Friday, March 30, 2012

Krakow

Krakow Day 1 - Miod Malina, moon and amber
It feels very familiar here, as almost everyone you come in contact with speaks the same language as they do in England; Polish. Put aside your preconceptions about Poland as a dull, Eastern European throwback. Krakow is a medieval city of some splendour. Every city has its unique ambience and Krakow, like many smaller cities, is comfortable and walkable, with cafes and restaurants galore. Like Porto or Bratislava it’s manageable. For our first meal we strolled to the highly recommend small, barrel-vaulted Miod Malina where we had mushroom soup, served in a loaf of bread, meat galore (pork and beef) and raspberry desserts. A post prandial walk round the main square, beneath a crescent moon with Venus close by, like the Turkish flag, was perfect. It’s March so the place is empty, which makes walking a joy.
Glad also to be in a city with old trams. I just love the wheeze, clatter, rumble and squeaks. Pleasantly surprised to see little sign of stag party venues, although I’m sure there’s plenty. Prostitutes at each crossroads were common enough and there’s plenty of bars but nothing obviously unpleasant, not that I find Stag Parties unpleasant. My home town, Brighton, practically thrives on them. Amber seems to be the local speciality and I had no idea it came, like whiskies, in so many colours from a light, almost transparent Speyside to dark peaty Talisker, but it still reminds me of jumble sales and old aunts.

Krakow Day 2 – Kazimierz
A walk along the river Wisla to the Castle and Cathedral, an architectural shambles. Then down to the Jewish quarter. In 1941, the entire Jewish population, was marched out, over the river into a walled ghetto of just 320 houses for16,000 people, almost all were annihilated in concentration camps. There’s ads all over town for trips to Auchwitz or a two concentration camps in one day tour; Auschwitz and Birkenau. There’s another notorious camp on the outskirts of town but the Jewish quarter and tales of the ghetto and genocide are enough.


We visited a few synagogues, especially the Remuh, built in 1553. Inside was a large group of American Jewish teenagers, almost all orthodox girls being talked to by an energetic, American Rabbi. A few at the front were attentive but most at the back, were taking photographs of themselves and their friends, as they do. A walk round the cemetery was sad and sobering. But there’s something odd about the ‘Jewish Heritage Trail’ and renovated synagogues in the Kazimierz. It’s uncomfortable to feel that what happened here is being repackaged for tourists. Personally, I don’t like national or religious ghettos in cities. I don’t like the idea of having to create a mini-culture within a culture. I can’t think of a single Scottish (my homeland) ghetto or area in any city anywhere in the world, and prefer it that way. What I did like in the area was its shabbiness, bars and cafes. We found a great spot, the Satori, that played excellent Jazz and served thick, hot chocolate and great coffee. These places need to look to the future not just the past.
We didn’t plan to have a gut busting lunch, it just happened. One minute we had ordered a couple of Pilsners, the next a Zurek (sour Polish soup) and a plate of pierogis (Polish dumplings) but made the mistake of adding a Kebab. The Kebab was HUGE – easily two foot long propped up on a metal A-frame. Little did we know that this restaurant is famous for its gargantuan portions of meat. To round things off they gave us two complimentary, cherry-flavoured vodkas. The toilet actually has a vomitorium – I kid you not. A bit of a stramash broke out when a young lady in red had a dish of prawns dropped down her dress by a waiter. You knew they had a battle on their hands when she went to the toilet and changed into another dress from her Max Mara bag (I’m told by Gil that means money). On her return a one hour negotiation took place as she demanded redress (literally). The staff were exemplary, she was unnecessarily combative – it was clearly an accident. Why are wealthy people so often obnoxious?
Time now for a protein fuelled walk around town, up through the Cloth Hall, or Tat Hall as it should be named, a fine building full of poor shops. Interesting café here, frequented by Lenin, who spent two years in the city, mostly drinking coffee according to my guide book – surely not. Then up to the Barbican with a coffee, hot chocolate and raspberry tart en route. The whole city was surrounded by a moat and wall with two main entrances. This was a city that had been destroyed and rebuilt after the tartar invasion, it knows that out there, the threat of violence is very real. They were to experience this with the swedes, Nazis and Russians.
Already suffering from meat fatigue we tried Trattoria Soprano (I know it’s a tacky name) but it was a respite from plate-loads of flesh. The night was livened up when a young guy sat near us and was laying down lines to his date, among them, ‘I may not speak Polish but I know what you’re saying, as I’m fluent in body language’. This man will go far, he’ll have to if he’s to find a permanent girlfriend.
A local sport seems to be witty restaurant reviews. Every leaflet and book we’ve read has been full of funnies which I’ve started to collect:
The food moves perilously from mediocre to sublime.
The sausages on offer are only a little less sickly than the multi-coloured walls, which are only slightly less colourful than the colourful characters who frequent the place.
A tribute to American style overconsumption.
…making up for the kraut and pickles in your burrito!
Krakow’s first braille menu. Unfortunately this guide book is not in braille so the blind will never find out.
…isn’t a bad shot if you want a cheap meal that isn’t a roadkill kebab.
The menu features forest birds and animals including a dead bambi.
The coveted choice of every local couple out on a cheap date.
..still happy to sacrifice comforts..like a toilet.
…you can expect to find some fur on the coat rack.
Underappreciated Ukrainian beer… try it and wake up feeling like a Chernobyl disaster.

