Nowhere is this confidence more apparent than in Krakow, former capital and burial place of its kings, where shops and restaurants open by the minute and a drive against pollution from the nearby Nowa Huta steelworks has made the air almost Alpine (it used to make you dizzy to walk around here).
Krakow was first settled in the 8th century by Slavic tribes making their way along the Vistula and it rose up to become a major trading city on the east-west, north-south trade routes from the Atlantic through to Kiev and from Gdansk through to the Mediterranean.
The best place to get a sense of this commercial history is the old medieval square, Rynek Glowny, which is Europe's largest. Running down the centre is the Sukiennice, the cloth hall, where silks from Tashkent and furs from Muscovy would have been displayed alongside brocades and lace from Venice (now used by gimcrack icon sellers and the ubiquitous amber jewellers). Its east side is dominated by the fantastic silhouette of St Mariacki Church.
Built of a dark brick with limestone porches and windows, with asymmetrical towers and a steeply pitched roof, it is beloved of all Krakovians. It is from the Mariacki that the hejnal sounds every hour. This melancholy trumpet call is said to have been made by a watchman in 1241, who saw the Tartars as a distant speck whirling out of the plains. A Tartar arrow aimed straight at the windpipe cut off his warning call and the city was devastated. Hence the fact that the hejnal, which became a symbol of Poland's long interrupted identity, always ends mid-tune on an eerie and inconclusive B flat.
The cathedral interior is magnificent, with Gothic chapels, old Polish cerise and ochre paintwork and a famous altarpiece by Nuremberg sculptor Veit Stoss, which is where young Poles like to get married. There is an endless merry-go-round of wedding parties before the altar: men in shiny suits carrying bouquets and the bride tottering along in several pounds of imitation old Krakovian lace. A brief ceremony with a blessing from the priest and a blast from a soprano sends the young couple out into a harsh world: post-industrial unemployment, a high alcoholism rate and some of Europe's longest working hours as Poland goes flat out to make up lost economic ground.
After the excesses of Catholic piety in the cathedral, it is pleasurable to wander in the sunny secularity of the old square. New cafes and restaurants abound; some of the choicer items of the old nobility are beginning to find their way into the antique shops again, and clothes shops are beginning to show a Western polish. One of the greatest boons of the city - as in Prague - is free music. The square is large enough to absorb chamber quintets at one end and jazz bands at the other and you can stroll between concerts, taking coffee in the lovely art deco cafes and studying Mariacki from different angles.
If you leave the square by Grodzka St (lined with Renaissance townhouses, medieval yards and churches) you come to the foot of Wawel Hill. The hill is a demanding but unavoidable pilgrimage. It is where old King Krak is said to have slain his dragon by feeding it animal skins stuffed with tar and sulphur. And it is where the Polish kings are buried.
The esplanade at the top is filled with a seething mass of diverse queues. You can queue for the Wawel cathedral, the Wawel castle or the Royal Treasury and Armoury. If you get bored with this, you can always queue for Lost Wawel, an exhibition of Roman remains on Wawel Hill, the Sigismund Tower or Orient of the Wawel, an exhibition of the influence of the East on Wawel Castle. If you don't speak any Polish, life gets even more interesting because you might well queue for half an hour for the castle and find yourself at the end with a ticket for the Roman remains or vice versa. However, once this is over (and best to get a ticket to the whole complex from your hotel or the tourist office in Rynek Glowny before you go) you enter the sanctified halls of the Polish nation.
The cathedral is where Polish kings were crowned and buried and it is lined with their memorial chapels. One of the loveliest tombs is that of the 14th-century Queen Jadwige. She became queen of the Poles at 11 and died at 26 in childbirth. With a dearth of strong women in history and a pretty bad record on women's rights in the present, the Poles still have a thing about Jadwige, and Pope John Paul II's canonisation of her last year has given the green light to mass Jadwigolatry. You will find crowds of teenage girls and 80-year-old women at any hour of the day kneeling on the flagstones before her tomb, crossing themselves and looking for all the world like the votive donor figures in a 15th-century Netherlandish painting.
The crypt of the cathedral takes you to the holy of holies: the tombs of the liberation heroes Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Josef Poniatowski. If the awesome gloom and press of silent worshippers are enough to inspire a current of anti-nationalistic feeling, the briefest reading in Polish history (it is only 200 years ago that the Russians, Austrians and Prussians carved up the country between them and proposed to abolish the very name of Poland) is enough to inspire humility.
