Ten years ago James Hopkin was one of only two dozen expats in Krakow. Since then he has witnessed a real-estate boom and a tourist explosion, but the city has never lost its shambolic beauty.
"If you want to see the real Poland, don't go to Krakow," I recently heard a Polish person say. What? Has my ten-year semi-emigration been in vain? Is Poland's former capital, where the country's kings and queens are buried in the vaults beneath Wawel Castle, no longer representative of that much-invaded, misunderstood nation? As for those bowls of purple borscht, the slices of sour cucumber that made me weep, the winters of 16 hours of darkness and 25 below when the gaps between my teeth froze over--was that not the real Poland either?
I feel sure it was. Of course, the city has changed, drastically so since Poland joined the European Union in 2004--a tourist explosion, a real-estate boom, street-by-street renovation and a huge influx of predatory expats, not to mention stag-nights (with the emphasis on the animal element)--but with a little perseverance and cunning, you can still savour the real Poland.
When I first came to Krakow in December 1998, I was enchanted. The main square, the Rynek, which is one of the biggest in Europe, was staging a Christmas market, festively lit. The steam of kielbasa (grilled country sausages) hovered in the freezing night air. Renaissance townhouses and gothic palaces crowded round, like so many faces trying to squeeze into a photograph. People were friendly, if bemused as to why a Westerner would want to visit their country: there were only two dozen expats in the city at that time. In the evenings, I returned to my room with a picture of the locally born Pope John Paul II above the bed. It lay in an outlying district of tower blocks, along streets of snow punctuated by piles of coal waiting to be shovelled through basement hatches. The spirit of the place appealed to me, with its old-fashioned charm, its shambolic beauty. It was cheap, bookshops were plentiful (well, you can browse in any language), and it was home to two contemporary Nobel prize-winners for literature, the poets Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska.....