If I forget you, O Krakow, let my right hand wither. These are my “I’m not going to World Youth Day Blues.” But I’m glad that some of you will go to the city that occupies almost as much of my heart as Rome. I know both of these cities better than I know my own native Warsaw, and semi-native Seattle. I spent three years of my life in Krakow, even though I come from Warsaw (an aesthetic wasteland).
I met my wife in Krakow. My firstborn was born there. My heart belongs there. I’m really tempted to go back.
One of the main vices of events such as World Youth Day (WYD) is that they last only long enough to give you more of the same commercialized experiences you’ve experienced and liked on previous trips and pilgrimages abroad. Religious events such as these also trade in the vice of the squeaky clean. They usually leave you curious about what real life is like for the people who inhabit the hallowed and haunted places like Krakow.
I’d like to give you a list of places where you can get an incarnational feel for the city and the inner lives its inhabitants lead. Fret not even if not everyone will speak in English. Some of the places I list below were discovered through my British and American expat friends, so they tend to be generally non-Polish speaker friendly.
- Krakow is a city of artists, scholars, saints, and alcoholics. Some, like St. Brother Albert, were all four at some point in their lives. Poland’s history has also been extremely depressing for the better part of the last three centuries. Alcohol consumption is high, even if not Russian high. Therefore, in order to get the full Krakow experience you might want to know where the natives go to drink. Their destination is not infrequently the Bar Upon the Vistula (Bar Nad Wisłą), that is, the stretch of the Vistula River right behind the Wawel Castle. This place is also noteworthy because during the winter swans have a habit of staying in the water too long and getting caught in the ice. During the Juwenalia in May students take over the city and the bar-banks of the Vistula as well. The Jubilat store next to Wawel Hill is an ugly but charming communist holdover, interesting in itself for this reason, but it is also one of the most frequented liquor stores of the city.
- Krakow is a city of churches. But, while it is true that man cannot live by bread alone, man needs bread too. The Kebab location called Pod Osłoną Nieba might not be the best in the city, but it is the most accessible and cheap. But that’s not even the best part about it. It’s all about location, location. The upper story of the building that houses it used to be a brothel, but now it is the offices of the Scandinavian department of the Jagiellonian University (Poland’s equivalent of Harvard). If that’s not rich enough, it’s right next to the Dominican Church where the city’s whole student population and intellectuals pack the Sunday Masses. That was my church when I lived in Krakow, however you always have to schedule events there way ahead of time, which is why I married my wife just around the bend in the Franciscan church, which was grandly redone by the late Polish romantic poet, playwright, and artist Stanislaw Wyspianski. The Franciscans and Dominicans used to hold theologically-fueled street-fights right around the intersection where this kebab place is located.
- Nearly all of Poland’s world-class writers were either born or lived at one time in Krakow. Czeslaw Milosz‘s residence on Basztowa Street is now a modest archive with limited access. His remains are in the Skalka church. I can’t divulge where the poet Adam Zagajewski lives, but you might see him exiting one of the Masses at the Dominican Church on Sunday. Here’s an all too brief summary of the city’s rich literary heritage and apocalyptic/surrealist sensibility in a show I did for Polish TV:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2HzgisQD7Q
- If you’re looking to have a good coffee and read some books by Polish authors in English then Massolit Books, featured in the video above, should be your destination. I’ll also do a couple of book lists for you later in the week.
- If you want to mingle with the cream of the crop of Polish intelligentsia, then the Bunkier Cafe is where you want to go. The cafe is attached to an art gallery that features avant-garde work. Most Catholics aren’t aware that world-renowned theatrical modernists such as Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor plied their trade in not always pious Krakow–and that literary modernism isn’t necessarily opposed to religious reflection, as the example of actor turned philosopher Karol Wojtyla demonstrates.
- Speaking of philosophy, Krakow is also known as the world capital of phenomenology. Phenomenology has morphed into what these days is called Continental Philosophy (a current of thought quite friendly to religion), as opposed to the pure boredom that is Anglo-American analytical philosophy. Many WYD visitors will have at least heard of Karol Wojtyla’s phenomenology-inspired Love and Responsibility, but will know nothing about the work of Jozef Tischner, the chaplain of Solidarity. You should definitely grab one of the many cheap copies of Tischner’s The Spirit of Solidarity and arrange a visit with the Tischner Institute Center on Stradomska Street. John Paul II’s philological and theological career is tied up with the Jagiellonian lecture halls right next to the Sts. Peter and Paul Church, which is only a couple of minutes away from the kebab place I mentioned above. I believe the same lecture halls might’ve been graced by Roman Ingarden’s, Husserl’s best student, and author of one of the most monumental works of Polish Philosophy, The Controversy Over the Existence of the World–its first volume is now available in English translation. See, that kebab place wasn’t a random choice at all. Plus, Poland, unlike Western Europe, has always had good relations with the Turks.
- Finally, thanks to the zeitgesit of early 20th century Germany, a brief visit to Krakow usually entails a visit to Auschwitz. A phenomenon some call the Holocaust Industry has grown around this place of horror–not to mention Pokemon stops and Israeli teenagers taking selfies. If you want to go beyond remembering the past as past, or goofing off in the present, then see what the future of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue looks like by paying a visit to, or, at least reading up about, the Auschwitz Center for Dialogue and Prayer. It’s a remarkable institution that holds retreats and conferences for Catholics and Jews. I once went there for an Advent retreat where the chief Rabbi of Poland, along with a German priest, held a retreat on the topic of what the two religions hold in common on the all-important topic of the coming Messiah. As an added depressing bonus, you might be surprised to hear that there is a book on the Forgotten Holocaust of non-Jewish Poles. Yes, history hasn’t been kind to Poland.
BONUS: Insomnia-fueled bonus for film buffs. If you’ve seen Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, one of cinema’s most perfect metaphysical compositions, then you’ll be curious to know that the part where Veronique first passes out after an encounter with a strange man in the street was filmed a block away from the Wawel on Koletek Street. The same street houses the Krakow Opera’s site for practice, which I assume was were many of the film’s scenes of opera rehearsals were filmed. There’s also a nice little local bakery right across the street from the tennis courts on the same street where Agnieszka Radwanska, the WTA’s fourth ranked player, perfected her game.
This is all I could come up with off the top of my head for now. If there’s enough demand I might come back and dig into some more Krakow arcana. I hope this post proves useful to some of you. May WYD be fruitful for all.
You might also want to look at some of the following links for an insider look at Poland. Poland is much more than merely Catholiclandia, although it is that in its unique and slightly decadent way too:
- Why Speak of Theocracy in Poland When Confessional States Make up the Secular West?
- Enter Another Dimension: All Souls and All Saints in Poland
- Happy 1050th Birthday Poland!
- Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part I)
- The Central European and Social Heart of Phenomenology
- 1 Thing Nobody Noticed about Oscar Best Foreign Film Winner Ida
- Prominent Polish Prelates and the Poisonous Fruit of Unbridled Capitalism
The Nowa Huta neighborhood was built by the communists to counter decadent, conservative, artistic, and mostly religious Old Krakow. See the video below to find out why they failed:
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