Krakow Time­less el­e­gance; a mod­ern recre­ation

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The his­tory! The cul­ture! The cafés and clubs! Hanny Wahyuni re­ports from the charmed city of Krakow, Poland’s sec­ond-largest metropo­lis, home to nu­mer­ous No­bel-win­ning writ­ers and the city where the late Pope John Paul II grew up and where his right­eous trail be­gan.

‘So tell me, Hanny, why Krakow?’ If I had a dime for ev­ery time some­one asked me that, I could have paid my re­turn flight from Dubai, and prob­a­bly had some money left over. Krakow’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for fash­ion and the arts, its lively nightlife, rich his­tory and cul­ture, and flour­ish­ing econ­omy make it one of Eu­rope’s top travel des­ti­na­tions. A city of ma­jes­tic ar­chi­tec­tural mon­u­ments, cob­bled thor­ough­fares, cul­tural trea­sures, time­less court­yards and price­less art­works, Krakow’s his­toric cen­tre is the pride of Poland. As it is, to­day’s Krakow can of­fer any of the glob­al­ized com­modi­ties the mod­ern tourist might want, while still main­tain­ing its unique char­ac­ter as Poland’s cul­tural cen­tre. The city on the Vis­tula, an ox-bowed river of great beauty, which was Poland’s cap­i­tal for five cen­turies, in­cludes a quar­ter of Poland’s mu­seum re­sources. A trip to Krakow is an en­counter with the most splen­did mo­ments in his­tory. Krakow’s Old City, along with Wavel Hill and the district of Kaz­imierz, was en­tered into the UNESCO World Her­itage List in 1978. It is worth men­tion­ing that this pres­ti­gious sta­tus has been given to as few as 12 other sites in the world, in­clud­ing the Egyp­tian pyra­mids and the Great Wall of China. Krakow wears its me­dieval rai­ment with­out fuss or com­pli­ca­tion, as a woman would strap on jewels and fur although she’s only step­ping out for a quart of milk. This feisty lit­tle town of 800,000 def­i­nitely has the stuff: Eu­rope’s largest and ar­guably most gra­cious me­dieval square, the Rynek Glówny; Eu­rope’s largest Gothic al­tar, by Veit Stoss; the 300-foot-long neo-Byzan­tine Suki­en­nice, the Cloth Hall mar­ket; the ser­ried Pi­ast and Jagiel­lonian kings snug in their heavy stone sar­cophagi un­der Wawel Cathe­dral on the 15-acre Wawel Royal Cas­tle hill. Krakow’s in­fa­mous Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion and the grind­ing decades of Com­mu­nist rule couldn’t elim­i­nate all the pat­ri­mony. The Nazis un­wit­tingly pre­served the city when they chose it as the cap­i­tal of the Gen­eral Gov­ern­ment in 1939, mean­ing they didn’t bomb it as they over­ran Poland. It is ex­tra­or­di­nary that the city was like­wise not bombed to smithereens by the RAF or the US Air Force after March 1944, when they con­trolled Euro­pean skies, con­sid­er­ing Krakow was a cru­cial lo­gis­ti­cal hub for the Nazis. In Jan­uary 1945, the city was spared once again as the Rus­sians har­ried the Nazis out with lit­tle re­sis­tance – mean­ing, with­out the Nazis blow­ing it up and with­out the trade­mark Soviet ar­tillery stomp­ing.

Three times is the charm!

By def­i­ni­tion, any walk in or around the cen­tre of Krakow be­comes a pil­grim­age through me­dieval his­tory. So, de­spite plenty of ques­tions, I fi­nally stepped out from Krakow-Glowny, the main train sta­tion, ready to ex­plore the city in spite of the freez­ing win­ter weather. Stay­ing in the Stare Mi­asto area al­lowed me im­me­di­ately to dis­cover the gor­geous city at its best. Guide­books list more than 300 places to raise a glass or sip a cof­fee in the Old City alone, where book­shops are al­most as nu­mer­ous as shoes stores and cloth­ing bou­tiques. Any ex­plo­ration of Krakow’s Old Town should start with the Royal Route, the his­tor­i­cal corona­tion path of the Pol­ish kings when the city served as the royal cap­i­tal from the 14th cen­tury to the end of the 16th cen­tury. Most of the Old Town’s prime sights lay along this route from Flo­ri­an­ska Gate to Wawel Cas­tle. A fire­man with a brass trum­pet had just blown the hourly call from the bel­fry that tow­ers above the red-brick walls of the Basil­ica of the Vir­gin Mary in Krakow’s main square, Rynek Glówny. As I stood in the largest me­dieval mar­ket square in Cen­tral Eu­rope, I could feel that his­tor­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and per­haps spir­i­tu­ally, the Rynek and Wawel might be the two most im­por­tant sights in the coun­try (no of­fense, War­saw). Krakow’s Rynek is a 10-acre square and func­tions as the city’s so­cial grav­i­ta­tion point, lined with cafes and restau­rants, filled with peo­ple, pi­geons, street per­form­ers, mu­si­cians and horse-drawn car­riages; this square is home to fes­ti­vals, events, con­certs and pa­rades. The buffed and pol­ished 800-year-old square can ac­com­mo­date some 3,000 peo­ple out of doors at the ta­bles of its chock­ablock cafés. The or­nate pas­tel façades of the sur­round­ing build­ings form an op­er­atic back­drop for the hun­dreds of peo­ple hur­ry­ing to work or school or the many shops, or sim­ply to loi­ter in the cafés and bars that line the nar­row streets here. It was set out back in 1257 when the city was founded upon the Magde­burg Law. St. Mary’s Church and the Church of St. Adal­bert had been erected ear­lier, which ex­plains their slant­ing po­si­tion in re­spect to the main mar­ket square. Later, Cloth Hall, town hall and town­houses were built. In Septem­ber 2010, Eu­rope’s largest un­der­ground mu­seum, mea­sur­ing 4,000 square me­tres with a four-me­tre-deep tourist route with a cut­ting-edge mul­ti­me­dia show en­ti­tled “Fol­low­ing the Steps of Krakow’s Euro­pean Iden­tity,” was opened be­neath the square. Tak­ing cen­tre stage on the Rynek is Cloth Hall (Suki­en­nice), built in the 14th cen­tury. It was ef­fec­tively the first shop­ping mall in the world and to this day is still packed with mer­chant stalls sell­ing am­ber, lace, wood­work and as­sorted tourist tat. Feel free to bar­gain as the ven­dors might give you a good price, es­pe­cially if you pay in cash.

