The television screen on Krakow's gleaming new No.76 tram shows key past events which occured on whichever date it happens to be. Friday being July 27, the operators chose the conclusion of the first battle of El Alamein, which halted Rommel's advance on Alexandria. At first I was bemused, but only until the old brain clicked into gear and I confirmed that a Polish brigade fought there. This country continually throws up such connections.
We were on our way back from Kasimierz, the satellite town, long since absorbed by the city, which was built in the 14th century, partly to attract traders in salt, meat and leather which eventually became home to orthodox Jews. It was here that Stephen Spielberg filmed the ghetto scenes for Schindler's List, though the actual ghetto, like Oskar Schindler's factory, was on the other side of the Vistula river. For a long time after the Second World War the area was dead. Now it is humming with small restaurants and bars. The first cafe to open here when the area began to be revived was called Singer. There are sewing machines on outside tables – but could the name also be a reference to that of the writer, Isaac Bashevis?
On Szreoka Street Jewish and Polish eateries rub shoulders with the Bombay Tandoori. At one a woman with a small backing group sang the Yiddish love song Bei Mir Bistu Shein, which became an Andrews Sisters hit as the Germanized Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. We visited the little Remuh synangogue, built in 1558 and now under renovation and drank iced coffee at a cafe called Klezmer. As we entered our guide, Marta, spotted a celebrity, Leopold Koclowski, who pioneered the Jewish music after which the cafe was named. He is pictured on a wall – with Prince Charles. His parents were killed by the Nazis and he spent most of the war in concentration camps. Marta had a great uncle who fought as a pilot in the Battle of Britain and a great aunt who went out to buy provisions as the war came to a conclusion – and returned to find the Germans had blown up the building in which she lived. Almost everyone you meet in Poland can tell such stories.
That building was close to a bridge over the Vistula. However, because the Germans needed to get out of town quickly as the Red Army advanced, most of Krakow survived unscathed. It is an intensely beautiful city. Its huge main square, with the traders' Cloth Hall at its centre, may be compared with St Mark's in Venice. From a tower of St.Mary's Basilica a trumpeter plays on the hour. His refrain stops with apparent lack of logic, a reflection of a nice legend, according to which a 13th century trumpeter was blowing a warning that the Tatars were coming when he was silenced by an arrow in the throat. In summer the square is surrounded on all sides by all fresco cafes – where any similarity with Venice ends. A half litre of Polish beer will set you back no more than £2.
Temperatures here have topped the 30C mark, so we have not been disappointed to shelter from the sun. We had spent yesterday morning in the cathedral and Royal Apartments on Wawel Hill. The cathedral contains the throne on which all Polish kings and queens but the last one were crowned and the elaborate reliquary of St Stanislaw, who was put to death in a Becket style dispute with his monarch. The apartments were occupied by Austrian troops before the First World War, when Krakow was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and they wreaked havoc. Often fuelled by drink, the soldiers vandalised furniture and sometimes the very structure. But during the inter war period of Polish independence Poles rallied to refurbish the apartments and fill them again with elegant trappings. Many fine pieces of furniture paintings – including a couple by Rubens – were donated or bought with money raised. Most stunning is the collection of over 100 16th century Flemish tapestries, which were rolled up and evacuated to Canada – via Rumania and France – as the invading Wehrmacht approached. One of them includes the depiction of a dodo.
We travelled to Kasimierz on a water tram, enjoying cool air off the river. When we returned we headed for the square again, to see the great altar of St. Mary's. Decorated richly in gold, this is one of Europe's finest works of Gothic art. It was created between 1477 and 1489 by a German master from Nuremberg, Veit Stoss, who based its main figures, each carved from the wood of a single lime tree, on local people. We lingered for a long time and marrvelled. It would have made a fitting climax to our stay – but there was still one day to go.