Krakow State Of Mind

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Prince Krak is not a rap star from the Bronx . He was the legendary founder of Krakow, the jewel of Poland, the city the Nazi's didn't have the guts to destroy. Krak had the magic touch. His namesake is a beauty all right.

Krakow and I are on intimate terms. I'm not bragging. It's the truth. It just happened-comme il faut with all the best relationships. On one foggy November evening, very Noel Coward by the way, we were introduced in the Piwnica pod Baranami. Renowned saxophonist Janusz Muniak was playing that night with the blind pianist, Skowron. Smietana was there too. Krakow put her heart on the table for me that night and winked. I knew she was just a tease, but she was irresistible. I fell in love then and there. I remember saying: "I could live here. This is a place where I could live."
 
So much for introductions. Fateful meetings always have a special air. They stick in your craw, in your memory, no matter what happens later. I am a treacherous beast. I haven't stayed true, but then neither has she. I fell for other cities and she of course has her dedicated suitors from a hundred countries. I should be jealous.
 
Only a two-and-a-half hour train ride from Warsaw, Krakow also offers the unknown beauty of the journey. A little time travel, so to speak. Emerging from the renovated station the first thing you notice is that the city glistens under the wide blue yonder, on this day devoid of nimbus, the sky picked clean as a bone. In short, as I enter Krakow's Florian Gate, the day is already a treat. Late season tourists mixed with residents stream along the lanes. Those cockeyed paintings, hawked by street artistes, still adorn the wall next to the Czartoryski museum. On the corner, my old haunt the Hotel Polski, scene of a dozen memorable rendezvous, has been remodeled. At the foot of Florianski street is Muniak's jazz club, just across from the Pod Roza hotel, which is still the best place to stay and eat in the city. It's a masterpiece. The rooms and large and comfortable. Continental nosh. It's first rate, although the business-minded prefer the new Sheraton.

Sundays in Krakow are refreshingly aimless-afternoons meant for loafing. Yet on this Sunday the square is crawling with humanity. It's a scrum, a zoo. Horses neighing. Carriages creeping. Coiffed ladies in their Sunday best preening with prams. The whole world is out for a walk. One side of the square-the side with the tower-is walled off for some kind of repairs. The other side of the Cloth Hall boasts a flea market and throngs perusing bric-a-brac-all manner of gear from bits and bobs, knick-knacks and thingamajigs to inane paraphernalia. It's hunky dory. A perfect waste of time. Under Mickiewicz's statue I pause, collapsing on a step under the bard's stony gaze. I'm feeling inert, almost dumb. But it's not the loafers who bother people, start wars, collect taxes. Who say: "Follow me! Let's kick the hell out of the other side."

And in this sense the haughty air of Krakow citizens is perfectly understandable. They take pride in education, in history and civilization, and it is a fact that once you stop rushing around you have time to think.

Standing next to the Pizza Hut on ul. Krakowska, I take a bit of time to admire the twelve apostles, carved in stone of course. They were goners a few years ago. That's right. The acid rain was killing them, but they have since been spruced up. Across the street a lone teenager is nonchalantly performing pirouettes on his trick bike for the passersby.

It strikes me that tourists sometimes miss the walk below Wawel castle, where the Vistula flows by to the delight of elderly Polish fishermen that have haunted the banks since time forgot. You can take a water tram on the river here or take a meal on the "Krakow," a ferry anchored nearby. Kids mob the dragon statue which guards the entrance to the Wawel cave, and the castle above was the home of Polish Kings, the last refuge over the ages when the city faced invasion. Now it offers a pleasant little trip down memory lane, a brush with aristocratic preoccupations and royal prerogative. There is little doubt that this very castle is the heart of Poland . Krakow is the castle's home. Warsaw is an aberration. Ask anyone. Poland just hasn't been the same since they moved the capital four-or was it five-centuries ago?

It's lunch time. A short walk south is the Restauracja Chlopskie Jadlo. They don't pull any punches here. The food is superb. It's all Polish cooking, peasant's fare. You have never tasted food like this. You won't have a better meal in Poland . Stuff your breadbasket.

Mid-afternoon is a good time to take the river footpath to Kazimierz, the old Jewish district, which is a shadow of its former self of course. There are still five synagogues in Krakow (only one remains in Warsaw); the oldest houses a museum. You'll find it on Szeroka Street along with several good Jewish restaurants and a couple of small hotels. The museum is a trip in itself. You'll get the whole history here and likely find out more than you want to know. It is akin to endlessly replaying a nightmare, but for the full nightmare of the Holocaust, Oswiecim ( Auschwitz ) is only a short bus ride away. I won't pretend that I can do it justice. Some things you have to see with your own eyes.

Five o'clock. I was sitting in Alchemia. It's trendy and only a couple of streets over from Szeroka. It's the place in the evening. There's a fruit market in the square during the day, and it is here that I ran into Marcin. He was just leaving as I arrived. Marcin is an actor, a writer too. He recently published a biography of some famous actor, and he plays Jim Morrison in a long-running show at the Rampa in Warsaw .

"It's very Velvet Underground inside," Marcin said. "You will like it."

I did like it. Lynka's John Lynch, Poland 's T-shirt king, arrived soon after. He educated me on the finer points of Krakow's golf course. Then we decided to see what was cooking in the rynek, the main square.

The crowds were still there, but it was getting dark. There was nothing left to do but find a place to sit and talk. There is an Italian place with good service on the southern end of the square right across from the little chapel. It's called Da Pietro. We found a seat.
"It's good to be in Krakow," I said.

"Isn't it?" said John. After 10 years in the city, John calls Krakow home. For me, it's always a visit.

From the opposite end of the square the heynal, the trumpet call, sounded from the tower of St. Mary's. The sound rose on the gathering breeze and carried over the square. It announced a tradition that involved us all, insinuating a continuing link with the past, a gentle reminder. It was music to our ears, and it was nice to know that on a Sunday in Krakow, all we had to do was listen.
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This article has been republished with the permission of Poland Monthly (www.polandmonthly.pl), where it first appeared.
Poland Monthly is an English-language publication specializing in business news and insight, politics, and lifestyle issues in Poland.