Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Cracow 2000

After years of obscurity, Poland's cultural capital takes the world stage

From the tower of the Mariacki church on a corner of the Rynek Glowny came an odd tune played by an unseen trumpeter. It broke off abruptly, as if the trumpeter had suddenly run out of breath. This was the hejnal, a melody that has been played on the hour from this high point on Cracow's main square for centuries -- a poignant example of the Polish obsession with history.

Legend says this custom sprang from the Middle Ages when Tartars riding swift ponies swept through Poland raping and pillaging. A sentry was always posted in the tower and told to blow a warning if he spotted invaders. When the Tartars appeared on the horizon, the sentry blew the warning signal with all his might, but his throat was pierced by an arrow mid-tune. Since then, the truncated fanfare has been played by a lone trumpeter to commemorate the sacrifice of the hero who saved the city.

There is something ineffably Polish about this unceasing reminder of being a beleaguered nation. In its more than 1000-year history, Cracow, Poland's ancient capital, has been both blessed and cursed by its geography. As a flat country right in the heart of Europe with rich soil and few natural barriers, Poland was once called the bread basket of Europe. No matter where conquerors were headed, it seemed to provide a highway offering little resistance -- Tartars, Swedes, Russians, Austrians and Germans all fought for a piece of Poland.

With each invasion and after every war, Cracow has rebuilt and returned to its role as the most beautiful city in Poland. UNESCO acknowledged this when it placed Cracow on its first list of the l2 most important cultural monuments in the world; next year, the city will reign as European Cultural Capital for the Year 2000.

When I first saw Cracow in l963, however, it was a sad, Cinderella-type place. Tragedy seemed to hang from its every turret. After years of Soviet domination, its Gothic, Medieval and Renaissance loveliness was no longer visible beneath the layers of black grime and pollution from the Russian-built satellite town of Nowa Huta nearby. On the turrets of the Cloth Hall, the Sukiennice, acid rain gouged deep pits into the centuries-old stone, etching rivulets of tears down the faces of Sukiennice's gargoyles.

Over eight years of annual pilgrimages to Cracow, I've watched the liberated city emerge from yet another time of trouble. On ancient streets, such as Kanoniczka, medieval facades slowly emerged; behind scaffolding, warm pastels replaced the grey grime of the Communist years. People here are alive again. They smile and wear red now -- not because of communism but because it's a beautiful colour.

One of my visits was as a student of Polish language, history and culture at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, an institution founded in 1364 and bound more closely to the identity of its city than almost any other university in the world.

As a centre of enlightened thinking long before the Age of Enlightenment, the university sent a professor named Pawel Wlodkowicz to the Council of Constance in 1414 and amazed rulers throughout Europe by stating that nobody had the right to occupy other countries or to spread religious beliefs by force.

The light of tolerance which radiated from this place of learning quickly drew repressed intellectuals from all parts of the world. It was also here in the early 16th century that Nicholas Copernicus "stopped the sun and started the earth moving," thus creating the basis for modern astronomy. In the university museum, there's a copy of Copernicus's original treatise, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, published in 1543, as well as his astronomical instruments. There's also a brass globe, serving as the centrepiece of a clock mechanism, that sports the earliest-known map of America, labelled "a newly discovered land."

The Rynek Glowny, a block from the university, is the heart and soul of Cracow, the focal point for everything that happens in the Stare Miasto (Old Town). From the early 13th century, the square would be filled with goats, sheep, pigs, vegetables and monks selling indulgences. Today, the plaza is populated with tourists, busking musicians and merchants selling flowers, delicious Polish bagels or chess sets.

In the Gothic Mariacki Church, you can find fragments of the early Romanesque church in the crypt but the pièce de résistance is a Wit Stwosz triptych altarpiece. Carved in 1477, it is considered one of Europe's largest and finest examples of medieval wood carving. While the outer sides of the triptych show scenes from the life of the holy family, every day at noon (except Sunday) the inner panels are opened to reveal life-size figures in scenes from the Bible.

In the centre of the Rynek, the Sukiennice continues its commercial tradition, but for tourists now. Inside, stalls on either side of a central arcade offer a range of bargain-priced beauties: fine Polish crystal, amber, quality leather goods, wood carvings and thick woollen sweaters. I bought embroidered sheepskin slippers for $8, a striking bone necklace for $4 and excellent children's wooden puzzles for a quarter of what they would cost in Canada. Now that rampant inflation has ended, Poland offers some of the best bargains in Europe. Almost everything you could want is available -- quality Italian shoes, electronic goods, you name it.


