Tag Archives: Cracow

Oddest photo in Polish history?

Another gem turned up in my search through the excellent Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (National Digital Archive). This photo was taken in Krakow in 1941, according to the notes that accompany it. The wartime date and the city are confirmed by the destination plate on the back of the tram: Adolf Hitler Platz was the new name given to the Rynek Głowny by the occupying Germans. That’s all clear enough. What I don’t understand is what the hell is going on here. The more I look at it, the weirder it gets.

Click for a larger version

A number of questions spring to mind:

1. Why is nobody helping these people?

Possibly the guy who has come off his bicycle is dead, but the guy in front of the car isn’t. Why isn’t somebody at least helping him up? At first I though perhaps the accident had just happened when the photo was taken but:

a) there is no driver in the car;

b) a crowd of onlookers has gathered; and

c) a police officer is already on the scene (under the tree with his back to the camera).

2. What happened?

I’m fairly sure that’s the back of the tram, not the front: I see no driving position and there is a hitching coupling visible. If so, the tram must have been heading to the right, out of the frame of the picture. How did that car get there in that orientation? It looks like it’s come directly off the pavement.

3. How likely is it that there was a photographer right there?

Cameras were expensive and rare things in the 1940s, especially in occupied Europe. It’s an amazing coincidence that there should have been a photographer on the scene, with a loaded camera, within a short time of this incident. The photo looks much more like the kind of thing you would see taken today with a phone camera than the kind of thing you might expect from 1940s photography. Could the whole scene be staged? Is it part of a film set?

These questions and many more will undoubtedly be answered by our indefatigable readers. Or not.

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Real beer discovered in Krakow

Three years I’ve lived here, and not once did anybody mention Pub Katedra to me. Three years. If I didn’t know you better, I’d suspect foul play. I have terrible thoughts of the whole of Poland smirking silently while I raved on about the impossibility of finding good beer in this country. You wouldn’t do that to me. Would you?

Katedra is less than a kilometre from my front door and it has more varieties of Polish beer than any other Polish pub I’ve seen: in other words, more than two. In fact it has a lot more than two, the spiral-bound beer list is half-an-inch thick. They claim to have more than 40 beers, mostly, but not exclusively, brewed in Poland. Forty Polish beers. How can that be? I’ve only ever seen five beers served in pubs. Why don’t they spread them around a bit? Five beers in 64,964 pubs and all the others in just one. Okay, it’s an admirable exercise in surrealism, but at least tell us that’s what’s going on.

If you think you like beer and have only ever tasted the mainstream Polish brands, stop what you are doing right now and go immediately to Katedra—your mouth, as Ford Prefect once remarked, will love you forever. I’m not saying they are all great beers, some just tasted weird, but the point is: they have a taste. Żywiec, Okocim, and Tyskie are not terrible beers, but they are achingly bland. They’re designed to be bland, so anybody can drink them without complaint. This is not what beer is about, in the same way that wine isn’t about adding alcohol to grape juice.

The breweries turning out this riotously non-standard cataract of beers are young and bursting with hoppy enthusiasm. Browar Fortuna is a prefect example: founded in 1995 it offers a dozen versions of madness-in-a-glass including the devastatingly flavoursome Czarny Smok (Black Dragon—the names need work). Others include Browar Jagiełło, Browar Konstancin and Browar Czarnków; names that will soon become more familiar than presidential candidates if there is any justice in this universe.

I guess I should say something about the pub itself. It’s on Poselska, but on the part of Poselska to the east of Grodzka. It’s the only bar, pub or restaurant on the entire street, which also makes it unique in Krakow’s Old Town. As if two points of uniqueness weren’t enough, Katedra goes one further by being the only Krakow pub I know of that is entirely non-smoking. Nicotine addicts need not panic. The place is cosy enough that standing outside on the ashtray-equipped doorstep you barely lose touch with events inside.

