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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Sublime and Ridiculous

Like the city itself, Prague station has the sense of something modernising quickly although not quite there, an anachronistic combination of a smooth, computer-screened lounge and grey, sign-less platforms, patrolled by stumpy pigeons and a lone conductor. The echoes of announcements in garbled Czech bounced above our heads and we tried to catch a hint of names: "Krakow? I'm sure she said Krakow." "No, Katowice." The transition from the comfort of the contemporary and the known, to the worn and the alien, is repeated on the journey out of the city. Heading east, sweating lightly in the leather seats of a sleek second-class carriage, newly-built steel factories flashed past, heralded with the large and abstract art logos of German chemical companies; moving out into the plains and then the forested hills of eastern Czechoslovakia, though, this shiny urbanity gave way to signs of more muddy and essential living, as hunched in the fields elderly men and women tugged at weeds and jabbed hoes at large cabbage patches and bean-filled allotments.

Towards Poland, the bright steel structures became more and more rare; instead more often appeared the broken iron skeletons of factories and warehouses and empty apartment blocks, jagged windows peering out like dark, cut eyes. Looking down, both physically and patronisingly, at the side of the tracks, tramps glanced up from the broken bottles and the broken memories at their feet, as if to follow with understandable envy the path of this long, symbolic locomotion of wealth, the flowing in of the privileged tourist and capital. Railways in every country, not just here, seem, like humming magnets, to gather poverty around their lines, as if the few metres of track carved through an urban space are no man's land, not quite part of the cities and towns through which they pass, not belonging to the borough or people, and therefore a common ground, the free property of the poor, the drunk and the desperate. Curving into Krakow we could equally be pulling towards Newport Gwent, or Wolverhampton, or Stockport.

Glowny, Krakow's central station, leads its new arrivals through the inverse of the idiosyncratic process with which Prague dismisses. Beneath the recently-renovated platforms, its modern display boards and florescent streets, with their burger bars and tobacco shops, could locate it anywhere in the West. However, when one climbs from the new underground to the elegant old station building, the remnants of Soviet public transport are still there: indecipherable timetables (confusing even when you have worked out that the yellow sheet is for departures, the white for arrivals); grouchy, monosyllabic female counter clerks; locker rooms tasked, as a rare square of warmth, into the night shelter for the homeless, certainly anything but secure. In the forecourt, buses hurl themselves in arcs into unmarked rows, and a pile of tyres in one corner hints at the number of human miles which begin and end among the dust and windswept litter of this more rudimentary commuter form, rather than in the privilege of an intercity railway station.

Pulling in just before dusk, we zig-zagged up and down parallel streets in the main hostel district, our search for a room growing more desperate as the businessmen and respectable shoppers and light dribbled away, to be replaced by dark, drunks and hustlers and, bizarrely, whizzing trams crammed full of students, screaming music and v-signs. Krakow, full of bars and restaurants, comes alive at night, a whirling dance of flashes and energy. In another circumstance we might have been captured in the excitement but now, with the pressure of backpacks, the pressure of night, we wanted to slow the light to the still lines traced by a slow camera, rather than to have this reel of filmic images running dizzyingly past, the celluloid brightness of a Baz Luhrmann covering the lurking potential noir of the a Hitchcock, the mugging in a dark alley of two foreign, isolated, lost travellers. Eventually, fearful, exhausted, we shoved a few coins into the hand of a taxi driver - always the last rescuer of the urban marooned - and, pointing in the direction of a camping ground on the outskirts of the city, sat back in the snug warmth of a car, hoping to emerge somewhere where we could pitch a tent, a sleeping bag, a head. Arriving a few minutes before the gates were due to close for the night, we made camp in a large field, alongside a couple of caravans, and to the massy songs of a Bohemian folk group singing under the floodlights in one corner. From the sublime to the ridiculous, we had travelled and arrived.

