KRAKOW: I’d been so busy with writing in the weeks leading up to the trip I’d barely thought about it, other than a looming deadline for when I’d need to have some creative loose ends neatly tied off. This is my first trip abroad since May (when I went to Malta and had inspiration for The Black Lake) and my first trip away since June when I went to a remote and isolated cottage in west Wales for a week. Then Friday morning I’m waking up with Jo and Jules and we’re throwing lightly packed bags into her convertible V-Dub and driving through heavy rain to the airport. Click-click-click. It’s a seamless journey. Krakow airport, we’re met by a driver – arranged by the guide we’ve hired for certain parts of our trip here. He drops us off at our hotel; the journey there, from the airport into the city gives me a flavour of the rural landscape, which is lovely and the blend of medieval and post-communist architecture as the city evolves up towards the centre. It also gives me an inkling of the lunatic way the Polish drive. Oh my God. But that doesn’t adjust my perceptions of them; the Polish are an incredibly warm (harsh when they need to be), loyal, fearsomely inventive, intelligent and driven race of people.
There was one stag party on the flight. One of the UKs worst types of export. A bunch of ape-faced lads with short hair, fake tans, large jaws and tribal tattoos… all wearing bespoke printed football shirts with their “new names” printed on the back. There was also the word BOOBS printed on either arm. I would have thought have their name print on the arm would have been a better option so that they could recall what they’re called when their solitary brain cell drowns in a mix of sugar-flavoured alcohol and “cheap” beer.
It really sank my heart to see them on this flight. Knowing the fate of Prague – a once stunningly beautiful and evocative city now ruined by the onslaught of EasyJet carrying droves of mindless morons into its medieval heart to stagger around offending everybody but themselves.
Is this the fate of Krakow?
I think not. The Polish must have a different mind-set to the Czech’s in Prague. That’s not a dig at the Czech Republic by the way. But if you ever had the privilege and the pleasure to see Prague prior to the noughties, you’ll understand what I mean.
Skipping forward a little, I saw the group of Stags in the main market square a day later – looking utterly out of their depth. It was fantastic. Pale faced and very uneasy. Hopefully it’s a symptom of the city rejecting their moronic mentality. Go get pissed in England. On a beach, near a cliff…
Krakow invites you to walk its cobbled and paved streets. It is a walking city. The Old Market is a VAST open space surrounded by beautiful buildings and even the large clusters of bric-a-brac stalls doesn’t rob any notion of the space that’s available to you. The edges of lined by rows of chairs and tables beneath umbrellas. And unlike most cities where the local establishments try to rip you off for sitting somewhere nice, here you can sit and enjoy a drink and some nibbles from bright and friendly staff.
I have a friend called Jake. I met him in Bristol in 1997 when he was bouncing between worlds with his wife (of that period). I gave them a place to stay when they needed one. Eventually they would be the couple who gave me their bed for a week in Vancouver (2003). After 2003 I didn’t see Jake again until he came to visit me in Bristol in 2008, this time with a new partner (Mags); meanwhile he’s been through the many ups and downs that the journey of life can throw you through. Toronto and Berlin have seen him arrive and go. And now here he is, living in Krakow. So, in line with our tradition of seeing each other every 4 or 5 years, we hook up on my first night in Krakow. I walk down into the old Jewish quarter: Kazimierz. There’s a bar called Singer’s – every table is an old sewing machine. And later we’re eating the most amazing Russian dumplings at a place that has 28 different types of dumpling on the menu. I could have lived there.
We cross the Wisla river on a bridge that has thousands of padlocks attached to its sides – acts of love. I photograph some of these and the funny coloured plastic spiders that also seem to litter the bridge. And then I get a little closer with my camera and discover that the spiders are not plastic. They’re real and they’re everywhere!
Too much vodka for Jake. I like my hard liquor. I tap into the Polish vein and see what’s good in the way of Vodka. We find ourselves walking near to Schindler’s factory and the old ghetto. I learn that Schindler grabs the limelight for being a German who tried to help the Jews but there were, in fact, many other Polish industrialists doing what they could to save a few souls from the gas chambers.
We walk a little as the rain starts to come down hard and heavy. We find a monument formed of rows of chairs (metal sculptures) that represent those that died during the atrocity of the Final Solution. It’s a poignant moment, standing there, warm with drink and the internal fire of a positive state of mind.