The interior is, apparently, based on the look of a short film inspired by a Jacek Dukaj—it’s geek chic. The adolescent Tolkien-inspired elements are understated enough not to get in the way of the beer experience. In other words, it looks almost exactly like every other Krakow pub except, mercifully, it isn’t underground.

Go there at the nearest opportunity. Feign an antisocial disease to get time off work if you must, or simply slide off into the blazing furnace that is July and hitch south to Krakow—nobody will notice.

Pub: Katerda

Address: ul. Poselska 9

Website: http://www.katedra.krakow.pl/

Bonus: Mention ‘Island1’ at the bar for one free look of blank incomprehension.

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The Krakow funerals

I knew there was never any chance I would get to the centre of the action, but I wanted to be on the streets sampling the mood and eavesdropping on conversations on what was surely the biggest day this city will see in a long while. It felt like we were at the centre of the world for a few hours, a rare enough feeling anywhere in Poland and even more so down here in sleepy Krakow.

Saturday: the day before

The plan for Saturday was to see how the preparations were going for the big day, to walk the route the cortege will take, and to visit the crypt under Wawel where the Kaczynskis will be interred.

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Krakow waits

The television was on as we prepared to head out. After slowly slipping back into the routine of movies, soap operas and ads as the week of mourning progressed, most channels suddenly reverted to the wall-to-wall coverage that characterised the first two days after the disaster. Live footage of the commemorative event in Warsaw was interspersed with still more scenes from the lives of the Kaczynskis. It’s amazing how slowing down video and turning it black-and-white can make anyone look statesman-like and pivotal. The guy who composed the score for the movie Katyn must be making a fortune this week, it’s played every five minutes over yet more slow-motion images of Kaczynski saluting or having his tie straightened by his wife. Dimly overheard from my neighbour, who is obviously watching the same thing: “NATIONAL HERO! HA!”

The main square, 3pm

On any given Saturday you will find gangs of mustachioed men setting up stages, lights and camera platforms on the square. The almost weekly concerts, pageants and commemorations are the bane of city-centre dwellers. Today was no different. Giant screens, stages, floodlights, camera cranes, and serried ranks of seating were everywhere. The only difference today was that everybody was taking pictures of the scaffolding rather than tutting at it.

There was a shuffling stream of people filing in and out of the Mariacki church—the scene of tomorrow’s funeral mass. My wife went inside and reported that a wedding was about to take place. Mariacki is the administratively-favoured venue for mixed marriages, where ‘mixed’ means ‘between real people and foreigners.’ Walking past the side entrance we overheard a stressed-looking English bride in full regalia asking: “Will you be my witness?” Volcanic ash at 30,000 feet must have taken a serious toll on her guest list. I hope her parents made it at least.

Wawel, 4pm

Wawel is to Krakow what the Tower of London is to London; if you live here, you never go. I’ve walked around the free parts but never bothered to buy a ticket. I’m glad I finally did. The cathedral itself is not exceptional, it’s small and cramped compared to Europe’s great gothic examples, but the crypt is well worth a visit. It’s an extraordinary experience to walk among the sarcophagi of some of the greatest names in Polish history. They look as if they’re been there a couple of weeks rather than centuries. The chamber containing the Kaczynskis’ tomb was, unsurprisingly, closed to the public.

Władysław Sikorski tomb

The tomb of Władysław Sikorski–seeing names like this at first hand and how few of them there are raises questions about the Kaczynskis’ place down here that I didn’t have before.

The climb to the Sigismund Bell is an experience in itself. Don’t attempt it if you’re not capable of squeezing into the cupboard under your sink, there are a couple of places where you have to perform a similar manoeuvre as you climb among massive timber beams on a series of wooden staircases. It’s not a scary or long climb, but it is tight. The bell itself is just a big bell, albeit a very old one. I had always believed that it was only rung at moments of exceptional national grief or celebration, so I was surprised to discover that, in fact, there are at least 29 days every year when it sounds: three extra occasions this year.

