There’s a Hard Rock Cafe right on Rynek, the main square in Krakow, which includes David Bowie memorabilia (a signed album cover). The late, great (and ever reinventing himself) superstar would have been proud of the changes that have come Krakow’s way.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago when I first visited the city, there was of course no such cafe on Rynek. Indeed there were many fewer cafes. And fewer bank machines. And fewer (decent) toilets. Fewer of everything. Life wasn’t the easiest for cosseted Western tourists.
Now, things are different. They used to say every other building in Krakow is a church. Now, I’d say it’s an eatery. The number of restaurants in the city is just incredible – many freshly, tastefully renovated – a modern flourish here, a retro look there.
The service in such places – and other facets of life – has improved almost beyond recognition. In Polska Dotty, I railed against the poor customer service I commonly encountered in restaurants, as well as shops, banks and elsewhere. Now, the approach is generally a friendly one. An example is in restaurants, where invariably our family needs to order dishes with a twist. Could we have carbonara without the Parmesan (for our youngest)? Pierogi without the onion (for our eldest)? I usually end the conversation with an apology, in my pidgin Polish, for the complexity. “That’s not a problem at all”, the waitress usually responds, with a winsome smile. Maybe they like my Polish.
Modern tourist information offices abound seemingly on every street corner, peopled by willing young folk with excellent English.
Bank machines line up like soldiers. Back in the day, if the one machine on Rynek was out of service (which it frequently was) and the banks were closed, you really were in a predicament to get to your money. Few establishments accepted cards.
Even more museums have taken root – Krakow was always in the lead in this regard in Poland – including the impressive and unique exploration of history under the market square, and the equally avant-garde Galicia Jewish Museum in the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, which studies the history of the Jews in Poland in a new way (see my blog “Jewish Krakow – Part II”, 31 August 2016).
And on and on. I see two types of change in Krakow. The new museums and arts festivals, the constant (and tasteful) renovation of the city – stunning new squares, modern statues – Krakow has been doing well for at least as long as I’ve been visiting. The Poles have this spirit and creativity within them. But the added comforts and conveniences – these seem to me to have been parachuted in, no doubt on the wing of commercialism.
That’s good and bad of course. Around the main squares in Rynek and Kazimierz, you can hardly pass by for being accosted by those wanting to whisk you on a prosaic golf buggy tour of the city. And the incorrigible stag party made its way to Krakow, though seems recently to have departed, in search of other victim cities.
For the most part, though, the combination of new and old is a winning one. As for the old, it’s good to see some things never change. Hawelka restaurant continues to offer lovely, reasonably priced food – classically presented. Chopin concerts are offered daily, in handsome old concert rooms. The three graces in Rynek – Mariacki church, the Sukiennice cloth-hall, and the town hall tower – all look resplendent this year, apparently newly-renovated.
And don’t forget our favourites, the Old Metropolitan Jazz Band, who can be heard many an evening playing gratis at Ratuszowa – the town hall cafe. Here only three days, we’ve already taken them in twice, including the inimitable banjo player whose instrument appears to play him, and the trombonist who stares balefully at the audience in between solos. We overheard an audience member joke they’ve been playing together for half a century. I’m not sure about that, but long may they continue. After all, change is constant…
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