During a tour of the Collegium Maius in Kraków, our guide periodically observes that it all went wrong for Poland after the partition of 1791 following a disastrous experiment in democracy during which no-one could agree on anything. Whilst this is doubtless not without a hefty degree of justification, the rather laconic fatalism is somewhat unnerving for a Westerner whose country has always cherished delusions of being in control of its own destiny. From a state that controlled much of Central Europe, Poland went to being divided between Russia, Poland and Austria; even now historical Polish territories like the city of Lvov lie within countries like Ukraine. As a city, Kraków retains the sense of being a mausoleum to better times, with little modern architecture being evident. Weathered plaster crumbles off the walls of buildings, leaving the brickwork beneath exposed. All of which, of course, endear the place to me.
I arrive at the main train station, where the rather grim underground subway connecting the platforms contrasts with the Hapsburg era white and yellow plaster of the main building aboveground. I walk down a covered iron walkway that leads into the city and am somewhat surprised to see a small square being patrolled by a robot. A small thing with treads and a CCTV camera, it resembles the sort of vision of the future last seen sometime circa the nineteen seventies or eighties. It turns out to be owned by one of the private security firms that are legion within the city. I can only assume that a rightwing politician probably decided that state police forces were inefficient when compared to the bracing vigour of the free market. There seems to be a similar approach to public transport, with most trains and trams running late and cars choking up roads and motorways. The latter state looks unpleasantly reminiscent of Britain rather than the usual European efficiency. Much of the city looks like a large market, although most of the larger names in evidence come from other European countries.
The city is heavily reminiscent of Prague and Budapest, with all three being dominated by a castle on a hill by the side of a river with a new town beneath where medieval churches and synagogues. One interesting difference is the Planty, a set of gardens ringing the city on the location of the former city walls. I begin by simply walking around the centre of the city, beginning with the market square. The largest medieval square in Europe, it’s dominated by the opposing figures of St Mary’s Church and the Town Hall tower. The church is a redbrick exercise in asymmetrical gothic with an exterior covered with monuments, it rather looks like a cross between the Tyn Church in Prague and the Frauenkirche in Munich. The dark interior is quite exceptional though, with the ceiling a dark blue burnished with gold stars and the ceiling covered in patterned red and friezes by Jan Matejko; the heavens above and hell below, I presume. Athough the Veit Stoss altar reflects the Mariolatry implicit in the name of the building, much of the interior decoration tends towards the grisly; tombs decorated with skulls and a painting of Saint Sebastian. Behind it lies the church of Saint Barbara, whose medieval facade is contradicted by a baroque interior. Across the square lies the cloth hall, the Sukiennice. The current use for this building is mostly selling tourist merchandise, with exterior arcades given up to cafes. The opposing side of the square sees Igor Mitoraj’s Eros Bendato sculpture placed at the foot of the town hall tower, making a rather odd contrast with the sleepy lion sculptures at the base of its steps. The other thing on the square is the rather squat church of St Adalbert, a small domed building, with a blue and gold art nouveau interior.
I then walk down the main street, towards the church of Saint Peter and Paul, modelled on the Gesu church in Rome and consequently in a somewhat austere Baroque style that contrasts with the rather more florid legions of gold angels in the neighbouring church of St Andrew. The crypt has a rather bizarre tomb with a number of carved griffin sculptures at its base. Opposed churches for the Dominicans and Franciscans occupy nearby streets. The former is a relatively simple affair, with a white interior and blue ceiling, accompanied by a set of cloisters. The latter is quite dowdy from the outside, but the gloomy interior is decorated in brilliant art nouveau by Mehoffer and Wyspianski, with the windows and walls decorated with iris patterns. Further along, the Bernardine church is a dark affair with extensive decay inside, although I’m quite taken with an elaborate dance of death painting cycle. The Collegium Maius is also located in the old town; rather resembling certain Cambridge colleges, the interior courtyard is flanked on each side with a set of cloisters. Ammonites have been built into redbrick walls and a grotesque serves as a fountain alongside various medieval crests. The exhibits include the old Jagiellonian University library, a medieval globe (which puts North America in the wrong place) and a set of paintings where depictions of clock towers had real clocks inserted.
