The Jewel of Poland

Once again, many-faceted Kraków sparkles

On a brisk, sunny morning this past spring I was back in Kraków, lounging at one of the hundreds of outdoor café tables scattered around the vast medieval Market Square—the largest of its kind in Poland and, reputedly, in all of Europe. Off to the side, from a window in the tower of the part Gothic, part Art Nouveau Saint Mary's Church, the hejnal kicked in: a haunting trumpet solo that is sounded live every hour on the hour by a trumpeter who abruptly cuts himself short in midstrain. This happens in commemoration, it is said, of a thirteenth-century trumpeter, a watchman felled in midclamor when a Tatar arrow pierced his throat. Next the fellow closes the window and opens the next one over, repeating the ritual at the four cardinal points of the compass. A classic gesture from an earlier, romantic Polish era: martyrdom, not just once but four times an hour.

I found myself imagining the guy's view from up there, one of the highest vantages in the city. Kraków constitutes a focal node of history, a place where the great themes converge and knot up and radiate back outward. Over there, for example, about a half mile to the south, the fellow could doubtless see, atop its promontory overlooking the Vistula River, Wawel Castle, home to more than 500 years' worth of Polish kings (and their tombs). Among them was Kazimierz the Great, who in the 1360s founded the Jagiellonian University (one of the oldest in Europe, after those in Bologna and Prague). The university's spires and gabled roofs should in turn be visible to our trumpeter, just to the west of the square. It was also Kazimierz who offered Europe's Jews safe haven during a period of intense persecution, though a century later, following a huge influx of expelled Spanish Jews, his successors relegated Kraków's Jews to the Kazimierz district, farther south and a bit to the east, just beyond Wawel. Likewise visible from up there in the tower, though a bit closer in to the south, is the house where Copernicus lodged in the 1490s, soon after studying at the university. Recently the building was transformed into a hotel, bearing the astronomer's name, which happened to be where I was staying on this trip (ask for the truly splendid Room 301!). Relatively expensive, the place offers a fetching combination of Gothic and hypermodern, with a gleaming blue lap pool slotted into its arched stone cellar.

As the years passed, Wawel remained a sort of shrine to Polish nationhood, especially after 1795, when the country disappeared from the map of Europe altogether, divvied up among three adjacent empires. The Austrians refitted the castle as a provincial garrison. Austria-Hungary's was the mildest of the three occupations, which may have something to do with why the Polish independence fighter Jozef Pilsudski and the exiled Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin both made the town their base in the years leading up to World War I. (Our trumpeter could easily spy their various lodgings scattered about the Old Town.) After the war the two went on to lead their respective regenerated countries, and even briefly went to war with each other, in 1920. Less than two decades later Poland was being divvied up again, this time by Stalin and Hitler, and Hans Frank, the dread Nazi "Butcher of Poland," made Wawel his headquarters; he herded the town's Jews over the river into the Podgorze district, the site of Oskar Schindler's factory and, a bit farther on (though possibly still visible to our trumpeter), the Plaszow concentration camp, in whose factory so many of them were worked to death. And, of course, about forty miles to the west are Auschwitz and Birkenau.

For all the horror of Frank's occupation of Wawel Castle, it was perhaps thanks to his tenure there that Kraków, almost alone among major Polish cities, was spared the wholesale destruction wrought by the retreating Nazis. (Reluctant to smash up his private jewel-box fiefdom, the disbelieving Frank dallied till it was too late.) And so houses here are still occupied by families who have held them for generations, which may explain why after the war Kraków proved to be one of the most difficult areas for Stalin's new Polish Communist overlords to subdue. These leaders decided to punish the recalcitrant bourgeois enclave by erecting, just to its east, an otherwise senselessly sited mammoth industrial town, Nowa Huta, with tens of thousands of New Workers carted in to man its hideously belching Lenin Steelworks.

From the archives:

"The Paradoxical Pope" (May 1980)
"First as Parish priest, then as bishop, and finally as cardinal, Wojtyla learned the subtle art of dealing with the authorities while shepherding his flock through a hostile landscape. The Polish Catholic Church presented a solid block to the outside world." By Kati Marton

The ensuing years would see an ongoing struggle between the Communist authorities and the dynamic new archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyla, for the souls of those workers, a struggle incarnated in the battle to erect a modernist, arclike Church of Our Lady Queen of Poland amid the workers' tenements. It was Wojtyla who at last prevailed, in 1977 (the crucifix spire of the church pierces the horizon to the east), a year before his ascension to the papacy, as John Paul II. A few years after that, and much to the exasperation of the Communists, those model workers from Nowa Huta would prove among the fiercest partisans of the Solidarity movement, even after the imposition of martial law in December of 1981. Indeed, in August of 1988 it was from the Lenin Steelworks that the climactic set of strikes began, under the slogan "What one Lenin started, let another finish off!" And so another did, signaling the death throes of communism in Poland and, within a few months, throughout Eastern Europe and all the way back in Russia itself.

