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in the spotlight~Krakow

Volume 15/Issue 25

Krakow's Kings ... and Queens

by Brian Sands

Last issue visited Krakow's City Center and the former Jewish ghetto, Kazimierz. This week we go to Wawel Hill, home of the Cathedral and Royal Castle, and then out for eating and drinking.

Wawel Hill

After having seen the churches, palaces, castles and cathedrals of Prague, Vienna and Budapest, I was not overly enthusiastic about going to Wawel Hill. After all, too many of these sites can begin to blur together. Nevertheless, on a beautiful, sunny day I climbed the path up the Hill, past souvenir hawkers and tourist guides looking for clients, and was amply rewarded.

Overlooking the Vistula River, Wawel Hill has been inhabited since the eighth century. Churches and royal buildings have come and gone here, some the victims of fire, others of changing political fortunes. In the main square, you can see the foundations of two 14th-century Gothic churches (St. Michael's and St. George's), all that is left after the Austrians razed them in the early 1800's to make way for a parade ground.

After a fire destroyed the original Royal Castle in the early 16th-century, King Sigismund the Old brought in Italian architects who created a new Renaissance style palazzo complete with an arcaded courtyard-very Romeo and Juliet-y.

Inside, the state rooms hold a series of magnificent Flemish tapestries representing scenes from the Book of Genesis and of the animal kingdom, both real and fanciful. Exquisite artistry and attention to detail render many memorable images including one of the Tower of Babel and another of a panther battling a dragon. The Zodiac Room and the Planet Room take their names from the ornamental friezes that encircle them; another room features a frieze of a medieval tournament with hundreds of figures in it.

Most incredible of all, and surely unique in Europe, is the Audience Hall also known as the "Heads Room" for the array of busts set into recesses in the wooden ceiling. Taken from every strata of society, though only thirty of the nearly two hundred originals remain, their lifelike carving imparts tremendous personality to each figure and conveys a sense of the contemporary (1530s) characters on which they were based.

One of the female heads has a piece of white tape over its mouth-could this have been a wife who talked too much? It turns out that Opka, a peasant woman, was accused of theft by a local merchant. Pleading innocent, she was taken before the King; if found guilty, she would lose her life. After the facts were presented a voice cried out, "Opka's innocent. Let her go." Courtiers swore that they saw this one figure's lips move. Opka was released but the head's mouth was taped shut so it would never speak again. Mmm ... perhaps Anne Rice can use this in her next book.

Unfortunately, five of the state rooms were being restored when I visited but, in a nice touch, a trio of musicians in period costumes performed Renaissance songs in the last room open to the public. Whoever's in charge of other castles would do well to likewise offer such lagniappe.

Next door to the Castle, Wawel Cathedral, where Polish kings were crowned and buried for over six hundred years, differs from most other European cathedrals. It is not one of those huge, brooding Gothic edifices. Rather, space constraints kept the basic structure relatively compact. Since its consecration in 1364, however, various bishops and aristocratic families have added chapels onto the cathedral, some more impressive than others. The result is a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque designs that combine to create a unique spiritual and historic monument.

(It's A Small World After All: When I was standing in front of the Cathedral's Lady Chapel, I started talking with a lady and her teenage son. Turned out they live in Houma and also have a place on Ursulines Street. I hope the flooding subsided in time for them to make it to the Czech Republic!)

Hanging in front of the Cathedral's western entrance are three prehistoric animal bones. Krak, the eponymous, mythical founder of Krakow, supposedly slew the guardian of Wawel Hill, a ravenous dragon. (Now immortalized as a fire-breathing statue at the bottom of the hill.) Legend has it that these bones are the dragon's remains and as long as they stay, the Cathedral will too. Actually, they're a mammoth's shinbone, a whale's rib and the skull of a hairy rhinoceros, but why spoil a good story?

One other interesting part of the Hill is the "Lost Wawel" exhibit which takes you underground to see the excavated remains of long-forgotten structures, including the 10th-century Rotunda of Sts. Felix and Adauctus, the oldest known church in Poland. Lots of archeological finds are on display also, but you'll have to read Polish to understand the descriptions.

Like so much else in Poland, buying tickets to see Wawel's attractions brings you face to face with both the old and the new. For the Castle, cashiers hand you tickets spit out of a computer with the precise time of entry on them. For the Cathedral, a nun tears off a little piece of printed paper that looks almost as old as she does. Plan on four or five hours to see all that Wawel Hill has to offer. Just get there early to avoid the lines and crowds that grow bigger as the day progresses.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

If kielbasa begins and ends your familiarity with Polish cuisine, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of Krakow's culinary offerings. I ate at five restaurants, including a Chinese/Vietnamese one, and each was excellent.

