Posted on January 14, 2011
We just wrapped up two days in Krakow, a wonderful medieval city that remains the cultural and intellectual capital of Poland. Everything revolves around the Old Town and it’s Main Market Square, going back to the 13th Century. The square, like almost of the old town, is lovingly restored and prosperous (especially if a Hard Rock Cafe is one sign, albeit a sad one, of prosperity).
Indeed, Poland seems to have raced ahead of Hungary since the 1989 end of Communist rule. Outside the old town, there is still a mix of Soviet style housing blocks and old industrial neighborhoods and rundown sections, but the city has a more western buzz and seems to be quickly modernizing. Indeed, the old town can feel a little to polished, too Disneyesque.
Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter, is more a work in progress. Rediscovered since Schindler’s List, it is increasingly visited by tourists, but is still messy and unkempt. It feels more Budapest than Krakow in that sense. Schindler’s original factory, in the middle of a nearby industrial area, has been converted into a new and wonderful museum about him, Jewish life in Krakow, and the great evilness of the Nazi occupation. More on this a bit later.
Our little six room hotel was situated between Kazimierz and the Old Town, a ten minute walk in either direction. Run by the same family that owns our countryside castle, it had a similar homey and welcome feel. The folks at the castle had called ahead to let them know Em needed an converter to plug in her computer and they had one ready for her arrival. Now that is thoughtful.
After two nights of good, solid (you might even say stolid) Polish cooking, we were ready for something a bit different. We found a little Italian place outside the old town, De Cesare, a red check tablecloth kind of place with a chef from Calabria who would be a star if he cooked in the US. Whole trout cooked in foil with rosemary, a simple pasta in oil with a killer hot chili sauce, fabulous soups, a simple but perfectly executed bruschetta. Only two choices of house wine by the carafe. Three hours later we paid our $35 bill (for four!) and happily waddled home.
Italian cooking dominates central Europe, certainly in every place we have visited. In Krakow, the most common new and popular restaurant does both Polish and Italian. The choices after that trail off quickly. In that sense, Krakow feels less cosmopolitan than the other places we have visited, despite it’s popularity as a travel destination. In Budapest we had excellent Indian. Prague has Vietnamese. Krakow? Not so much choice. Maybe because Poland is so Catholic (remember that Pope John Paul was Bishop of Krakow before becoming Pope, a source of enormous pride for all Poles and for Krakow in particular), but it feels more conservative. Maybe it is the large number of priests and nuns we saw. It closes down earlier. With a huge number of university students, there must be a younger, later scene that we did not seek out, but the core of the city gets quiet much earlier than what we saw in Vienna, Salzburg, or Budapest.
Indeed, it is a spectacular place to visit if a Catholic. Grand churches sometimes sit three in a row next to each other. St. Francis Bascilica was a favorite for us for its Art Noveau stained glass done by master Stanislaw Wyspianski, especially for his amazing depiction of God, inspired by Michaelangelo, but using a beggar for his model. At the very rear of the dark church, as far from the alter as you can be and commemorated with a small silver plaque, is the pew where John Paul prayed when he was Archbishop and lived across the street. There was something genuinely humble about the spot.
Another favorite church was St Mary’s on the square. The tall spire is manned by a fireman, 24hours a day, who blows a bugle on the hour. But he never finishes because legend has it that a bugler saved the city from an approaching Ottoman army, but half way through his alarm an arrow pierced his throat,so his successors honor his sacrifice by ending their tune part way through. I just love these traditions and the lore upon which they are based. Sacrificial buglers aside, the church also has one of the most magnificent wooden altarpieces, completed in 1489 and very modern in feeling because of the expressive faces of the carved wooden figures.
We visited Wawel Hill, site of Wawel Cathedral and the Castle, the former being Poland’s Westminster Abby and its most visited tourist site. It is probably the most important historic site in the country, the place where Poland’s rulers were crowned and buried. Its sections run from the 12th C. to the 19th C (and yet it all coheres in a surprising way) and it includes some 20 chapels, many of them holding the tombs of Poland’s greatest leaders. Imagine a grand cathedral holding tombs for Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy — all under one roof. The castle grounds are pleasant and hold a host of other buildings and in one of the odder bits, one nondescript corner of one courtyard is a Hindu chakra point.
A what? Hindus believe there are seven chakra points in the world (Rome, Delhi, Delphi, Jerusalem, Mecca, Velehrad…..and wait for it…..Wawel Hill, specifically this one corner) where a powerful energy field connects all beings. The local officials are sort of put out by this idea and put up announcement boards and the like to dissuade visitors, but you can see the clear smudge on the wall where people put their hands or foreheads. Of course, we had to make the connection. Not sure it helped, but I do have to say my sore feet felt better….hmmmm.
In many ways, as great as all these sites are in these various cities, the best part of most days is just walking cobblestoned streets and alleys, taking in the sights, looking into shops that look like they could be 200 years old, and taking breaks in lovely little cafes (why, oh why, can’t we have cafes like the ones that seem on every block in these cities?). This is hardly a revelation to anyone who has traveled to Europe, but we were reminded again about the appeal of cultures that value conversation, lengthy dinners, not rushing off to the next thing. No waiter rushes to you with a bill, hastening to turn over the table, assuming instead that you will want to sit for a while after dessert and just talk and enjoy each other’s company. We all know American culture is too frenetic and sacrifices some of life’s simple pleasures. These last two weeks reminded us of how much we really do give up.