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The Sigismund Bell

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More photos of preparations from Krakow Migrant


Sunday: the funerals

I learned two things about Historic Events today: they hurt your feet and the rattle of camera shutters is deafening.

We woke to the news that 14 delegations had been grounded by rampaging volcanic ash. “Poland is on its own again; our allies have been frightened away by smoke from a mountain.”

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A photogenic mourner

Only Poland could have this kind of luck. From an international event it turned suddenly into a very local affair. Medvedev was still coming and the president of Georgia who, apparently, insisted on taking off from Rome volcanoes or no volcanoes; “That’s how you lose presidents,” I thought to myself.

The first hour and a half was taken up with vain attempts to get near the main square. People were drifting from street to street in the hope of finding one that would miraculously provide a grandstand vista. None of them did. We even popped into the second floor office of the Krakow Post with vague thoughts of a window seat, but the view was no better. The crowd was chatty and lighthearted. The most common overheard phrase was “Chodżmy gdieś indziej” (“Let’s go somewhere else”). It was the very essence of milling about.

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Cameras held high and kids on shoulders were the order of the day

With little hope of success we decided to try our luck on the procession route along Grodzka. Jostling along with the crowd I heard a young student complaining to his girlfriend: “Miał być Obama, miał być czad…” (Obama was supposed to be here, it was supposed to be buzzing…”)

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A street plugged with people, just like all the others

At 3 pm, half an hour before the funeral mass was due to end, we made our stand in Mary Magdalene Square (opposite the Church of Saints Peter and Paul) just two rows back from the barricade. Loudspeakers were relaying the service. Most Poles in the crowd knelt at the appropriate moments, much to the surprise of the few tourists around.

With the end of the mass we were expecting the procession imminently. Instead, Komorowski launched into an extremely dull and worthy speech. The guy next to me under his breath: “Dobra gościu, nie jesteś jeszcze prezydentem” (“Alright mate, you’re not president yet”). Then there was something in Russian and, literally, a dozen words in English. BBC World reports that the service was conducted in Polish, Russian and English were wildly overstated.

Brief flurries of entertainment were provided by people attempting to get a better view and, more importantly, a seat by climbing on top of a wall across the street. The pioneers were chased off by the police, but that didn’t stop a new bright spark trying it every 10 minutes. Us pavement people hated the wall people and murmured approvingly every time they were deposed.

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We hate wall people

After two hours that I would never have knowingly volunteered for, the thumping rhythm of the procession finally approached. It was one of those uncanny and disturbing moments when TV-reality becomes right-here reality. The military police Humvee rolled past two arm’s-lengths away and the gun carriage bearing the president’s coffin was right where I had seen it the day before on TVN. What you don’t get on TVN is the sense of a very real wooden box containing the broken and burned remains of a very real human being, and then another one containing his wife, and then his twin brother walking right behind looking utterly exhausted and horribly vulnerable.

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Cameras and coffins

There is a strange contradiction in human behaviour on occasions like this. We want to experience it in person and will stand on hard concrete for many hours to make sure we do, but as soon as the occasion happens, the coffin passes by, or the King waves, or the superstar blows kisses to the crowd, we immediately place our camera screens between our eyes and reality. We want a record. There must have been tens of thousands of photographs taken within five metres of where I was standing. The clacking of computer-generated shutter sounds was like hail. There were no tears, there was no sobbing, there was just a raging hunger to capture the image.

And then it was all over.

There was a certain amount of chaos on the way home because the main road through the centre of town (Franciszkańska/Dominikańska) was sealed off to allow more important people to be whisked to the airport. It’s one of my undying ambitions to be whisked somewhere, preferably to the great annoyance of thousands of lesser mortals. It was impossible to get from the south of town to the north or vice-versa for 45 minutes. People passed the time sitting on the planty flicking through their photos. A shrill-voiced woman passing by said: “Wszędzie tajni agency Secret Service” (“There are Secret Service everywhere”), even though there weren’t.