The next day is Saturday. I wake up in a corporate hotel and wince as I feel the close call of a hangover bullet glance past my skull. I sense Jake won’t be so lucky and I chuckle (not unkind) as I visualise him cursing my name. (In fact, I later discover that his parents in law who have travelled from Toronto chose that morning to visit.)
I spent a day walking in a loop around the city. Churches and ancient structures including the fantastic, Collegium Maius – a building that dates back to the 1300′s – although the structure I walked into was 15th century rebuild: a late-Gothic structure surrounding a large courtyard bordered with arcades. Corner of Jagiellon Street and St. Anne Street not far from the Old Market square. What was particularly special for me was knowing I was walking in the physical footsteps of Nicolaus Copernicus – who attended the college in the late 1490s (another reference for my life and the year 1492). A true Renaissance man and polymath. This is the man who developed the heliocentric model which ultimately led to the victory of scientific reasoning over religious irrationality; that Earth was not at the centre of the Cosmos.
12 apostles stand over railings here. To the right is St Andrew’s: a Romanesque fortress church from 11th century and used as a defensive position against Tartar invasion! In fact St Andrew’s was the only church in Krakow to withstand the Mongol attack of 1241. Built between 1079 – 1098 by Palatine Sieciech. The Baroque domes atop the octagonal towers were added in 1639.
WAWEL CASTLE: Top tip! Do not queue up at the gate to buy tickets. Walk in and see what you want to see and then, if there are sections that require a ticket – only then should you bother. But the total lack of information and shoddy organisational skills of the people running the place really spoils any pleasure you can get from your visit. Go early in the morning and beat the crowds, then get the hell out. Definite low point of the trip.
Saturday night was unique and special. We’d booked ourselves in to see members of the Royal Chamber Orchestra perform a medley of classical pieces at the Church of St. Adalbert. The church is situated on the edge of the Main Market Square in the Old Town. The tiny building is nearly a thousand years old – in fact the walls and portal date back to the 11th century, but the site of the church is much older. The concert was four musicians and an audience of 45: and we filled the cramped space – but the acoustics were amazing and being up at the front, it was incredible to be so close, within touching distance of the source of the music. Oj and Jules together. I had one empty seat beside me and a young American lad, took it. We got talking and Adam joined the social vibe of the evening. I discovered a Polish porter (like a stout), that was just the business.
Sunday. Early start, collected by our guide and driven to Auschwitz. It’s an hour to get there by car and during the journey he flips soft screens over the headrests, plugged into a laptop on the front-passenger side, and runs a DVD that shows a documentary about a Soviet cameraman who went there after the Russian’s first liberated the camp in 1945 – including a lot of the footage that he shot. Unedited. That was a harrowing experience. And then to feel the car come to a stop, looking up, blinking and adjusting to a new surrounding after being so immersed in the film – to find yourself there, staring at the place you’ve just been watching in a historical document. Very bizarre.
AUSCHWITZ: As is Auschwitz. A deeply thought provoking place. Our guide got us inside and then left us to it. I cut loose and made my own route. What really got me was the built-up, almost urban structure of the place. Like the dormitories of some private school, or a government complex from the war era. But then you look at the twin rows of electrified barbed wire – enough juice to kill you, which is how some people ended their lives by just throwing themselves against the wires – and you visualise the thuggish guards with their sticks, machine guns and dogs. And so many people confined in this organised hell.
There’s a lot of contextual information placed there as you walk between and through the buildings. Auschwitz has become a museum. A record of human barbarism and atrocity in a time that is only yesterday. It is a beacon of warning to the new generations: may we never let it happen again.
Most chilling for me was the death wall. A courtyard between two blocks. A doorway in the side of one building (#11) led straight from the washroom out into the courtyard where people were summarily shot – or subjected to prolonged public torture. Black and white drawings, as large as life, give you a visual inkling of what it could have been like. But only a numb whiff of the true emotional horror.
I made a point of stepping back through the gate – outside, into freedom – because I could. I wondered how many thousands of eyes had stared at this same view, at the electric barbed wire fences and guards with their guns and dogs, and dreamed of stepping through.
I didn’t take any photos of the Death Wall. It just didn’t feel right. This small courtyard is where prisoners were tortured or executed by hanging or being shot. Artwork, placed at the scene, vividly portrays what took place there. It was chilling to look away from the drawings and see you’re standing in the very same place.
