Season’s Greetings From Krakow
I thought that after the darkness of Auschwitz and Birkenau would come time for happier things. The tragedy at the Strasbourg Christmas market overshadowed that – I was in the same market two years ago, and what astounded then me is that it is the most secure market I’d ever visited, effectively being on a traffic-free island to which access is granted over heavily guarded bridges. And still an atrocity occurred.
Krakow’s market is far more open and entirely unsecured – but then Poland is one of the safest places in Europe mainly because its complex geopolitical web does not have the same tick-boxes as those of France and the UK. White carriages and horses take visitors around the narrow cobbled streets under the gaze of the castle, much festive lard is purchased, along with pig knuckles and massive sausages. Not a place for vegetarians.
The trip was timed perfectly for the first snow of the season. Krakow is one of the most visited cities for British Christmas breaks because of its bilingual population and unspoiled UNESCO-protected medieval walled old town. Under a cape of white it sparkled, but this is the tourist area. Head for Nowa Huta if you want to see stark old Leninist architecture, and beyond that to find parts that look like rural Romania. The current repressive regime has all but stopped Sunday trading, and I’m told attitudes are hardening among the elders.
Yet it’s a surprisingly literary and artistic town, something that will stand it in good stead as young creative startups take over the old warehouses and derelict factories. The cool cafes and bars are already in place, and young attitudes are internationally-minded. But you still don’t see people of colour or much of an ethnic range at all.
The rest of my top five Christmas Market weekends are Riga, Talinn, Salzburg and Berlin. God bless Easyjet (although I now see we are being advised not to book any flights after March 29th) but to the list I should add one more – London.
Yesterday I hung out with some friends and a small boy staring in wonderment at Regent Street and the delightful Carnaby Street lights that spell out the lyrics to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. This year, despite the lack of snow, London seemed twinkliest of all. A Polish friend was amazed; ‘How can so many people in one narrow space all be so polite?’ she wanted to know.
I could only answer, ‘It’s Christmas.’