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Poland’s Second City



Poland’s Second City Is First Choice for the Young


TO find Pauza, an artsy pub in the medieval heart of Krakow, slip past the rowdy British lads at the greasy kebab stands, step over the inebriated young woman splayed on the shiny cobblestones, and wait. A clique of trendy young Poles will clear a path to a soot-stained building on Ulica Florianska; follow them up a dark stairwell and open the unmarked wooden door.

The thumping electronic music may sound vaguely familiar, and the swirling psychedelic lights and photographic art are not exactly avant-garde. But if you came to Krakow — a compact city of 760,000 in southern Poland — expecting to run into boozy stag parties or old Polish men swigging rubbing-grade vodka in dank bars, you’ll be pleasantly disappointed.

On a cool night this past fall, the crowd was sexy and self-possessed, with enough bell-bottom jeans, clunky belts and gorgeous blondes to populate a runway. The men were stylishly disheveled, with hip-hop hoodies and chiseled good looks. The women were chic and funky, with impossibly high cheekbones and long legs.

“There’s a lot of creative energy here,” said Garrett Van Reed, 25, a writer from Pennsylvania, who is part of a growing expatriate community that is turning Krakow into Eastern Europe’s newest bohemian capital. “There’s tons of artists and street performers. And there’s always something going on in Rynek Glowny,” he said, referring to the picturesque main square. “You’re constantly stumbling upon something new.”

That’s easy to do when there are some 300 watering holes in Krakow’s Old Town, many of them former World War II hideouts that only the local intelligentsia seem to know about. But word is getting out. The airline service into Krakow has increased dramatically in recent years, especially among low-cost carriers like easyJet, which recently added more than a dozen weekly flights to Krakow from cities like London, Belfast and Newcastle.

And with the euro climbing against not only the dollar but other foreign currencies, too, younger travelers have another reason to flock to Poland’s second city. At about 2.9 Polish zloty to the dollar, Zywiec beers are still under $2, dinners rarely exceed $10 a person and a hostel bed goes for $15 a night.

“Krakow has exploded,” said Thymn Chase, 26, a musician and writer who moved to Krakow shortly after graduating from Skidmore College in 2003, and started Lost in Krakow, an English-language zine, which he first published in September to give voice to the growing expat community. A brooding man with a goatee and long hair, Mr. Chase embodies the backpacker-philosopher type who might have chain-smoked in Prague during the early 1990s. “Within a half-hour of arriving in Krakow, I knew this is where I wanted to be,” he said over a beer at Lokator, a new lounge on Ulica Krakowska. “Krakow has an incredible artistic atmosphere.”

In October, a dozen expats and Poles gathered at Mr. Chase’s grungy apartment in Old Town. Sprawled on beat-up couches and flea-market chairs, they were a motley crew — unemployed artists, Web designers, writers and musicians — eager to make their mark as cultural pioneers, colonizing a new frontier in Eastern Europe. “I’m in several bands here,” said Anna Spysz, 24, a pixieish guitarist from Austin, who wore a low-cut T-shirt, hip-hugging jeans and fake pearls. “It’s very easy to book a gig here. You don’t have the pressures of London, New York or Austin. And you don’t need two jobs to survive.”

The group chatted about their creative endeavors as they polished off six-packs of Tatra Pilsener, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and, at one point, began scrawling existential messages on the walls. Then, at about midnight, they headed off to Kitsch, a multilevel pansexual club on Ulica Wielopole, where they danced until the wee hours.

Krakow’s pleasures, however, are not confined to after nightfall. Unlike in Warsaw, which was largely destroyed during World War II, Krakow’s stone churches and castles — some dating back to the 10th century — remain gorgeously intact. Older Poles still talk about how the occupying Nazis had apparently rigged the entire city with dynamite, but fled before detonating a single charge.

As a result, Rynek Glowny, which ranks among the largest medieval squares in Europe, looks pretty much the way it did in the Middle Ages. Dominated by the twin-towered St. Mary’s Basilica and the behemoth Cloth Hall, the market square is also surprisingly un-touristy, even when the stone-paved expanse is thronged with tourists. There are no Starbucks, no American Apparels.

On a Sunday afternoon, there were sharply dressed mothers sipping tea, elderly couples looking at an outdoor photography exhibit, and clusters of students — the nation’s top colleges, including Jagiellonian University, are in Krakow — pecking on their laptops under the 230-foot-tall and Wi-Fi-equipped Town Hall Tower.

“The city center is for real people,” said Mark Bradshaw, 38, an expatriate from Zimbabwe who runs Cracow-Life.com, a popular online city guide. “If you were in Venice, every place is taken over by some big business. Here, you find student spaces that haven’t been driven out by corporations.”

The same ethos holds true for Kazimierz, an old Jewish district southeast of Old Town. A tightly packed warren of crooked cobblestones and peeling facades, its hauntingly preserved streets came to attention in 1993 as the setting for Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”

While Kazimierz still evokes its Jewish past, it is estimated that fewer than 200 Jews are living in the whole of Krakow today. The Nazis had corralled some 17,000 of its residents into a nearby ghetto before shipping most of them off to Auschwitz and Birkenau, about 40 miles west of the city. About seven synagogues remain, but they serve more as cultural attractions than houses of worship.

As with other former Jewish districts throughout Europe, Kazimierz has emerged in recent years as the city’s alternative artistic center. After languishing for decades, its dingy tenements and wooden doors have been pried open and are slowly being converted into gritty pubs and sleek restaurants, with names like Le Scandale and Propaganda.

The coolest joint may be Alchemia, a dark and smoky bar with wobbly furniture, wood plank floors and faded photographs. Like other nearby lounges, its fin de siècle décor was meticulously stage-crafted to evoke a lost bohemia. Lurking in its shadows on a Saturday night were students studying by candlelight and moody artists nursing pilseners.

But then, around midnight, a gang of British louts stumbled in and ordered shots of krupnik, a honey-flavored vodka. Yes, the stag party has discovered Krakow, many of the revelers drawn by tour companies like Crazy Stag, run by Mike Ostrowski, a 29 -year-old Pole. Offerings include “Communism tours” of Nowa Huta, a bizarre socialist-realist suburb 20-minutes outside Krakow, and gatherings in Soviet-era apartments where the entertainment might be a stripper in a hot pink bikini and where guests may end the night by shedding their clothes and tossing their underwear out the window.

WHILE such spectacles no longer raise an eyebrow in Prague and Budapest, they feel somehow out of place in Krakow, a proud and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic city, where the local airport is named after Pope John Paul II, who served as the city’s archbishop before becoming pope. Indeed, scandalized by their growing presence, city tourism officials recently announced a campaign to discourage stag parties with advertisements spotlighting the city’s rich heritage. (Whether church morality wins over the virtues of cheap booze remains to be seen.)

As evening fell on Rynek Glowny, the square was awash in a luminous golden glow, pigeons were replaced by swarms of young revelers, and the thumping of Polish electronic music echoed off the medieval stone walls.

Many of us saw this coming. It seems now that there are more Brits in Krakow than in London
Keep on coming

Re: Poland’s Second City

No comments? No fans of Krakow on the blog?

I'm shocked.

Re: Poland’s Second City

Krakow is a fine place to visit. But, as I've said before, isn't representative of Poland as a whole.

Re: Poland’s Second City

I would hate for it to turn into a stagfest city. It's a cultural centre not a booze capital.


Re: Poland’s Second City

Second city? Has a recent census shown Krakow pass Lodz?

Rank Name Population

Re: Poland’s Second City

Just goes to show you really cant believe anything NY Times prints slepowron