutique stocked with fashionable European and Polish designers – the latter secreted in a mini-mall lest they disturb the aura of a bygone age.
Lacking the sophistication of Vienna or the mushroom-growth tourism of Prague, yet with elements of both cities, Krakow is one of central Europe’s least-known treasures.
As a base of Nazi command in the Second World War, it was spared the wholesale destruction that befell Warsaw, and remains the cultural and intellectual heart of Poland. The Collegium Maius, where Copernicus studied astronomy, still stands, housing, among its treasures, Chopin’s piano. The Pod Roza hotel, where Franz Liszt, Balzac and Tsar Alexander II reputedly lodged, continues to welcome guests.
One can wander dreamily through the traffic-free, medieval streets to see the house where Bishop Karol Wojtyla (the late Pope John Paul II) lived on Kanonicza Street; or view the swirling art nouveau decorations of Stanislaw Wyspianski, which survive to astonish still, within the Gothic confines of the Franciscan church.
Krakow’s glory radiates from Market Square like rays from a misshapen sun. But the cobbles of Rynek Glowny, as it is otherwise known, were glazed with ice, transforming Europe’s largest square into a skating rink. I skidded into the wooded warmth of Wedel for a cup of near-solid hot chocolate laced with rum, negotiating with difficulty the agglomeration of consonants on the menu.
Impossible fricatives exploded around me in steaming conversation. I read (in English) about the Renaissance magician, Master Tordowski, who lived beneath the statue of St Giovanni Capistrano and who, in a Faustian echo, hocked his soul to the devil.
Pre-dating a numbering system, the palaces fringing the square – now shops, restaurants and galleries – are still romantically identified by the elaborate carvings above their portals: the House beneath the Eagle, beneath the Rams, beneath the Evangelist. I looked out at people huddling around stalls selling pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and mead, buying fur hats, woolly socks and Baltic amber, as fat snowflakes fell around the turreted arcades of the Cloth Hall, to the sound of an interrupted bugle call issuing from the cardinal points of St Mary’s Gothic spire. As late winter scenes go, it was perfect.
Yet there is a melancholy to Krakow’s beauty, which seems to mourn her glory days. From the 13th century to the fall of Communism in 1989, successive invasions, partitions and occupations have weighed on the national consciousness. Tableaux of the 19th-century Jan Matejko, one of Poland’s best-known artists and local resident, speak of heroic battles or the treachery of Poland’s last king, Stanislaw Poniatowski, who forfeited Poland’s independence.
Every statue and sepulchral effigy proclaims saints and martyrs. Patriotic fervour can be overwhelming. Within hours of arriving I learnt, in some detail, how Jan Sobiecki had defeated the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna, and of Jozef Pilsudski’s triumph over the Red Army in the Miracle at the Vistula “saving all of Europe from Turks and Bolsheviks,” added my guide
Both heroes now rest atop Wawel Hill, in the cathedral built by Wladislaw the Elbow-high to house the bones of St Stanislaw – an outspoken bishop murdered in church, like Thomas à Becket a century later, by an enraged king. Together with the neighbouring castle, until 1609 the residence of kings, the cathedral’s stylistic medley of chapels and breathtaking monuments offers the most pleasurable crash-course in Poland’s rich history.
In stark contrast to this resplendently Catholic Krakow is the modest Jewish district of Kazimierz, in a nook of the Vistula River. Once a thriving community, the wartime fate of Krakow’s Jews is well-known, familiar to many through Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List. As the residents of Kazimierz were forced across the Vistula into the ghetto of Podgorze, and thence to the horrors of Auschwitz, an hour’s journey thence through an innocent Breughel landscape, Kazimierz became a ghost town. Its small houses fell into ruin, its synagogues pillaged.
You don’t hear much about this episode in Krakow today. Instead, strolling the narrow streets, I discovered a delightful quarter of colourful buildings centred on Serozka Street, filled with kitsch kosher restaurants of questionable authenticity, the original ritual baths transformed into the characterful Klezmer-Hois, cosy bars such as Alchemia recreating the original through-the-cupboard hiding places of less happy times.
Restored largely in response to interest ignited by Spielberg’s film, Kazimierz has become a trendy haunt of the young, buzzing with nightlife. But of the 60,000 pre-war Jews, a mere 250, according to official records, remain. Only the silent synagogues bear witness to the past.
Krakow’s countryside provided the perfect antidote to an excess of pathos and hot chocolate. Ojcow National Park lies some 15 miles from Krakow, an upland of Jurassic limestone caves and crags teetering in extraordinary formations above Pradnik Valley. Walks through the padded beech forests, exploring the ruins of 14th-century castle-eyries at the southern end of the so-called Eagles’ Nests Trail of fortifications, banished any residual cobwebs.
“Be it for nothing other than the true beauty of Ojcow,” rhapsodised Chopin on his visit here in 1829, “it was worth getting soaked”. I would have to agree. Frozen to the bone in the still-falling snow, I retired to the beautifully restored wing of nearby Korzkiew Castle, for a night spent thawing in baronial splendour, before a roaring fire.
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