TRISH AUDETTE KRAKOW, POLAND email@example.com
30 Aug 2008 Edmonton Journal
http://www.canada.com/edmontonjournal/n ... 318b6dc73a
Cultural capital of Poland offers an authenic taste of eastern Europe
The 24-year-old painter sits in a little bar in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter.
The Kosciuszko Monument sits at the entrance to Wawel Castle.
“When communism was over,” I ask, “What was the first thing you bought?”
Grzegorz (pronounced g-jay-goj, with hard g’s like the word “good”) was just five years old when the Berlin Wall fell about 500 kilometres west of this city, Poland’s cultural capital.
“It’s too embarrassing,” he says, shaking his head. After some cajoling and some dramatic pause, he admits: “Barbie.”
He explains his grandmother sometimes gave him coins, and he pulled enough money together to purchase the all-American toy. Barbie came with an evening gown — not appropriate for everyday wear, of course — and Grzegorz began cutting the bottoms of dresses in his mother’s closet so he could fashion bikinis and other outfits for the sunkissed doll with long blond hair and outlandish curves.
He hid the toy from his father, a butcher who told him communism was “something old, something over now.”
The unlikely purchase, made nearly two decades ago, is a small symbol of how today’s young Poles embrace the West, as tourists slowly flood Krakow’s Old Town and virtually everyone under 30 speaks near-flawless English.
My best friend, a Canadian, lives in Krakow and teaches English. Grzegorz is his roommate, and something of a cultural tour guide for both of us.
“Poland is part of the West now. Weare the West,” Grzegorz tells me.
Key to this sense of belonging is a completely open economy. English-language billboards offer property for sale, the latest Hollywood movies are available in English with Polish subtitles, and there is sushi, Pad Thai or McDonald’s for anyone who wishes to skip traditional (beige) Eastern European cuisine.
Brought into the European Union in 2004, nothing stops Poland from being open for business. Even its shared border with the Czech Republic is wide open, as trains chug along a PragueKrakow route twice a day with no stops for passport checks.
A city of about 750,000 tucked in Poland’s southwest, Krakow has become a hot attraction for British stag parties, and a magnet for tour-bus-bound groups from other parts of Europe. Considered safer than the Polish capital of Warsaw, Krakow is a cheap plane ticket away from London, for example — one-way fare can cost as little as $90.
Poland’s zloty is not even equal to 50 Canadian cents. In Europe, that puts it just shy of a third of a euro and just 25 British pence. The government’s budget problems stand in the way of setting a date for Poland to adopt the euro; in the meantime, buying anything from clothing to a bottle of vodka is unlikely to put much of a dent in the wallet of a foreign traveller.
But the beauty of Krakow is in the places where East does not meet West.
While some call it the new Prague, Krakow is a far cry yet from the Czech Republic’s capital: Krakow’s market square is not so far overrun by tourists; lineups to enter Wawel Castle, on the edge of the Vistula River, are absolutely manageable.
Where Prague’s cafes and restaurants have been taken over by a soundtrack of Top 40 hits from the last 15 years — Nirvana, Alanis Morisette, Kelly Clarkson — Krakow’s eateries are more likely to play a mix of classic French songs, Polish pop, and remixed American songs of the ’80s and ’90s.
(But don’t worry — should you find yourself in Krakow and missing home, a quick spin along the radio dial will surely find Celine Dion, at least. Her scheduled concert this spring was nearly as well-publicized as the new Indiana Jones movie.)
Meanwhile, even young people wellversed in the ways of Brits and North Americans do not yet recognize Starbucks. Here, cafes with hardwood tables and creaking chairs — like Dym in the Old Town or Les Couleurs in Kazimierz — offer a heavy spoonful of romantic European ambience with delicious coffee that is absolutely worth any wait at the bar.
Good advice: order a “biala,” or “white” instead of a latte or cappuccino. Heavy on milk, this coffee is slightly less expensive than its foreign-named cousins.
So many of Krakow’s buildings are somehow dark and mysterious. Walking into its Gothic cathedrals is like walking back in time, hitting a wall of heavy, spiced air. Bars and clubs often sport a uniquely red-tinged retro feel that can bring Cold War-era spy movies to mind.
But the city’s green spaces are bright and open. The banks of the Vistula are grassy, and on hot summery days you will find tethered tour boats at the ready and young couples stretched out together on the ground. The whole of the Old Town is surrounded by a green belt of trees and benches, fountains and walking paths. Here, everyone seems to stake out a spot to write, read or draw.
Krakow invites the imagination. It is a city alive with artists, in no small part thanks to a thriving university at its core — Jagiellonian University was built in the late 1300s as Krakow Academy. (One of its most famous students was the astronomer Copernicus in the late 15th century.)
If you can get past the armies of pigeons that roam sidewalks and swoop from buildings, there are long walks along centuries-old streets to be had all through the city’s centre, and so many unique or tourist-aimed shops to visit.
At the very heart of Old Town, Cloth Hall — which dates back to the 14th century — sees vendors set up shop daily to offer souvenir trinkets, traditional dolls, jewelry, sweaters, and more. Possibly the busiest spot in Krakow, the hall is narrow and packed on any given day.
To the south of the city’s centre, Kazimierz is gentrifying. Once a Jewish ghetto, this corner of the city is named for a 14th-century Polish king known for protecting Jews and their rights.
Despite hipster clubs moving into the neighbourhood, Kazimierz still has its share of Polish grandmothers walking their pets along narrow streets, or sitting at their windows to watch the world passing by.
For those who do not wish to avoid homespun Polish dining, Krakow’s most traditional restaurants are often its most unabashedly kitschy. Take Bar-Szynk, in Kazimierz, where washboards, yokes, gas lamps and even a stuffed rooster hang from the walls.
Behind the bar, beside bottles of unrecognizable local vodka, sit bottles of Jack Daniels whisky and Kahlua liqueur.
But a favourite spot, for English-speaking ex-pats at least, is Massolit Books.
Here stories are read to children on Sunday mornings, and biala is served in the front room. Used and new English books are crammed into four rooms that connect with long and short hallways, while bright-coloured walls and comfortable furniture invite hours of browsing.
In this bookstore, paradise for anyone who loves to read, the works of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway snuggle up on floor-to-ceiling shelves, and the old West finds a comfortable home in the new.
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2 posts • Page 1 of 1
Interesting take, and article on Krakow. I have lived here now for the past four years and the city continues to fascinate me. It's beauty is timeless and the city does have it's own magic. As a local legend says, perhaps this energy stems from one of the seven Chakra stones that fell here from the heavens. I know for a fact that there is some source of energy that can be felt up in the old renaissance courtyard of the castle of Krakow. For more information about Krakow check out http://www.krakow-poland.com There is heaps of stuff here if you are interested and it is all compiled by local people.
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