Squares and Sons

Photograph of an old man in a tweed jacket sat on a bench
Tweed Man
[Larger Image]

Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s old town square, the largest of its kind in Europe, is a remarkable open space which is the generating hub for Krakow’s sense of community. Around all four sides, tables and chairs of cafés and bars, legs and conversations, spill out into the activity passing in the stage-space of the cobbled arena. Business people cross in hurried diagonals; elegantly dressed ladies clutch their designer shopping bags; old men sit on benches, muttering together and watching children, their younger images, chase pigeons with outstretched arms; tourists wave like royalty from the gigs, pulled by shiny, brassy horses, which tour the square. For some reason, the Polish day starts at 7 and ends at 3, and so even before the evening sun throws the long sharp shadows of the towers at the corners across the square's cobbles, people start to unwind. Some 30 000 students make this university city their temporary home (added to by the many backpackers like ourselves), and the night life is incredible, drawing on the kind of mock Gothic of German clubs, with bars in eccentric basement dungeons lit by candles, flickering in response to the vibrations of trance and metal.

Photograph of an archway through which people are walking, with long shadows cast by the sun setting behind
Rynek Glowny
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Krakowians have a territorial pride in their city. On large boards a photographic display was being held, a competition – voted for by the readers of a local newspaper – to find the image which captured most the spirit of the place. One of the entries was an isometric view of the faceless thousands who crammed into the square in 1995 to welcome home Poland's prodigal son, Pope John Paul II, the former archbishop of Krakow whose image, printed in streaky lines on home computers, appears tacked by owners to the glass of their shop doors. Pope John Paul is a controversial figure, viewed by some critics as a religious autocrat, determinedly asserting Catholic morality in the face of humane reason (with the refusal to endorse contraceptives in the wake of the AIDS epidemic) and turning a blind eye to the immorality of sexually-renegade priests. Yet the reason for the passionate regard in which he continues to be held in Poland is that he is also an icon of the previous century's fight against Communism. In 1979, the year after his election to the Vatican, millions poured onto the streets of Poland as he toured his home country, issuing not so much invective against Russia as inspiring the people to believe in their ability to change and face down the authorities. It was no coincidence that the Solidarity movement, the Communist bloc's first free trade union, was set up in Gdansk, and that on a third visit there in 1987, before three quarters of a million people, John Paul II declared "There is no struggle more effective than solidarity," a phrase that reverberated across Europe two years later as the old regime began to collapse, led by Poland, the first country to break into democracy. Although the Pope is the most recent of Krakow’s adopted sons, the city has historically produced vital figures, as commemorated in the cloth hall at the square's centre, which contains a gallery of epic paintings, some five metres across, depicting the battles and saints of Polish history. Finally, hugging the banks of the Wistla river, the grey concrete of the newer buildings of the Jagiellonian University belies the fact that this is one of the most prestigious and oldest universities in Europe, numbering Copernicus amongst its alumni.


Salt has a bad press in the diet manuals of the West, and so it's ironic that one of the most astonishing tourist attractions just outside Krakow is at a scale opposite to that of the few grams we are supposed to eat. At Wieliczka, buried 100 metres below the ground, lies a huge network of tunnels and caverns carved from pure rock salt (the labyrinthine tour of 2.5 kilometres has its end punctuated by the announcement that we had seen a mere one percent of the underground space).

Unlike compressed, gritty coal mines, this was cavernous and the salt, although mostly dark, still reflected the light in a luminescent way. At intervals along the paths were sculptures: statues and bass reliefs carved straight from the rock, chapels and alters worked out of the caverns the miners made in their digging over the course of half a century. One would like to think they did it for the sheer joy of creativity, but rather it was superstition which made them create images of their patron saints, make tableau vivants showing how salt was first discovered here, and depicting the spirits and dwarves who protected them.

Most impressive of all was a church, 100m long and 18m wide, with reliefs on the wall depicting the life of Jesus. With remarkable open-mindedness and foresight, the managers had allowed the two brothers responsible for its creation to switch from mining to carving to create the masterpiece. Work is still going on here, the most recent addition being a statue of John Paul II.

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There was something quite ironic that these things, made to calm the miners’ fears in their dangerous and necessary work, were now a legacy which amazes paying visitors now mining has all but stopped. Long after the last pick dropped, this mine produces economic benefits for the Krakow region, the removal of salt – once more valuable than gold – has in a kind of alchemy now resulted in gold being poured back in to the caves and caverns.

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This page was published on September 20, 2005 | Keywords: Krakow, Poland, Eastern Europe, travel journal

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