I call this post “Krakow Contradictions”, but actually most of what I have to say about our latest trip to Krakow, from which we have just returned, is positive – more positive than ever. It seems most of the architecture in the city has been spruced up, maybe for the Euro football championship in June/July. In the main square or “Rynek”, the red stonework of Mariacki church and yellow stucco of Sukiennice cloth hall shine particularly brightly. A new bar opened earlier this year on the roof of the Sukiennice from which you get a stunning view of Mariacki opposite. A year ago I peeked through a crack in the door of the ancient Adelbert church, also on Rynek, and saw it was being repainted. This year we took in a concert there by a quartet. Inside the altar was stunning in gold and black, and the rest of the church equally so in a motif of lime green, including the small but high dome, and organ, to be found on a balcony accessed by a romantic, corkscrew staircase.
Elsewhere Wawel Royal Castle also looks regenerated, and any building not so cleaned up is likely to be shrouded in plastic sheeting as it’s worked on (including where we were staying – noise ‘n dust ‘n all – but that’s another story…). The cultural attractions remain as bountiful as ever: as well as classical concerts in churches, there are on every corner Chopin recitals, jazz performances, and galleries. Having not visited for years, we took in the sweeping Matejkos on the first floor of Sukiennice. Matejko, one of Poland’s most famous sons, painted massive canvases of seminal moments in Polish history.
But if you don’t fancy anything that formal, just wander around Rynek. You’ll see be-costumed folk dancers taking part in the International Folk Festival, resplendent in reds whites and blues – mime artists (one was hilarious, following passers-by and mimicking their gait) – stock still street performers, affecting a wink now and then – another defying gravity by apparently sitting on a seat supported only by a stick – even break dancers. Add to that youngsters walking around in cake costumes and the like, to promote this or that coffee shop or restaurant, and of course the ever present Dorozka (horses and carriages) trundling by, and you have a truly vigorous scene.
I mentioned a down side, and it is the economic backdrop that doesn’t impact tourists strolling Rynek for a week. Unemployment is 12%. Two of our friends we met one evening – both social workers – have been made redundant this year. They say it’s virtually impossible to find work. 400 teachers in the city will lose their jobs this month. 3000 newly-built flats stand empty, can’t be sold. Property prices have lost 20% and continue to tumble. I read a lot about investment in Krakow, and it’s the case, but there are also these gathering clouds.
But let’s end on a humorous note. As those of you have read my account of 2 years in Poland – Polska Dotty – will know, cultural differences often produce amusing moments. At the aforementioned concert in Adelbert, inexplicably the four players filed in 15 minutes late, during which time we’d heard noises off. They looked like they’d just had a major bust up. The audience seemed to detect it, and a nervous ripple went round the hall. The quartet then proceeded to rattle through the programme. However, they got away with it because the lead violin was a veritable virtuoso. By the end the audience were rapt and shouting for more. They didn’t get it, of course. I visualised the four musicians in the wings, in a pile on the floor, knocking eight bells out of each other.
A couple of days later I took an early tram to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, to return to a leather shop where I’d spotted a briefcase I needed for work. I made the mistake of going on my own, as my wife Marzena prepared the kids for a train ride out of town to meet her family: I’d meet them at Krakow Central later that morning. Instead of going 3 stops on a tram and then walking for 5 minutes – as I later discovered would have been the quickest route – advised by someone I asked on the street, I embarked on an 11 stop marathon which would apparently deposit me outside the leather shop itself. After a while, deprived of sleep by the workers renovating our building from the early hours – I drifted into light sleep. A clunk awoke me, and I opened my eyes to find myself crossing the mighty Vistula on a high bridge and heading out of town. My heart skipped a beat. I had visions of arriving to po-faced guards at the Ukrainian border in The Tram That Got Away. As if things couldn’t get any worse, at that moment the gent in the seat in front of me jumped up, announced he was a ticket inspector, and demanded tickets. They do this in Poland, plain clothes assassins. Fortunately I had mine, but it didn’t exactly calm the nerves. The tram continued on its merry way, and then took a left and another left, and before I knew it I was returning to the centre over the adjacent bridge, to be dropped at the leather shop. So, never mind, I just had time to make my purchase. Except the shop didn’t open til 10 am, at which time I’d be on a train out of Krakow with my wife and kids, en route to visiting the family …I walked the mile or two to Krakow Central to meet Marzena, nervous the next tram I took might really make it to Ukraine.