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Cracow, the real capital of Poland

Cracow, the real capital of Poland

Eric Boucher - 2010-06-01

There’s no escaping the clichés, Cracow is a pure gem, a little Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque jewel. Poland’s former capital city is, beyond question, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, it is readily compared with Prague, but is a little less touristy.

Poland’s history is a long litany of suffering, littered with invasions, destruction and oppression. Swedes, Austrians, Germans and Russians often left behind nothing but smoking ruins and desolation.
 
That Cracow (Kraków in Polish, pronounced “Krakuf”) was able to avoid the grim fate of Warsaw – 85% of which was destroyed during the Second World War –is a miracle. It nonetheless suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis: only 10% of the 70,000 Jews of Cracow survived the war. As for the communists, they wanted to eradicate the soul of this city, which was considered a middle-class and intellectual haunt, by proletarianising it. About 6 miles away they built a gigantic iron and steel works, coupled with a new town in the purest Stalinist style: Nowa Huta.
 
However, Cracow did not depart from its illustrious past as a political and cultural capital and became a hotbed of resistance, its most famous representative being a certain Karol Wojtyla. If the royal city almost vanished, it was, in the end, because of pollution and neglect. Dilapidated walls, statues eroded by acid rain, filthy façades: anyone who knew Cracow over 15 years ago would find it hard to recognise today. But by neglecting it, the communists in the end protected it from the marks of modernity. Cracow is an intact city, to our great delight!
 
A young city that has regained its colours
 
Just like its cheerful façades, which have recovered their pastel shades, the population of Cracow is characterised by its youth and dynamism. At a time when the countries of Western Europe are ageing, the contrast is striking: the number of inhabitants has quadrupled since the war and the city remains an important university centre, with nigh on 45,000 students. So there’s nothing fossilized about this city, even though the backdrop has remained unchanged for several centuries, as witnessed by the number of bars and cafés. The considerable Polish diaspora in Canada, the USA and Australia sends its contingent of young students and you can hear English being spoken on every street corner.
 
Another new phenomenon is the number of mixed marriages with Irish and English people. While France closed its doors to Polish plumbers, over a million Poles emigrated to Western Europe, mainly to the United Kingdom and Ireland, with almost 1,000,000 and 500,000 migrants respectively. You can see the effects of this in the splendid churches of Cracow, where weddings in both languages are not uncommon.
 
The soul of ancient Poland
 
Unlike Warsaw or even Gdansk, which was also destroyed to a great extent, Cracow is visibly authentic. Although Warsaw’s architecture is mixed to say the least – the fruit of post-war reconstruction – Cracow forms a townscape of great unity, fashioned through the centuries of over one thousand years of history (the town was mentioned for the first time in 965).
 
The Cracowians are proud of their city, of its heritage as well as its intellectual and artistic life, which continued after the war in spite of the communist regime, for example through director and playwright Tadeusz Kantor. They are cultivating a very southern nonchalance that is closer to the Viennese spirit than to the northern severity of Warsaw.
 
This art of living is perfectly symbolised in two places: the Jama Michalikacafé and the Planty. The former is none other than the oldest café in the city, and probably in the country; this den of the intelligentsia, pre-war, has retained its Art Nouveau decor and is covered with works by the various artists who frequented it, notably from the avant-garde Young Poland (Młoda Polska) movement.
 
The Planty, for its part, is a vast leafy promenade that surrounds the historic centre on the site of the city’s old ramparts, destroyed in the 19th century by the Austrians, like Vienna’s Ring. No better place to observe the Cracowian at leisure: lovers, students of the nearby Jagiellonian University, senior citizens, children on their way back from school…
 
Far from the tourist bustle of the Rynek (market square) or Wawel Castle, a stroll through Kazimierz will take you back in time, to an age when this was the biggest Jewish quarter in Eastern Europe. It is undergoing profound change, evolving between trendiness, alternative culture and reappropriation by the Jewish community. Deserted and impoverished for nigh on 45 years by the communist government, Kazimierz is making great headway with renovation but still retains housing in serious disrepair and roughly cobbled streets. Worth visiting now, before the place is to be found in every tour operator’s catalogue!
 
The Royal Way
 
You should allow at least three or four days to visit Cracow and the surrounding area, but if you are short of time, then set out on the “Royal Way”, which will take you through historic Cracow and enable you to discover the major monuments. A route once taken by retinues of sovereigns or illustrious visitors, today it is roamed by all manner of tourists.
 
The itinerary starts at Matejki Square, passes by the Gothicbarbican and St Florian’sGate, vestiges of the old fortifications, before following the splendid Florianska Street, with a view of the bell tower of St Mary’sChurch (Kosciół Mariacki) and the main market square (Rynek Główny).With its houses boasting Renaissance and Baroque façades, its cloth hall and numerous pavement cafés, the Rynek is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe and will be the high point of your visit.
 
Next, if you head off down Grodzka Street, where one of the major attractions is the Baroque church of St Peter and St Paul (Kosciół Św. Piotra i Pawła), then go down Kanonicza Street, a very picturesque authentic mediaeval thoroughfare, you will reach Wavel Hill, overlooking the river.
 
Crowned by its royal castle and cathedral, Wawel is the crucible of Polish identity and a place that is all the more symbolic since this sanctuary was used for the coronation of kings, and is now a pantheon where the various royal dynasties lie alongside illustrious men of the nation, from the poet Adam Mickiewicz to the heroes Tadeusz Kościuszko and Józef Piłsudski.
 
 
Polish National Tourist Office
 

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