There are several great night spots on or near the Rynek, including the Jama Michalikowa café and cabaret at 45 Florianska Street. In 1905, this was a hangout for artists, painters and poets who organized a literary cabaret they called The Green Balloon. It's still a hangout and still features a thriving cabaret.

Another place to mingle with the locals is in the Gothic vaults of the old Town Hall, where you can catch a performance of Teatr Satyry, the Theatre of Satire. This huge medieval tower on the corner near Sw. Anny Street stretches skyward, and is all that remains of the ancient building pulled down in the 19th century by modernists. These same enthusiasts ripped down the town walls and replaced them with a green belt called the Planty, which now encircles the old city. While history buffs mourn for the walls, the Planty with its old chestnut trees and flowers is, no doubt, a peaceful and favoured hangout for locals.

Of all the sights in Cracow, Wawel Hill, Poland's Westminster Abbey, is the most important. This castle and its surrounding buildings, perched high on a hill, date back to the days when Cracow was capital of Poland and kings were elected by nobles. Even though the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596, royal coronations and burials continued to be held at Wawel. In the Wawel cathedral, next to the royal palace, all but four of Poland's 45 monarchs are buried along with poets and national heroes. At the foot of Wawel, there's a cave which legend says was the home of a ferocious dragon that terrorized the town in the days of Prince Krak, the city's founder.

Your first stop at Wawel should be the royal cathedral which Pope John Paul has called "the sanctuary of the nation." Originally built by King Boleslaw the Brave in 1020, it is filled with stunning marble and silver sarcophagi including that of Saint Stanislaw, a bishop murdered by the king in 1079 for his opposition to royal ambition. In the crypts, there are tombs of national heroes such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko and pianist Ignasz Jan Paderewski.

The castle itself is reminiscent of a rich Italian palazzo, largely due to an anonymous Florentine architect who remodelled it in the early 1500s. The most valuable piece in the castle's art collection is a set of 136 tapestries. Although it has been reduced to only a third of its original size -- thanks to the raiding of Czarist, Austrian and Nazi armies -- it still remains one of the most important tapestry collections in the world.

While the castle's state rooms are elegant, the most unusual is the Audience Hall, often called the "Heads Room." Here, two artists in 1530 used 200 models to create a ceiling of wooden faces that have gazed down upon a stream of kings (and now commoners) over the centuries. In the Treasury, the most important piece is the Szczerbiec, a 13th-century sword used in the coronation of Polish kings and queens.

A short walk south of the castle is Kazimierz, one of the saddest and most tragic parts of the city. Once one of the main cultural centres of Polish Jewry, today it is only an empty and silent reminder of the Holocaust. Before the war, there was a Jewish population of 70,000; today there are perhaps 150 or 200 mostly elderly survivors. It was here that Spielberg shot much of Schindler's List.

I spent a day walking through the area to see fragments of the rich culture that was once here -- Yiddish inscriptions, Stars of David, fragments of a ruined Yiddish theatre on ul. Wegierska, the old ghetto pharmacy (now a museum), part of the ghetto wall on ul. Lwowska. A small bright yellow terraced house has been restored; it was the place where cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein was born.

There are still three synagogues on ul. Szeroka, the smallest of which (the orthodox Remu'h) at number 40 dates back to 1557. Behind the synagogue, there is a cemetery filled with splendid headstones that date back to the early 16th century. The headstones were buried during the 16th-century Swedish invasion and only discovered during the post-WWII reconstruction. The Old Synagogue at 24 Szeroka Street is the oldest surviving Jewish building in Poland, but it too has been rebuilt and turned into a museum documenting the history of Polish Jewry in Cracow (open 9AM to 3PM every day except Friday from 1AM to 6PM).

After years of obscurity, Cracow is ready for the final act in its Cinderella story, when it enters the limelight in the year 2000 and likely emerges as "the next Prague" on the tourist trail. Even though a new set of invaders, this time with suitcases in hand, will soon descend on the city in greater hordes than the Tartars, the hejnal will only be blown for sentimental reasons, and the visitors will find the famous hospitality behind the old Polish proverb: "A guest in the home means God in the home."


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