Friday, December 11, 2009

In Poland: Krakow

I am in Krakow now, and just having a free morning. This is the last day of a quite demanding visit, but a thoroughly illuminating one. It was also quite a bit of travelling - flew in Krakow [pronounced Krakuv], took a train to Lodz [pronounced Wootz] and then on to Warsaw [pronounced Varsava] - all by train and with a lot of walking around. That always helps, as I am getting a hang of Polish sounds, and for example, understood that the place I am supposed to go to next time, Worclaw, is to be pronounced Vorcwava. Yes, W is like V, L with a sign is like W, and a few other things. I am now getting used to Zloty at 4.5:1 with English Pound, and 3:1 with US Dollar. Suddenly, the world has started making more sense.

There are other things which are becoming a little more clear. The three cities I visited could not be any more different. I shall put up the photos sometime, but here is a description. Lodz is an industrial town, mainly developed after the war, and was left to rot after the communists imploded. The city is dominated by ugly and old tower blocks, and one sees dilapilated buildings, petrol stations out of business and deserted side streets leading nowhere. There are some signs of renewal, Infosys on the main street, new shopping malls and flats, and a factory of Dell which is now being handed over to a Taiwanese manufacturing company who will produce for Dell. If there was history in that city, it was best to forget and start fresh.

Warsaw is the capital, and it is immediately visible that it is far more cosmopolitan. I was staying near the old Ministry of Culture building, the tallest and most distinctive building in town with a shadowy past. But it still dominates Warsaw skyline, and the urban life in the city is built around this one central edifice of the past. The four sides of the square are full of shopping malls, financial service organizations, hotels and Warsaw Central station, which makes it a busy and bustling place. Most buildings are modern, high rises, and they could really be anywhere. Upon enquiring, I learnt that this is so because Warsaw was raged down the ground after the Warsaw uprising. So, it is a post-war construction, mostly, and it is evident if one goes into the residential districts of Warsaw. The ubiquitous, grey, tower blocks and offices return, symbolising the communist past. However, I have also spent an evening walking around an unusual part of Warsaw, the old city, around the old university of Warsaw, where narrow pedestrianised roads, old style buildings, small shops make it look like a different place altogether. One can see the old buildings, including the one where Chopin lived [which has now become the Ministry of Art] and where Joseph Conrad lived as an infant. One sees various signs of Warsaw uprising on the streets, marked with the distinctive symbol of uprising. It looks like a journey through persecution, with buildings marked out where the Polish nationalists conspired to kill the Russian governor of Warsaw in early Nineteenth century, and whose inhabitants, all of them, were killed by Russians as a result.

Krakow, in contrast, is a town frozen in history. Its buildings are old, its architecture very Oriental. My heart-stopping moment came at 2pm, when I was standing at the Market Square facing St Mary's Church, where the hourly trumpet was blown to a lovely tune. Then, as I watched, the trumpeteer, from the towering height of the church, bowed and stopped with an heart-stopping abruptness in the middle of the tune. There was silence all around, only to be broken by the clapping and cheering from a nearby group of tourists who thought it was a joke. But, as my tour guide explained in all earnestness, this abrupt halt is really in the memory of the trumpeteer whose trumpet call was cut off, mid-tune, by arrows of the advancing Tatar Army in the Thirteenth century, which was led by Batu, the grandson of the Ghengis Khan. Tatars sacked Krakow, but the city still lived on. The traditions, the memories, the streets, the churches and the trumpet stopping at mid-tune are all symbols of a country and a culture which lived on.

Interestingly, I planned initially but did not visit Auschwitz. It is only an hour from Krakow, and I could see numerous touring arrangements costing not more than £20. But, as it dawned on me while touring in Poland, the whole of Poland is some kind of existence in the face of extreme difficulties, a nation struggling to keep its humanity alive in the face of numerous invasions, exterminations, betrayal, war and humiliation. I did not want to miss the Trumpeteer's call to visit Auschwitz, which will surely happen in another visit. But, for the moment, I wanted to get a feel for the soul of Poland, and I thought Krakow, the old capital, quite aptly represent this.

Instead of Auschwitz, I walked around Krakow, to the Market Square, which is supposed to be the largest in Europe, to the palace of the Polish Kings by the river and the riverside with its mythical dragon. I got to know people who are as smart and as hungry as anyone else in the world, but they are so proud of their native Krakow that they would not want to live anywhere else. I saw the old residential buildings just outside the old city walls, which are different from the soulless symmetry of Warsaw Tower Blocks, built after the war, and rather have that decadent and crumbling warmth and closeness of a pre-war era long forgotten. On my way back, I walked down the path of the kings - the way from the palace to the Market Square - past the house where Pope John Paul II lived when he was the Archbishop of Krakow and the hotel opposite, which is ironically named after the other famous Polish man whose education started in Krakow, Nicolus Copernicus.

So, in essence, I got a feel of Poland in Krakow. I saw it as a beautiful medieval land, persecuted through centuries but proud of its resilience. I understood the personality of Poland is tragic, and its past will continue to shape its future.

2 comments:

Leonardo said...

Beautiful beautiful post. I haven't read many travelogues which have captured the essence of the place as well as you have. Thanks a lot. You've set up my day for me :)

Anonymous said...

You gave me the option of watching a silent movie with your literary excellence! With my closed eyes, I can almost visualize the whole place, thank you dear for giving such a refreshing experience early in the morning!

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