By some sort of miracle Kraków, which was Poland’s capital city in the Middle Ages, is immaculately preserved. The Nazis’ tanks and bombs ignored it, as did the Allies, for reasons I will touch on. But what an extraordinary place it is.
I did not see any of the semi-naked Englishmen dressed only in mankinis (joke one-piece swimsuits) who were reported to be “terrorising” the city around the time of our visit. That was on the front page of one of Poland’s bestselling newspapers (thanks to Daniel Tilles on Twitter for the tipoff).
(In case you haven’t seen one, the mankini is grotesque on purpose. It took off as a trend after Sacha Baron Cohen wore one, when in character as his comedy-Kazakh, Borat. You can buy them on Amazon in a one-size-fits-all version for “themed parties”. Not that I’ve searched, you understand.)
At any rate you don’t want gangs of drunk men barrelling round a Unesco World Heritage Site like Kraków’s Old Town – whether mankinied or not. Perhaps they were planning to go for a dip in the Vistula, the mighty river which flows more than 600 miles from the southern border up to the bay of Gdańsk.
In fact we saw no drunks (or beggars). Our driver explained that in the years after the communist regime collapsed, Kraków had suffered like other cities from an invasion of British stag parties, attracted by the cheap beer. But luckily the laddish party problem had subsided. (That said, one of the group of hefty blokes near us on the morning plane from London had quite a thirst for the mini-bottles of red wine from the in-flight menu.)
With its expansive market square, royal castle, and Wawel cathedral, the crypt of which holds the great old monarchs as well as the altar on which in 1946 the young Karol Wojtyła celebrated his first Mass as a newly ordained priest, Kraków worked its magic steadily, just as much on the two older children who had joined me on this mini-break while their younger sibling was, unfairly for her, still at school.
The many varieties and periods of architecture can make for a streetscape of happily accidental juxtaposition here. The lion lies down with the lamb – what the writer on buildings Ian Nairn called sharawaggi. The term comes from gardening and it describes the natural look of a scene that has grown up organically, with an irregularity that pleases the eye.
Still, there is plenty of state-ordained conformity, if you know where to look. Our driver showed us around a feature of Kraków that tends to be neglected. It is unglamorous and, in the case of the later apartment blocks, hideous. This is the post-war Stalinist new town, Nowa Huta (“new steel mill”), built on fertile agricultural soil east of the old city to house workers at the steel plant. Streets radiate from a central square in a style reminiscent of Haussmann’s 19th-century Paris, and big green spaces allow for strolling (few people owned cars in the 1950s).
Possibly, as with the Parisian boulevards, the wide streets served a dual purpose: to give space for patriotic processions but also, perhaps, to make it easier to suppress riots. A Soviet tank was parked on the pavement, left as a monument.
Amid all the amenities of the socialist utopian project of Nowa Huta one thing was missing at first: a church. But in the early 1960s the young Bishop Wojtyła has other ideas. It took years, and courage, but by the late 1970s the Lord’s Ark was built, by volunteers; in the next decade it became a focus of resistance to the communists.
We used a superb tour company called CracowVisit.com (this was not a “freebie” by the way). They took us to the extraordinary Wieliczka Salt Mine. (I feel more ambivalent about mass tourism at a site which we did not visit – Auschwitz – but that is for another column.)
As I said, historic Kraków has been looked after. It feels prosperous and – particularly in the less touristy Kazimierz district, which houses the Jewish quarter – the streets buzz with young people. I think there are plans to make Kraków a Polish silicon valley. At the departure gate a group of British tech workers were discussing the latest noise-cancelling headphones and the 5K run one of them had planned.
Most crucial to the city’s recent history, however, is the fact that the invading Germans spared it from destruction, because Hans Frank, whom Hitler put in charge of the zone of Poland called the General Government, chose it as his centre of operations. (It was also too far east for the Allies easily to bomb.)
One last thing: the food. I couldn’t persuade either of the children to like pierogi (Polish dumplings).
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph
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