I went to the main train station in Warsaw to buy a ticket to Cracow. The main station is located in the middle of the drab new urban center, but does have one interesting feature: the rear of it is attached to a gleaming new reflective-glass office complex by an undulating roof of steel and glass. It looks as if a bunch of shiny metal foam bubbled up between the two buildings and froze.
The man buying a ticket at the front of the line looked to be in his mid-30s, with patchy short hair, thick, smeared glasses, grey socks and well-worn sandals. He was discussing something with the woman behind the counter. These discussions are difficult in Poland, because there is always a pane of glass between you and the salesperson, and there is no face-high little hole to talk through. This means you either have to scream or bend down to the 4-inch slit at the very bottom of the glass. Both of which the guy in front of us did, for at least 10 minutes.
The conversation became animated, and there was vigorous shaking of heads on both sides. Eventually Poles, fearful of missing their trains, began to make pointed comments to the man in Polish, and I chimed in in English. The woman behind the counter motioned to the next person n line that the negotiations with Nutcase were at an end. The next guy in line went up to the counter and practically shoved Nutcase out of the way. I have no idea whether Nutcase even managed to successfully buy a train ticket. Throughout 3 or 4 further transactions, Nutcase stood next to the people buying tickets, clutching his grubby plastic bag, talking to himself, and making complex notes about train connections, prices, and discounts on the back of an envelope.
When I got to the window, I calmly presented a piece of paper, in Polish: "Express Train to Cracow, first-class, no smoking, aisle seat please." A Polish friend had written this out for me a few days earlier, and I kept re-using it, crossing out the old city names and putting in the new ones. Bring a small notepad to Poland and write down what you want. Why? Because everything in Poland is behind counters or windows, which means you have to ask for it. You could try to actually pronounce the Polish words, but you’ll have a rough time of it.
Some Polish words are perfectly friendly, like "Sopot," the name of a beach resort. Other words, however, have no vowels in them, such as cute little "czynny", which means opening hours. Or consider "Wrzeszcz", the name of a part of Gdansk. Take a look at that: just one frightened little ‘e’ hiding inside those all those spiky, threatening consonants. You pronounce it Vruh-zheshch. Or so I’m told. And even that’s not the end of the story: at least the ‘e’ in Wrzeszcz is just a normal ‘e.’ Many other Polish letters are fitted out with a colorful mix of cedilles and crosses and hatches and other diacritical marks (see here, a Polish-language website about the Polish alphabet). They look like normal Latin letters all dressed up in Polish folk costumes. And yes, these marks do change the pronounciation; they turn "l" into "w", and do all sorts of other things to other letters. You get advice like "pronounce ‘n’ but think of ‘y’." This all seems perfectly normal to Poles, but it will baffle us westerners. Much easier to just write things down.
But I digress. I got my train ticket, enjoyed a nice comfortable ride to Cracow, and checked in at the Hotel Batory. It’s a little out of my price range, but a friend recommended it to me because it serves outstanding Polish food. Which it does: tender, moist chicken cutlets, fried to greaseless perfection, served with boiled potatoes covered in a delicious garlic and dill butter; bigos, a type of stew made from beans, sauerkraut, and red wine; and zurek, a sour white borscht made with beans and sausage. The breakfast buffet featured tart, manly Polish garlic dill pickles (not cloying sweet gherkins), and yet more rich, deeply-smoked Polish sausage.
Cracow is Poland’s number one tourist destination, and for good reason. It features a compact, oval city center, almost untouched during WWII, that can be traversed on foot in perhaps 30 minutes (if you don’t stop in anywhere). Around the center is a greenbelt park, the Planty, that’s a perfect place to take a break on a hot day. Most of the things that are worth seeing in Cracow are located in the center, which is also packed with shops, bars and cafes of every description. At the south end of the city center — no more than 30 minutes by foot from anywhere — is Wawel Castle, a hilltop complex featuring a meticulously-reconstructed royal castle, Poland’s national cathedral, and other odds and sods, including a museum of oriental art captured from the Turks in the 17th century. The castle had been used as a field hospital by the Austrians in the 19th century during Poland’s partition, but was carefully reconstructed in the first half of the 20th century.
