I wrote this for Gourmet in May 1993. (The previous autumn, for just over six electrifying weeks, at my wonderful house in Kyrenia, Turkish Cyprus, I'd finally succeeded in writing a complete first draft of The Polish Lover, a short novel whose structure had troubled me for years. It was the most autobiographical of my novels, and ushered in the rest. My third book published, my first sold.) So Poland was much on my mind in those days.
Early one Kraków evening this spring, I was sitting in an outdoor café, in an enclosed courtyard just off the main square. Kraków has a richer café life than any other Polish city; it is a tradition here to while away easy hours at dozens of cafés, sipping coffee, sampling pastries, reading, talking, dreaming. This particular café's fountain ceased while a woman singer and her accordionist played. Next to me three girls sat sipping coffee and a bony young man in jeans came up and politely asked if he could read them poems. They listened courteously, amused, and just when he finished, the applause for the musicians coincided—had he timed it that way?—as applause for his poetry.
In Poland today all the poetry making itself heard at last seems a result of lucky timing.
Kraków’s poetry had been less bold, more subdued, when I was here 1985. It was winter, and the magnificent medieval city was wrapped in fog and a kind of ashen snow which owed as much to pollution from nearby factories as to the heavens. The people, too, seemed fogbound and brooding, waiting for a profound change in the political weather that seemed it might never come—not in their lifetimes nor those of their children.
This May I went back to see how Kraków had blossomed with the unexpected liberation from the Orwellian nightmare. Or come back into its own; for to many Kraków is as great a treasure as Venice. (UNESCO designated it one of the world’s twelve most significant historic sites.) The old city, the Stare Miasto, has a completeness and antique grace probably unmatched in Eastern Europe—about four square miles of Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic houses and monuments, along with seventy-two churches, the largest medieval square on the continent, and one of the grandest royal palaces. Kraków was the capital of Poland for five and a half centuries, through the end of the “Golden” 16th century, and it has steadfastly remained the nation's spiritual and cultural heart, right through the turmoil of the last two centuries. (Nearly all Poland's kings are buried here, and many of her poets.) In the recent decade of Solidarity, Kraków's communist-era steelworks suburb, the massive Nowa Huta (New Foundry), became one of the centers of uprising.
A Polish visit seems to consist of lucky accidental meetings. In another café I fell into conversation with a Kraków-born, now Canadian financier who’d defected twenty years earlier and was at last back on business. He told me,"Kraków is a strange, unique place, like a combination of Vienna, Rome, and Budapest—walk in the middle of the night and the streets feel old, solid, and calm—and almost mystical. You know, during the communist years of government parcelled out money for ‘cultural support’ all over the country. To Kraków they gave zero, nothing. They didn't have to. This city is different—its people were too intellectual to be manipulated like common workers or farmers. They never gave in."
In spring all Kraków was out strolling the Planty, the narrow belt of park that surrounds the old city—Poles always seem to be walking, not stuck in offices. Though Kraków managed to survive the Nazis without being bombed once, in nearly every other century it has endured attack after attack. Just past my hotel, entering the old city at the corner of Florianska Street I found the 19th and 20th century parts of the city confronting the medieval in the form of old city walls, an impressive series of turreted 15th century battlements known as the Gate of Glory. Back then the city was double walled, with a broad moat, seven gates, and forty-seven towers—with good reason, for during the Middle Ages alone, Tartar hordes attacked Kraków 91 times, followed by Germans, Russians, Cossacks, Turks, and Swedes. Several medieval towers still stand, bearing their traditional names: the Haberdashers’, the Carpenters’, the Joiners’.
The city grew up around the 8th century by the banks of Wisla (Vistula) River along important trade routes, and became the capital in 1038. In the 14th century King Kazimierz magnified its importance with two acts: the founding of the university, and giving Jews the right to live in Poland. (The once-Jewish quarter of the city was named after him.) Always more worldly, stylish, intellectual, and culturally adept than Warsaw, for several centuries Kraków became a prominent center of culture and learning in Europe; Montaigne spoke of it as lying between Athens and Rome. Its Jagiellonian University (whose most famous student was Copernicus) could attract students from Germany, Italy, England, and France. Today the oldest university in Poland, around it prestigious fine arts, music, polytechnic, and mining academies have grown up, and Kraków still has much of the feel of a medieval university town, a center of learning and argument and art. The late Tadeusz Kantor operated his avant-garde theater company from Kraków; and the renowned composer Krzysztof Penderecki lives here, along with the science fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem; diverse arts festivals are frequent.
