By Steve Skabrat
The cafes are all full in the main market square of Krakow, Poland. It’s a Sunday Afternoon and I’m tired of walking around the square. I want a chocolate milkshake. Every chair is taken in café after café until finally I spy an empty table. Welcome to capitalism in post-Communist Poland, twenty years later.
I was in Krakow in 1984 during the height of the post-martial law, socialist workers paradise period. The main square, called the Rynek Glowny in the Old Town (Stare Miasto), was mostly empty. There were no stores, no cafes, no restaurants, few locals, and even fewer tourists. Why come to tour a magnificent old town when you can’t eat, drink, and shop? The buildings were dilapidated and ugly. Polish men and women, with grimaces on their faces, trudged across the square in drab clothing as they went to stand in some line for another bar of soap or loaf of bread.
It wasn’t always that way. For hundreds of years Krakow was the cultural, intellectual, and economic center of Poland. It was situated on important trade routes. Established in the 13th century, the Rynek Glowny was the biggest medieval square in Europe. Traders sold goods to the local shopkeepers, who marked up the prices for resale. Goods couldn’t be sold on the surrounding city streets so shops were set up in a giant building called the Cloth Hall (Sukienice in Polish) on the Rynek Glowny.
The Sukienice was one of the few functioning marketplaces during the Communist era. The shopkeepers in the Sukienice stalls sold locally produced goods, such as hand carved wooden boxes, chess sets and walking sticks, lace, crystal, jewelry, and leather goods.
The Sukienice is still going strong after over 700 years. The shops today are full, but with the same local goods as before. Still, it is a good shopping experience and I splurge to buy some crystal and wooden boxes as gifts.
Dominating the skyline around the Rynek Glowny is St. Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki). A church that has been here for 800 years. The original church was destroyed in the Tartar invasion of 1241, but subsequent versions were rebuilt on the same foundation. Every hour a bugler plays a slow, sad song from the tower of the church. You can hear the tune across the square. According to legend, during the Tartar invasion a town watchman played a bugle to sound the alarm. An arrow hit him in the throat, causing him to abruptly stop the song. Today’s buglers do the same thing (fortunately without getting shot).
After circling the Rynek Glowny, I wander down Florianska Street. The street is filled with stores, interesting restaurants, and even a jazz club. At the end of the street is a portion of the old town wall dating back to the Middle Ages. The wall now serves as a backdrop for a street side art gallery.
Back in the café, I savor my chocolate milkshake while watching the people walk by. A mime mimicks passers-by, amusing some but annoying most. Groups of teenagers energetically bounce along. Affluent young women stride by purposefully, their hands full of the day’s fashion purchases. Families with small children eat ice cream cones head to the toy store. Older couples, arm in arm, pass the time near the old Town Hall Tower.
It’s an entirely new scene. Busy, commercial, and crowded; there’s more life now injected in this once drab city. Krakow’s main square is a sign of change, of progress, and of hope.
About the Author
Steve Skabrat is a lawyer originally from Minnesota, United States. He is a travel lover and writes about his travels at http://www.skabrat.com.