Travel July 2002

The Jewel of Poland

Once again, many-faceted Kraków sparkles

"It's almost impossible to get anything done in this city," a friend who had joined me at my outdoor table remarked as we observed the passing scene. "You can't get from one side of town to the other without encountering someone along the way, being drawn into a café, and passing hours at a time in conversation. Maybe that's why this is such a great town for poets. I can't imagine trying to write a novel here, what with all the interruptions, but the pace of life is perfect for poetry."

Kraków is a great town for poets—arguably the greatest in the world on a per capita basis. With Czeslaw Milosz's recent return from Berkeley, the town now claims two Nobel laureates, the other being the incomparable Wislawa Szymborska. Adam Zagajewski, who is probably the leading poet of the successor generation, is returning too, from his exile in Paris. Tomas Venclova, the great Lithuanian poet (perennially shortlisted for the Nobel), recently bought an apartment here. Dozens of poets of slightly lesser rank call Kraków home, and every three years premier poets from throughout the world converge for one of the most engaging poetry festivals going (the next one is slated for September of 2003).

But then, Kraków is a town of composers and musicians, too. It's the site of an annual Easter Beethoven Festival, featuring some of the world's foremost performers. Krzysztof Penderecki (who often conducts the local philharmonic) lives here, as did the late Witold Lutoslawski, and Henryk Gorecki hails from just down the road, in Katowice. And Kraków is a town of art—with, to cite just a couple of my favorites, the Czartoryski collection, an exquisite Frick-scale trove featuring one of Leonardo da Vinci's most meltingly empathic portraits, Lady With an Ermine; and a museum entirely given over to the legacy of the early modernist playwright and Art Nouveau painter Stanislaw Wyspianski (make time to see, as well, his luminous stained-glass windows in the nearby Franciscan Church). And there's always something fresh and bracing and worth checking out on the theater and cabaret scene.

From the archives:

"Trieste Elegies" (June 2002)
Enigma and nostalgia on the edge of Italy, at the heart of Europe. By John Donatich

"Not bad for a small garrison town" is how the ninety-one-year-old Milosz had parsed matters for me the previous afternoon, a gleam in his eye. He was referring to Kraków's Austro-Hungarian incarnation, and indeed, one still encounters a good deal of dreamy nostalgia for that Hapsburg era among Krakovians today. For instance, Robert Maklowicz, a youngish, impish, and quite celebrated local gourmet and flaneur, universally referred to as Bobek, who soon joined my friend and me at that table in the Market Square, began rhapsodizing: "Right over there, at the Secession Restaurant, it used to be you could sample oysters plucked out of the Dalmatian Coast that very morning—lobsters, scampi, fresh that very day!" When was this? "Before the War ... 1912." And just exactly how old was he now? "Thirty-seven." Unfazed, he resumed: "We're at the same distance here from the Adriatic as we are from the Baltic," he claimed, a bit hyperbolically, "and in those days train service was twice as fast to Trieste as it was to Danzig. But then the borders went up—and I still don't understand why, what was wrong with the old way?—and suddenly all you could get was cod. Cod, cod, cod."

His eyes misted over, much to the amusement of my table companion. "There used to be eight trains a day to Vienna—five of them express," Bobek continued. "Vienna is as close as Warsaw. You could go for an evening to the opera—many people did—and catch the night train home. And to this day, traveling south from Kraków, I am at home everywhere. Which is because here we are in Central Europe. Thirty kilometers north of here"—the demarcation line of the old partition—"Eastern Europe begins."

To Bobek's mind, the great thing about Hapsburg Kraków was its cosmopolitanism, a throwback to the city's Jagiellonian heyday, in the fifteenth century. And at his urging, later that afternoon I took a walk through Kazimierz, the old Jewish section—a hollow shell, to be sure, of its former self. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg chose the district for the location shoot of Schindler's List, and ever since, there has been a huge surge of interest in all things Jewish among Poland's urban young (perhaps not unlike the American hippie romance with all things Native American a generation ago). The heart of the Kazimierz district, around ul. Szeroka, has been thoroughly revivified; it has several synagogues, some dating back to Gothic times; a medieval cemetery; bookstores and restaurants specializing in Jewish fare (check out the cozy, leafy comforts of Ariel's); and, toward the end of every June, a world-class and singularly unkitschy international Jewish Cultural Festival, featuring everything from klezmer jazz to contemporary arts and Yiddish theater, the product of the tireless efforts of a young local promoter, a goyische schnorrer by the name of Janusz Makuch.

Come nightfall these days, and around its edges, Kazimierz also plays host to a remarkable bar scene: dark, labyrinthine haunts with names like Alchemia, Propaganda, Habana, and Singer, packed to the rafters with young patrons, mainly students, embroiled in passionate disputations, often till near dawn. "What I love about this town," a local editor told me, gazing out over the crowd late that evening at Alchemia, "is this combination of youth and tradition." A graduate student nearby concurred, saying, "This is a town for students and old people. In fact, it would be best for you if upon graduation you could just turn seventy; otherwise, there's not much for you."

Soon the diminutive Bobek arrived, flanked by his sidekick Bikont, a veritable mountain of a man: clearly a fellow of gargantuan appetites. They had just come from a meeting of the self-styled Galician Academy of Taste, whose members, all men ("macho sybarites" is how I heard them characterized the next day by a less than charmed female critic), convene annually to nominate finalists for their coveted Golden Jackdaw award—the restaurants, that is, of the year. (The group would reconvene a few weeks later to settle on a winner, after having thoroughly refamiliarized themselves with the offerings of the various finalists. A tough job, but somebody has to nominate himself to do it.) This year's finalists turned out to include my hotel's restaurant, also called Copernicus, which specializes in so-called nouvelle traditional Polish cuisine; Pod Roza; Guliwer; and Jarema, an elegantly cozy place where I happened to have fetched up the evening before. (I can't commend highly enough Jarema's traditional eastern-Polish fare: venison, quail, meat in aspic, trout, an uncanny beet dish, and an improbably refreshing bread beer.) At any rate, conversation around the table turned to epicurean standards, and everybody had an opinion—including a student who leaned over, protested that all these places were well outside any student's budget, and recommended U Stasi, an Old Town pierogi dive that starts ladling out its superlative dumplings at around noon and continues, or so the sign in the window informs patrons, "until we run out."

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