The following day is given up the Polish equivalent of the Hrad, the Wawel. The castle straddles the medieval and renaissance periods, with redbrick towers contrasting with colonnaded courtyards. Many of the rooms have elaborate wooden ceilings decorated with gold flowers, Cordovan leather and friezes by Hans Durer. Many of the ceiling frescos were completed in the early twentieth century; a model shows Wyspianski’s earlier scheme for restoring the Wawel, with the inclusion of a large dome at the opposite end to the palace and cathedral. Some of Augustus the Strong’s porcelain collection is included, as well as a Bosch painting. The Cathedral is a bizarre jumble of architectural styles; a medieval gothic building with several domed classical structures and renaissance accoutrements. The interior is much the same, red marble monuments in side chapels sit alongside gothic tombs to saints and kings alike in the nave. Some of the painted chapels show a Byzantine influence in their wall decoration (at one point Poland did share a border with Turkey after all). The crypts remind me of the Hapsburg tombs in Vienna, with iron and stone coffins. The poet Mickiewicz and the patriot Kosciuszko are interned here, although the Polish pantheon is located in the nearby St Catherine’s church, where the crypt contains the tombs of Czeslaw Milosz, Szymanowski and Stanislaw Wyspianski. The base of the castle contains a small cave, named after the dragon that features in the city’s founding legend. A metal dragon sculpture has been erected, which breathes fire every five minutes or so. Kitsch but not unamusing. Finally, the Wawel has an oriental exhibition, centered around the Ottoman booty gained after the battle of Vienna; Persian and Turkish carpets, Iznik plates, Chinese & Japanese porcelain and Chinese bronzes.
The following day is taken with visiting Kazimierz, formerly a separate city and site of the Jewish ghetto. I begin at the Remuh synagogue and cemetery. The cemetery stones are some of the oldest in Poland and are decorated with images of lions and stags; broken stones are assembled to form a ‘wailing wall.’ Nearby, the new cemetery also contains sets of monuments to Nazi victims made from fragments of smashed gravestones; those still standing vary in terms of resembling older Yiddish gravestones or a style more in keeping with that found in the Polish cemeteries. Many of the headstones have stones placed on them, although much of the cemetery si rather overgrown with long grass and ferns burying many of the graves. Of the other synagogues, the Progressive Synagogue strongly reminds me of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, with Moorish designs throughout, while the Izaaka synagogue tends towards the baroque, with Yiddish script still visible on the walls in spite of whitewashing. The High synagogue is perhaps rather more nondescript but is notable for an exhibition showing collections of old photos of Jewish life in Poland. Most of the people shown in them would have ended up in the concentration camps. Finally, the Stara Synagogue is a beautiful gothic structure with a wrought iron Bimah at its centre. The annual Jewish cultural festival was in progress during my visit, so the streets were full of school parties, rather resembling Israeli versions of St Trinians. I also visit the Botanical gardens in Krakow; Acanthus, Ferns and Astilbes are clearly much favoured by the staff, although it also has large, if oddly shaped, conservatories. Finally, I visit one of the conventional cemeteries, the Racławice cemetery. I’m struck by the number of both lit candles and metal crosses, neither being common features in Britain. Some of the symbolism is also somewhat unusual; a butterfly for instance, but the grid layout and combination of gothic and classical designs does make the place look like Highgate. There’s even a large Sphinx on one tomb.
