A palace for your church

Teresa Levonian wanders dreamily through the architectural potpourri that is Poland'smost beautiful city.

ON MY first visit to Krakow 12 years ago, I was struck by the magnificent riot of its churches. Every religious order, so it seemed, had set up shop here and few had found reason to leave. Towers and spires pierced the skyline. Benedictine, Franciscan and Dominican priests emerged from portals Romanesque, Gothic and baroque, to stroll the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town, greeting members of their congregation byname.

The gaps between the churches spiritual had been plugged by palaces temporal, scarcely less commanding when studied individually, yet collectively blending into the 1000-year-old architectural potpourri that was, to its inhabitants, simply Krakow. As Warsaw prepares to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of its most famous son, Frederic Chopin, this year, Poland's former capital and most beautiful city, some two-and-a-half hours away by train, looks on, secure in its superiority. I was relieved to find little had changed. No international hotel chains have arrived to colonise the former homes of nuns or Polish nobles; restaurants, with a few notable exceptions, still serve the type of hearty food whose fatty insulation might have fuelled Napoleon's army on its march through Russia. Satirical cabaret venues lurk in underground spaces, throwbacks to the days of resistance to foreign domination.

Frumpy shops outnumber the occasional boutique stocked with fashionable European and Polish designers – the latter secreted in a mini-mall lest they disturb the aura of a bygone age.

Lacking the sophistication of Vienna or the mushroom-growth tourism of Prague, yet with elements of both cities, Krakowis one of central Europe's least-known treasures. As a base of Nazi command in theWorldWar II, it was spared the destruction that befell Warsaw and remains the cultural and intellectual heart of Poland. The CollegiumMaius still stands, housing among its treasures Chopin's piano. The Pod Roza hotel, where Franz Liszt, Balzac and Tsar Alexander II reputedly lodged, continues to welcome guests.

One can wander dreamily through the traffic-free, mediaeval streets to see the house where Bishop Karol Wojtyla (the late Pope John Paul II) lived on Kanonicza Street; or view the art nouveau decorations of Stanislaw Wyspianski, which survive to astonish still, within the Gothic confines of the Franciscan church.

Krakow's glory radiates from Market Square like rays froma misshapen sun. But the cobbles of Rynek Glowny, as it is otherwise known, were glazed with ice, transforming Europe's largest square into a skating rink. I skidded into the wooded warmth of Wedel for a cup of near-solid hot chocolate laced with rum, negotiating with difficulty the agglomeration of consonants on the menu. Impossible fricatives exploded aroundmein steaming conversation. I read (in English) about the Renaissance magician, Master Twardowski, who lived beneath the statue of St Giovanni Capistrano and who, in a Faustian echo, hocked his soul to the devil.

Pre-dating a numbering system, the palaces fringing the square – now shops, restaurants and galleries – are still romantically identified by the elaborate carvings above their portals: the House beneath the Eagle, beneath the Rams, beneath the Evangelist.

I looked out at people huddling around stalls selling pierogi (dumplings) and mead, buying fur hats, woolly socks and Baltic amber as fat snowflakes fell. As late winter scenes go, it was perfect. Yet there is a melancholy to Krakow's beauty, which seems to mourn its glory days. From the 13th century to the fall of communism in 1989, successive invasions, partitions and occupations haveweighed on the national consciousness.

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Tableaux of the 19th-century Jan Matejko, one of Poland's best-known artists and local resident, speak of heroic battles or the treachery of Poland's last king, Stanislaw Poniatowski,who forfeited Poland's independence.

Every statue and sepulchral effigy proclaims saints and martyrs. Patriotic fervour can be overwhelming.Within hours of arriving I learnt, in some detail, how Jan Sobiecki had defeated the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna and of Jozef Pilsudski's triumph over the Red Army in the Miracle at the Vistula, "saving all of Europe from Turks and Bolsheviks", addedmy guide Krzysztof, proudly. Both heroes now rest atop Wawel Hill, in the cathedral built by Wladislaw the Elbow- high to house the bones of St Stanislaus – an outspoken bishop murdered in church, like Thomas a Becket a century later, by an enraged king.

Together with the neighbouring castle, until 1609 the residence of kings, the cathedral's stylistic medley of chapels and monuments offers the most pleasurable crashcourse in Poland's rich history.

In stark contrast to this resplendently Catholic Krakowis the modest Jewish district of Kazimierz, in a nook of the Vistula River. Once a thriving community, the wartime fate of Krakow's Jews is well known, familiar to many through Steven Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List. As the residents of Kazimierzwere forced across the Vistula into the ghetto of Podgorze, and thence to the horrors of Auschwitz, an hour's journey through an innocent Breughel landscape, Kazimierz became a ghost town. Its small houses fell into ruin, its synagogues pillaged. You don't hear much about this episode in Krakow today. Instead, strolling the narrow streets, I discovered a delightful quarter of colourful buildings centred on Serozka Street, filled with kitsch kosher restaurants of questionable authenticity, the original ritual baths transformed into the characterful Klezmer-Hois and cosy bars such as Alchemia recreating the through-the cupboard hiding places of less happy times.

Restored largely in response to interest ignited by Spielberg's film, Kazimierz has become a haunt of the young, buzzing with nightlife. But of the 60,000 pre-war Jews, a mere 250 remain, according to official records. Only the silent synagogues bear witness to the past.

Trip notes
Getting there - Lufthansa flies fromSydney to Krakow via Hong Kong and Munich, priced from $2238. 1300 655 727, lufthansa.com.au.
Staying there - The Hotel Grodek, +48 12 431 9030, donimirski.com, in Krakow's Old Town, has double rooms priced from 520 zloty ($185.50). Double rooms at Krakow's Hotel Pod Rosa, Florianska 14, +48 12 424 3300, hotel-podroza.com, are priced from 720 zloty. More information - krakow-info.com; krakow.pl.

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