Posted on Tuesday, February 19th, 2008 at 1:44 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Victoria Aitken
The fifth most visited city in Europe is the dragon city, otherwise known as beautiful Krakow.
Its name dates back to a legend of a terrible dragon, defeated when a simple shoemaker named Krak ingeniously fed it a sulfur-filled sheep. Krak’s next success was to marry the ruler’s daughter and become Prince Krak. Modestly, he re-named the surrounding area after himself (the “ow” tacked on at the end means “village”).
In the morning, I woke up to the sound of horse-hooves on cobblestones, folk music, and the clinking of coffee cups. My renaissance windows overlooked Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s main square. Last night, I attended my friend Natalia’s 30th birthday party. Three months ago, a brown, communist-style envelope had landed on my doorstep. The invitation announced an “official and obligatory celebration” – a communist chic birthday – at Klub Feniks in Krakow. Socialist 1980’s outfits were requested. If you volunteered to stay longer, you would receive a special mention that may lead to promotion.
The décor at the club had been appropriately red, including red leather-padded walls that looked like something out of an interrogation suite. Guests were served stake tartar, complete with raw egg; others ate the polish specialty of herring in onions and heavy cream. The main course made me disavow all preconceptions about eastern bloc stews: they are delicious, not to mention the various types of pirogies that follow.
Afterward, men danced in army outfits, while women took the dancefloor in puffy skirts with shoulder-padded shirts, all under a disco ball, accompanied by Wham! and old Madonna songs. The different varieties of flavoured vodka came with ration tickets.
Feeling a bit dragon after the celebration (drank too much, those ration tickets were not enough), I strolled down to the big square. The space dates back to the 13th century and is the largest medieval square in Europe, enclosed by large townhouses and palaces. A folk festival was taking place, a band played and dance troupes performed in regional (Guralle) costumes. Flower stalls and matryoshka kiosks dotted the outskirts of the stage.
St. Mary’s church dominates the square, its Gothic architecture overlaid with baroque touches such as grinning cherubs. Inside, the altar is open every day, and every hour on the hour a trumpeter plays (it’s rather like a manual Big Ben).
In the square’s center stands the Cloth Hall, a pretty shopping arcade full of stalls selling the local specialties such as linen and amber jewelry.
On top of a mountain, just above the square, sits Wawel castle. Poland’s kings, as well as Austrians, Germans and Swedes who have captured the castle, ruled from here. The castle’s mishmash of styles represents all the different rulers, a reminder of Poland’s turbulent history.
Just behind the square is the Czartoryski museum, started by, started by Price Adam Czartoyski, the father of my friend and famous it-girl, Tamara. Here my friend Stefan showed me, among other stuff, suits of amour with wings, Dutch paintings, and mini cannons.
The following night, those up for the “special promotion” stayed an extra night to explore more of Krakow. The city is full of gardens, serving cheap bear. Over drinks, Natalia joked that “due to the number of budget airlines the beautiful city has become flooded with the worst kind of tourist: English louts throwing up over the beautiful square. Perhaps a spell of communism is needed, one beer price for us Poles and another for tourists so they don’t misbehave.”
There are spots that tourists don’t know about, where one can escape to. These include inexpensive restaurants that serve old-style, delicious Polish food; the only drawback here is having to pay for bread, water, and even the use of cutlery. One of the nicest, tourist-free spots was an underground jazz bar, lit only by candlelight with a ceiling draped with red fabric.
Krakow is easy to explore, because it’s a city built for walking. As I strolled around with my Swiss friend, Hans, and Natalia, I noticed that the architecture had Viennese influences. Many houses are painted bright yellow to give the illusion they were built out of sandstone or chalk (which is expensive), some have turrets. Inside, ceilings were kept high to the keep air circulating.
Outside the city walls, on the far side of the river, the student apartment of Pope John Paul II, former archbishop of Krakow, is located. When he died, millions lit candles and prayed, putting the city to a standstill. Close by stands the oldest university in Poland, the famous Jagiellonian University, which dates back to 1364. This is where Copernicus was a student. Opposite the university is the former residence of Oscar Schindler.
A lot of people come to Krakow to discover their Jewish heritage. The historic Jewish district of Kazimierz was originally set up in the middle ages. It contains seven synagogues and a number of Jewish cemeteries. Visiting the cemeteries gives clues as to what margin the local population diminished to during the Second World War. The graves are unkempt, because there are no ancestors left to keep them clean. Kazimierz’s Jewish population made up almost a quarter of the city, they were reduced to one tenth. Many were murdered in Auschwitz, an hour’s drive from Krakow, or shot in the ghetto if they tried to hide. Even the sick were not spared: at the hospital, doctors poisoned their own patients before they could be brutally killed.
We had been planning to stop for lunch, but after walking through the old Jewish ghetto and feeling the vibes of what went on there, we could not eat. Instead, we visited Oscar Schindlers factory, as well as other locations where “Schindler’s List” was filmed. We were finally able to sit down at a local Jewish restaurant that served smoked chicken and other kosher specialties.
There are other things to check out in this area: the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (the legendary icon at Jasna Gora, the famous monastery), taking the communist tour, or visiting the nearby salt mines (your hotel will be able to arrange a tour for you).
The salt mines in particular are breathtaking, and underground surprises include many statutes made out of salt. The highlight is the Chapel of St Kinga – everything in it, from the cross to the chandeliers, is made out of rock salt. It took three miners 67 years to carve out this masterpiece, which lies 101 meters underground, and is 54 meters long and 12 meters high. The salt mine is registered on the UNESCO world list of cultural and natural heritage.
The microclimate of the salt mines is great for asthma, allergies, and metabolic disorders. Underground, a treatment center holds breath classes. At the end of the visit, you can visit the underground restaurant that holds the world record for the deepest location for an eatery.
Ultimately, a trip to Krakow is a trip through time: from the middle ages to modern innovations. This city dates back to the 7th century, and it is heartening to see that it has survived it all, down to the horrors inflicted by the 20th century. It has survived and, more than that, it has flourished.
Don’t take my word for it, however. See for yourself.
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