A weekend in Kraków | Day 2 – Kings, Communists and the Kazimierz Ghetto
Having awoken to the sweet serenade of the hejnalista to the accompaniment of the most glorious of peachy pink sunrises (see my post yesterday) I thought I could barely be reawoken to anything more beautiful. Yet when, having gone back to bed at 6am, I arose two hours later to the now sundrenched view of the Rynek Główny, I soon realised that in the beauty stakes, Kraków is the city that just keeps on giving. And not just the city – in our hotel, the Hotel Wentzl we started our day in the lap of luxury: an espresso machine installed in the room pumping out coffee-rich espressos with which to enjoy the unbeatable view, and breakfast in Polish TV personality Magda Gessler’s Wentzl restaurant, conveniently located in our hotel, serving up the perfect of Polish continental breakfasts in the opulent surroundings of her lavishly and quirky interior decors. I particularly loved the pastoral quality to the design – the huge pheasant chandeliers and heavily embroidered bucolic curtains being particular favourites.
Our view by morning
Pondering the quirky interiors of Magda Gessler’s restaurant…
So after a doubly-good beginning to our second day in Kraków, we were well slept, well fed and full of energy to explore all the city had to offer. And just as well. For the city’s old town in itself takes some exploring, and as we made our way to the Wawel Hill, upon which sits the city’s former royal residence as well as its stunning main cathedral, we soon found that other tourists too had discovered the attraction, resulting in an hour’s queue for tickets. The length of the queue was perhaps augmented by a particular attraction which is currently in residence at the museum: Leonardo Da Vinci’s sensational Lady with an Ermine, with whom I became acquainted when she was on display in London’s superb Da Vinci exhibition, but who usually hangs in Kraków’s Princes Czartoryski museum, currently closed for major renovations.
While a visit to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece was undoubtedly a must of my Kraków experience, the ticket queues certainly took the sparkle out of this reconnaissance, although happily for me, my self-sacrificing partner took on much of the sting of the queue, waiting in line for the full hour while releasing me to look around the vast Wawel complex. And how glad I was to have time to experience the palatial compound to the full, starting with the lavish Wawel Cathedral, whose outside is covered with so many complex cupolas in devastatingly extravagant gold and elegantly crafted copper, that upon my first sight of the building, I literally had to gasp for air. Owing to the ban on inside photography, I cannot demonstrate to you the interior ravishment which more than matched the splendour of the outside, but rest assured, this Cathedral is awe-inspiring on the inside and out.
Rejoined by my partner, we made our way to see Da Vinci’s portait of Cecilia Gallerani, tranquil as ever caught in the midsts of a far off gaze, the perfection of her skin remarkable considering the age of the painting. Then, sadly finding no further works from the Czartoryski museum to enjoy, we headed off to Sandomierska Tower, one of various towers built into the Wawel’s vast ramparts, and which reminded me of an oversized Moomin House. From up there we had the benefit of unbeatable views across the Vistula River and the whole of the Wawel complex, while descending back to ground level, we made our way deeper into the Wawel Hill, where a series of creepy caves are said to have once housed the legendary Wawel Dragon.
Back out into the sunlight, we wandered off in search of lunch and a rest, out to the East of the City where the Jewish district (the Kazimierz) now stands. It’s strange to think of the district as being truly Jewish, being as the city lays claim to only a paltry Jewish population compared to what it once contained in the decades before the horrors of the holocaust, although the evidence of both Jewish culture, and the scars of the former Jewish Ghetto which stood on the site are still prominent today. But rather than dwelling in the horrors of the past, Kraków actively celebrates its Jewish heritage, playing host to a Jewish Cultural Festival every year, and in the Kazimierz area offering rich pickings of Jewish culture, from Jewish restaurants and interminable book shops, to ancient synagogues and both an old and new Jewish cemetery.
We visited the oldest of the two, being struck as we did so by the distinct differences between this and the typical Catholic cemetery for example, filled not with angels, elaborate crosses and flowers aplenty, but a more austere selection of headstones, each covered with what appeared to be a little hat upon which families of the dead have placed stones, said to symbolise the permanence of memory.
The Jewish Cemetery
From the Ghetto and its connotations of war-torn Poland, to the next phase of Poland’s traumatic recent history – Communism. Marking this stretch of Poland’s occupational history, we visited a Communist Propaganda Bar – something of a send up on the Communist world which once controlled Poland with such an iron fist – a dirty den of a place, covered from floor to ceiling with old adverts plastered with Communist slogans and platitudes. It was here that, getting into the spirit of the old harsh realities of iron-curtain Poland, we knocked back a shot of Polish vodka – a drink so harsh that I felt my throat enflame like an inferno, and my mind haze over.
The haze was not so strong as to preclude our continued adventures through Kraków however, and we ended our day with a stroll around the beautiful Planty greenbelt – an arch of parks and playgrounds which was once the moat of the old fortressed city and which today makes for the most pleasant of strolls around the outskirts of the city.
And so there, watching the sun sparkle across ponds and through fountains, we sat and watched and mused over the day – a day in which we had sampled Kraków through the ages – from the splendour of its days of monarchy, to the horrors of the German occupation, and the desolation of the communist regime which followed, suppressing all joy and life out of the city. It was a period which stained so much of the Poland which exists today – concrete tower blocks and dour grey industrial suburbs pepper so much of the country, but Kraków, mercifully, was preserved in all its medieval glory. Why? Well , apparently Stalin himself so enjoyed the view of the Rynek Główny when he sipped his coffee at the Cloth Hall which extends across the square’s centre that he decided to keep the city preserved for that very purpose. A vain monster he may have been, but he had good taste when it came to cities. And you have to give thanks for small mercies.
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- A weekend in Kraków | Day 1 – Jewellery box city (daily-norm.com)