Just a few other highlights: the Princes Czartoryski Museum, named for a branch of Polish nobility who swanned about in the late 18th and 19th centuries collecting art, features Leonardo’s glorious Portrait of Woman with Ermine, the most famous picture in any Polish museum. In the same room was perhaps the second most famous picture in Poland, Raphael’s Portrait of a Youth, which was looted by the Nazis in 1939, last seen in 1945, and has never been recovered. An empty frame is a poignant reminder of where it once stood. Of course, no visit to Poland is complete without seeing plenty of pictures by Polish artists. Like artists from many smaller European countries, Polish artists absorbed artistic trends during visits to the great European capitals, and then developed them further according to their own traditions and their unique personalities. There are many artists to discover, but I’ll just mention a few here. I was particularly taken with Jacek Malczewski, a symbolist who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Good collections of his pictures can be found in all Polish museums, including the National Museums in Gdansk, Warsaw, and Cracow.
Another fascinating personality is the composer Karol Szymanowski, who combined Wagnerianism with exotic Eastern tonalities. He’s considered to have brought musical modernism to Poland, and has been a pervasive influence on later Polish composers. Many streets and Philharmonic buildings in Poland are named after him. Simon Rattle, then Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, recorded three works of Szymanowski for the EMI label in 1994, to help introduce him to Western audiences. The CD is fascinating, if not perfect. You can read an equally fascinating interview with Rattle here.
But back to Cracow. The Basilica of St. Mary’s, in the heart of Cracow, is probably the most harmoniously balanced, resplendent church I’ve ever visited. The altarpiece is a huge polyptych (altar with several folding panels covered with carved and painted reliefs) by the Nuremburg sculptor Veit Stoss. The work, whose central panel depicts the dying Virgin falling gently into the arms of St. James amid a crowd of mourning apostles, took 12 years to complete, and was unveiled in 1489. Behind the altarpiece are stunning 14th-century stained-glass windows. The interior of the church was painted in the late 19th century under the stewardship of the Polish artists Jan Matejko. It all fits to together, splendidly, seamlessly, rhythmically. It’s amazing. See the picture at left, or better yet, visit Cracow.
After that, the Collegium Maius, one of Europe’s first universities, founded in 1400. You must sign up for a tour, which takes you through the main function rooms and the professors’ apartments, which are small and Spartan. They lived alone, like monks, since most of them were theologians and/or clergy. Tiny rooms, chamber pots, and pictures of Cracow with functioning music boxes built into them (Polish national anthem) and working clocks integrated into the painting (i.e. the clock on the city hall tower, which is featured on the painting, tells the real time). The beds are short and like daybeds, because until the 18th century or so, it was thought that sleeping horizontally was bad for your health. They slept half-sitting up, propped on pillows.
The University’s treasury has the usual goblets and staffs and such, but it’s also sort of Poland’s cultural repository; famous Poles donate their awards to be displayed here. You can see Polish film director Andrzej Wajda’s awards (including an Oscar, the closest I’ve ever been to a real Oscar), and poet Wislawa Szymborska’s 1996 Nobel Prize. Copernicus was a Pole, a fact of which you are reminded of on every streetcorner in Poland. You can visit a room dedicated to his stay at the University; it has room has facsimiles of the Italian doctorate he earned, his enrollment records showing he’d paid his fees to Cracow University on time, an 11th century Moorish astrolabe and other instruments he may have used. There’s also a globe from 1510 showing North America, but placing it south of Madagascar! A few facts I didn’t know about Copernicus: He was an expert on coinage and currency, and formulated Gresham’s Law before Gresham did. He also arranged to have his famous treatise on the movement of celestial bodies published on the eve of his death, perhaps to avoid problems with Church authorities.
This really only scratches the surface of what Cracow has to offer. I plan to return and spend at least a good week here, because there is much more history and culture than I could fit in. But if you needed a good explanation of why a visit to Cracow should be a part of any European tour, I hope I’ve provided it.