Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017
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Polish it off

Krakow probably doesn't top your European wish list -- but it should

Summer storms are always sudden but on this July day in Poland, neither my friend Andrzej nor I noticed the inky clouds

rushing in until the first drops fell. Suddenly, everything was in motion: a strong hot wind whipped skirts up and turned umbrellas inside out. Thousands of pigeons flapped around in a state of panic. The clouds opened with an angry crack of lightning and a deluge transformed the flagstones of the immense Rynek Glowy (town square) into a vast reflecting pool.

Then, the storm ended as suddenly as it began and rays of sunshine bathed the honey-coloured Sukiennice (medieval cloth hall) in such intense light it seemed to glow against its backdrop of a leaden sky. I raised my camera and just at that moment a young man stepped in front of the Sukiennice to present an immense bouquet of pink roses to his girlfriend. It was the perfect metaphor for the city -- beauty again triumphant after the storm.

In its more than thousand-year history, Krakow has seen so many violent storms that the survival of its medieval stones seems nothing short of miraculous. Invading armies have tromped back and forth across Poland for centuries and, during World War II, it was pure chance that Krakow wasn't blown to smithereens by the Nazis as Warsaw was. Like its people, Krakow survives, proud of its role as the most beautiful city in Poland.

And not only Poland. When UNESCO was compiling its first list of the 12 most important cultural monuments in the world, Krakow was on top, despite 50 years of Soviet domination that layered its Gothic/Medieval/Renaissance treasures with a coating of black grime. Acid rain from the Soviet-built satellite town of Nowa Huta nearby had gouged deep pits into the centuries-old stone on the Sukiennice so that even the gargoyles cried as acid rain etched rivulets of tears down their faces.

When I first visited the city in l963, it was a sad Cinderella kind of place. Tragedy hung from its turrets. In those days, even though there seemed little hope Poland would be free, the Poles never lost faith in miracles. That miracle came with the exodus of the Soviets in 1989 and, since then, the city has embraced the West while jealously protecting its historical beauty.


Universal Truths
On one of my regular visits to the city, I spent one summer studying Polish language, history and culture at the Jagellonian University in Krakow, an institution intimately bound with the identity of the city. The Krakowians have always seen themselves as the "thinkers" of Poland and Krakow has always attracted the nation's greatest writers, artists and scientists.

When Hans Frank, the notorious Nazi commandant, took up residence in Krakow, one of his first acts was to invite the university's staff to an "academic conference". The 183 professors that arrived were brutally beaten and then shipped out to concentration camps in Germany where most of them perished. Although the university was officially closed, clandestine lectures were held in private homes throughout the war. The Soviets who came after them had their own "anti-intelligentsia" measures, such as building the suburb of Nowa Huta with one of Europe's largest steel mills as its core. The worker was to have taught the intellectual a thing or two.

The Jagellonian, founded in 1364, is one of the oldest and most respected places of learning in the world. It was here in the early l6th century that Nicholas Copernicus "stopped the sun and started the earth moving," thus creating the basis for modern astronomy. The Jagellonian was a centre of enlightened thinking long before the Age of Enlightenment: a professor named Pawel Wlodkowicz was sent 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 radiating from this place of learning drew repressed intellectuals to Krakow from all parts of the world.

In the Collegium Maius, the oldest building on the "campus" dating back to the early l5th century, there's a small museum where you can see everything from the (alleged) skulls and wizardly tools of Dr Faustus to the strange-looking astronomical instruments used by Copernicus. There's a copy of his original treatise, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, published in 1543. There's also a brass globe which serves as the centrepiece of a clock mechanism and shows the earliest known illustration of America labelled "a newly discovered land."


A Hip Square
The Rynek Glowny (town square), a block from the university, is the heart and soul of Krakow, the focal point for everything that happens in the Stare Miasto (old town). From the early l3th century, this is where Krakow merchants came to hawk their wares. They still come to sell flowers or delicious Polish bagels or chess sets, but the plaza is wide open now. In its heyday, each square inch would have been covered with goats, sheep, pigs, vegetables and monks selling indulgences.

There is something about the Rynek Glowny at twilight that makes it dance a pas de deux with your senses. As I sat at a small sidewalk café with Andrzej and other friends, strange elongated shadows crept across the stones from the arcaded walls of the Sukiennice like ghosts stretching after a long sleep.

