Miracle on Clean Street

14th-century Krakow was saved from the barbarians by the neck of a solitary trumpeter. Now, eleven years on from Poland's last great upheaval, the city is in need of no such inadvertant heroism. This city is swinging...

It was the trumpet fanfare that convinced me, when I first arrived in Krakow 20 years ago, that this crumbling old city was the perfect place to stay. Mostly because the concept was - is - so utterly crazy. On the hour, every hour, in a city that still likes to live off memories of now-faded grandeur (Warsaw is the rich upstart; Krakow has the insouciance of the faded aristocrat, short of cash but confident of its unmatched pedigree) a trumpet call sounds from the tower of St Mary's Church, high above the Rynek market square in Poland's former royal capital. The fanfare is played from the north, south, east and west windows of the 14th-century church tower, four long and stately blasts. The final phrase is interrupted in strangled mid-note, commemorating the occasion when a city sentry thus alerted the population to the threat from the approaching Mongol hordes. A Tartar arrow pierced the trumpeter's throat - but not before his incomplete tarantara... aaargh helped to save the city.

It was the trumpet fanfare that convinced me, when I first arrived in Krakow 20 years ago, that this crumbling old city was the perfect place to stay. Mostly because the concept was - is - so utterly crazy. On the hour, every hour, in a city that still likes to live off memories of now-faded grandeur (Warsaw is the rich upstart; Krakow has the insouciance of the faded aristocrat, short of cash but confident of its unmatched pedigree) a trumpet call sounds from the tower of St Mary's Church, high above the Rynek market square in Poland's former royal capital. The fanfare is played from the north, south, east and west windows of the 14th-century church tower, four long and stately blasts. The final phrase is interrupted in strangled mid-note, commemorating the occasion when a city sentry thus alerted the population to the threat from the approaching Mongol hordes. A Tartar arrow pierced the trumpeter's throat - but not before his incomplete tarantara... aaargh helped to save the city.

In any sensible country, they would have tamed a legend like this for the tourists. We might listen to a cost-effective tape-recorded version of the death-in-mid-note fanfare. Or real, live trumpeters would throw open the little Gothic church windows during summer daylight hours, when everybody would gaze up at them open-mouthed; in winter and at night, when there is no waiting crowd of tourists in the square below, everybody would stay comfortably tucked up in bed.

But Poland never does things by halves. Instead, the trumpeters are employees of the local fire brigade. They receive tuition from a professor at the music academy to improve their toot-technique and are paid to sit in the belltower for 24 hours a day, come rain, come snow, come anything. (They undergo psychological vetting before being allowed to do the job, in case they might throw themselves out of the window instead of merely playing a fanfare.)

During the summer days, their performance is matchless; not a semi-quaver is out of place. The performances that I most treasure, however, can be heard wafting over the snowy Rynek at 2am or 3am on a cold winter's night. The trumpeter is cold and tired, and may even have had a (not strictly permitted) vodka or two to keep him warm. As a result, the otherwise crisp and clear sounds cascade into a slurred, gloriously real mess. That moment of musical anarchy, with 700 years of tradition behind it, is when you understand that Krakow has a charm all of its own.

Krakow has always been beautiful, in a seen-better-days kind of way. For many years, though, it was almost invisible to the outside world. When I first lived there, it scarcely featured on the European map, though a local cardinal by the name of Karol Wojtyla, would soon change that. Shortly after my arrival - first with a bluffers' grant to do research into Polish theatre, and then teaching English at the university - Wojtyla became Pope, to the delight of everyone in Poland except the hapless government.

The return of Pope John Paul II to his home city, when millions came out on the streets in 1979, was a form of dress rehearsal - "Look how many of us dislike the government!" - for an even more powerful demonstration of mass support the following year. Solidarity, the free trade union that helped end communism in eastern Europe a few years later, was born in 1980. Suddenly, Poland was a place that people had heard of.

At that time, when communism still seemed almost eternal, the charm and beauty of Krakow's medieval and baroque churches, Renaissance palaces and 18th-century merchant houses - an architectural compact of delight around the huge Rynek square - was constantly at odds with the dank emptiness of the shops, where one could queue for hours just for a packet of coffee or a bar of chocolate, let alone for exotic products such as oranges or (most elusive of all) the coveted Wiejska sausage or poledwica, smoked ham.

Then came 1989, when the old world ended. The new world, said the sceptics, was a story of globalisation - McDonald's and all things horrid. Krakow would be just the same as any other boring city in the world. In reality, just as Warsaw is now a capitalist version of what it was in the communist days - powerful, self-confident, not much of a heart - Krakow, too, has merely updated its old personality. McDonald's has arrived; but Krakow's own character remains.

In the communist era, Cracovians lived by the Kaffee und Kuchen rules of the Austro-Hungarian era (many people still seemed half-seriously to regard the emperor Franz Josef as their natural leader). But there were only a handful of cafés and bars to loiter in; most of those were dark and seedy. On returning to Krakow recently, I counted 27 pavement cafés around the Rynek alone, not to mention all the side-streets where the hardcore coffee-drinking goes on, in must-be-seen-in venues such as Camelot and Dym. Almost every café seems full, of tourists and locals alike.

Even now, a little of the old-fashioned bohemian quality that Krakow always prided itself on survives. The free market has opened up choices, but strictly à la polonaise. 20 years ago, the famous Krzysztofory cellar already existed as a café (and doubled up as a theatre, for the renowned director Tadeusz Kantor, in its spare time). But Krzysztofory was unique, at that time. Now, there is scarcely a vaulted, once-dusty cellar anywhere in the city centre that has not been cleaned up, brick by historic brick, to be converted into yet another atmospheric restaurant or smoky cabaret. Candle manufacturers can become rich beyond all dreams in Krakow: candles on the walls, candles on the tables, candles on the floor. Impractical and beguiling in equal measure, the candles have become a kind of local distinguishing mark.

