Four days in Krakow, and a Wedding

by M. L. Longworth

We have been to Poland twice, each time for a wedding. The first wedding was a few years ago, near Warsaw, that reconstructed city whose destruction by the Germans during WWII the Russians watched in silence from the east bank of the Vistula. 98 % of Warsaw’s Jewish population was murdered, as were 25 % of the Poles, many who were trying to hide their Jewish friends and neighbors. (Those statistics come from a great book about Poland I’m reading, Michael Moran’s A Country in the Moon, published by Granta in 2008). This summer’s wedding was in the countryside (a gorgeous old barn) just outside of Krakow. A friend and colleague from New York, who teaches with me at NYU, was marrying a local beauty (and brain).

Our French guidebook referred to Warsaw as the “brains” of Poland, and Krakow the “heart.” Seems right. I love both cities, Warsaw for its contemporary art and pride at being both old and very new. Krakow was relatively undamaged during the war, has an ancient university and many museums, and its old town is splendid:

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We had a day to walk around the city before the wedding (which was a two day affair, as are many French weddings). Given the joyous occasion we were there for, and our limited time, we decided to go to Auschwitz on our next visit. Instead, we stayed downtown, visiting a museum of 19th Century Polish art (which like many countries had their own branch of Impressionists, painters who had been to Paris, falling under the magical spell of painting en plein air). Then, off to a museum of history of the city, which my husband and I both found drab and uninteresting (we later discovered that the more interesting history museum is underground and just a few steps away!).

It was very hot (31°C–88°F–with high humidity, which we’re not used to), so we got away from the main squares, where there are many touristy restaurants, and fell upon by chance Albertina, a restaurant we would almost travel back to Krakow to eat in. Contemporary cuisine with Polish ingredients, including trout caught in rivers in a nearby national park. Oh, and each dish came paired with wines, two of which were Polish whites!

This was our favorite, Solaris, from up on the Baltic coast.

This was our favorite, Solaris, from up on the Baltic coast.

After lunch we visited a 16th century Gothic-Renaissance palace built for the Bishop Erazm Ciolek that now houses sculptures and paintings from the 14th to the 16th century. We were the only visitors. Below, a 14th century wooden sculpture of Jesus that we found very striking:

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In Warsaw the museums and art galleries we visited were charged with excitement. Museum workers would follow us around and ask if we needed help. Gallery owners jumped up from their contemporary-designed desks, welcoming us and explaining the current exhibition. In Krakow, the museum employees could barely even look up at us. That’s part of the reason we got mixed up in locating the underground history museum, as our questions were usually answered with a shrug of the shoulders. In Michael Moran’s book he has the same experience in 1992, just two years after the fall of Communism. He writes, while trying to buy a car, “There is never an official reply in Poland, just a series of non-answers.”

When in Warsaw I fell in love with the paintings of Edward Dwurnik, a national treasure. Born in 1943, Dwurnik studied art in Warsaw and is known for his provocative but sometimes humorous paintings. He now paints almost exclusively bird’s eye views cityscapes, a series he calls “Hitch-hiking”, but I prefer his politically charged earlier work from the 1970s and 80s.

A cityscape of Edward Dwurnik. They are really big, and impressive, when you see them in person.

A recent cityscape of Edward Dwurnik. They are really big, and impressive, when you see them in person.

An earlier painting from the 1970s, below, which focussed on the Communist everyman (and in the 80s the tragic destinies of Polish people caught in the political turmoil of the age):

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Well, after our religious art museum, and a cocktail on the Planty (the park that rings Krakow’s old town) we met up with our daughter who had just arrived from Paris and went out for dinner. The restaurant Pod Baranem (“Pod” meaning something like “Chez”) got great reviews from our Michelin guide, and also from the Guardian. But Pod Buranem also had an added attraction: the restaurant is full of Edward Dwurnik paintings!

A bit of Pod Baranem's interior. I had the Beef Stroganoff; delicious!

A bit of Pod Baranem’s interior. I had the Beef Stroganoff; delicious!

The next morning we got up early and took a tram to the south side of the Vistula to Krakow’s newly opened contemporary art museum, the MOCAK, then raced back to our hotel for the wedding shuttle pick-up. The wedding, in the countryside 45 minutes south of the city, began at 4:30pm and we got back to the hotel at 6:30. AM!

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The lit-up LOVE sign amongst hay bails, were the children had a grand time.

The lit-up LOVE sign amongst hay bales, where the children had a grand time.

The food was endless (the last dish, a cold beet soup, was served somewhere around 3:30am) and delicious. As was the vodka. (no one was drunk from what I could see, helped by all the food and dancing).

We were out-dressed and out-danced by our Polish friends.

We were out-dressed and out-danced by our Polish friends.

We slept a few hours and the next afternoon dragged ourselves to Wawel, Krakow’s hilltop royal castle. After a guided tour of the grounds, we paid for tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” one of the four female portraits painted by the artist in his lifetime. The subject of the portrait is Cecilia Gallerani, painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the service of the duke. Unlike visiting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, there were only six of us looking at the painting. I love the black background; it sets off Cecilia Gallerani even more (she was an accomplished poet too). The painting was stolen by the Nazis and rescued in 1946 by Americans, who returned it to Krakow.

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That night those of us who had energy and were still in town, including the bride and groom, met up on one of the restaurant boats that line the banks of the Vistula. Our view that evening, as we drank Polish wheat beers and re-hashed the wedding:

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And this photo seems like a good place to sign off! Here also seems like a good place to announce that the Polish rights to my books have been sold, and I’m thrilled! The publisher is Smak Slowa, located in a small town, Sopot, on the Baltic Sea. The publishers know that I live in Europe, and asked my agent if I could come to Poland once the books are released to do a promotional tour. Could I? Would I! Twoje Zdrowie!