Easter in Krakow

After Good Friday in Auschwitz, it was time for Holy Saturday in Krakow. The religious orders were everywhere – black and brown robes scurrying about. Despite soaring global unemployment, employment in the Church seems to be in good shape in the city that gave us John Paul II. So were the Catholic places of worship: the abundance of churches, one on every street almost, three in the large town square and five others off the street leading to the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill.

Of course, all major tourist attractions like the Castle were closed, but walking in the palatial grounds with views from every side of the city below was breathtaking. And yet that Castle too had suffered the effects of colonization when it was converted to an army storage depot under the reign of the Austro•Hungarian Empire. Restoration of Wawel Castle is still underway and some wall frescos from its glory days are now on display, others are probably lost forever.

Seeing the inhabitants of Krakow rushing off to their neighbourhood church with elegantly decorated cane baskets of food – an apple, an egg, a potato, salt, and any other ancillaries one desired to put in, all covered with a fine embroidered napkin – to have them blessed for sharing with the family on Easter Sunday is apparently a tradition of the city. There was even a mass food•basket blessing ceremony replete with blaring loudspeakers and TV cameras in the main square outside the doors of St. Mary’s Basilica.

Visiting the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz was easier, given that the old city of Krakow is not as large as Prague, and we did not get lost in too many streets before finding our target. Unlike Prague, the Jewish quarter is rustic (run down, would be a better word), although the landmarks are more authentic. The Jewish restaurant we visited was an agglomeration of five crumbling pre•war Jewish shops; from the outside the facades and entrances of the old establishments still remain, on the inside, the separating walls have disappeared to create this huge restaurant serving traditional Jewish food amidst a few international dishes. The High Synagogue hosted a historical photography exhibition, but the building itself is a shell of its former self, replete with an unrepaired hole in the wall where the Torah and other sacred relics normally repose. Considering only 200 Jews returned to Krakow after WWII compared to about 10,000 to Prague, the maintenance of a Jewish presence in an overtly Catholic country, must be a challenge.

The fashions were better, more international, my wife said. Although prices are high given that the country is tied to the Euro, despite having its local currency, the zloty (just like in the Czech Republic retains its koruna). So, we did not shop but we ate good food and drank beer instead. Perogies are a must, and the kabab stands and pizzerias are in abundance. I discovered that a Polish cutlet is a Vienna schnitzel and Polish salad comprises shredded carrots, white and red cabbage, and coleslaw. But I would avoid the Georgian restaurants where everything is a permutation or combination of meat, potatoes, vegetables and Georgian spice (whatever that is).

Where Prague was grand and spread•out, Krakow was small, narrow, intense and Catholic. It would have been nice to stay for more than two days – the next time, perhaps!

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