Kraków’s museums and galleries are centred on a building that looks as if it was built during the Stalin era but wasn’t. It contains a set of Młoda Polska paintings from the nineteenth century to the present day. Some of the highlights include Wojciech Weiss’s Melancholik, Leon Chwistek’s futurist City and Lodz, Szancenbach’s Lake – Sunset, Zbigniew Pronaszko’s nudes, Czajkowski’s Orchard in Winter, Stanisław Kamocki, Henryk Szczygli ński and Jan Stanisławski’s landscapes and Jacek Malczewski’s strange symbolist paintings. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I liked Tadeusz Makowski’s odd toy scenes or not. There was also an exhibition of Weegee photos, ranging from New York’s architecture to drag queens, murder victims and carbonised bodies burnt in fires. The Stanislaw Wsypianski house also houses a number of interesting collections; several paintings of the Kosciuszko mound, modernist-gothic furniture for his theatrical sets and stained glass designs and views of St Mary’s and the Wawel. There’s also a collection of Ignacy Krieger’s photographs, showing black and white photographs of Kraków. On a similar note, the Mehoffer house showcases his art nouveau stained glass designs, paintings of his wife and garden, paintings of the market square and of the Vistula, as well as a bizarre drawing of a lady encountering a skeletal death in the form of a gardener. One rooms includes a Japanese collection of Hiroshige woodcuts. In the garden, a black and white cat sits amidst the roses, secure in the knowledge of its perfect camouflage. The Manggha collection expands on the Japanese theme, containing Felix Jasienski’s collection of oriental art. At the time of visiting it was showcasing a set of Noh masks and showing Japanese influences on Julian Falat’s paintings, mostly landscapes. The next most prominent museum is the Czartoryski museum; this is next to last remaining section of the city wall and the Barbican, adjoined to it via a sighing bridge; a bronze cast of Hermes by Thorvaldsen stands outside. The interior houses a set of enamel and porcelain designs from Limoges, Italian majolica, Meissen, paintings by Da Vinci (Lady with an Ermine) and a Rembrandt landscape. The antiquities collection contains a number of Etruscan funerary statues, mummified cats (plus a fake mummified mongoose) and a set of Fayum portraits. Finally, there is the archaeological museum; containing a number of mummy cases and Peruvian artefacts (some of them erotic) but especially a stone totem pole showing a slavic pagan deity, Swiatowit. Each side has a face, making it look like a four-face god with the peculiarity that it also seems to be wearing a top-hat.
On my final day in Kraków, I travel to the salt-mine at Wieliczka. This is the sort of trip that makes it clear that one is a tourist rather than a traveller due to the industrial system used to process the volume of visitors; it’s also the sort of trip that makes it clear that the difference between Catholic kitsch and Disneyfied schmaltz (via Tolkein’s Balrog) is a slender one. The mines contain rock salt carvings of kings, dwarves and biblical figures, as well as more recent figures like Goethe (who visited due to his interest in geology) and statues that reflect a more socialist realist style. Some of the chambers have been flooded while the wooden struts used to construct some of the larger chambers give them the same sort of feeling as a church. The actual chambers range from long corridors to ballrooms, chapels and a cafe. Much of my interest in the place is as an inverted Magic Mountain; certainly either the dryness of the air or the temperature seem to have a beneficial effect on my asthma. Finally, before leaving I spend some time in a park near Blonia; a promenade walkway has busts of famous Polish figures on either side (Curie, Herbert, Kosciuszko) leading to a hedged circle with other busts (Chopin, Mickiewicz).
Arriving in Wrocław the following day (having managed to avoid being run over by a police truck driving down the train station platform), it occurs to me that this more than most places deserves the title of the Venice of the North. The Oder river is relatively shallow here and the islands cluster in the centre of it, on which many of the city’s churches and cathedrals are built. The main part of the town would originally have been walled off from the mainland by a defensive moat. Looking at a plan of the medieval city it’s clear that it must have essentially been afloat. Its subsequent identity has been equally indeterminate, switching from being Polish to Bohemian to Prussian and back again, its name changing from Breslau to Wroc?aw at the same time that a new population arrived from Lvov. Buildings by Langhans, architect of the Brandenburg gate, sit alongside the medieval structures. Even its religious identity was somewhat indeterminate, with a Protestant majority having previously tolerated a Catholic minority and competed between them to build churches; the presence of a Jewish minority only further complicated matters.
I start my visit with the Cathedral Island, home to the some of the tallest spires in the city. The cathedral, with its twin Baltic spires is the most impressive, and like its counterpart in Kraków, baroque chapels have been added on either side. Behind it, the city’s Botanical gardens have been built. A bust of Linnaeus features at its centre, alongside pools filled with frogs, alpine gardens and an arboretum. The green iron Tumski bridge connects the Cathedral Island to the Sand Island, and the squat and dark church of Saint Mary of the Sand, its interior a combination of striped redbrick, white plaster and red stained glass. The University mathematical tower in yellow & white and the Osslinski library in red and white look out over the river; it’s a scene that rather reminds me of Saint Petersburg. The town hall in the market square is an untidy medieval building, its surface pullulating with gargoyles in addition to an astronomical clock. The town square reminds me of Copenhagen’s Nyhavn as much as Kraków, due to the bright painting of each house, many of which are identified with animal signs (e.g. the house of the golden deer). The square next to the cathedral houses the cathedral of St Mary Magdalene. Destroyed during the war and largely reconstructed, it still lacks the original baroque spires gracing each tower, as well as having gone from Protestant to Catholic. I’m rather taken with the slender bridge that adjoins the two towers. The interior chapels are filled with renaissance and classical tombstones and monuments, as well as dragon sculpture beneath the pulpit. On the opposed side of the main square is the church of Saint Elizabeth, another redbrick gothic structure surmounted by a squat metal cupola on its tower. I’m quite drawn to a renaissance tomb with a depiction of a sea monster on it. Outside, I spot one of the city’s features; a small bronze dwarf sculpture sitting next to an accompanying house. Several of these are dotted round the city; a somewhat amusing, if rather twee, idea.