After the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596, and Kraków was sacked by invading Swedes in the mid-17th century, the city began a steady commercial decline. Incorporated into the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, it enjoyed an artistic and intellectual revival around the turn-of-the-century, located politically and artistically around the university. (Joseph Conrad spent his childhood in Kraków.) At that time the "Queen of Poland" was actually the Virgin Mary; the partitioned nation lived on officially as a whole only in the Church.
Poland's losses in the Second World War are well-known—one Pole in five died, and the Nazis did their best to erase utterly Warsaw. Though most of Kraków’s architecture survived, its human losses were enormous and the damage impossible to assess. All schools, at every level, were closed for five years. University professors, doctors, writers, artists, architects, priests, or government officials were automatically sent to death camps and their crematoriums. The Academy lost seventy members, murdered by the Nazis; a fifth of Kraków's teachers were deported and killed, and a quarter of the writers' union. Even Chopin's music was banned from performance.
Old Kraków is, really, a living architectural museum (despite the ecological ravage of Soviet-era factories). I have heard its proportions put at 25% Gothic, 30% Baroque, and 40% Renaissance. It contains a number of museums, the most remarkable being the collection of the 18th-century Princess Izabella of the Czartoryski family, who were collectors on a grand scale throughout Europe for generations. The Czartoryski Palace, near the Gate of Glory, contains an Ottoman tent and chess sets, 17th century tapestries, numerous portraits and Spanish chests; old armor, swords, shields, spears, cannon, and other fighting equipment from several countries, including a wide selection of Ottoman cavalry battle gear captured at the Battle of Vienna; ornate European and Oriental glassware; contemporary miniatures of Rousseau, Napoleon, and Ben Franklin; memorabilia of the Polish kings, ancient pottery, gilded sofas, and Polish porcelain. Best of all are a hall of religious paintings from the early 14th century on, a gloriously incandescent Leonardo (Lady Holding an Ermine), and a Rembrandt (Landscape with the Good Samaritan).
I made a leisurely walk down Florianska Street my morning ritual. There was always a group of five or six Gypsy musicians—violin, guitar, accordion—enjoying a cigarette and a plaintive tune and basking in the sunlight. A few art students had hung hundreds of paintings on the rough stone walls. One young man was selling earrings ingeniously made from bits of broken Soviet watches, a very Polish commentary on the current situation.
“They break, we make,” he said.
The Jama Michalika at 45 Florianska Street—since 1895, one of the most culturally important coffee-houses of Europe—is my ideal of an indoor café: a cavernous sanctuary in dark wood and comfortable armchairs, with three large but intimate rooms of progressively less light, crowded with paintings by illustrious former patrons, many of them young painters from the nearby Academy of Fine Arts who couldn’t afford to pay their bill and swapped art for confectionery. Beneath the chandeliers and the turn-of-the-century caricatures and the glass-cased, handmade marionettes, comforted by the moderately risqué stained-glass windows, in shadowy corners enlightened by inexhaustible pastry, eternal tea, and unending coffee with cream or chocolate, attended by the patient adoring waitresses, you can sit for hours and let the world recede.
The Rynek Glowny is one of those rare European squares which has been allowed to carry on all the classic functions of a square. Flagstoned, ordered by dignified houses and a monumental church, it draws you inevitably and absorbs your days. Because cars are all but forbidden in the Old City, the Rynek still belongs to people on foot, and partly because the development of the rest of Kraków has been slow, the square has never lost its status; it hasn't yet been superseded by the sprawl or ambiguity of a modern city’s growth.
Dating from 1257, in many ways the square remains medieval—it hasn't given way yet to Venetian-style tourist-touts or postcard vendors. (In early morning you can watch flower-sellers out pumping water by hand, as they have for centuries.) Every Pole can tell you that here the nationalist leader Tadeusz Kosciuszko made his call for unity and independence in 1794 when the country was partitioned between Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Most of all, the Rynek attracts people, which is the first purpose of a square. The square has everything: underground Italian restaurants, cabarets and theaters, a jazz club, bookstores, music shops, leather and clothing stores, even a Chanel boutique nearby. Here all Kraków sooner or later passes, shops, and congregates, from before dawn until late at night, when the last nightclub, theater, or café shuts.
The Market Square, irregular in shape, is dominated by the long central Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), built during the Renaissance: a rectangular arcade of pale yellow stone and brick of symmetrical balconies, turrets, Moorish arches, columns, and sculpted heads looking down on the bustling flower-carts below. Arrayed on its ground floor are cafés and stalls of wood-, leather- and woolen-goods sellers. Upstairs is a museum of 19th-century Polish art, useful because one sees easily in the old paintings how little the square has changed. Nearby a weathered dark clock tower rises, all that remains of an old municipal hall, with a satirical theater downstairs.