Krakow Day 3 – Salt Mine and Soviet New Realism
Krakow was built on the salt trade, so it was up early to catch the local bus (304) to the Salt Mine, about 6 miles out of town. It’s a 55 floor descent on foot down a wooden staircase into 310 Kilometres of tunnels. There’s huge chambers, descents, lakes and some good but many tacky sculptures. Copernicus and Pope John Paul II were passable. What I preferred was the solid geology, the slow retreat of an ocean 13 million years ago, the sheer scale of the deposit and the efforts taken to extract it, given the flooding and methane gas. They burnt out the lighter methane by sticking a lit stick into the pockets trapped in the roof. 700years of mining has left huge caverns which, in places, are supported by massive frameworks of timber supports. The lift back to the surface was a real miners’ cage lift, tiny and sardine-packed– truly frightening.
Lunch in the Chimera yard then a 30 minute tram ride (15) to Nowa Huta out on the northwest of the city, a huge Soviet Realist city built around a massive steelworks in 1949. Predictably grey in the middle of nowhere, it had strange, quiet atmosphere. The old Soviet cinema was an odd mix of Art Nouveau, Baroque and the just plain weird but it’s the scale of the place that makes Nowa worth a visit. One huge housing estate, it reminded me of the one I was brought up in, in Scotland -  planned radially from one arcaded square, with long wide streets and parks. It’s still grim but recent renovation on the blocks of flats make it habitable.
ALCOHOLE 24h– you see this word everywhere, along with its patrons, shops that sell beer and vodka round the clock. Park benches in Krakow are home to a largely benign bunch of drunks, who are only occasionally heard to mouth off at some unintended slight. But this is actually a University city full of bright young things.

Krakow – Day 4 – underground and Cathedral



Easy to miss the enormous museum under the main square but it’s a revelation. Designed as an ‘experience’, as there’s few intact structures, it actually works. You walk through images projected onto a sheet of ejected steam, buildings appear as augmented reality when you show your guide and the films on the history of the town are superb. Its famous sons are a mixed lot – Copernicus, Roman Polanski and Pope John Paul II. A city built on selling salt it expanded and flourished with one of the oldest Universities in Europe. The downside was the burning at the stake of vampires (recognised by left-handedness, mono-brows, too many or too long teeth) that’s basically my entire family. The most harrowing periods were the Tartar invasion and Nazi then Soviet occupations. Central Europe is a crucible for invading armies. The Nazis sent, not only the 60,000 Jews (who had been welcomed to the city for hundreds of years) but also Roma and 130 academics from the University to their deaths in concentration camps. They looted the art but luckily fled as the Soviet army made a surprise advance, leaving no time to destroy the city. This was a mixed blessing as the Soviet occupation was another disaster. I suspect the EU has been a blessing as the place is thriving. On what I’m not sure but proximity to a growing German economy must help. How long will that last? The European project has barely started and is falling apart.