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in the spotlight~Krakow

Volume 15/Issue 24

Krakow, City of Schindler and the Pope

by Brian Sands

My first day in Krakow was grey and drizzly. My last day there the sun shone over clear blue skies and hundreds of people came out to see the River Vistula, which cuts through the city, as it had reached historically high, near flooding levels.

This could well serve as a metaphor for this city in south-central Poland which is rapidly casting off the dreary yoke of Communism. Beginning with the election of home boy Pope John Paul II and continuing more recently with the international success of Schindler's List, which took place and was filmed there, Krakow's future seems to be shining brightly. (Oh yeah, lots of other factors may be affecting this also, but that's beyond the scope of this article, Silly.).

And just as the city had prepared for an overflow with lots of sandbags along the Vistula's banks, so too does it appear ready to welcome visitors who have been increasingly flooding into this 1,000+ year old city.

Three days should suffice to see Krakow's three main sections-the city center featuring monuments, churches and historic sites galore; Kazimierz, home of the former Jewish ghetto; and Wawel Hill with its Castle and Cathedral.

The City Center

The Stare Miasto ("Old Town"), about the size of the French Quarter, is surrounded by a narrow, park-like series of trees and greenery called the Planty-I never figured out if "Planty" is Polish for "plants" but, even if not, it would be a rare instance of Polish being completely understandable for English speakers. (Though certain sections of the Planty might lead you to think that it's Polish for "cruisy.")

In the Stare Miasto's center lies the Rynek Glowny, the largest square of medieval Europe. Though not as evocative as Prague's Staromestke Namesti, it is nonetheless an impressive site (and sight). Ringed by mansions with histories going back several hundred years, its occupants include St. Adalbert's Church, the oldest building in the square (995 AD) and the tower of the 14th-century Town Hall, all that remains of it after a 19th-century urban renewal project.

The center pride of place, however, goes to the Sukiennice, a medieval Cloth Hall that was partly redone in Renaissance style after a large fire in 1555. Nowadays the stalls lining the long inner arcade offer a fairly decent selection of local crafts and clothing, though better prices can generally be found elsewhere around the city. A National Museum Art Gallery in the upper portion of the Sukiennice features 19th-century Polish artists.

Looming over the Rynek from the northeastern corner is the Mariacki (St. Mary's) Church. Founded in 1222 and rebuilt 150 years later after a Tartar invasion destroyed it, its asymmetrical towers were designed and added by two brothers in the 15th-century. Supposedly, one brother thought that the other's tower outshone his and slew him in jealousy with a ceremonial sword that still hangs in the Sukiennice.

Every hour on the hour a trumpeter blares forth from the higher tower with a somber melody (hejnal) which breaks off abruptly. This commemorates the poor bugler whose life was ended as he played that note-a Tartar arrow pierced his throat as he tried to warn the populace of an impending attack. This ditty is broadcast live by Polish radio each day, though after you've heard it a few times you may begin to empathize with the Tartar bowman. (Personally, I thought certain hourly performances sounded like a canned rendition.)

Inside the church resides the magnificent altarpiece of Wit Stwosz. Carved over 500 years ago, its 200 figures, some life-size, populate the inner panel scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost. The central panel of this masterpiece of late Gothic art is a beautiful Dormition of the Virgin.

You may hear that a ceremony occurs each day at noon when the altar's outer panels are opened. Certainly, lots and lots of tourists pack the church in anticipation of this event. Well, when I visited, the "ceremony" consisted of a young, diminutive nun taking a pole, hooking a ring and opening first one side of the altar and then the other. Perhaps what usually happens is being scaled down because the church's renovation has virtually the entire interior covered with scaffolding. Perhaps not. In any case, avoid the crowds by going to the church some time after noon. The altar is unquestionably worth seeing; the "ceremony" is not.

Two other churches of interest are those of the Dominicans and the Franciscans. These 13th-century structures stare at each other across Grodzka ul. (street) civilly concealing their long held rivalry. The Dominican Church has several lovely chapels while the Franciscan features Wyspianski's Art Nouveau murals and stained glass windows of 1900, notably the dramatic God the Creator. Both churches have tranquil cloisters through which monks and students go about their business. Across from the Franciscan Church stands the Archbishop of Krakow's Palace-you know who used to live there.