For me the most astonishing element of the “new” Poland is the explosion of art galleries everywhere. Kraków had at least a dozen art galleries worth exploring; it is difficult to believe that all these artists had, of course, nowhere to sell their work until the last couple of years. The widest selection of contemporary art I saw was at Galeria Art in Warsaw (ul. Krakówskie Przedmiescie 15/17), but in combination all Kraków’s galleries could rival it. They aren't difficult to find, but good starting points are Piano Noble at # 33 on the main square and Jan Fejkiel Gallery at #36 Florianska. For the best selection of local “naive” woodcarvings and religious figurines, try Galeria Camelot, ul. Tomasza 17.
Poland has had a richness of artists in many mediums for some time, but until recently the principal medium of public expression that was permitted was its poster art for films and theater—the most exciting in Europe for thirty years and equal to Paris’ at the turn-of-the-century. The “extra” posters from a national collection are available in Kraków at the Galeria Plakatu, ul. Stolarska 8-10, (and also at a similar gallery in the square of Warsaw’s Old City).
St. Mary's, on the Market Square, is to my mind one of the most magnificent Gothic churches in Europe; a Polish architect assured me it was the only Gothic church on the continent with no flying buttresses. In any case, its symbolic importance to Poles is incalculable. Founded in 1222, later destroyed by the Tartars, and rebuilt beginning in 1355, from the outside its appearance is appropriately military, with uneven towers topped with spires like raised spears, and even a crown and helmet. Every Polish schoolchild knows the story behind the trumpeter who, from the tallest tower, heralds each hour with a plaintive broken-off solo. This echoes the legendary 13th-century herald who, warning of a Tartar invasion, received an arrow in the throat in mid-note. For a country so often (and recently) invaded, condemned by location to be forever a buffer state, the story has enormous resonance.
To walk into St. Mary's is like entering a shadowy mountain pass with sunlight breaking through at the far end. Little inside is later than the 15th century: dark Gothic pockets of stone, carved wood, bursts of color in 500-year-old stained glass, black chandeliers, vaulting ceilings of blue and gold. All is faded, but built to withstand time. Arches upon arches culminate in the high altar, where at noon every day a nun armed with a long poker opens the dark triptych cover to reveal panel upon panel in gilded and ornately sculpted wood. (It is closed at six each evening.)
The Roman Catholic Church created in many ways the nation’s soul back in the Middle Ages, and much of the power of that initial creation still survives as a living force at St. Mary’s. About 90% of Poles are Catholic, and during the communist years the Church was the only national organization that didn’t have Soviet advisers attached to it. (Pope John Paul II was formerly Archbishop of Kraków.) And yet in the light of today’s independence, the Church’s power may be slightly on the wane, at least to a young generation; with freedom, it has lost one of its roles. A fashionable young woman running an art gallery remarked to me that the Church was clinging so tightly to its power these days that it was in danger of becoming yet another form of indoctrination. This view was echoed by several other young Poles I spoke to—perhaps part of the Polish tendency to argue with whatever seems to represent the established order at the time.
One evening after dinner I went to the Piwnica Pod Baranami in the corner building of a related name, (Palac pod Baranami, which means Palace Under the Rams—a center for tickets to many cultural events and a good stop in planning one’s evening out). Three decades old, the theater-cabaret, thought by many the finest in Poland, was underground, with still a slightly dissenting university-pranks air about it, held in a room like a medieval castle cellar packed to overflowing. There were songs, bits of inverted theater, jokes, poetry. Because I understood little of it I kept wandering out to the bar, where a few dozen people had come to drink and drink in the underground ambience of the place. Everything verbal was lost on me, since I don’t speak Polish, but I recommend it as a quick entry into a very particular and important aspect of the local culture—to see Cracovians being their inventive, sociable selves, and in the late 20th century. (The cabaret performances take place Thursday and Saturday nights around 10 p.m., but get there at least a half hour earlier for good seats.)
Erasmus called Poland “the country of the scholars,” and Kraków’s feel is still very much that of a university town. Many of those cafés flourish because there are so many young people to read and argue in them, and those nearer the university have a different mood than those on the square. “What I love about Kraków,” a Renaissance literature student told me, “is that so many cafés are still underground.” Her pun was deliberate.
I spent nearly an hour visiting the Jagiellonian University collection, in the Gothic-era Collegium Maius building, five minutes’ walk from the square. (You need to book a place on a guided tour in the morning, or better, a day before.) The great treasure here is a fairly small 16th-century clock in the shape of a world globe, the first to indicate America, “a newly discovered land,” small and right where it should be, next to Madagascar.