Quite the little panorama.

Down below the tower the Market Square was filling up, as it does just about every day from Easter through late fall—with tourists, yes, but mainly with townspeople, whose sense of time seems to differ from that of their far more driven countrymen up in the capital, Warsaw. With the transition out of communism, Warsaw has bought into capitalism whole—everyone is busy plotting deals, calculating angles, nurturing contacts, making money. Warsaw, Krakovians are fond of saying, is where you should go if you intend to make a living. Kraków is where you should stay if you want to live.

The transition has been particularly felicitous in Kraków. Fifteen years ago, when the country was under martial law, I used to visit the town as a foreign correspondent, and in those days the Market Square was a dispiriting, dispirited place, often choked by a thick industrial haze, the passersby terminally glum, the state-owned shops closing up tight by early nightfall. The collapse of communism shut down some of the most egregiously polluting industrial behemoths, including parts of Nowa Huta—and the air is much clearer. In addition, the transition unleashed entrepreneurial energies, with cafés and bars and shops and beer gardens opening up in seemingly every nook and corner. In summer the square teems, a happily roiling carnival every night till well past two.

"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."

The mood in the bars is wonderfully convivial and welcoming, and since there are so many students, one is likely to find at least a few willing to practice their English. But Americans especially need be forewarned: the places are like machines for turning tobacco leaf into smoke. You literally can't make out the far side of the room, maybe fifteen feet away. One fellow suggested that I break the filter off one of his cigarettes and at least breathe through that: it would doubtless be healthier, he assured me, than breathing the ambient smoke straight.

After an evening in a Kraków bar the best place to spend the next morning may be the salt mines—in particular, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, reputed to have some of the purest air in the world. The guides explain that the caverns' salt walls, with their negative charge, magnetically attract all the positively charged impurities floating in the atmosphere. The mine is about half an hour out of town to the southeast (buses leave often throughout the day from the central station, or you can hire a taxi for the morning). It was in continuous operation for more than seven centuries, during which the miners burrowed deeper and deeper, carving underground chambers out of the thick veins of rock salt in a process that went on till just a few years ago, by which point more than 2,000 chambers on nine levels (ranging from depths of about 210 to about 1,070 feet) were vertically connected by dozens of shafts and horizontally connected by more than 120 miles of corridors. (There's even a thriving overnight health spa on Level Five!)

The mine tours, which leave every half hour or so (English-language versions are scattered throughout the day), begin with a mesmerizing corkscrew descent of 378 steps from the surface to the shallowest level. And though it's all sort of kitschy in a mass-touristy way, then again, it's emphatically not. For one thing, visitors have been touring these mines almost since their inception. Copernicus came through, as did Goethe and Pilsudski and John Paul II—their visits memorialized by stout likenesses carved out of salt. The sculptures and all the other detailing (intricate bas-relief renditions of Leonardo's Last Supper and other paintings) are the creation of generation upon generation of miners. In addition, there are heartrending dioramas illustrating the sheer labor, and the dangers and the ingenuity, involved in excavating the treasured rock—showing, for instance, the way workhorses were winched down steep shafts, never to see the light of day again.

Our tour burrowed past poignant chapels and chandelier-decked pavilions (sites of glittering midnight balls during the Hapsburg era) and vast networks of drainage sluices and cart tracks. There were crystal-clear underground lakes so mineral-saturated that they cannot absorb another gram of salt, and hence no longer dissolve their shores, and vast, hangarlike vaults, some more than half a soccer field deep (sites recently, we were told, of the world's first underground bungee-jumping competitions). Deeper and deeper we went, past intricate, Escherlike concatenations of perpendicular rafters and stanchions, till we at last reached Level Three, the deepest we would be allowed to visit on the public tour, 443 feet below ground level. (We were urged not to worry: on the far side of that level we would quickly be spirited to the surface, in narrow shaft elevators.)

We entered a huge vault, perhaps the vastest yet, and noticed an incongruous Star of David hanging over its entrance. It turns out that this chamber was once even deeper, but during the war the Nazis coated the bottom with a thick layer of concrete, the basis for a factory in which enslaved Jews spent their last days manufacturing the V1 rockets that would presently rain down on London.

There is no place in Kraków not steeped in history. A plaintive trumpet sounds—or maybe so one merely imagines—and is cut off abruptly in midstrain.