Pollution destroys Polish city's grandeur: A trumpet sounds the warning for Krakow, writes Tony Barber

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The Independent Online
AT POD ROZA, the oldest hotel in Krakow, a Latin inscription above the Renaissance doorway says: 'May this house stand until an ant drinks the oceans and a tortoise circles the world'.

However, the scarred exterior and fading colours of the hotel, where Honore de Balzac stayed in 1850, suggest that this wish may eventually be denied by the remorseless environmental degradation gripping Poland's ancient royal capital.

Krakow was the only important Polish city to escape the Nazi occupation and Soviet liberation with most of its churches, public buildings and monuments undamaged. The central square, the largest in medieval Europe, is vibrant, elegant and spacious, surrounded by old mansions and museums. Its heart is dominated by two priceless treasures: the 14th-century Gothic Church of St Mary, and the Renaissance-era Cloth Hall with its finely sculpted gargoyles. In Krakow, the spirit of Mitteleuropa, Central Europe, comes as fully alive as it does in Vienna, Prague or Budapest.

But a closer look reveals that decades of industrial pollution are exacting a heavy toll on Krakow's grandeur. On the main square and the narrow streets off it, the pastel-coloured buildings have turned grey or black, as if a giant has smeared dirty fingerprints over them. The statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's greatest poet, which stands on the square, ought to be a bronze-green colour, but is virtually all-black. At the Church of St Peter and Paul, the oldest baroque building in Krakow, commissioned by the Jesuits in the 1580s, the statues of two apostles have rotted away and have been replaced by copies.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Krakow has received something of a facelift. Some buildings have been repainted in their original pinks, yellows and oranges, and the new private cafes and boutiques have modern exteriors. But the ecological crisis that made the government declare Krakow a disaster zone has not gone away.

Three problems stand out. The first is the Sedzimir steel mill in the suburb of Nowa Huta. Until 1990, the mill was emitting 1,000 tons of carbon monoxide a day. Now, less than two-thirds of that is spewed out, partly because its steel output has fallen and workers have been laid off. Poles believe the Communists built the mill partly as a way of creating a working class in Krakow to break the city's free-thinking bourgeois and Catholic spirits. Today, though the factory remains a threat to Krakow's beauty, the workers understandably do not want more job losses.

A second problem is that Krakow lies in a valley that attracts filthy air from the gigantic industrial plants in Silesia to the west. A third is that people burn coal in winter to heat their homes, thereby polluting the architectually precious city centre.

To save Krakow, Poland needs foreign assistance, and the biggest contribution has come from the United States. The US government allocated dollars 20m ( pounds 12.8m) to reduce pollution and clean up the city.

A Krakow legend tells how, when the Tatars invaded in the 13th century, a watchman on top of St Mary's Church played his trumpet to warn his fellow citizens of the attack. His tune stopped when a Tatar arrow went through his throat. For many years, on the stroke of every hour, a trumpeter in the church has continued to play the same tune, stopping at the same note as the watchman did. These days, that tune sounds like a warning to the world about the environmental destruction of Krakow.

(Photograph omitted)