Krakow: past and present

by kimvernon

We did know a little about Krakow before booking a break there, but I have to admit that we didn’t really know about its history or that it had one of the largest Jewish communities in pre-war Europe.

We just wanted to see some more of Eastern Europe. We’d been to Prague, Budapest, we thought we’d come to Poland, and Krakow is known to be older, prettier than Warsaw, the capital.

So we came to see the Market Square, taste the vodka…

Kazimierz

It’s actually difficult to avoid the Holocaust and the history of the Polish Jews here, if you have any interest in history. Many do avoid it, I’m sure, in fact I've met one or two since. But we were staying in Kazimierz, and it’s the Jewish quarter: you dine in Jewish restaurants, buy bagels for breakfast, drink your vodka from Jewish pubs and walk past synagogues. You start to think about what happened here and all over Europe, even if you really just came for a city break. The big question becomes, do you go or not? To Auschwitz?

We stayed in the Kazimierz Secret Apartments on Josefa. The German apartment has two large double bedrooms, a kitchen/diner and bathroom and in June works out at about 115 euros per night. The Moment Café Josefa 26 (www.momentcafe.pl) is just underneath the apartments. It's good for a breakfast of eggs and coffee if you haven’t got round to buying your own. The location was great for what turned out to be the main thing about Krakow and we were so dim, we weren’t really even aware. It was an accident being in just the right place and getting a mammoth education.

Krakow had one of the largest Jewish communities (60,000) in Europe before WWII. On our first day we visited virtually all of the synagogues in the area, largely because we bumped into someone outside a bar who said it was essential. This probably isn't quite the case but if you just do a few, make them the following: the Remuh synagogue, which dates from the 16th century and has an ancient Jewish graveyard behind (reconstructed after Nazi destruction in the war) and a wailing wall made from some of the damaged gravestones from the war; the High synagogue, of similar age, with some ancient Hebrew inscriptions on the wall, fascinating photographs of Jewish life pre-war and an illuminating bookshop; and the Tempel synagogue, a more modern large synagogue built in neo-Renaissance style.

Then we went south of the river to the area of Podgorze to see where the ghetto was. All the Jewish people were herded out of Kazimierz into this area, which still contains a small section of the ghetto wall in places. It also has a square with a collection of chair sculptures symbolising the belongings that were trashed and abandoned in the move. Schindler’s factory was close by and the gates can still be seen on Lipowa 4.

Light relief and culture

On our second day, we agreed that we needed some light relief. What passes in Krakow for light relief includes the salt mines at 10 Daniłowicza Street, 32-020 Wieliczka www.kopalnia-wieliczka.pl. The big 'but' is that if you think that salt mines can't be interesting, you are in for a big surprise including a full-scale cathedral made entirely out of salt and complete with chandeliers, a statue of John Paul II and a saline picture of the Last Supper!

We then decided to see some of Stanislaw Wyspianski's work, one of Poland's most famous artists, though personally I don’t think the best place is the Wyspianski museum on ul. Szczepańska 11. His most impressive works are stained glass windows in various churches around Krakow including the Franciscan Church (and also in the Institute of Physics building). Try to see at least one Catholic cathedral as well as the synagogues. Church of St Mary is a good place to start on the Market Square but as with the synagogues, you'll be spoilt for choice in this city so don't overdo it!

Eating and drinking

The 19th-century Noworolski Café (www.noworolski.com.pl/eng/) in Cloth Hall right in the middle of Market Square seems like the very centre of Krakow and we found ourselves there on several occasions. It's a beautiful Austrian-inspired delight inside but sitting outside and watching the world go by in Market Square with an ice cream sundae is the even better option. Rumour has it that Lenin plotted the Bolshevik revolution from here, a somewhat bourgeois location me thinks. We plotted a horse and carriage ride around the main streets and tried to concentrate for a while on the present.

The Miod i Wino restaurant in ul. Slawkowska 32 www.hawelka.pl/index2.php?a=page&id=7 is a necessary experience if you want your meal brought to you set on fire, and then carved by men in traditional costume with swords. Strangely, this did not seem to be a tacky experience and the food is splendid, succulent meat with accompanying salads and sauerkraut. For a calmer couple of hours and perhaps for lunch, try the various dishes at Domowe Przysmaki café along the same road. The pierogi (savoury or sweet dumplings) is good here and the bigos (a spicy mixture of potato, onion and carrot) should not be missed.

Back in Kazimierz on ul. Szeroka, there are a whole string of Jewish restaurants, the most original of which is Klezmer Hois at no. 6 www.klezmer-hois.cracow.pl/ which has a definite pre-war feel in its décor and the likes of stuffed goose necks on the menu. It is impossible to get into without a booking in the evening, so we made do with sundaes and soaked up the atmosphere.

And then there is the vodka, which helps get to grips with some of the history you're finding out. The vodka comes in bewildering flavours for those just used to Smirnoff. Grapefruit, vanilla,  Zubrowka (which has one blade of grass in) and Passover, which turned out to be the deadliest of the lot and should only be approached by the strong of stomach. The best bars seem to be around the Plac Nowy Square in Kazimierz (again), especially Alchemia 5 Estery St. (Corner of Estery St. and Nowy Sq; www.alchemia.com.pl/), and the Singer Bar (ul Estery 20, where tables have old Singer sewing machines on the top, a nod to all the tailors who once lived around here.

And back into history...

But drink all the vodka you want, the present leads back to the past in Krakow. Breakfast was bagels from the local café, and orthodox Jews from America passed us on the street. We didn’t go to Auschwitz in the end (personally I think I'd have to come separately in definite non-holiday mood), but we did think about the Holocaust an awful lot during our trip. If you want to pay respect and find out more but don’t feel up to the camps, go to the Jewish Galicia Museum at ul. Dajwór 18 (www.galiciajewishmuseum.org). We found ourselves here on our last day, unable to leave Krakow without paying some kind of homage to the people who suffered so horribly here. The exhibitions about Resistance fighters in Krakow (mostly young students) were incredibly affecting. It showed, not devastated emaciated people, but the healthy hopeful youngsters many of them had once been. A twin exhibition called ‘Traces of memory’ - showing the relics of Jewish life in Poland: synagogues, graveyards, signs, and so on - was equally devastating. So much was disintegrating from neglect (because, and here's the rub), there just aren't enough Jewish people in Poland any more to preserve them)

But there IS some kind of resurgence of Jewish life down in Kazimierz now, whatever the lack of it in the rest of the country. Only 600 Jews were left in Krakow in the seventies. Now, over 5,000 live here. As we'd witnessed, many Jewish people (many from other countries) are moving in and gradually rejuvenating the whole area, it's extraordinary when you think about it. Aren't people amazing, sometimes?

kimvernon

Kim was born in Bristol and after many years in London is now back in the West Country. She works as a freelance editor for the educational market. She loves to visit wild and woolly places to relax and swim but finds its often cities that really get the imagination going and linger in the mind longest. She mainly visits Europe though has strong family links with Australasia and a great love of Africa, places she would love to go to again.