Two Krakw hours and counting

One evening in late November I checked into a hotel in Krakw, a city I'd not visited since 1984 when Poland was still a nation suppressed by the Soviet Union. I was on my way next morning to Katowice, in the Silesia region of the country, the industrial south, where blackened city merges into blackened city and the air is so polluted you can taste as well as smell it.

If you find time, write about Krakw, I was asked. How? I'm hardly there on this trip. OK, snapshots then.

I'm up early and pull the thin curtains apart. It's either just getting light, or the thick blanket of cloud is keeping the daylight at bay. The old city begins somewhere beyond the park across the road. A blue tram rattles in one direction, a yellow tram in another. By a car-park an old couple are setting up a stall selling pretzels.

I have two hours at the most, so it's out across the tramlines to the Planty, a strip of park that surrounds medieval Krakw. It has replaced the city walls, torn down by the invading Austrian army at the beginning of the 19th century.

Winter is some weeks on here. An avenue of bare trees stands out black in the morning mist, there's an abundance of rooks and pigeons, a solitary woman walks three Pekinese dogs - one so stunted it looks like a ball of soaking fur moving among the rain puddles. On a low hoarding at the side of the narrow park posters advertise art exhibitions and Kung Fu demonstrations. On a smoke-blackened stone plinth at an intersection of paths is a bust of Michael Palucki, an all-but-forgotten rebel general from the 18th century.

I'm heading for Rynek Glowny, the main square in the old city. My only point of reference is Hotel Polski, where I stayed years ago with a guide who panicked every time I slipped away. I find the hotel just inside the remnants of one of the few remaining bits of the old city wall around the corner from Ulica Florianska. Things have changed.

Florianska leads down to the main square and while it's not typical of all the shopping streets of Krakw - and in other circumstances hardly worth writing about - it does present a microcosm of what's taking place. At the top of Florianska, once a pretty drab place, there's now a McDonald's. It's to this icon of American culture that hoards of children are bussed in from the surrounding villages for special treats.

Suddenly a wonderful sight. An amazingly bright crocodile of children in coloured bobble-hats and bright parka jackets, like a living stream of Smarties, flows past me. It's a wonderful sight not because they are heading to the hamburger shop, but because this chattering explosion of colour is the first generation of Polish children born free after so many years of occupation.

Further down Florianska, between the Tourist Information Office and a shop selling furs, a man is kneeling, the little cardboard box in front of him falling apart in the drizzle. Head bowed as if in penance, a look of practised sorrow on his face, he holds the stump of his left arm. While managing to remain absolutely immobile, when a nun walks past him he spits. Across the street, outside a shop called Paradise with its window display of distinctly English tweedy jackets and brogues, is a blind young man, and an old Hungarian violin player in a wheelchair.

Benetton has arrived here, even Monsoon. But look above the shop fronts. The paint is flaking from buildings, niches that once contained holy statues are empty. Above them are dead rooms and broken windows. A sense of neglect hardly disguised by the invasion beneath.

Florianska Street leads into Mariacki Square, and once in the square, Krakw takes back its identity. The 14th-century Mariacki Church is one of the most beautiful in Poland. At the southern portal are iron holdfasts, cages in which sinners were kept on view, a more sophisticated version of the English village stocks. Outside one of the two entrances to the church - the one marked "For Prayer Only" - several Romanian gypsies, begging.

In the backstreets are other smaller churches and convents. In the doorway of one convent belonging to Dominican Sisters, a man in a blue beret kneels, praying, before a coloured poster advertising a concert to celebrate the 750th anniversary of St Salomei, a local nun. Across the road on the walls of Kosciol Nmp Sniezney - Our Lady of Snow - death notices flutter in the wind, some ripped and blown into the gutter. Someone has rested a ladder against a statue of the Virgin and is climbing up it to polish the fine gold stars welded to her halo. A few minutes away, above one of the doors of the Theological Academy in Kanonicza Street, is a painting of Christ and the money-lenders. The door opens and out walk a group of young priests. Christ, in a painted imageabove them, is dressed in almost identical theological garb.

Between the numerous churches in the medieval city are other huge studded doors, dark vestibules and narrow passageways. It can be disorientating, because as often as not these lead into tiny courtyards and up stairs to rooms in which you are just as likely to find a cafe or bar as a religious office.

Heading back to the main square I hear music, low and sad. I trace it to the octagonal turret below the crown-like spire of St Mariacki's Church where a small window has opened and a tiny figure is standing playing a trumpet. The window closes, and a few moments later another opens, and the trumpeter is back again.

In a cafe, the mystery of the trumpeter is explained to me. It seems Tartars came to conquer Krakw in the 16th century. A trumpeter, knowing they were approaching the city, played as loud as he could to warn people of the invasion, but before he finished playing he received an arrow through his throat. Although the music is played on the hour every hour, once a day, at noon, it is left unfinished. It's a romantic legend befitting a romantic city.

"The soul is in Krakw but the money is in Warsaw," says a local photographer, "and Krakw is more beautiful". I agree.Mine is a winter view of Krakw: the trees are bare and the rain cold. I've arrived in the wrong season so can't report on green avenues or squares crowded with flower-sellers. Still, if you've been to Prague then Krakw is the ideal follow-up - especially if you stay for longer than two hours.

Brian Patten's latest collection of poems, `Armada', is published by Flamingo Books at pounds 5.99.

Getting there: the only scheduled flights from the UK to Krakw are on the Polish airline LOT. At present there are three flights each week from Heathrow (on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays), but frequency will increase from next spring. The fare through specialist agents such as Fregata Travel (0171-451 7000) is pounds 213.20 including tax, which allows you to return from Warsaw instead of Krakw if you wish.

Further information: Polish National Tourist Office, First Floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1R 5AJ (0171-580 8811).