Soar­ing into the sky is the re­gal St. Mary’s Basil­ica. It didn’t mat­ter how many times I saw it, the al­tar­piece, stained glass win­dows of the nave and starred ceil­ing of the cathe­dral took my breath away. After spend­ing al­most four hours in the square it was time for me to taste the Krakow del­i­ca­cies and spe­cial­ties on of­fer at the many ex­cel­lent eater­ies and restau­rants in the city. They were lodged in ev­ery avail­able space of the area’s old pala­tial res­i­dences and stately burgher houses – up­stairs, down­stairs, in those vast an­cient cel­lars. No doubt, the ex­quis­ite and pic­turesque pe­riod in­te­ri­ors were a pre­mium. I found a warm, tim­ber-framed, two-level eatery that hap­pened to be one of the most pop­u­lar on the mar­ket square, thanks to a rep­u­ta­tion built on Miche­lin rec­om­men­da­tions, friendly ser­vice and a cosy at­mos­phere. If it weren’t for the tourists and all the clink­ing glasses, I might have thought that I’d ac­tu­ally crashed a Pol­ish wed­ding party. The menu was clas­sic Pol­ish cook­ing done ex­actly the way it was meant to be, with a goose breast to die for and pierogi, com­monly trans­lated as dumplings but in fact closer to ravi­oli, with a va­ri­ety of fillings: pierogi ruskie – filled with potato and cheese; pierogi z miesem – def­i­nitely for meat lovers; and pierogi grzy­bami – filled with mush­rooms. The night was still young and the sparkling vibe in the air made me for­get about the freez­ing weather as I strolled through the area to a lo­cal pub. I heard about a place called Wódka Bar, a small bar lo­cated at Miko­la­jska Street near the Old Mar­ket, which serves Bel­uga vodka, the no­ble Rus­sian vodka with a re­fined, rich taste. Bot­tles of gin and vodka were or­dered, and the night danced by un­til we stum­bled out of the bar be­fore dawn and wan­dered through a war­ren of nar­row lanes, our heels echo­ing on the an­cient cob­ble­stones. I left the bar won­der­ing how long the city could main­tain the pre­car­i­ous bal­ance be­tween lur­ing in out­siders and sup­port­ing its own au­then­tic cul­ture. Prague, swamped by tourists, has seen its lan­guorous beauty trans­formed in many dis­tricts into high kitsch, the re­sult of ef­forts to please vis­i­tors who want Old World charm, cheap beer and Mozart quar­tets. Sleep­ing like a baby, I woke up joy­fully know­ing that more fas­ci­nat­ing sites were wait­ing for me. I de­cided to start my shoe­string jour­ney by vis­it­ing the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The church was erected at the ini­tia­tive of Piotr Skarga and the Sigis­mund III Vasa Foun­da­tion for Je­suits and the crypt be­low the chan­cel in­cludes a sil­ver cof­fin with the re­mains of Piotr Skarga. The church was mod­elled after the Ro­man church of II Gesu and has Poland’s long­est Fou­cault pen­du­lum, mounted be­low the dome, al­low­ing vis­i­tors to per­ceive the earth’s ro­ta­tional move­ment around its axis. The church is guarded by the 12 apos­tles, re­pro­duc­tions of stat­ues from the 18th cen­tury. Next to this pre­cious venue is St. An­drew’s Church, one of the oldest struc­tures in Poland. Thick 1.5-me­tre walls and nar­row win­dows are re­minders of the de­fen­sive func­tion of the build­ing. The small in­te­rior is daz­zling with its Baroque splen­dour, es­pe­cially the boat-like ro­coco plat­form. The trea­sury in­cludes price­less 13th cen­tury relics, a unique mo­saic with the Mother of God from the turn of the 12th and 13th cen­turies and some of Eu­rope’s oldest na­tiv­ity scene fig­ures dat­ing back to the 14th cen­tury. After a few min­utes of walk­ing, I reached the fa­mous Wawel Hill, a cen­tral place of the Vis­tu­lans’ land even be­fore the Pol­ish state emerged. A sym­bol of na­tional pride, hope, self-rule and not least of all fierce pa­tri­o­tism, Wawel of­fers a uniquely Pol­ish ver­sion of the Bri­tish Buck­ing­ham Palace. The cas­tle, re­struc­tured over the cen­turies, is a mix­ture of Ro­manesque, Gothic and Re­nais­sance styles. Vis­i­tors can fol­low two routes around the royal cham­bers, suite and some of the tow­ers. One of the most daz­zling rooms is Par­lia­men­tary Hall, also known as Pod Glowami (Un­der the Heads), for the fa­mous Wawel heads on the ceil­ing cof­fers. It is worth see­ing the crown trea­sury, in­clud­ing the cer­e­mo­nial sword called Szczer­biec. An­other site not to be missed in this huge his­tor­i­cal com­pound is the Cathe­dral. The ma­jes­tic and dark cathe­dral in­te­rior draws vis­i­tors with its royal sar­coph­a­gus, sil­ver con­fes­sion of St. Stanis­laus, late Re­nais­sance stalls and the beau­ti­ful St. Hed­wig Cru­ci­fix. The church hosted 37 royal coro­na­tions and al­most ev­ery Pol­ish king is buried here. I was rec­om­mended by a friend to climb Sigis­mund Tower to see the fa­mous Sigis­mund Bell, weigh­ing 12.7 tons and made from melted can­non bar­rels. It took 10 peo­ple to put the bell in mo­tion and its sound was heard within a 12-kilo­me­tre ra­dius around Krakow. It is per­haps dif­fi­cult for a for­eigner to un­der­stand the depth of Poland’s at­tach­ment to the late Pope John Paul II. To many, in­clud­ing me, his life and work demon­strated an in­cred­i­ble love for mankind and hope for the fu­ture. It wasn’t dif­fi­cult to find traces of Karol Wo­jtyla’s in­flu­ence here – schools, streets and even the Krakow-Bal­ice air­port have been named after him. There are sev­eral mon­u­ments to him in­clud­ing a grand statue across the Wawel Cathe­dral and a bust in the sculpted flow­ers of Jor­dan Park.