To go from the spiritual to the secular, head to the famed Collegium Maius of Jagiellonian University, second oldest (1364) in Eastern Europe after Prague's. Tours take you through the lavishly decorated assembly room and professors' dining hall with plenty of references to the university's most famous alumnus, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

The most interesting room is the Treasury whose vault contains the 15th-century silver mace of Queen Jadwiga, the gold rings and chain of the Rector's insignia and various rare astronomical instruments. Since the beginning of this year, it has also held the Nobel Prize medal of the 1996 Laureate in literature, Wislawa Szymborska, a graduate of the University. Not wishing to be outdone, film director Andrzej Wajda subsequently contributed his Palme d'Or from Cannes. If they're not careful, this could become the repository for every tchotchka ever awarded to a Pole.

One last highlight of the Stare Miasto is the Czartoryski Palace which houses the finest of the National Museum's art collection including da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine. Unfortunately, it was closed for the few days I was there. Shucks.


A pleasant twenty minute walk south of the Stare Miasto takes you to the Kazimierz section of Krakow, since the 1500's one of the main cultural centers of Polish Jewry. Before World War II, about 64,000 Jews lived in this area. By the time the Nazis finished their dirty business, 6,000 Jews remained which emigration and old age had eroded to only about 150 by the early 1990's.

Since Spielberg's Schindler's List debuted, however, there has been an encouraging revival of Jewish life in Kazimierz. An annual summer Jewish Festival draws big crowds. A Jewish Cultural Center housed in a brand new building seems to be thriving since its founding four years ago. And tours abound that will take you to the sites shown or mentioned in movie. Ironically, here, as in Prague's Josefov, the majority of the tourists seem to be Germans.

Begin your own tour of Kazimierz in the Stara Synagogue on ul. Szeroka (the Old Synagogue on Wide Street), historically important as the oldest surviving Jewish religious structure in Poland. Of course the Nazis trashed this Renaissance building, but it has been reborn as the Museum of the History and Culture of Krakow's Jews. In addition to artifacts that give an introduction to Judaism, fascinating photographs are displayed that show what life in Kazimierz was like before World War II.

To get a sense of current life in Kazimierz visit the Templ Synagogue on ul. Miodowa. Still in use today by its Reform congregation, Templ is undergoing a major renovation. A guard let me in and proudly pointed out those sections of the white marble altar and ornamental wall designs which had already been cleaned and gold-leafed. When the job is complete it should return this majestic Neo-Renaissance edifice to its former glory. I just hope that the money I left did indeed go to the building fund and not into the guard's pocket.

An ingenious use of a temple devastated by the Nazis can be found at the Isaac Synagogue on ul. Kupa. After years of neglect it has been imaginatively transformed into a cultural and tourist information center. What remains of the original 17th-century architecture has been lovingly restored, including stucco decoration and a stone altar tabernacle, while inscriptions from 300 hundred years ago have been uncovered on the walls.

Open until 7:00pm, later than most other sightseeing places in Krakow, Isaac's ground floor recently offered a very nice exhibit of contemporary photographs. Standing around the floor, life-sized cutouts of people in early 20th-century attire are the beginning of a project, which includes a documentary film, to bring people nearer to the lost world of Krakow's Jews.

That once flourishing world can now perhaps best be appreciated in the Remu'h and New Cemeteries. The Remu'h, off Szeroka and behind the still-functioning synagogue of the same name, was used from 1533-1799 and is now very much on the tourist path.

On the other hand, a five minute walk, which goes underneath the rail track, takes you off the beaten path to the New Cemetery, the main Jewish burial site since the early 1800's. A memorial to local victims of the Holocaust stands at the gate of this tranquil, tree-filled and slightly dilapidated place. Looking at the dates on the tombstones, one can only ponder how fortunate those were who passed away before the horror that was to come.

Return to Szeroka plaza for a rest and a nosh at one of the restaurants there. The Jordan has a nice outdoor cafe and inside, in an old merchant's palace, a well-stocked bookstore with a friendly, helpful, English-speaking staff. (Actually, Krakow overall is a very English-savvy city. Which is good since Polish is a bitch of a language.) For those who are interested, they can also arrange a trip to see the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps.

Kazimierz is a very special place and becoming more so as more attention, love and money are showered upon it. As I walked along one street I looked down a passageway and, seeing people in turn of the century outfits, thought I had been transported back a hundred years ago. As it turned out, they were merely actors filming a TV movie, but for a moment the Kazimierz of old came alive again.

[Next issue will visit Wawel Hill and explore Krakow's culinary, cultural and (hard-to-find) gay scenes.]

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