Much of the heart of the city was destroyed by the Russians, as Breslau only capitulated at the same time as Berlin. Grim ‘blokowisko’ housing proliferates alongside the older structures. Some of the most interest does reside with the newer structures though; for example, the train station combines a long glass and iron barrel roof with a gothic revival exterior. Various modernist department stores are also contained within the city, some of which were the first in Poland to have elevators. Similarly, the Grunwaldzki bridge was one of the largest iron bridges in Germany and is now the largest in Poland (it rather resembles Budapest’s chain bridge). More strikingly, a market hall combines a redbrick facade with a cavernous concrete interior. This culminates in the concrete Centennial Hall, a gigantic concrete dome built as Wrocław’s belated answer to the Eiffel tower or the Crystal Palace. With that said, the use of concrete does bring the slightly more unfortunate example of the Royal Festival Hall to mind; the building is presently in a rather bad state and was undergoing extensive restoration work. Upon arrival one walks though a series of concrete pillars (some currently entirely immersed in ivy) and past a tall metal spike, rather reminiscent of Skylon. A lake is in front of the hall, which is surrounded by a concrete pergola. A semi-derelict kindergarten by Le Corbusier sits rather forgotten in the grounds. Beyond this, a Japanese garden was created to go with the hall; Acers surrounded a pool, spanned by wooden bridges. In the centre of the city, the most modern landmark can be found in one of the parks; the Racławice panorama, a nineteen sixties concrete structure built to house Styka and Kossak’s panoramic representation of the battle where Kosciuszko lead an army of peasants armed with scythes to defeat the Russians. Much of the foreground before the picture has been designed to create the illusion of perspective; trees and landscape designed to patch the picture. It’s a slightly kitsch effect but an undeniably effective one. Behind the panorama building rests an iron statue to the dead of Katyn, featuring a woman weeping for the dead while the figure of death is suspended above. The materials and treatment are quite contemporary but the theme is very classical.
The National Museum in Wrocław has a somewhat odd collection of art that includes a painting of a bearded lady and a clock painting where the eyes tock back and forth. Much of the medieval art is string on portraiture but weak on narrative scenes. It also tends towards the infernal, with paintings showing a rather canine beast from the book of revelations, a hellmouth, a winged devil with a man’s body and a bull’s head, and a set of the damned being menaced by skeletons and some rather catlike demons. Praying figures of the painting patrons often feature in the lower sections of scenes, making the paintings a form of indulgence. A set of wooden votive figures are missing their hands, creating the inadvertent impression of a scene from Titus Andronicus. A temporary sculpture exhibition shows Behrens’ The Kiss of the Sphinx. The collections also includes many of the Piast tombs removed from various city churches. The later sections include several Matejko paintings and a work attributed to Bellotto, showing an entry into Rome, Józef Chełmońsk’s symbolist paintings and Maz Wislicenus’ landscapes. I’m slightly bemused by one painting that shows the same figure replicated several times; I can’t tell whether it was deliberate or not. The building itself is rather Dutch in style covered in icy and facing a Nazi era city council building. A bronze statue of Durer stands outside.
On my final day in Wrocław, I travel outside the city to the Jewish cemetery. Even now, this is far outside the city boundaries, sited near a rather eccentric nineteenth century water tower. Most of the tombs are in a bad state of decay, with ivy overgrowing everything; it certainly qualifies as one of the most decayed cemeteries I’ve seen. This is particularly unfortunate, as the tombs are quite unusual. This is a nineteenth century cemetery and accordingly many of the tombs are Egyptianate or classical, but some of the Sephardic tombs were created in an Arabesque style.