The Polish town of Krakow is a vantage point to the past and future

  • Deepti Patwardhan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 06, 2015 13:09 IST

"In every other city in the world you’re running; in Krakow you walk." Magdalena Drazba, my host in Krakow, knows this first hand. She gave up a high-flying corporate job three years ago to settle here, take it easy and start a homestay. Honestly, though, I didn’t even walk. Most of the time, all I did was sit. In Poland’s second-largest city, the best way to see the people is to find one of its many town squares, pick a spot, and gawk.

The Rynek Glowny is Krakow’s (and Europe’s) biggest, and for many the most beautiful town square. At exactly 200m x 200m, it dates back to the 13th century and is laid out in the centre of the city.

The Cloth Hall is bang in the middle, the 13th century St Mary’s Basilica (a huge brick church with gothic spires) takes up the north corner, the tower of a former town hall is diagonally opposite and Renaissance and art nouveau buildings line the square.

Awe struc-ture! In Krakow, ancient architecture is on display at its town square (above) and at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul (below).

White horse-drawn carriages totter around a perfectly paved, mirror-smooth ground, making for a fairy tale setting. Play out your Cinderella fantasies and linger into the night, especially after all the food and shop carts have packed up business. It looks frozen in time.

A little more than two kilometres away is another square, the Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes square), a stark contrast to the resplendent beauty of the Rynek Glowny. This is the spot where people were gathered before they were forced into concentration camps by the Nazis.

By 1943, the square was strewn with furniture, clothes, luggage and other belongings the victims had to abandon. Today, 70 empty bronze chairs occupy the square as a reminder of the Holocaust.

Fear factor
Krakow is an old city. And you can see right where it all began. The city dates back to the seventh century and legend has it that the first settlement began on Wawel Hill: the site of the present-day Wawel Castle. Prince Krakus is supposed to have slayed the dragon, Smok Wawelski, and built the castle foundation above its cave.

Today, the castle is the crown jewel among Krakow’s sights. A bronze dragon stands at the gate of the cave, breathing fire via a natural-gas nozzle every three minutes, much to the amusement of children.

The Wawel Catherdal itself is a chaotic mixture of gothic, baroque and Renaissance architectural styles. Inside, royal tombs fight for space with those of the saints, while many altars and chapels jut out from the side walls.

The dark side

Krakow has been a trading hub and the seat of Polish royalty. More recently, in 2000, it was named European Capital of Culture. But like most European cities, Krakow abounds with dark tales of witches, ghosts and vampires. Especially vampires.

This is no Twilight world, with glittering, handsome, animal-blood-sucking undead. The Kracovians believed that vampires were ordinary men and women when alive, and harmful only when they rose from the grave. So they’d tie corpses to their coffins or chop off their heads and place it between their legs. Some of these graves are on display at the underground museum in the main square.

If Krakow’s myths and legends let your imagination run wild, Kazimierz should jerk it back to reality. The district came into being in the 14th century, when powerful Krakow Catholics rose against the growing Jewish influence on trade and culture. King Casimir, after whom it was named, was forced to establish a separate city for Jews across river Vistula. It was an expanding, flourishing town in its own right, but was swallowed up by Krakow in 1792.

But while Krakow emerged unscathed from the Nazi blitzkrieg in WWII, Kazimierz wasn’t so fortunate. Most Jews were taken to the death march. The 15,000 who remained, were packed into a ghetto in nearby Podgorze. A wall was built to keep them locked.

The Plac Bohaterów Getta at the heart of this ghetto was where Jews were rounded up, sent to concentration camps or executed. A tram and bus line still runs across it while the chairs sit empty, in memorial of the murdered Jews.

Today, while most residential buildings are still dilapidated, they’ve been taken over by artists, writers and students, most of whom cannot afford Krakow’s city centre. The cobbled alleys are now alive with cafes, bars and restaurants, resurrecting the area as a youthful, vibrant party district. Eclectic, colourful decorations adorn the buildings, as if to cover up years of sorrow and neglect.

It’s a bittersweet place; at the crossroads of a poignant history and a promising future. While historic Krakow lends the city its famed, and slightly haughty, beauty, Kazimierz gives it soul.

Travel info

* There are no direct flights from India to Krakow, most visitors take an express bus service from other Polish cities or fly via another city
* The Polish currency is the zloty. One zloty is a little more than Rs 16
* InfoKrakow (the tourist centre) is open daily 9am–7pm
* Visit to plan your trip

From HT Brunch, March 22
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