I spent 3 hours at Auschwitz. Then we met up with our guide and he drove us to Birkenau. And this time he walked in with us and narrated the history of the various locations in that vast, regimented camp for mechanised murder.
The train line where people were shouted, lashed and kicked as they stumbled from trains after days without food or water; where men and women were torn apart, families and loved ones separated; where old or pregnant women or young children were marched away towards the trees – to the Family Camp – observed by the fit men who were being held back. Through the trees they marched, and round, into the large bunker type buildings, purpose-built, where 2,000 people could be gassed in one go. 7 minutes until unconsciousness and 15 minutes until death. The death squads (prisoners) would find the bodies in eight neat pyramids, covered in shit piss and vomit, where they’d clambered up over each other in a desperate scramble to reach one of the eight vents placed in the ceiling. Later in the war, when the Zyklon B gas pellets weren’t as concentrated as they used to be; the death squads would come in to drag the bodies out from the gas chamber into the furnaces – only to find the weak concentration had not actually killed everyone. Barely conscious, they were dragged into the furnaces all the same.
I stood there. On the edge of the gas chamber, what was left of it after fleeing SS soldiers planted charges and detonated them in an attempt to cover-up evidence of their crimes. I stared down into that ruined space and found it impossible to conceive of the horrors that took place there, several times a day, every day, for years. 6,000 bodies a day were cremated there.
But that wasn’t the worst horror that Birkenau had to offer. Having a guide is essential. The stories of the people who were not killed immediately. The cold and the cruelty and the theft of all dignity – the crushing of all hope.
Leaving the camp I felt dazed and a little numb. It’s taken a few days to work its way through my cognitive system. I’ve had trouble sleeping and I find my thoughts circling back through what I’ve seen and what I’ve been told, stitching together a film reel in my mind.
With an hour or so in the car we arrive at the Wieliczka Salt Mine for a total shift in mood and experience.
WIELICZKA SALT MINE: This place is like something from a Bond film, the secret lair of a Spectre, blended with the Mines of Moria. It’s a jaw-dropping experience although the in-house guides do rush you through a little like cattle – I would have preferred to have been able to get through at my own pace and savour some of the atmospheres without a pursuing crowd.
Definitely worth doing.
Sunday night. We went to one of the best restaurants in Krakow. Called Apertif it sits on the edge of a small square tucked away from the mass crowds of Main Market Square – Old Town.
Great atmosphere, great service and fantastic food. And at a very reasonable price.
Coming out of this place we looked for somewhere interesting to end the night. The fairies must have been riding alongside us because we found a medieval doorway, partially closed, in amongst the bright lights and big sounds off the Main Square. A small hand printed sign said Cafe Bar. We pushed through into a quiet gothic looking chamber. A few doors. It looked like the entrance to a university facility or something… but not a cafe. We pressed on. And through a doorway discovered a pot of gold.
It turns out the place is part of the Historical Museum of Krakow in the House Hipolitów near St Mary’s Church. The cafe bar has a flavour of cyberpunk and George Orwell’s 1984 – the kind of place were artistic dissidents and free-thinkers might hang out. A very unusual cat with a full-on sense of identity – and apparently famous – called Hippolytus lounges on a sofa. I ordered espresso, warm apple cake (seriously amazing and home-made) and a shot of vodka. I met some interesting folks and had a long evening of conversation that could have shifted gear into me following them on to new adventures… but, I was due to meet Jake at 9am the following morning followed by my flight home. So for once I took the safe route and went back to my hotel to hook up with Oj and Jules.
Monday morning. I’m up and out early. Meet Jake at the Main Market Square in Old Town. There’s a brief chill in the air and I feel like a spy on a secret rendezvous.
Jake rocks up with a big grin on his face. He wants to take me to a cool cafe that he thinks I’ll really dig.
He takes me to Cafe Magia. I laugh and tell him about the previous night. He’s amazed and delighted.
We walk the city and drink coffee all morning. Then it’s goodbye for now, but he’s offered me the use of his cavernous apartment for a slot in December – whilst he jets off to winter in Sicily. He says the place will be great for writing: and I believe him. So Krakow might see me return before the end of 2012.
LINKS RELATED TO THIS POST:
- Krakow Tours - (Phil Clark, only English tour operating out of Krakow) – Auschwitz / Birkenau & Salt Mines – official website
- Apertif – 5 star dining in Krakow – read TripAdvisor website reviews
- The Black Lake: a post-apocalyptic ghost story – read more
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