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Memories of 20-minutes-ago

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Some more photos:

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Armoured vehicles pelted with carnations

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Commemorative posters everywhere

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The Polish flag at half-mast over Wawel Castle

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Outside-broadcast units on every corner


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It’s 2 am as I post this. There is a profound and absolute silence over the city. The story is over. What is next for Poland? Somehow, this week, the country  became part of Europe in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Iconic Polish images of a new kind have become part of the modern European story.

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International TV coverage of the Krakow funerals

Decoy sensibly spent Sunday in front of the box.

With seemingly non-stop coverage of the crash on the Polish news channels for all of last week, and the mourning and initial investigations, I thought I would take a look at the international coverage of the funeral itself to get an ‘outside’ perspective.
For most of the last week, the crash had been in the top two or three news stories on many international news channels, and until Thursday had been the number one story. However, as the output of the Icelandic volcano loomed ever larger, it began to push Poland off the top spot. With the memorial service on Saturday in Plac Pilsudski in Warsaw and the funeral on Sunday, the news stations picked up Poland’s week of national mourning once again.

As could be expected with a story of such magnitude, news channels from all over Europe (and beyond) had regular reports. For example, BVN from the Netherlands had reporters in Kraków’s Rynek, giving a 3-4 minute report with mentions of Katyń, President Kaczyński’s part in Solidarność and the Wawel ‘row’. Channels such as France24, DW-TV (Germany) and Viesti (Russia) also had news reports on the funeral, in most cases mentioning which dignitaries from their country/region were (generally) not able to attend. Euronews showed an interview with Michał Karnowski, who was the biographer of both of the Kaczyński twins. He was questioned about the potential legacy of Lech Kaczyński and he also proclaimed his surprise about the unity in Poland’s mourning, he seemed to have expected more indifference, due to President Kaczyński’s low popularity ratings before his death.

However, what was interesting to note in the TV coverage from an international point of view, were the number of foreign stations that gave full coverage (and some analysis) of the funeral. Euronews allowed full coverage of the ceremony, but with no commentary at any stage, while CNN also gave Poland special attention with a banner saying ‘Poland mourns’ and comment on what was taking place with the full ceremony being shown live.

BBC World News had given extensive coverage to the crash since news of it broke last Saturday, and Poland featured in their reporting all week long. With the memorial in Warsaw yesterday, they covered every minute as the names of each of the dead was called, and applied comment from people such as Anne Applebaum, the American writer married to Radoslaw Sikorski. They also spoke to their Polish correspondent Jan Repa, who emphasised the Katyń memorial aspect once again. For the funeral today, they gave full coverage once more, and even broke to London for 10 minutes where a large screen was set up in Trafalgar Square for the Polish community there to watch. An interview was conducted as well with David Miliband, the British Foreign Minister. His mother was born in Poland, so naturally he expressed his sympathy, both on an individual and professional basis.

Finally, in the spirit of the improved relations between Russia and Poland, special mention should probably go to Russia Today, the English-language, Russia-focussed news channel. They also covered the full extent of the funeral also—probably unthinkable a few years ago. The Russian effort to be involved in the funeral was also noted by many channels including Poland’s TVN24, especially how President Medvedev was allowed the seat closest to the altar from all other foreign visitors.

The world recognised Poland’s pain and loss and sympathised as well.

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What’s in a name?

MikeM returns for a close looks at the names of Krakow’s bars and pubs. I simply can’t imagine how he came to know so many.