On the roof, green and amber lights illuminated the faces of the gargoyles, twisting them into grimaces and leers. Then from the tower of the Mariacki church on one corner of the square, an odd tune played by an unseen trumpeter curled itself around the uneven Gothic spires before breaking 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 for centuries, a poignant example of the Polish obsession with history.

Legend says this custom of posting a sentry in the church tower sprang from the Middle Ages when Tartars swept through Poland raping and pillaging. On spotting the Tartars, the sentry blew the hejnal with all his might but an arrow pierced his throat 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.

Inside the Gothic Mariacki church, you can see fragments of the early Romanesque church in the crypt but the pièce de résistance is the triptych by Wit Stwosz in the Gothic altar piece. It was carved in 1477 and is considered one of Europe's largest and finest examples of medieval wood carving. The outer sides of the triptych show scenes from the life of the holy family, but every day at noon (except Sunday) the inner panels are opened to reveal scenes from the bible in life size figures. If you want to take a peek get there early, as it's always crowded.

In the very centre of the Rynek, the Sukiennice continues its commercial tradition as a marketplace -- 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.

It's at night that you begin to understand why Krakow is being called one of the coolest cities in Europe. Reports insist it has more nightlife per square inch than any other city in Europe (understandable when you add up the 120,000 students in this university town plus expats and tourists hot on the trail of an exploding night scene.)

Facades of ancient architecture and cloistered courtyards that look so serious during the day have burly doormen guarding inconspicuous doorways at night. Jazz oozes from the alleys and in the Stare Miasto the sounds of cult joints like Prozak throb so loudly from Gothic cellars the very streets seem to hum. Czasem Trzeba and Piec Art are two clubs that attract students while the Boogie Bar and Cynamon Café are a bit more swanky. Cien is another favourite where visitors gawk and wonder at how so many beautiful girls could be contained in one small club.


Schindler's Shadow
Outside of the Old Town, the best place to be is the reinvigorated 500-year-old Kazimierz neighbourhood of the city. This was one of Europe's oldest Jewish enclaves and a leading centre of Jewish culture until the Nazis corralled almost 18,000 of its residents into Plaszow before shipping them to concentration camps. Almost all of them perished. The story told by Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List made Kazimierz a familiar word and, since the movie, the cobblestone streets and shops have been restored.

It's jazz and hip hop however that echo off the walls instead of the call to prayer. Hot spots include Propaganda, a club that pokes fun at the former Soviet empire, and Singer, a former sewing machine factory, now a moody bar filled with solemn young men and women who sit at tables fashioned from old manual sewing machines. Around Plac Nowy the ultra hip Alchemia and Le Scandale are two of the best.

Of all the sights in Krakow, Wawel Hill -- Poland's Westminster Abbey -- is the most important. This castle, high on a hill, reaches back to the days when Krakow 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 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 the castle, 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.

You can spend days here and still miss a lot, but a good first stop should be the cathedral which the late Pope John Paul II 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 opposi¡tion to royal ambition. In the crypts, there are tombs of national heroes such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko, poet Adam Mickiewicz and pianist Ignasz Jan Paderewski.

The most valuable pieces in the castle art collection are a set of 136 tapestries, a third of what was originally held, thanks to the raiding of Czarist, Austrian and Nazi armies. It still remains one of the most important tapestry collections in the world.

The state rooms are elegant but the most unusual is the Audience Hall, often called the "Heads Room." Here, two artists in 1530 created a ceiling of 200 wooden faces based on actual 16th-century faces -- these faces have watched the passage of kings and 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.

The crypts in the Monastery of the Reformed Franciscan Order a few blocks from the Rynek are macabre yet fascinating. Here, because of some freak of nature, more than 1000 bodies have been mummified naturally and can be seen lying open in their coffins. I walked around stunned by 400-year-old monks lying in their robes, a shrivelled bride still dressed in her wedding dress and a soldier in a Napoleonic uniform. There are no regular tours of the crypt, but a visit can be arranged privately with a donation to the church.

With so many "hot lists" touting Krakow as 2007's sweetheart, the city may quickly find (as Prague did) that hordes of suitcase-toting tourists can be a mixed blessing. Poles being Poles, however, they will find some way of working it all out.

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