Look­ing for an an­swer to what the city’s fu­ture holds, I stopped by Krakow’s mu­seum of con­tem­po­rary art, Bunkier Sz­tuki (Art Bunker), a 1970’s ar­chi­tec­tural catas­tro­phe in poured con­crete that sits near the Old City. With its art schools and huge stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, Krakow ought to be far more in­volved in the avant-garde than it is. Just over a decade out of Com­mu­nism, Poland still has few pri­vate pa­trons will­ing to fund the more ex­per­i­men­tal arts, and artists must in­stead win the ap­proval of state ad­min­is­tra­tors who dis­pense mea­gre grants. An­other his­tor­i­cal site that one shouldn’t miss when in Krakow is Schindler’s fac­tory in Lipowa Street. I watched “Schindler’s List” when I was in high­school and since then I get goose­bumps ev­ery time peo­ple men­tion con­cen­tra­tion camps. To see the his­tory di­rectly is a one-of-a-kind ex­pe­ri­ence. I spent my last day in Krakow by go­ing a cou­ple of blocks south to an­other scenic down­town district, Kaz­imierz, famed for its past Jewish quar­ter and nu­mer­ous eater­ies. Mov­ing fur­ther to the south is the city’s newly es­tab­lished gas­tro­nomic fron­tier in his­toric Pod­gorze town across the Wisla River. Charm­ing. That’s the word to de­scribe this city. The peo­ple are friendly and warm, and you get the best of both worlds, wit­ness­ing the magnificent his­tory of the city and the bustling mod­ern ver­sion of Krakow. Tips are wel­come, yet in Krakow only wait­ers ex­pect ex­tra pay­ment, roughly one tenth above the charged sum, in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of sat­is­fac­tory ser­vice. Leave cash on the ta­ble or round up the bill, say­ing “Raeshty nye chaeba” or “keep the rest.” Sad to leave, I read the com­ments on my In­sta­gram and Face­book from friends ques­tion­ing my de­ci­sion to visit Krakow. I was con­tent that I gave them some­thing to look for­ward to, and for my­self, I man­aged to cross one of my 2015 res­o­lu­tions off my list.

KraKow’s PoPe John Paul II In­ter­na­tional Air­port has con­nect­ing flights from many Euro­pean des­ti­na­tions; sev­eral dis­count airlines, in­clud­ing EasyJet, serve the city from within Europe. In sum­mer, Poland’s LOT air­line flies di­rectly to Krakow from...

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