A Whirlwind Tour Around Poland

The memoirist trades Tuscany for the northern light and unexpected pleasures of Krakow and Gdansk

Krakow possesses a wealth of cultural treasures such as Wawel Royal Castle where the country's kings lived. (Christophe Boisvieux / Corbis)
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As we step outside in the morning, the city is just awakening. Pretzel stands appear on almost every block. Choose a string of small pretzel rings, or round ones as big as a face—plain, salted or sprinkled with poppy seeds. Skinny trolleys seemingly straight out of 1910 run through the streets. In Kra­kowski Kredens, a food shop, we see crocks of lard with onion or bacon, thin ropes of sausages, big blood sausages and cunning little hams and pâtés. Confitures—such an array—remind me of Ed's first words after landing: "I've never seen so many fruit trees."

Suddenly, the market square of Krakow appears. Magnificent! The Rynek Glowny is the great piazza of Europe— Siena and Brussels notwithstanding. Only Venice's San Marco compares in scope, and Krakow's is more visually exciting. Because nothing in the old town could be built higher than the cathedral, the scale remains human. We're stunned by intact neo-Classical buildings with Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic touches. Spared from World War II bombing, the enormous space breathes Old World.

We take a slow promenade all the way around. On a warm, late April morning, everyone is outside, some under the umbrellas of outdoor cafés, some showing winter-pale faces to the sun. Krakow has some 170,000 students, and many of them are walking around or gathered at tables over formidable glasses of beer.

The Sukiennice, the medieval Cloth Hall, stands in the center of the Rynek, and the sweet Romanesque church of St. Adalbert—older than the square—is incongruously angled into a corner. The Cloth Hall, begun in the 13th century by the charmingly named Boleslaw the Chaste, now houses a gallery, an arcade of craft and souvenir stalls and the atmospheric 19th-century Noworolski Café. How many coffees can we drink? I want to pause at each cardinal point in the square and admire a new perspective. Spires, machicolations, towers, scrolls, turrets, whimsical stone rams, eagles, lizards—all lend endless variety. The flower vendors are favoring tulips today. I usually find mimes annoying but am charmed by one assuming the mien of a writer, all in brown at a café table, his pen poised over a notebook. Reminds me of writer's block.

St. Mary's, one of Krakow's most venerated churches, watches over the square, as does the statue of 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz. High on a pediment with a book in his hand, the poet now serves as a popular meeting point. We cross the square and look into St. Barbara's Church as well, but touring a Polish church feels awkward. So many people are praying that if you are just having a look, you're intruding.

Nearby we find the Czartoryski Museum, where Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine lives. We saw her when she came to Italy for an exhibit, which was lucky because today her section of the museum is closed. She's one of four female portraits by da Vinci, and as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa.

Other pleasures we take in: Gypsy musicians, women on stools selling shaped breads, eggs from a basket and cloth-wrapped cheeses. So many bookstores! We stop in several to touch the volumes of favorite poets—Zbigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski and Czeslaw Milosz, all profoundly conscious of history, full of layers of darkness and gorgeously suffused with wit. We happen upon the covered market, where we feast visually on radishes, kohlrabi, strawberries, possibly every sausage known to man, shoppers with baskets, and farm women in bold flowered scarves and aprons.

At midmorning, we pause at A. Blikle and indulge in its caramel walnut tart and hazelnut cream tart. "As good as Paris!" Ed declares. The espresso, too, is perfect. A mother feeds her baby girl bites of plum cake, causing her to bang enthusiastically on her stroller.

We come upon Ulica Retoryka—Rhetoric Street—where Teodor Talowski designed several brick houses in the late 19th-century. A grand corner building adorned with a stone frog playing a mandolin and musical scores incised across the facade is called "Singing Frog." Another is inscribed "Festina Lente," the Renaissance concept of "make haste slowly," which I admire. Talowski's arches, inset balconies, fancy brickwork and inscriptions reveal a playful mind, while his solid forms and materials show a pre-Modernist architect at work.

We walk across the river to the Kazimierz district, founded as a separate town in 1335 by Casimir the Great. By 1495, Jews driven out of Krakow settled here. Now local publications call Kazimierz trendy. Around a pleasant plaza surrounded by trees are a few cafés, two synagogues and restaurants serving Jewish food—all are hopeful markers. I can see how it might become trendy indeed, though I wonder whether any of the 1,000 Jews remaining in the city would choose to live in this district historied by extreme persecution. Ed is handed a yarmulke as we stop at Remu'h Synagogue, where two rabbis quietly read the Torah. Light inside the white walls of the synagogue hits hard and bright, but the adjoining cemetery, destroyed by the Germans and later restored, seems eerily quiet under trees just leafing. This neighborhood speaks to the riven heritage of Krakow's Jewish culture—mere remnants of the residents who were forced out, first to the nearby Ghetto, then to a worse fate.


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