South of Wawel Hill lies the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, an area of deserted tenements and disused synagogues. One of the reasons Krakow had such a large Jewish population at the outbreak of the Second World War was the relative religious tolerance practised for centuries by Polish kings. Jews flowed in from Bohemia, Germany, Italy and Spain. Although, at the end of the 15th century anti-Semitic feeling caused them to be moved from the old university area in the centre of the city to outlying Kazimierz, they were allowed to practise freely here. A rich culture developed, along with synagogues, libraries, markets, bathhouses and wedding houses.
Walking round Kazimierz now is to pay homage to a vanished culture. The area has remained largely unchanged, as if time had stopped at the point where the deportations began. The title deeds of the houses are not known, and the new entrepreneurial culture is reluctant to move in without more security of ownership. As a result, the area is inhabited by a poor underclass making a few groszy out of selling second-hand clothes or electrical goods on the pavements.
Since Schindler's List there has been a steady resurgence of interest in the area. (Schindler saved 1,000 Jewish lives from the gas chambers through his Emalia enamel factory in the ghetto.) There are now a couple of cafes serving kosher food, a Jewish interest bookshop and a new centre for celebrating the history of Jewish culture in Poland, an essential counterweight to the vast and unspeakable tragedy of Auschwitz 70 km to the west.
krakow fact file
LOT (Polish) Airlines (tel: 0171-580 5037) and British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) fly to Krakow. For discounted tickets, call the Polish Travel Centre (tel: 0181-741 5541). Return fares cost pounds 149 (plus pounds 26 tax) midweek, pounds 159 (plus tax) at weekends.
Polorbis, the UK office of the Polish Tourist Bureau (tel: 0171-636 2217), is a useful starting point for planning your trip. For hotel or tour bookings, maps or information, try Wawel Tourist, ul Pawia 8 (tel: 0048 12 422 6091); the Jordan bureau, ul Florianska 37 (tel: 421 7764) or the Orbis office, Rynek Glowny 41 (tel: 422 4035). Several tour operators offer short breaks in Poland at reasonable prices. Thomson's city breaks section, Breakaway, offers three days in the Francuski from pounds 429, or Ibis from pounds 315, including flights from London Gatwick, transfers and b&b accommodation. Page & Moy (tel: 01162 50 7000) does likewise. There are also a number of special interest operators, such as Prospect Music and Art (tel: 0181-995 2151), which run trips in the opera season and to sites of cultural and historical interest.
Where to stay
Unfortunately, rates for hotels in Krakow have shot up in the past few years. There are a number of good-quality central hotels, such as the Francuski, ul Pijarska 13 (tel: 422 5122); The Grand, ul Slawkowska 507 (tel: 421 7255); and the Royal, ul Sw Gertrudy 26 (tel: 422 7666). These cost anything from pounds 80 to pounds 120 per night for a double room. There are cheaper hotels opposite the train station (still very central), including the Warszawski, ul Pawia 6 (tel: 422 0622) and the PTTK Dom Turysty, ul Westerplatte 15/16 (tel: 422 9566). Double rooms cost pounds 30 to pounds 50 per night. Alternatively, if you book well in advance, you might try the University Guest House in ul Florianska 49 (tel: 421 1225).
Where to eat
A much-loved restaurant is the Corsican El Paese (ul Poselska 24); the Ukrainska (ul Kanonicza 15) does the best borsch and buckwheat in town, a light spicy and delicious grain variously translated on the menu as grits, groats and gruel - names that are enough to remind you of the ancient links between Poland and Ukraine. The Wierzynek (Rynek Glowny 15) is famous for old Polish food, and the Staropolska, off the main square, is now a place to avoid as you won't get a table without bribing the man at the door. Apart from that, the dishes on offer are dubious.
What to do
Two trips from Krakow are unmissable - for very different reasons: Oswiecim Bzrezisnka (Auschwitz-Birkenau) and the Wielicka Salt Mines.
To visit the concentration camp of Auschwitz is probably the most harrowing public experience you will ever have; it chills even the coldest of souls with its reminder of the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Situated 70km west of Krakow, you get there by train from the central station. You can also book through the Orbis office, Rynek Glowny 15.
The salt mines are 30km south-east of the city. The mines, which have been in operation for 1,000 years, are 300 metres deep and run for 10km. Miners, who spent months underground, carved chapels, figures of the Virgin Mary and the Magi in salt. The most astonishing among them is Blessed Kinga's chapel, a vast chamber of galleries, flagstoned floor, statues and chandeliers; it is like the Snow Queen's den. And it is yet a place that young Poles like to get married in. Certainly, it is an august enough place in which to take a sacred vow.