Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Krakow: A Lyrical City
“I don’t know what it means to call Krakow a ‘lyrical’ city,” a friend wrote on hearing my first impression of the city.
What does it mean to call a city “lyrical?”
More important, what does it mean to call this city “lyrical?”
The life of the city rotates around three circles. The first is a circle of royal power. Set on a hill and enclosed by red brick walls, the Wawel Castle and its surrounding structures were built over centuries in styles Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. The stones tell the story of a succession of Polish kings and queens who ruled, died, and were buried here.
At the base of the Castle a circle of commerce spins in tight orbit. Like spokes on a wheel, all roads lead to the Grand Square, or Rynek Glowny, a hub of medieval trade routes that brought cloth and spices, salt and amber into the city center. Around 1300 a permanent roof was built over market stalls to become the Cloth Hall, arguably the world’s first shopping mall. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, effectively erasing the country from the map of Europe, Rynek Glowny became Adolf Hitlerplatz.
One road runs from the market square to a final circle: the circle that contained Krakow’s Jewish population, the Kazimierz. At the end of the 15th Century Jews were relocated to an area nestled in a curve of the Vistula River. A spirit of religious tolerance welcomed Jews from all over Europe to the Kazimierz. The population swelled; the arts flourished; banking brought wealth. In the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis emptied the circle, expelling Jews directly to nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau or temporarily resettling them in a ghetto on the other side of the river. The Nazis built the high walls around the ghetto to resemble tombstones.
Directions in Krakow never urge taking a “hard right” or a “hard left.” Instead, they advise bearing this way or that. But then, none of the streets in any of these circles meet at right angles: they bend into cathedrals or synagogues, market squares or the hard truth of the ghetto.
Today the city’s life revolves around three ancient circles of power and commerce and memory. In their daily rounds, these circles spin off songs of beauty and terror. If you listen closely amidst the rumble of trams and the squawking of tourists, you catch a few bars of haunting melody. It is always in a minor key. Beneath it all, the cantus firmus of an ancient chant, the Vistula flows steadily into the Baltic.
That’s what it means to call this city “lyrical.” Another friend got it immediately.
“Yes,” he responded.