I hired a taxi for two unrelated expeditions one afternoon, through a countryside of fields and small brick-and-stone houses with slant roofs, rather like a poor version of Italy. It was only twenty-odd miles from Kraków to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Nazi death camps where about four million people from over twenty European nations were murdered, two and a half million of them Jews. For personal reasons I had intended not to go; I am grateful I went, but I suggest that people think through carefully whether they truly want the experience or not. I will not do it the indignity of a brief description other than to say that to visit those two vast machines of death is the psychological equivalent of walking into a blowtorch. Nobody can see them and emerge unchanged.
The other expedition, as a kind of spiritual antidote, was to the salt mines at Wieliczka, only nine miles south of Kraków. The property of the kings of Poland, they have been in operation since the end of the 13th century. An 18th-century wag called them “as remarkable as the Pyramids and more useful”; they are surely one of the man-made wonders of the world. The mines reach 1200 feet underground, but a visitor descends on foot only some sixty-odd floors and emerges into wide and airy corridor upon corridor of what seems a soft gray stone—in fact salt. Here and there run tracks horses once pulled carriages of salt. More astonishing are the worried steps cut into the cavern-walls where, until the end of the 19th century, the salt was extracted by hammer and pick and carried up on men’s backs. Now it’s extracted by chemical solutions and mechanically lifted to the surface.
But one doesn’t go to this trouble to visit a mine. What these contain, unforgettably, are chapels going back three hundred years cut out of the salt walls so the fervent miners could worship every day. Here are larger-than-life statues of saints, kings, and elves, all carved by ordinary miners out of the dark gray salt, and so unexpected they take on the strangeness of a science-fiction film. These culminate, at nearly 400 feet underground, in an enormous high-ceilinged chapel, cathedral-like in scale, hung with three chandeliers of translucent salt and lined with sculpted statues and murals: the Nativity, the Last Supper, the passage from Bethlehem. The entire chapel was carved by three miners over the course of forty-five years, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. No photographs can do it justice: it must be seen to be believed.
Led on a walking tour by a small and detailed guidebook, I spent another afternoon exploring the Kazimierz, formerly the Jewish quarter of Kraków, in search of echoes of one side of my family heritage. It lies just south of the Wawel Castle, an easy walk from the Old City. Before the war there were about seventy thousand Jews here; most were killed by the Nazis, and fewer than two hundred Jews remain in Kraków now, with only one of the several surviving synagogues still active—the Remuh, with one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Despite my guidebook’s enthusiasm, I sadly found little evocative of the community that flourished here once, and I considered it a wasted afternoon, though others might find more. For somebody intent on touching as much of that heritage as possible, the place to visit is the 15th-century Old Synagogue on Szeroka Street, now a careful museum of the history and culture of Kraków’s Jews. Inquire about its opening days and hours first, which vary according to season.
If any one building is the heart of the Polish nation, which at times over the centuries has ceased to exist as a cartographical entity, it is Wawel Hill, with its castle and cathedral, essentially unchanged for five centuries and beneath which many of Poland’s poets and monarchs are buried. Now they are a museum, and their importance can be gleaned from the fact that there are always even more Polish visitors than foreigners. The castle part of the museum is more palace than fortress, of a stately architecture outside and a royal splendor inside. The Polish kings ruled from here from the 11th to 16th centuries, and much remains, despite those innumerable invasions—the Swedes burned it, the Russians occupied it, the Prussians plundered it, and the Austrians tried to demolish it. The worst indignity was its use as seat of the Nazi General Government from 1939 to 1945—and yet this is probably what saved Kraków from the architectural destruction that Warsaw received. Here are room after room of rare tapestries, gilded and painted scenic ceilings, lavish Baroque furniture, and even a Renaissance trio filling one room with 16th- and 17th-century music.
The 14th-century Cathedral—“the sanctuary of the nation” as the Polish Pope has said—seems crammed with history, austere, dignified, dark, and noble. Here are enormous tapestries, steep and muscular stone columns; silver and marble sarcophagi; a sense of deep determination, but not the open exultation of St. Mary’s. All but four of Poland’s forty-five monarchs are entombed in the many side chapels, near illuminated texts and treasured royal artifacts. From the tower above is the finest view of Kraków; in the crypts below the tombs of the poet Adam Mickiewicz and the leader Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
In any other country this might seem mostly irrelevant to a visiting foreigner. In Kraków, to wander alongside little Polish schoolchildren, to see the reverence with which they are instructed in the distant past and the recent, that experience seems to sum up the passion and determination that lies beneath the vibrant poetry and life of all those cafés, the strollers in that square, the poetry in those preserved houses which have waited too many generations to be owned and looked after by their own people.