domingo, dezembro 03, 2017

A trip to Krakow and Wroclaw

For several years I had wished to visit Krakow, but somehow kept postponing it out of a vague dislike of Poland - I perceive it as a very religious, nationalistic and xenophobic country, with a strong tradition of anti-Semitism. That kind of dislike of a country's regime, politics and general mores (as I perceive them, of course) has kept me away from going to places I would otherwise love to visit for their history or natural beauty - I'm thinking of countries like Russia, Hungary, China, Cuba,Turkey, even the present Trumpist USA, and of course extreme cases like Iran. But Poland hasn't yet reached that no-go threshold, so there I went. I might have reconsidered if the infamous nationalistic march that took place in Warsaw on the eve of our arrival had occurred a few months before - it confirmed my worst misgivings.

That said, Krakow is indeed a beautiful city. We stayed at an old-fashioned hundred-year-old hotel in Stare Miasto (the Old Town), with everything from the old-fashioned furniture and wallpaper to the gilded bathrooms taps and the staircases with blue majolica vases and the porters exuded a scent of fin-de-siècle.

It was raining softly but steadily on the first day. I walked around the city, down Florianska street to the huge and beautiful Rynek (the Market Square) with the Cloth Hall building at the centre and the Our Lady church to one side and the Old City Hall tower to the other. Then down Grotzka street, stopping at the Dominican church and the baroque church of Sts Peter and Paul, unto the Wawel hill. There stands the impressive Wawel castle and the cathedral.

I walked inside the cathedral, along the majestic tombs of the kings of Poland - several Sigismunds, Jadwiga, Kazimierz, and of course Wladyslaw Jagiello. Back outside, saw the Vistula and walked down the hill towards Kazimiers, the old Jewish neighbourhood.

What most impresses in this quarter is the sheer size of the Jewish remains - several huge synagogues, that attest to the size of the Jewish population there, and makes it heartbreaking to imagine how most of those people were murdered by the Nazis. I visited the Remu synagogue and cemetery, then the Old Synagogue, now an excellent Jewish museum. It seems the Jewish community has been doing a great job of recuperating its heritage, there is a well marked Jewish route, several very good bookstores, and all the synagogues are rebuilt and host a number of quite good exhibitions. Hope they won't be driven away again by the recurring Polish anti-Semitism - one of the purported claims of the nationalistic march was to "drive the Jews away from government". What Jews in that very conservative government? Crazy.

In the Kazimierz, I still visited the huge Corpus Christi basilica, another of the over decorated Polish churches - Catholicism in Poland assumes a very kitsch aesthethics, the generally beautiful Gothic or Baroque architecture disappears under several layers of gold, silver, paintings, saints, embroidered cloths, flowers, etc.

On the second day, I walked around Stare Miasto, Wawel and Kazimierz again, this time without rain, under a nice sun in a crisp cold weather. This time, I went inside the beautiful Franciscan church, a remarkable jewel of Art Nouveau decoration, and again the synagogues, this time going inside the High Synagogue and the Izaak Synagogue. Then headed north again, along the interesting Kanonicza street and visited the Jagellonian university, beautiful buildings and Copernicus memorabilia.

The inside of the church of Our Lady is again over decorated, but it's worthwhile for the Veit Stoss late Gothic altarpiece, that is truly remarkable. And as the night sets in, horse carriages gather on the Rynek, where the covered café terraces fill with people drinking, eating and talking.

The last day in Krakow was spent walking around the neighbourhoods around Stare Miasto, like the area of the huge Central Railway Station, the square with the Unknown Soldier's memorial, and the Piasek quarter. There is a very nice market with lovely vegetables, fruit and herbs stalls, and I loved the Massolit bookstore, with a cosy café and piles of English first and second hand books; I had a nice chat with one of the employees that advised me on Polish literature and bought a few books.

In the meantime, every evening we had very good Polish food - pierogies, borscht, rich salads, bigos, zurek, hearty pork dishes. Polish cuisine is not very varied, but the food is tasty and abundant. Also quite cheap by European standards. I didn't taste the ubiquitous Polish lard, though.

We took the train to Wroclaw, where we stayed in a nice hotel near the centre. Wroclaw is another beautiful city, but completely different from Krakow, much more alike a German city, which it was until the second World War. That can be seen in its architecture - the façades of the houses, and especially the churches, so much more austere and bare (I like that much more).

St Elizabeth's church was near our hotel, with its tall tower, then we came into the Rynek, another impressive square lined with beautiful façades and with the remarkable building of the City Hall.

There are several beautiful churches in Wroclaw, like St Mary Magdalene or the cathedral of St John the Baptist. Also a university and a nice lively covered market (I love markets).

The Piasek island is lovely, and the quiet and old buildings reminded me somewhat of the Île de Saint-Louis in Paris. But the most remarkable spot in Wroclaw is probably the Panorama Raclawicka.

It is a huge mural painting of the Battle of Raclawice, extremely well displayed, so one feels like one is really in the middle of it. I was really impressed.

Wroclaw Synagogue is also huge, and there is a small kosher café at the entrance. Again one is impressed by the size of the former Jewish community, wiped out during the Nazi times.

In the evening, we strolled along the Christmas Market at the Rynek and nearby streets. I love these Christmas markets in Northern Europe, so characteristic and so different from our southern countries' traditions. Lots of colourful stalls selling a bit of everything, and people drinking mulled wine and walking around. It was a nice finishing touch for our Polish trip.

(A final note about my trip to Krakow - why didn't I go to Auschwitz? I had considered going, after all it is an important site connected with the history of the 20th century, a memorial to the horrors of human cruelty, and I had thought of going there as a kind of pilgrimage. But then I was confronted with all these "Auschwitz tours" in Krakow, and suddenly it felt like an obscene thing to do, to go as a tourist to that place, to pay these anti-semitic Poles to visit a place of suffering and death. So I didn't go.)

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