Travel: A place of popes and killers

Krakow is a magnet for Roman Catholics, but nearby visitors find a profoundly dark side to humanity. By Adrian Hamilton
Click to follow
The only way to approach Krakow is in a state of genuflection. Not at the wonders of the city, impressive though they are in this, a European cultural capital of 2000. It's just that everyone else is at it. Southern Poland, the birthplace of Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtila), is the heartland of Roman Catholicism, and Krakow the city that never wavered in its faith despite the years of communist suppression. Now everywhere the churches - and there are churches every 50 yards in the city and as many abbeys and monasteries in the surrounding countryside - are overflowing with enthusiastic congregations.

Through the day they come in and out for a service, or a prayer, with pram, briefcase or laden shopping baskets, bobbing, kneeling and bowing as they go. Saturday is the day of marriage, and no church seems complete without one an hour, white frock and dark suit fresh from the state register office.

Saturday is also the day when the city's centre, the Rynek Glowny (the largest square in Europe) comes alive with music and street entertainment. When we were there, a folk-song competition brought troops from all over Central Europe and further afield, jumping and swirling to their home bands - too folksy by half except that your feet wanted to dance.

Krakow is a walker's city, smaller in scale than Prague, not a capital city (though it was for 500 years until the end of the 16th century) but a town of church, trade, ancient university and monarchy. Once girdled by a great wall and now by gardens, to walk down the royal processional route from the Florianska Gate in the north to the royal castle and cathedral to the south takes barely half-an-hour.

The church is best represented by the 14th-century Mariacki by the square, with its huge late gothic polyptych hanging over the high altar. Most of Europe's polyptyches have long since been broken up. Even Ghent's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb has been removed to a special corner. Not so at Mariacki. The altarpiece looms up, 20 feet or more, its gilded doors opened each day at the stroke of midday and closed again in late afternoon by a prim and proper lady smaller than half the figures on the tableau.

Trade is in the square and the merchants' palaces that surround it - and in the cavernous cellars that lie beneath them, hastily being converted to bars and restaurants for the millennium year. The 15th-century University of Copernicus houses (so they say in Krakow) the alchemy room where Dr Faustus was supposed to have experimented until the devil came to tempt him.

Monarchy had its residence in the fabled Wawel Castle and adjoining cathedral, seat of the dynasty until 1596 when King Sigismund III Waza moved the capital to Warsaw. The royal palace was rebuilt in the 16th century by Florentine architects and adorned with one of the finest collections of Flanders tapestries anywhere in the world.

It was the Poles from Krakow who went out to fight and defeat the Turks, which was their claim to European history and the source of some marvellous booty. The defeat of the Turks also gave fame and fortune to the Czartyska family, formidable fighters and even more determined art collectors. Their palace at the north of the city houses an art and antiquities collection the equal of any private collection in the world, including a Leonardo portrait of a lady with an ermine which a thousand postcards cannot quite prepare you for.

"Wonderful unspoilt city," said a friend who had been a correspondent in Poland in the dark days after the suppression of the 1968 uprising. "Pity about the pollution." Never damaged in this century's wars, Krakow did indeed suffer from the decades of grime and soot poured out by the Nowa Huta steelworks. The emissions can still clog your throat. But the end of communism, the decline in the steel industry and the prospect of being cultural capital for the new millennium have induced a cleaning programme that has revived most of the main streets to their former glory. And, slowly, slowly, tourism has encouraged the establishment of restaurants (we were pointed to a rollicking good cellar of wooden tables and hefty meat at pod Aniolami at 35 Grodzka).

The still newer magnet of tourist attraction has been, inevitably, Schindler's Ark. Oskar Schindler's factory still stands; the site of the wartime ghetto is marked by some fragments of wall while efforts are being made to clean up and cheer up the old Jewish quarter, which once made Krakow rich as well as famous for its tolerance. No amount of Hollywoodisation, however, can make palatable what happened in Krakow as elsewhere in Central Europe. Auschswitz lies only 70km, or an hour and a half by bus, away. It is a powerful and profoundly humbling experience. There are two camps, not one. The first was in the old Austro-Hungarian barracks, used at first as a prison for political opponents (hence the dispiriting counter-claims of victimhood) and then as the first experimental gas chambers. But it is the second camp, a vast purpose-built field of wooden sheds, erected on the spur of the main railway and intended for mass extinction at the fastest possible rate, that really haunts. The main gate still stands high over the rail lines along with the mangled wreckage of the gas chambers, blown up by the retreating guards. Most of the sheds have rotted away leaving a desolate landscape of brick chimneys and barbed wire. "You get used to it," said the English-speaking guide in flat tones, "until occasionally you take round a survivor." As a visitor you don't get used to it, not even the young who come in surprising numbers to see what is no part of their lives.

And yet it should be. The Jews won't return to Poland, not in any numbers: a people untimely ripped from the continent in a spasm of annihilation that Europe can neither quite comprehend nor come to terms with. Krakow is there, one of Europe's most engaging cities with a past to show and a future as part of the European Union. I can think of no more rewarding place to go for a long weekend. But you can't build a new Europe without some sense of the tragedy of the old.

Adrian Hamilton bought his trip to Krakow through British Airways Holidays (0870 242 4243). A three-night city break, including flights, transfers and 3/4 star bed and breakfast accommodation costs pounds 329 per person up to 25 March