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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Krakow stories


Krakow is the most beautiful city I have ever visited. I love Nairobi with her meandering streets and life in every corner. I like the throng of people and the sounds everywhere but there are very few really beautiful places. Cairo is huge and it really is my one of my loves but its dirty and grimy, dust coats every surface, when it rained before I left the whites of shirts were specked with brown splotches of dust. That city had history but not in every corner like Krakow does. Every building has a legend associated with it. You turn the corner and come face to face with the most beautiful church in the world. The sculptures are sewn into the fabric of the streets; you walk around with your face to the heavens because it looks like that’s where you are.

The stories of Krakow are all amazing and a tour of the city is also a tour of the stories, legends and histories of the people of Krakow. The city is a part of the culture and literature of the place, the art and history, the politics and history live in every spare stone.


This is a really bad picture of an amazing church, the church of St. Mary's. We went inside and I couldn’t take pictures because they still use it as a church. There is art everywhere, sculptures of gold and wood, edifices of stone and steel, tapestries hanging down the wall and the biggest crucifix I have ever seen. It lies in front of one of the pews and from it you see Jesus staring down at you. It’s so high up that your neck aches as you see the lord in his last moments; splendour and glory accompany this statue as misery and heartbreak leak down onto all faithful supplicants.

The church is at the same time a testament to sibling rivalry, it’s made of two towers of different sizes and behind this there is a story. Two brothers were commissioned to build the church and set off to build the best tower in all of Krakow. The first brother banged it up in a hurry, reaching for the skies like a shoot and the next took his time. People began taunting the older telling him his brother had surpassed his skill and one day in a fit of jealous rage he stabbed his brother to death. On the day of the consecration the guilt was too much for him and either he threw himself out of the tower and fell to death at the foot of his unfinished brother’s masterpiece or he killed himself with the same knife he used to kill his brother. The knife still hangs in the town square a testament of love to hatred turned.


That sign in Polish is the unfaithful Thomas corner. It is just around the way from the church. In this place there are bars selling vodka, beer and more vodka. Sings of degratzwe are all that reply to the church bells. Once the nuns went on strike to protests this uncomfortable union of spirits and states of minds. The bars there were closed for a while but a while passed and…


That’s the inside of one of them. This is a special kind of bar in Poland, they had disappeared for years and years and only just started opening up again. They were famous in the days of communism when a monolowy was running the state of alcohol. Unlike the similarly named vinnmonopoulet in Norway the one in Poland wasn’t concerned so much with keeping intake of alcohol down as it was with increasing it since in the space between gladiators and TV, alcohol could serve the mind-numbing effects needed to run a dictatorship. The insides of this one are plastered with newspaper clippings from the 80s yellowed with age or a chemical that closely resembles that effect. There are only two prices for drinks here 4 zloty for any drink: beer, vodka, water, soda, energy drink, whiskey and 8 zloty for food. On my first night I tried this mix of raw eggs and raw meat and raw onion, writing about it now am not sure why. The zloty is a polish word meaning golden, also the name of their currency.


I took this picture of Jesus on the way to the Jewish district. Am not sure if it’s supposed to look like that or if there was a fire, nevertheless a sooted, hanged to dry crucifix touched me. What I like most about crucifixion scenes in Poland is that they are invested with so much pain, almost too much, no longer is he the stoic saviour bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, no the caption to each of them is eloi, eloi, lama sabatchani. In truly suffering only can we find joy (that’s not what the Latin means in case anyone gets confused.)



This is a picture of a cafĂ© located on the inside of the Jewish district. The cafes are the cosiest place you can find. They were built not to have space, you sit hunched next to each other and sip coffee to the dripping of candle wax dropping of eaves from conversations so close the air warms you up. A surrounding painted in red and brown, warm colours for a place that forces and fosters warmth except when someone leaves the door ajar and then the cold rushes in. They have pictures up on the wall of the late great people who frequented them back in the time when… the translation of their names is literally milk stop or wherever it is that cows are milked.



Pope john Paul II lived here when he was archbishop of Krakow. I grew up with him as pope most of us did, he was the pope much more than Bill Clinton was the president and for a child of the 80’s that meant a lot. He would get out of a plane and the first thing he would do was to go on his knees and kiss the earth. This is something that could be interpreted as a man glad to have made it through another trip on a tube of metal running on combustible fuels or it could be seen as a symbol of togetherness. The pope getting on his knees before his people all over the world in every place in the world. Reaching out with lips to kiss the earth that had been trampled on by people from all walks of life, tyrants and titans, cleaners and clingers, sinners and singers. That was a Krakow story.

I still remember the weekend after he died when they were holding a conclave to select the next pope. I was reading Dan brown’s angels and demons, the best book that man ever wrote. It was based in the 24 hours immediately preceding a conclave and its atmosphere was of red hats, white and black smoke, papal intrigue and the veiled mystery that is the machinations of the Catholic Church. To be reading this book during that weekend was something that happened by pure chance but the atmosphere provided meant I would love it forever.

This is the wavel dragon. There had to be a dragon story. Every few minutes the statue will spew forth fire. This dragon unlike the one in this parable had a taste for virgins. The people had no idea what to do with it till a young boy had the idea to feed it sulphur, the dragon got thirsty, drank all the water he could and burst up from the inside. Prompting me to think why they didn't just have anti-virgin squads of suave young men saving women's lives and letting dragons starve.



This one is a sad story. A story of death, inevitability and the loneliness born of loyalty. And worse a true story. This dog waited on this street for 2 years for his master to come back. Every day he stood there. In winter and summer he would not budge waiting for a man who had already died. The citizens fed him and looked after him but nothing could budge him until he too died. Maybe his master came for him maybe death is all our master and that’s why his long tapered fingers reach out of the ground taking not just the worst but even the best of us.


 For every story I could remember and record a thousand others stay hidden beneath the view waiting for someone to scratch the surface, to just begin to dig and then get swept away in the mass of character and culture that is Krakow.