In the Polish town, it’s hip to be (in the) square. It’s a vantage point to the past and future
Krakow is abound with dark tales of witches, ghosts and vampires
IN EVERY other city in the world you’re running; in Krakow you walk.” Magdalena Drazba, my host in Krakow, knows this first hand. She gave up a high-flying corporate job three years ago to settle here, take it easy and start a homestay. Honestly, though, I didn’t even walk. Most of the time, all I did was sit. In Poland’s second-largest city, the best way to see the people is to find one of its many town squares, pick a spot, and gawk.
Krakow is an old city. And you can see right where it all began. The city dates back to the seventh century and legend has it that the first settlement began on Wawel Hill: the site of the present-day Wawel Castle. Prince Krakus is supposed to have slayed the dragon, Smok Wawelski, and built the castle foundation above its cave.
Today, the castle is the crown jewel among Krakow’s sights. A bronze dragon stands at the gate of the cave, breathing fire via a natural-gas nozzle every three minutes, much to the amusement of children. The Wawel Catherdal itself is a chaotic mixture of gothic, baroque and Renaissance architectural styles. Inside, royal tombs fight for space with those of the saints, while many altars and chapels jut out from the side walls.
THE DARK SIDE
Krakow has been a trading hub and the seat of Polish royalty. More recently, in 2000, it was named European Capital of Culture. But like most European cities, Krakow abounds with dark tales of witches, ghosts and vampires. Especially vampires.
This is no Twilight world, with glittering, handsome, animal-blood-sucking undead. The Kracovians believed that vampires were ordinary men and women when alive, and harmful only when they rose from the grave. So they’d tie corpses to their coffins or chop off their heads and place it between their legs. Some of these graves are on display at the underground museum in the main square.
If Krakow’s myths and legends let your imagination run wild, Kazimierz should jerk it back to reality. The district came into being in the 14th century, when powerful Krakow Catholics rose against the growing Jewish influence on trade and culture. King Casimir, after whom it was named, was forced to establish a separate city for Jews across river Vistula. It was an expanding, flourishing town in its own right, but was swallowed up by Krakow in 1792.
But while Krakow emerged unscathed from the Nazi blitzkrieg in WWII, Kazimierz wasn’t so fortunate. Most Jews were taken to the death march. The 15,000 who remained, were packed into a ghetto in nearby Podgorze. A wall was built to keep them locked. The Plac Bohaterów Getta at the heart of this ghetto was where Jews were rounded up, sent to concentration camps or executed. A tram and bus line still runs across it while the chairs sit empty, in memorial of the murdered Jews.
Today, while most residential buildings are still dilapidated, they’ve been taken over by artists, writers and students, most of whom cannot afford Krakow’s city centre. The cobbled alleys are now alive with cafes, bars and restaurants, resurrecting the area as a youthful, vibrant party district. Eclectic, colourful decorations adorn the buildings, as if to cover up years of sorrow and neglect.
It’s a bittersweet place; at the crossroads of a poignant history and a promising future. While historic Krakow lends the city its famed, and slightly haughty, beauty, Kazimierz gives it soul.
There are no direct flights from India to Krakow, most visitors take an express bus service from other Polish cities or fly via another city
The Polish currency is the zloty. One zloty is a little more than ` 16
Info Krakow (the tourist centre) is open daily 9am–7pm
Visit www.en.infokrakow.pl to plan your trip