Arriving in Krakow last August the fist thing to grab me, other than a crazy street drunk on the Market Square, were the names of pubs, bars and clubs. Capote, Siesta, San Francisco Cappuccino, Hard Candy, Prozac. The names didn’t seem in keeping with the tenor of the city. Take Florianska Street; a little out of place is all I’m saying. The basement bars either didn’t have names or were only identifiable as bars by the Tyskie signs outside. If I stumbled into them accidentally, usually drunk, I’d never find them again. This is how it works in Krakow: give your establishment some corny concept appellation or have it so well hidden, like Pausa on Florianska and Pietz on Szewska, that nobody will ever find it again. It occurred to me that the marketing was entrepreneurial. In the case of many bars and clubs in the Old Town, the method is to attract the attention of city breakers on the weekend for the fast money, then rename the venue in a few years as the zeitgeist shifts. Just keep re-branding to get the tourism euros not the loyalty of the locals.

I automatically drew comparison to my home country, Ireland, where most pubs and indeed many restaurants and high street businesses are named after the owners or founders. You have McDonough’s bar and off license, Cosy Joe’s, Cronin’s seafood restaurant, McGinty’s and Sons, The Rusty Mackerel and so on. Words that come to mind include: family, tradition, pride, place, history, trust, loyalty, theme and originality. This, these words, I argue are what’s in a name. But that was in 2000. I left Ireland for eight years and when I returned to Dublin, many newly opened bars in the city centre and most bars, pubs, cafes, eateries in the regenerated city limits and suburbia were of the Kafka café, Q bar, Mao Mao and Le Cirque variety. With interiors mutilated “to look like an LA apartment, with all the charm of a lava lamp” as one commentator put it. This wasn’t to herald the cosmopolitan emergence you see, but the catchpenny tastelessness of a town drowning in new money, trying desperately to capture the young, Nuevo riche market, so lower socio-economic groups would aspire for access. ‘Pole drift’ I believe is the marketing term.

Going back a few centuries to neighbouring England, you have The Red Lion, Coach and Horses, The Saracen’s Head, and you still do, at a fleeting look. Back in the day these names were accompanied by corresponding images for those who couldn’t read, thus elucidating the bold visual descriptors. And the names weren’t picked randomly, they were illustrative of some local connection. The Cobblers Inn was probably a cobbler’s shop once upon a time… you get the idea. But on a recent visit to a friend in Epping Forest, Essex, hopes that the English pub name had retained its dignity were dashed. There were as many Viva’s and Moda’s as Red Lions in Central London. Though pubs here in Poland are a relatively new addition to the cityscape, many of their names lack imagination and are as naff as those now blighting suburban Dublin and London. I lament the passing of the pride with which a proprietor would name his/her establishment in place of something with ‘zing’ intended to capture some bent notion of hipness.

Back to Krakow and Johnny Lamus Jazz, Saloon, Sphinx and a myriad of other tentative anglophile translations. The service sector seams to have an identity crisis. Even bank names, gyms and travel agencies in Krakow think that some random string of English words is the key. There’s a travel agents on Karmelicka Street called Supertramp. A reference to Into the Wild? Why? Here are streets and byways of kitsch concept names on plastic signage fixed to big, beautiful, baroque buildings. It’s short sighted and will blight the beauty of Krakow, the very thing that attracts people to the place.

The interiors of Old Town pubs are also confusing. I know at least five places that have appropriated radios from the fifties, eighties music on the player, black and white portraits on the wall, war paraphernalia and communist iconography. Superficially this kind of thing provides ‘atmosphere,’ but it’s completely without meaning. The ‘Jazz bar’ name outside often conflicts with utterly random interior décor.

It’s plausible these bars in Krakow were named after those new bars in Dublin and London just to entice that segment of the market – the Easyjetsetters. The names here just seem cheesier because they are, and because of the language thing. Just think pop music from the Anglosphere and then, Europop? Think Lady Ga Ga and Doda.

Again, when I think of a great pub name, words that come to mind include: family, tradition, pride, place, history, theme, trust, loyalty and originality.

Here are some great pub names in Krakow:

Spolem
Jama Michalika
Piekny Pies
Goraczka
Zinger
Alchemia
Pod Jaszczurami
Pod Papugami

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