Beyond the restaurants and the cafés, there are the jazz clubs, the best known of which is run by the saxophonist Janusz Muniak (recognisable by the compulsory Polish jazzman's beard). Historically, jazz represented an oblique way of resisting communism - in the Stalinist era, jazz was seen as "Western decadence". A Polish movie set in the Fifties was called And Then There was Jazz... linked Poland's political and musical revolutions. But music and politics are now (at last) decoupled. At the popular Miasto Krakoff club, where dancing continues nightly until dawn, techno and drum 'n' bass are on the new musical menu; east meets west, and borders are happily blurred.

The classic tourist sights - the Wawel castle and cathedral on a hill above the river Vistula, the 14th-century salt mine at nearby Wieliczka, the Collegium Maius where Copernicus studied - remain almost unchanged. But much of Krakow's urban core is scarcely recognisable. There has been little rebuilding; but the restorers' wash and brush-up has been thorough.

Everywhere is affected to a degree. The street where I lived years ago was Ulica Czysta - Clean Street - about as unfortunate a misnomer as you could find. The broad wooden staircase smelt of cats' urine; from my living room window all I could see was a dirty grey wall that blocked all sunlight, unless I leant out to gaze at the garbage-filled courtyard below. Now, even Clean Street, though by no means transformed, looks neater than it did; the seedy café at one end has been replaced by something much more salubrious.

But it is the architectural jewels like the medieval Kanonicza Street, nestling below the Wawel castle, which have been truly transformed, with the clean-up of their once-grubby facades; for the first time, you get the sense that the city authorities are actually proud. Inside historic buildings, too, the best of Krakow is on display: you can enter an ordinary-looking shop or a new hotel, and find astonishing Renaissance frescoes painstakingly revealed.

There are downsides to the changes, of course. In the old Krakow, nobody was in a hurry because of their work. Work could safely be ignored as irrelevant; friends always came first. In almost three years' living there, I cannot remember anybody saying that they were too busy to meet on a given day (or rather: if they did say that, it meant that they did not want to meet you anyway). Now, with the arrival of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism, all that has changed. People are (almost) as stressed as they are in western Europe, constantly bemoaning lack of time.

In other respects, however, the end of the one-party regime has meant a gentler new world. It is not just that shop assistants no longer invariably bark at the customer, but politely ask how they can help - though that is startling enough for the returning visitor. But there are other, indirect reflections of change. I asked one Cracovian what he thought has changed most in the past 10 years. His immediate reply: "People drink more beer." It's true. Cracovians still drink vodka, of course - it's in the Polish blood, and you won't find better, ice-cold vodka than in Poland (Wyborowa for the pure stuff; Zubrowka, or bison-grass vodka, complete with a leaf of bison grass, for a pleasantly herby version). But beer as a social drink is much more popular than it was; drinking to oblivion is no longer a must. More than in the communist era, many see no reason to fall asleep across the table (nor to get into pitched fights); instead, they seek to remain conscious members of the human race.

In some corners of Krakow, the social, economic and cultural changes in Poland have all swirled together in a single tide. Twenty years ago, the Jewish district of Kazimierz was run-down and almost forgotten. Now, Jewish restaurants have opened up on every corner, clustering especially on Ulica Szeroka, the half-street, half-square at the heart of the district. Gushing notes from Steven Spielberg et al on the walls serve as a reminder that the makers of Schindler's List helped to put Kazimierz on to the map; in the immediate aftermath of the award-winning film, "Schindler's List tours" of dubious propriety were popular. Now, Jewish life is returning to Kazimierz for more heartening reasons.

For many years, Poles seemed depressingly uninterested in the country's Jewish heritage, so closely intertwined with their own. Now, however, the lively annual festival of Jewish culture - music, films, theatre - has become a key part of the Krakow calendar; the traditional finale, a street music festival in Kazimierz, takes place tomorrow (9 July). A permanent new exhibition, including film of pre-war Jewish life and of the brutal clearance of the Krakow ghetto, is on display in a restored synagogue.

Restaurants such as Alef, with klezmer music performed every night, are popular. Kazimierz has some of the most popular, distinctively Cracovian cafés, like Singer and Alchemia - full of dark old tables, ancient grandfather clocks and framed photographs, as though the cafés have been furnished by decanting the entire contents of the apartment of somebody's great-aunt (plus, of course, the obligatory candles; and, in the case of Singer, a large collection of sewing machines).

This year, Krakow is an official European City of Culture. The truth is, however, that Krakow is not short of cultural events, even in a year when it is not wearing the official City of Culture badge. Admittedly, some of the culture is café culture. Still, when you are surrounded by some of the most beautiful buildings in Europe, it would be churlish to complain. Theoretically, one might start waxing nostalgic for the old "unspoiled" Krakow, which in the communist era had more "atmosphere" - in the sense that you scarcely saw a tourist from one end of the year to the other, and the city lived in a dozy timewarp of its own. But you would need to be pretty perverse to make such an argument in any seriousness. For the first few years after the fall of communism, people in Krakow were more aware of their newly-felt poverty than of new opportunities. In the last few years, however, the city has gained a sense of self-belief. Almost daily, the changes in the city can be seen - new restaurants, new shops, newly restored buildings. Restored, not just for visitors, but for the Cracovians themselves. It's true: miracles do happen. The way things are going, even my beloved Clean Street might one day be clean - though maybe that's a miracle too far.

Steve Crawshaw travelled from London Gatwick to Krakow with LOT Polish Airlines. British Airways also flies direct. Through a discount agent such as Trailfinders (020 7937 5400), return flights on either of these carriers currently cost around £215

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