Stuck between three worlds – Krakow, Poland

Property 29 – Historic Centre of Krakow, Poland

People go to Krakow for the architecture, some of the finest remaining baroque buildings in Central Europe. Me? I got blind drunk with some school kids. I’m all class.

Krakow is lucky to still exist after the second world war. The tail end of the Second World War in Europe was savage for everyone involved. As German troops were pushed back by the all-conquering Red Army and landings were made at Normandy in the West, cities were left ruined by both sides. Warsaw in particular was smashed repeatedly and in the post-war period had to be built almost entirely anew.

The reasons for the survival of Krakow vary depending on who you ask. If you asked the Soviet-era government, it was due to superb tactical ability on the part of the Soviet commanders who avoided damage to the city. However the post-Cold War research suggests that it probably had more to do with the fact that the Germans weren’t very interested in fighting to the death – they were more concerned with slowing down the Soviets to allow their troops to retreat in an orderly fashion. We also can’t discount the face that Krakow avoided the annihilation meted out to other German-occupied cities by the Allied bombing raids.

 

Post-Soviet survival

Almost as soon as I arrived I was struck by how European the city felt. I don’t mean to imply that Poland is not part of Europe, as this is certainly not the case. However in my under-educated mind at the time, I had always visualised Europe as being split between the West (“real” Europe) and the East (the Soviet Empire). Intellectually I knew that it wasn’t true, but part of me expected to see nothing but concrete apartment buildings and barren boulevards, as in Dresden.

Happily, it wasn’t true. Summer in Krakow is a great time to be alive. The ornate flourishes on the buildings in the old town make every building seem a little bit playful. Horse-and-carriages clop down the streets in search of tourists searching for a photo opportunity. And above all there is an overriding feeling of sympathy with the central European culture of Austria-Hungary, rather than the winds of the steppe. With one of the oldest universities in the world in the city, perhaps Krakow has a better claim to be the archetypical European city than most.

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Drinking with kids

Checking into my hostel in the late afternoon I found myself alone in a room with six bunks. My elation at this rare treat turned to alarm as the door handle turned almost immediately and five more occupants tromped into the room. They seemed a little young, and striking up a conversation it emerged that they were Polish school kids who had just finished their final exams and were having a holiday. As this was before Poland joined the EU, it seemed that their finances didn’t allow them to go anywhere more exotic than their own country. While this seemed odd, I reflected that Australian kids do much the same thing when they go to the Gold Coast.

They were great kids and I rapidly began to enjoy their company. Luckily their poverty aligned with my own. As a group we went out to a local supermarket and bought the makings of a floor picnic, including a couple of bottles of vodka.

Now, where I come from a few 17 year olds buying vodka from the supermarket would immediately raise eyebrows and possibly result in a call to the police. But not in Poland. According to my new friends, this was unremarkable behaviour.

And indeed they were remarkably mature drinkers. We all sat around on the floor of the hostel and had shots of vodka, ate bread and cheese, and generally chatted. It was one of those strange episodes of spontaneous cultural communion which sometimes occur when travelling. Certainly the vodka helped though.

In the morning my friends and I emerged blinking into the daylight like we’d been living underground for an eternity – the hangovers were brutal. Our bodies had that bruised and wounded feeling of having not properly slept all night while trying to fight off a toxicological emergency. But as we settled ourselves down in a cafe in Krakow’s stunning main square, we all agreed – Krakow is wonderful.

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