Legend has it that there are
366 underground 'cellars'
around the main town
square of KrakÃ³w. "One for
each day of the year and then one,"
explains our guide, Izabela Hryciow.
The best time to test the theory is
close to midnight when you see the
young people of this university town
swarm the square the largest
medieval plaza in Europe and
dive into the restaurants, pubs or
discos lining it. If you're up early on
a weekend, you can also see them
trickling out at six in the morning.
My first visit to a cellar is at the
Pod Aniolami (Under the Angel)
restaurant off the plaza. It's also
where I happen to taste a multicourse
Polish meal, one of which
would be enough to feed a family of
four. While sipping beetroot soup,
our host Agnieszka 'Agni' Dyga
explains the magic of Malopolska,
the district around KrakÃ³w that
attracts 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 is Shah Rukh, whose films
apparently come bundled free every
other month with a glossy magazine.
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 cellar I visit is of a
different kind the Wieliczka salt
mines. This unique place less than
an hour's drive from KrakÃ³w 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
On the wall, on the edge
Polish graffiti artists have taken to
the stencil more than the spray can.
Apart from large, stylised letterings
on the edge of town and an official
mural wall, most of the graffiti in
KrakÃ³w is hurriedly slapped on
through pre-cut designs. Maybe it's
because of the strong streak of subversion
that runs through most of
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 KrakÃ³w 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 againstthe-
grain character has seen them
through centuries of turmoil. It will
surely see them to a new Spring.