Thursday, 15 July 2010

Krakow, Kazimierz

Located in the south of Poland Krakow is historically and culturally one of the most important cities in central Europe and although we had visited before in 2006 it seemed appropriate to go again and see what we might have missed the first time. Cheap £40 return Ryanair flights made the decision an easier one and in March 2010 we left Stansted airport for the two hour flight to Poland’s second city.

Krakow can suffer very severe winters and 2009/10 had been especially harsh with January night time temperatures regularly plummeting to as low as minus twenty-five degrees centigrade and in the days before our visit there seemed to be no let up in the grip of winter with snow falls a daily occurrence so we prepared ourselves for grey skies, short days and cold nights and packed appropriately. Our plans were disrupted however when the weather unexpectedly improved and the forecast promised sunshine and blue skies which meant a last minute reassessment of the contents of our suitcases.

For most of the flight we flew above the clouds of course but then as the pilot began the descent we could see the High Tatra mountains blanketed in snow, forests still trapped in the grip of a rigor mortis of frost and frozen lakes and rivers and we worried that we might have been a bit hasty when we abandoned the Winter thermals for short sleeved linen shirts.

It was overcast when the Boeing 737-800 landed at the John Paul II international airport at Balice and as it taxied to the terminal building Krakow didn’t look especially inviting as the bleak grey weather matched perfectly the austere infrastructure of the ex-military airport. An unnecessary shuttle bus transported us about one hundred metres to the arrivals hall, which was too small and overcrowded, dealing with more people than it was ever designed to and with an unhelpful lay out which meant a lot of pushing and shoving while waiting to be processed by the border police. This was an authentic Eastern European welcome with humourless officials carefully scrutinising the passports in an authoritarian way that seemed to take longer than was really necessary. My favourite border controls are in Greece where the police are generally completely disinterested and allow people through after an apathetic glimpse at the passport but the best place of all is Alicante in Spain where on both of my arrivals there, there was no one on duty at all.

Once outside we found a taxi and then took the fifteen kilometre ride into the city and to our hotel. It was an unattractive journey along roads ripped open into cavernous potholes by the savage winter frosts and which required huge amounts of concentration by the driver to negotiate around them. There was no sign of life in the fields, the grass was dull and lifeless after three months without sunshine and the stately beech trees at the sides of the road stood tall, black and motionless with no signs yet of any Spring activity.

After twenty minutes we reached the city and were dropped off at the Hotel Ester in the Jewish district of Kazimierz and after ten minutes to book in, find our rooms and leave our bags we were back on Ulica Szeroka where the only remains of three months of snow were stubborn piles of compacted ice in occasional dirty piles on the shady side of the dry street, which confirmed that the weather had changed and improved dramatically. It was still cold though so we did the most sensible thing and found a bar.

It was the Crocodile bar opposite the hotel and across the way from the house where Helena Rubinstein was born in 1870, which had a dark and utilitarian but welcoming interior with wooden tables and chairs and an ad-hoc assortment of decoration and the smell of lingering cigarette smoke. The Crocodile is inspired by, and named after a short story by Bruno Schulz who was a Polish writer who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Polish language prose stylists of the twentieth century. He was born to assimilated Jewish parents and spent his entire life in the city of Drohobycz in the province of Galicia. ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ was originally a short novel written by Schulz revealing his childhood memoirs and the bar had tried to capture the mood of the story with its dark corners and random ornamentation. Sadly he was murderered by a Nazi officer in 1942.

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