After a full week in Zakopane and the Tatra (see my previous blog), it was time for Krakow to shine in week 2 of our holiday. Would it deliver? The answer was never in doubt, of course – but there have been real surprises along the way.
We hadn’t been back for 2 years, for one reason or another. That made that first walk onto the vast expanse of Rynek – the largest mediaeval square in Europe, 200m x 200m – all the more impactful. In recent years, everything seemed to be shrouded in scaffolding, but now the Mariacki church and Sukiennice cloth-hall and Wawel castle are all fully spruced up – and a great site they make. Most impressive of all is the Czartoryski museum: what a job they’ve done on its yellow facade. I love the way the mortar sticks decoratively out from the brick. Just a shame it’s still closed!
I said surprises. Early on in our stay, we got talking with a shop-owner in Sukiennice who has been running his business for exactly the time I’ve been coming to Krakow: 20 years. A good investment, I suggested. Yes and no, he replied. Yes in the beginning. But in recent years there’s been a downturn. So many people come into the shop, pick things up, put them back again, smile, and leave. People don’t have money, he complains. He seems a genuinely nice chap – particularly good with children, and I feel sympathetic. I’ve been buying the place up ever since. I’ve got more fridge magnets than you could shake a stick at (I’ve got sticks, too).
Is Krakow experiencing a downturn? Marzena’s and my early experiences seemed to tell us, Yes. Fewer people on the square (though it takes a lot to fill that square). Certainly fewer stag do’s, including the cussed English ones (thank God they seem to have moved on: pity the “New Krakow”, wherever that is). And less dorozki horses and carriages on Rynek.
But then a Krakowian friend of ours who we met here told us she encounters more foreigners than ever when travelling by tram, and stag do’s (and equally noisy hen ones) are not a thing of the past. I’ve myself visited several museums and attended several concerts this week, and met many, many nationalities: English, Americans, Italians, German, Austrians – and plenty of Norwegians, for some reason. And I have to admit Rynek has filled up again, and the dorozki returned (maybe our impression was skewed by arrival on a Sunday). And yet I instinctively feel something has changed: shopkeepers are more willing to haggle, prices seem generally low. It’s difficult to gauge. I’d be interested to see Krakow’s latest tourist and spend per tourist figures.
I made my usual pilgrimage to the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. I use the term pilgrimate loosely, but being Jewish I do find the remnants of what was a full Jewish community and life in Krakow particularly poignant. Visiting the Schindler museum did nothing to help. It’s really well done – I thoroughly recommend – but begins with old film of Jews in Kazimierz on the eve of WW2. Jews playing chess in the park, talking politics, attending prayer, being educated, perambulating… I visited a 10-20m remnant of the ghetto wall on Ulica Lwowska, and also Plac Bohaterow Getta – Ghetto Hero Square – from where the Jews were shipped off from the ghetto to work and concentration camps. It’s movingly commemorated by multiple metal chairs permanently fixed to the square, a design of 2 Polish artists. The chairs represent what the Jews left behind as they were turfed out of their houses by the Nazis, allowed to take with them only 2 suitcases. In what was the main Jewish square, Ulica Szeroka, I visited the oldest synagogue – appropriately enough named Stara Synagoga or Old Synagogue – now a museum, and before the War the centre of Krakow Jewish life. It’s beautiful inside, but what most struck me is that none of the artefacts on display belonged to the synagogue. They were ransacked by the Nazis who used the synagogue as a warehouse. What’s on display is whatever could be gathered from pre-War Jewish life around Poland after similar ransacking all over the country. This incongruity somehow upset me.
Walking along Szeroka we ran the gauntlet of the Jewish-themed restaurants. Admittedly, it was a rainy day, but they seemed desperate for our business. Evidence of economic woes? We ate a tasty lunch at the original such restaurant – Ariel. The waiter inviting us in impressed: he had a patois in almost every language to woo customers, including, vitally, Norwegian. We ate Jewish food, and eyed the ubiquitous wooden-carved Jewish figures for sale. I’m not one for criticising this commercialisation of the Jewish past in Krakow. As long as it’s done tastefully, which it generally is. Walk 5 minutes up the road, as I did, and in the “new” Jewish cemetery you’ll see where Polish conservation students have restored many headstones, funded amongst other organisations by the local Polish authority. It’s a mix of remembrance in Kazimierz, but money is needed.
We hired bikes from the ever obliging Cruising Krakow on Basztowa and set off for Kopiec Kosciuszko, one of several man made mounds that surround Krakow. I describe them in Polska Dotty as “producing a peculiar effect that has – simultaneously – a natural and artifical air to it”. Being up close and personal does nothing to belie that description. As you climb the road – well, let’s say stagger up the final yardage pushing your youngest’s and your bikes – Kopiec Kosciuszko appears above you like a toy cake. But it’s no toy. It’s actually 35m high, and there are some sharp edges to brave. But the view atop is stunning: Krakow below you on one side, and on the other – I have to say even more beautiful – a landscape of forest and rolling hills. Even the requisite missing signage – this time for the exit – didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. We eventually, somehow, rocked up on the far side of the castle-like edifice that skirts the mound, having walked the wrong way through a waxworks exhibition (but happily avoided the entrance fee).
And finally, a visit to Krakow wouldn’t be complete without… music! At Bonerowski Palace I took in one of the nightly Chopin concerts. A young Polish pianist – Witold Wilczek, 26, but looking to me 16 (am getting old) – gave a virtuoso performance. Through Polonaises, Ballades and Mazurkas, he put so much spirit into it, for fully an hour and a quarter. In contrast, the City of Cracow Orchestra gave a somewhat subdued – and short! – performance. I’d always wanted to attend one of their performances, which take place in the elaborate Baroque St Peter and Paul church. In the end, I spent most of the gig staring at the decoration, and 40-45 minutes later, the concert was over. Check out instead the concerts in Adelbert church, on Rynek. Last time we went, a couple of years ago, the quartet was lively and the concert lasted longer.
But nothing beats for me free jazz at the town hall cafe – Ratusz. On Friday night we got lucky. The Old Metropolitan Band, a swing ensemble puffing since 1968, gave a foot tapping set. They’re kept young by their vivacious singer Ella Kulpa, who mixes traditional delivery with a touch of rap, hand gestures ‘n all. Never has Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho sounded so… happening. That’s what I call fusion – and it works. After the set, I approached the aged band leader, and suggested Ella adds plenty of life to the group. In reply, he winked at me.
So, we’ve received our annual infusion of Krakow life. I know it’s not the typical life of a Krakowian; we are, these days, essentially tourists here – albeit Krakow is my wife’s home town, her family remains here, and I’m no newcomer to the city. But the buildings and history and art and… charm, are real enough to us. We can’t wait to return.