At 150+ years old Antoine's may be the oldest restaurant in North America, but it's a mere upstart compared to Wierzynek (Rynek Glowny 15) which began in 1364 with a wedding feast for King Kazimierz the Great's granddaughter Elizabeth and has been going ever since. The house specialty features an assortment of beef, pork and veal, though their venison, trout or roasted pheasant dishes are also recommended. No matter what your choice is, you'll have eaten in the same place as de Gaulle, Nixon and Emperor Haile Selassie once did. Open late, you can dine here in elegance for a mind-bogglingly reasonable $25 per person.

If I don't remember exactly what I had for my main course at Pod Aniolami (ul. Grodzka 35) and Chlopskie Jadlo (ul. Agnieszki 1), lamb chops at one and some other meat dish at the other, it's only because the soups and appetizers at each were sublime. What I do recall is that reservations are the only way to guarantee seating at either restaurant.

Pod Aniolami ("Under the Sign of Angels") beautifully incorporates the original 15th-century beams and walls of a former clothing factory in its stylish remodelling. Dishes are prepared on an open grill heated with wood. With recipes "based on old secrets of court cooks," if anyone would like to share the secret of their white borscht with quail egg, please let me know.

The interiors of Chlopskie Jadlo ("Peasant's Kitchen") evoke the atmosphere of a turn of the century farmhouse with farm implements and other rustic items decorating the walls. Winner of the "Now Poland" Award for Best Restaurant, their herrings and onions with garlic, and mushroom soup with dumplings make it clear why they won.

"If you are tired of heavy food here is a relief," is the motto of Chimera (ul. Sw. Anny 3), located a half block from the Collegium Maius. For a very few dollars, you get four selections from a variety of salads and are rewarded with a huge and delicious meal. With both indoor and outdoor seating available, this is a perfect place for a relaxed lunch.

For those in the mood for Asian cuisine, the restaurant on the far side of the Debnicki Bridge, across from Wawel Hill, should well satisfy any cravings. I don't remember the name of the place, but you can't miss it.

On the other hand, very easy to miss is Singer on ul. Nowa in the Kazimierz section. A nondescript exterior conceals a way cool bar lit by candles and one lamp. Nina Simone CDs play as artsy intellectual types discuss, well, whatever artsy intellectual types discuss in Poland. And why is it called Singer? Because most of the tables are old Singer stand-up sewing machines. Like I said, way cool and open till the wee hours of the morning.

The only reason I knew about Singer was that the night before at Pod Aniolami I shared a table with three attractive, middle-aged women. Across the way sat two businessmen, one Dutch, the other American. The American, who reminded me of Carroll O'Connor, made obnoxiously loud comments about the women-"Ooh, I think I'm in love"-thinking they couldn't understand him.

Eventually, he came over to their side of the table and discovered that one of the ladies, though Polish, had lived in Buffalo for sixteen years. Despite their looks of disdain, he persisted in trying to pick them, or any one of them, up. I wanted to crawl under the table but finally the ugly American got the hint and went away. I then started talking with the women who told me about Singer. Flirting with

women, you wonder? Well, for a city of one million Catholics, my question was, WHERE ARE THE QUEERS? Hades (ul. Starowislna 60), a bar/dance club near Kazimierz, was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, and was dead on Thursday by the time it closed at 12:30am. It was supposed to be more lively on Friday and Saturday along with a gay disco that draws folks from all over the area but, hey, my flight left Friday morning.

Jama Michalika (ul. Florianska 45), a cafe and cabaret, has a reputation for being cruisy but far more interesting were the sketches, drawings and paintings that decorated its walls. Created by artist patrons in the early part of this century, some were done as a way to settle accounts. The gaiety of the images hardly portends what would happen to many of the bar's denizens in just a few years.

So where were the queers? I did see two really cute monks in the audience at the gorgeously ornate Slowacki Theater for a production of Fiddler on the Roof (Skrzypek na dachu in Polish). Young, cute monks at a musical comedy, hmmm???

Even counting the monks, though, that still brings the total number of fags that I saw in three days up to only about a dozen. A guy from Florida did tell me that he was nearly gay-bashed outside of Hades one night. You don't hear things like this (yet?) in, say, Prague or Budapest so perhaps Krakow's gay scene is forced to still stay very closeted. Or maybe you just gotta be there on a Friday or Saturday night. I guess I'll save that for next time.

Hope y'all have enjoyed the past few weeks journey through Eastern Europe as much as I did.

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