Legend has it that there are 366 underground ‘cellars’ around the main town square of Kraków. “One for each day of the year and then one,” explains our guide, Izabela Hryciow. The best time to test the theory is not during the day. It’s close to midnight when you see this university town’s young people swarm the square — the largest medieval plaza in Europe — and dive into some of the restaurants, pubs or discos lining it. If you are up early on a weekend, you can also see them trickling out at six in the morning.
My first visit to a cellar comes in the form of the Pod Aniolami (Under the Angel) restaurant off the plaza. It also happens to be my first taste of a multi-course Polish meal, one of which would be enough to feed a family of four. While sipping a beetroot soup, our host Agnieszka ‘Agni’ Dyga explains the magic of Malopolska, the district around Kraków that’s attracting Indians. Agni, an international cooperation officer for the district who happens to be a fan of Bollywood, says, “One Hindi film was shot nearby, umm... Fanaa, that’s it!” But what she mostly gets to see isn’t Aamir Khan — it’s Shah Rukh, whose films apparently come bundled free every other month with a glossy magazine.
But the reason you see Indians scouring online for apartments in Poland’s second largest city is HCL, the technology company that’s setting up a 250-seater outsourcing centre here.
The next place where Bollywood comes up is a cellar of a different kind — the Wieliczka salt mines. This unique place less than an hour’s drive from Kraków was one of the richest ‘factories’ of Europe during the first half of the last millennium, when salt was one of the most precious commodities. Today the underground mines, a Unesco World Heritage site that runs more than 300 km long and 300 metres deep, house a spa, galleries, shops, restaurants and chapels — all of them carved out of the translucent salt rocks.
Over some ‘delicate duck breast in blackcurrant sauce’, our strapping pathfinder Marek says, “I once acted in a film as an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp... I was gunned down.” Little wonder that today Marek harbours an earnest desire to join the song-and-dance heaven that’s Bollywood.
On the wall, on the edge
Polish graffiti artists have taken to the stencil more than the spraycan. Apart from large, stylised letterings on the edge of town and an official mural wall, most of the graffiti in Kraków is hurriedly slapped on through pre-cut designs. Maybe it’s because of the strong streak of subversion that runs through most of the content.
The only straightforward celebratory ones I spot are of Adam Malysz, a world-beating ski jumper, and of Elvis. Apart from that there are some adulatory ones of the real Elvis in this very Catholic city — Karol Wojtyla, who spent most of his years in Kraków before being anointed Pope John Paul II. Apart from these, all the writings on the wall have a dark undertone.
In one, a gun-toting man looking like Bruce Springsteen and posing like Clint Eastwood says, ‘Sometimes anti-social, but always antifascist.’ Next to him is a sign similar to the Sikh emblem.
On one of the last old houses standing in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw, there’s the stencil of a man holding a gun to the head of a damsel. It looks like a still from a noir film. The speech bubble translates as, ‘More respect for women, or I kill the bitch.’
Out of darkness
Several things were looking up for Poland till March this year. The country has been sharing open borders in the west and the south with Euro zone countries since 2004, but it still trades in the much cheaper zloty. Its roaring economic engines have helped it weather the recession better than the rest of Europe. In fact, the Polish economy is growing so fast that several thousands of the Poles who had migrated westwards in search of greener pastures have been coming back.
Then, unforeseen tragedies struck in the cruellest month. On April 10, the country’s president and some of the top leaders of military and economy perished in a plane crash. Later that month, the ash clouds spread eastwards to choke Polish air traffic. A few weeks later most of the region’s rivers, including the Vistula, flooded their banks.
The strongest antidote to the gloom is perhaps the Polish temperament. Stanislaw Styrczula, our bubbly guide to the Tatras hills near Zakopane, put it pithily, “Is there a point of doing something that’s easy and straightforward? That’s how the Polish mind works.” That against-the-grain character has seen them through centuries of turmoil. It will surely see them to a new Spring.