At the door of Wawel Castle in the southern Polish city of Krakow, a middle aged woman presses herself against the outside wall. Spread-eagled and frozen, eyes closed, cheek turned against the cold stone, she wills herself into the wall, absorbing its very essence through her flesh.
The Poles don’t even notice. They are used to this sort of thing, but then Krakow – and Wawel Castle in particular – inspires devotion.
All but four of Poland’s 45 kings and most of their queens are buried in Wawel Cathedral, along with some of the greats of Polish literature and nationalist heroes, Pilsudski and Kosciuszko. Krakow is a repository of Polishness. Pope John Paul II, called it “the sanctuary of the nation”. Krakow will teach you the value of remembering
Set on the banks of the broad river Vistula, Krakow has been a mercantile city since the Middle Ages. Within the pear-shaped enclave of the Old Town on the north bank of the river there arose a handsome city of mansions, churches, palaces and squares. Its progress was briefly halted when the Tartars sacked the city in the mid-thirteenth century, but even in their wake they left the city with one of its most cherished traditions, celebrated every hour by a trumpeter in the bell tower of the Mariacki Church, whose refrain chokes in mid-note in memory of the bugler killed when a Tartar arrow pierced his throat as he sounded the alarm.
Krakow’s civic fulcrum is the colossal Rynek Glowny, one of the largest squares in all of Europe. During the summer months the square becomes a huge open-air theatre. Florists’ stalls merge with the outdoor cafes that spread from the borders of the square, brassy jazz bands fill the air, watercolour artists set up their easels on the cobblestones and the pigeons erupt in a grey cloud to escape the delinquent fingers of small children. Not much has changed here for the past few hundred years. The amber necklaces, silver crosses and fleeces from mountain sheep on sale in the sprawling Sukienniece, the 16th century covered bazaar that fills the centre of the square, are goods you would have found here 400 years before. The famous restaurant on the corner of the square, Wierznek, opened for business in 1364, when the guests included a handful of dukes, a couple of kings and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.
Krakow is heading for stardom as the tourist hordes look for a new Prague to escape the crowds on the Charles Bridge. And the city qualifies admirably for the task with museums and galleries galore, subdued prices and – for the moment at least – reasonable taxi drivers. On the night that I arrived at the station, blundering along boulevards that all seemed to wear the same unpronounceable syllables, the only taxi driver on the rank offered sobering advice. “Walk,” he advised me. “It’s only a few hundred metres,” and went back to his paper.
Krakow incites strong passions. Walk into the Mariacki Church at any time of the day and you can be almost sure that a service will be in progress. In Poland, faith still matters. Where else can see a gang of neo-gothic youths with rings through their lips cross themselves as they pass a church, as I did out the front of St Andrew’s?
Streets radiate from the square. Fashionable Grodzka Street runs south to Wawel Hill, which incorporates the Cathedral, the Palace, a Treasury, several towers and an armoury. Flanders tapestries, a frieze by Hans Durer, the remarkable “Heads Room” – not to mention the marvellous collection of sarcophagi of the Polish kings and queens in the side chapels of Wawel Cathedral makes for a serious accretion of treasures.
Set against the backdrop of the Tatras Mountains which form the border with the Slovak Republic, Zakopane, a two-hour drive south from Krakow, is Poland’s Aspen. Come summer and the skiers give way to hikers in Salomon boots with rucksacks on their backs and sunburnt cheeks.
The town consists of a long pedestrian mall lined with cafes and outdoor gear shops that slopes down to street market. The scenery is luscious; sunny meadows sprigged with wildflowers and dappled cows, giving way to pine forests and the grey teeth of the Tatras. In the hills there are glacial lakes and dark forests where bear and lynx tracks dent the forest paths, but even in its immediate surroundings, Zakopane charms.
I turned left onto shady Koscieliska Street, and was engulfed in a fairy tale. Both sides of the road were lined with two-storey timber houses and balconies with carved wooden balustrades and window boxes spilling geraniums. Each house was generously spaced in a garden brimming with foxgloves and salvia, and often a goat for supplying the cheese.
Walking on the mountain trails, you never knew whether the next person you encountered would be a shepherd clad in traditional tight-fitting breeches and baggy shirt or a raging poet.
A couple of hundred metres outside the town, a path leads from the timber church of St Clements to a graveyard where each of the headstones is a small miracle of folk art wrought with the energy and finesse of a Picasso. If the sun is shining – or better still, if there’s a fresh dusting of snow – continue beyond the church and past the thinning houses along the winding road that ambles into the hills
More than half a century ago, my father came this way, through these hills and across the mountains. In 1945 my grandmother her teenaged sons and fled the family home in Warsaw for England. They travelled light. There was no room for photos, family treasures or mementos. Their exile was absolute; there could be no prospect of return.
It was only after many years that my father even began to talk about his childhood years. At one time my great grandfather had been publisher of a Warsaw journal, Wedrowiec, which translates as “The Wanderer”, a sort of Polish National Geographic of its time. I searched in the archives of this world for Wedrowiec in a quest that always ended in a blind alley.
Then on my last afternoon in Krakow, while wandering along a back street, I came across a shop crammed with old lithographs and antiquarian books. Intrigued, I strolled inside, and there, waiting for me, curling a little at the edges, were three copies of Wedrowiec dating from the 1920s.
The world stopped turning as I flipped through the pages until, in small type on the bottom of the very last page, I found the name “Sikorska”. It was my grandmother’s father and I held it tight against my face, inhaling the musty paper – a wall of my own, to press against when I need.
- British Airways offer daily flights to Warsaw and Krakow