We continue with our Poland Trilogy in this issue, where we pick up the threads from where we left off the last time. So we move from Warsaw to Krakow, oft cited as the cultural capital of Poland. It is an interesting city, and looks at you Janus-like, with many faces. We explore some of these facets in this travelogue …
While Krakow, the second largest city in Poland, may have been relegated from being the capital of Poland during medieval times to being the capital of Lesser Poland today, its charm surely has not lessened. In fact, in the year 2000, it was declared one of the European Capitals of Culture. Not only that, this year it has been selected as the European City of Sports. It projects multiple identities. The area around Wawel Castle and Town Square (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is distinctly medieval. Ghetto, the Jewish quarters, Kazimierz, and the Schindler Factory collectively have a WW-II Holocaust gestalt. The riverside of Vistula (or Wisła in Polish) is as scenic as any other European city on banks of a river and the newer outskirts of the city have a strong European countryside imprint. Many things fascinated me about Krakow, and these were instrumental in my cancelling my trip to Prague, as Krakow itself offered plenty to see and experience. I was fortunate to have a couple of local friends act as guides. They helped me determine my itinerary. I decided to do what the locals in Krakow would. I spent a couple of evenings in the Kazimierz area generally strolling around the Jewish quarters of the city, checking out an old building block where Steven Spielberg shot ‘Schindler’s List’, visiting a Jewish cemetery and sipping beer at roadside cafés popular amongst the locals. I also spent almost half a day in the Town Square. It is the largest town square in Europe. Besides housing the Renaissance Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) and the old clock tower, it also has St. Mary’s church, a Hard Rock Café, a few bronze statues and a few score roadside cafés.
That sunny afternoon in the main market square turned rainy in a couple of hours. Mesmerised, I watched the rain while an endless stream of people, with or without umbrellas, walked, cycled or skated about the square. My viewing vantage was the out door summer lounge of Hawełka a restaurant established in 1876 ! Another afternoon, I found myself collecting ink-stamped postcard souvenirs in ‘Schindler’s Factory’, which has now been turned into a museum. It vividly illustrates the role played by Oskar Schindler in saving the lives of hundreds of Jews while Nazis were sending them all to Auschwitz and other concentration and extermination camps. I even devoted a day driving out to a couple of ancient castles (Zámek in Polish), which attract local weekend picnickers. It was a joy to drive through quaint small towns where the cemeteries had fresh flowers on every grave, thick forests had well-defined walking trails, roadside offered a view of freshly harvested fields with rolled up hay bails and every face you saw had a genuine smile.
One of the castles we visited was in ruins – the Ogrodzieniec Castle. This late 14th century castle is perhaps the most scenic one I have ever seen. The landscape around is idyllic, the calcium (limestone) rocks in the vicinity have a character and the approach to the castle ruins had a carnival feel. Locals from Krakow throng here for a weekend outing. Since it was a warm summer day, there were plenty of ice cream and drink kiosks. I found visitors donning both the most modern attire and the period outfits In Krakow, it didn’t surprise me to see buskers playing concert instruments like the cello or the concert flute, the tourists sipping a Tyskie beer in stagecoach drawn by a couple of well-fed, well looked after, spotted stallions, or even a roadside café using old sewing machines as tables for the guests. Like Warsaw, cycling seems a religion even in Krakow.
Despite its many ups and downs, the disposition of the city is generally happy and I have no hesitation is saying that here is a city I would perhaps want to settle down in.