In a city of revival and remembrance Peterjon Cresswell follows the regeneration trail through the ghettos of Poland’s former royal capital.
‘Schindler’s List’ territory
By now many of you will know Kraków, the former Polish capital and seat of learning with the pristine Old Town. Those on a return visit may have spent more time exploring the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, its empty synagogues, crumbling cemeteries and tourist-friendly restaurants. Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Schindler’s List’ brought the city to global attention. The Jewish quarter came to life; the bar hub around Plac Nowy became as busy as any in Prague or Budapest.
Few, though, will have made it across to Podgórze, the grey area immediately over the river from Kazimierz, punctuated by a spire similar to the one atop St Mary’s dominating the main market square of the Old Town. But on your next visit, make sure you cross the river – for Podgórze is where the scene is heading.
An artistic hub
At the foot of the crisscross cast-iron bridge stands the Drukarnia. This bar – perhaps the best in all Kraków, no idle boast – acts as a weather vane for where contemporary winds are blowing. Once a landmark destination in Kazimierz, the Drukarnia relocated to make full use of a riverside location, its outdoor tables offering views of sunset over the Vistula.
Filmmakers, musicians, students and young creatives of every stripe gravitate here to suck on pints of raspberry-flavoured beer through straws. Regular live jazz acts and DJs provide entertainment amid the lively banter.
Alongside, chic Cava opened in 2007 to provide tapas and Latin cocktails to a backdrop of Fashion TV and tongue-in-cheek art. Nearby, Peruvian, Hawaiian and Indian coffees are purveyed at the bohemian Rekawka Café. Family visits are encouraged by the provision of colouring books. This summer, children are playing along the river at the Kraków Plage, the first step in Kraków’s ambitious riverside leisure development stretching all the way to Podgórze.
Work has also begun on the abandoned, monolithic socialist-era Hotel Forum, key to the whole project.
Podgórze was built by the ruling Habsburgs in the nineteenth century to rival the practically autonomous city centre across the water – St Joseph’s Church in Podgórze’s market square was erected in 1909. Tradesmen and the mercantile class moved in; the parents of Roman Polanski (then Liebling) were among them. Polanski would have seen his mother taken away to Auschwitz-Birkenau (where she was killed) in 1942 from Plac Zgody, the square used by the Nazis for round-ups and beatings. Fifty years later, Spielberg’s film crew came here in search of Podgórze’s forgotten remnants: fragments of the ghetto wall adjoining the square; Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s pharmacy in its far corner; and the Schindler factory. Behind is the site of (no longer remaining) Plaszów concentration camp, where Spielberg also filmed.
Square of the Ghetto Victims
Since renamed, today’s Square of the Ghetto Victims contains 70 chairs. This contemporary, open-air installation by Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak echoes the time when Jews forcibly coralled here had to discard their furniture before being sent to the camps.
Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s Pharmacy Under the Eagle is now a museum, whose photographs and films record life, death and desperate escape here during the war. Principled, non-Jewish Pankiewicz helped many families, his business providing a place to meet and organise.
Personal accounts tell remarkable tales of bravery, luck and survival. A short walk away, patrolled by bemused tourists, Schindler’s factory stands abandoned, its frontage covered with black plastic bin bags. It is occasionally used as a concert venue, and a long-term plan to convert the whole complex into an arts centre remains in place.
After doing the street-level stroll, you can observe this compact quarter from the comfort of the rooftop pool atop the Qubus spa and business hotel. Seven storeys high, with a quality restaurant, Ogien, a jazz club and a piano bar, it’s easily the most impressive of its genre in Poland’s most dynamic and affluent city. And after Podgórze? The scene and the money are expected to move west, to leafy Zwierzyniec, just north of the Vistula, where artists and writers enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle in the late nineteenth century.
Getting there & around
Easyjet flies from Gatwick and Luton; Ryanair from Stansted; BA from Gatwick; LOT from Heathrow. Krakow’s Balice airport (www.krakowairport.pl) is eight miles west of the city centre, an easy, regular train hop (15 minutes and just 6zl) from the main train station, Dworzec Glówny. The station is a short walk from the Old Town. A taxi costs about 70zl. £1 = 4.6zl.
A myriad of companies run buses to just about every major city in Poland, with all departing from either the main London Victoria coach station or the nearby Victoria Green Line station. Two of the most reliable are Eurolines (08717 818181/www.nationalexpress.com) and Polish company Sindbad (0870 850 2054/www.sindbad.com.pl). Departures roll with demand, but a coach to Krakow leaves at least once a day, and more frequently during the peak summer season. Prices are as cheap, if not cheaper than, the budget airlines plying the same route, with one-way tickets hovering around £60 and returns at £90. As with the airlines, an early booking saves money.
Trams (2.50zl) serve Kraków city centre, buses (2.50zl) the outer areas. Much of the Old Town is pedestrianised.
Things to do
Cava Ulica Nadwi´sla´nska 1 (+48 12 656 7456). Upscale Med treats in fashionable surroundings.
Dawno temu na Kazimierzu 1 ul. Szeroka (012 421 21 17). For a taste of Krakow’s Jewish heritage head for the excellent Dawno temu na Kazimierzu, which is set in the city’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, inside a row of recreated, turn-of-the-19th-century Jewish traders’ shops. Try the earthy czulent, a stew of beans, mince and potatoes.
Wierzynek 15 rynek Glowny (012 424 96 00/www.wierzynek.com.pl). Sit down at Wierzynek for expertly executed Polish classics, such as salmon in white wine and dill sauce. The restaurant has a guest list stretching back over 500 years that would shame anything in the Michelin guide, including Steven Spielberg, François Mitterand, George Bush Sr and, more recently, the young ladies from Miss World.
Bars & clubs
Drukarnia Ulica Nadwi´sla´nska 1 (+48 12 656 6560). Jazz-loving, boho bar/club overlooking the Vistula.
Café Rekawka Ulica Brodzinskiego 4B (+48 12 296 2002). Family-friendly café with cakes and snacks.
Pharmacy Museum Plac Bohaterów Getta 18 (+48 12 656 5625). Harrowing but fascinating evidence of the Jewish Ghetto.
St Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki) Rynek Glowny (www.bazylika-mariacka.krakow.pl). This imposing red-brick cathedral is one of the oldest in the country, with the first building on the site dating from 1222.
Wawel Castle Podzamcze (012 422 51 55 ext 219/www.wawel.krakow.pl). Wawel Castle was home to Poland’s kings and queens for over 500 years before the capital was shifted to Warsaw. The castle grounds are extensive, with highlights including the state and assembly rooms and a world-class collection of artworks.
Auschwitz (www.auschwitz.org.pl). An essential but painful excursion is to the former Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. While the main site has been converted into a comprehensive museum of the Nazi atrocities, the attached, and much bigger, Birkenhau has remained as it was when the Germans retreated and makes for a tough but moving visit.
Qubus Hotel Kraków Ulica Nadwi´sla´nska 6 (+48 12 374 5100/www.qubushotel.com). Enjoy the rooftop pool and Jacuzzi at this well-equipped business hotel. Dbls from 421zl.
Wentzl 19 rynek Glowny (012 430 26 64/www.wentzl.pl). If you have the money it’s possible to indulge all your childhood prince and princess fantasies in the Wentzl. Arguably Kraków’s finest hotel, it has wonderful views over the market square.
Goodbye Lenin Hostel 23 ul. Joselewicza (012 421 20 30/www.goodbyelenin.pl). For a more wallet-friendly stay try the boisterous Goodbye Lenin Hostel.