Krakow, a city of delights

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Marius Benson finds the heart of old and modern Poland by wandering Krakow's church-filled streets — and browsing the eclectic collection of books at the train station.


If you are a traveller who is tired of seeing the same selection of Stephen King and Robert Ludlum at every rail station and airport bookstand, then Krakow's central station is for you.

The Polish language selection here is impressive, with titles ranging from Emanuelle to Mein Kampf, but it is on the English shelves that the bookshop really breaks the mould.

Well, not shelves exactly. The shop is a row of trestle tables strung along one side of the underground passage leading to the long distance train platforms.

The books and magazines are all second-hand, and while a little worn and dog-eared, and giving a slightly tubercular air — they are no less legible for that. The limp and tattered magazines filling the "erotic" crate are probably only for the genuinely libidinous.

The English section is compact, made up of a small cardboard box and a plastic milk crate.

There are a couple of dusty JP Donleavy paperbacks and one copy of Walden. Henry David Thoreau's classic account of his solitary search for self at Walden Pond seems to be favoured by the more spiritual traveller, but readily discarded.

But it is in the hardback crate that Krakow's real distinctiveness lies.

Here you can find titles like: Aids - Etiology, Diagnosis, Treatment and Practices — that's the edition edited by Vincent T de Vita Jnr.

Nestling beside it and equally appealing is a single copy of Current Nephrology and next to it, Volume One of Phthalatester: Toxicity and Metabolism.

Winning titles all, but to really lift the gloom of a damp evening in Poland I would go for - Malignant Solid Tumours in children: A Review.

By now I was beginning to suspect a common source for much of the stall's English section.

The range on offer suggests passengers are not afraid of tackling the big issue as they settle into their seats.

If it's just nostalgia you're after why not pick up the grimy but serviceable: New, New York in Maps - 1971-72 Edition.

So be sure to hang on to a few zlotys for that final spending spree at the station bookstand.

But before that moment of farewell comes there is much to see and do in the city that is almost unique in Poland for not having been destroyed by wars and occupiers.

Wandering aimlessly in the old town and its giant town square is as good a way as any of finding the heart of Krakow.

The historic streets house an engaging mix of bars, restaurants, stylish shops for the fashion conscious and a generous sprinkling of antique stores.

On the door of St Mary's church, on the main square, is a sad plea to only enter if you are bent on worship rather than tourism. Only the most sensitive traveller would take any notice of that pathetic bleat.

As you'd expect in the city that claims the present Pope as one of its sons, Krakow is a place well supplied with churches.

It is also surprisingly strong in the art department. Apart from Polish artists it has a major work of Leonardo da Vinci - Lady with Ermine.

As you'd expect, that masterpiece has a room to itself in the Czartoryski Museum.

Both the lady and the ermine look as enigmatic as a Da Vinci subject should. And the best news is that apart from periodic packs of tourists rumbling through, you are likely to have to share Leonardo with only a handful of others.

Very different to having to muscle your way through the eight-deep crowd permanently stationed in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

The Czartoryski is a small museum, but Leonardo is not the only jewel in its crown.

Rembrandt is represented with a wonderful landscape portraying the Good Samaritan being good, while the priest and the Levite slink off into the murky distance.

Pieter Bruegel the younger is also there with a well populated rendition of John the Baptist preaching, a lovely work, and again the gallery allows time and space to enjoy it at leisure.

Likewise Lucas Cranach — the gallery is small, but the quality is high.

Beyond the Czartoryski, Krakow is more a city of general delights rather than must-sees although you'll have to take in Wavel Castle for a sense of the sequence of military catastrophes that make up Polish history.

Also make sure you spend a night in the Jewish quarter where history and kosher food make an intriguing mix.

If you begin to feel an un-Polish sense of happiness with the human lot coming on, you can fix that rapidly with a two-hour drive out to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazi death camp is not part of Krakow's past as locals are quick to point out, but it is one of the darkest elements of the human inheritance and an essential lesson in 20th century history.

Krakow's own history is rich and its present lively. And for the train traveler, the station book stall is a final diversion.

June 2002

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