Archive for the ‘Krakow’ Category

Krakow is stuffed full of architectural marvels. What’s not immediately obvious is that the whole lot is built of brick. There’s nothing wrong with bricks, let me hasten to add, but it is a bit of a con job. The buildings look as if they’re made of stone, but they’re not; it’s brick all the way down. I spent another productive Sunday wandering around Krakow collecting evidence.

A typical Krakow building. Looks like it’s made of stone, but actually it’s brick covered in a layer of sculptured render.

Another typical Krakow building where the deceitful layer of render hasn’t yet been repaired.

Now, as I said, there’s nothing wrong with building in brick but I do wonder two things:

1. Why go to the trouble of pretending that a brick building isn’t a brick building? Especially when major municipal buildings such as the main cathedral, Kosciol Mariacki, is plainly and openly brick-built?

Brick-built and proud of it.

2. Where’s all the stone? Wawel sits on a mound of (rapidly dissolving) limestone but most of it seems to be made of brick. There are limestone quarries within the environs of the city including the notorious Plaszow quarry – adjacent to the Nazi’s Plaszow work camp. Why aren’t most of the building built of stone with all this limestone lying around?… ok, actually that was about four questions in one.

Wawel: Poland’s heart is made of brick (mostly).

In case you don’t believe me about the limestone, here’s a picture I took of a stone in the wall of a monastery in Krakow. You don’t get many fossils in brick.

I look at other buildings in ridiculous, but oddly exciting, detail over on Polandian.


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DVD Folly

Friday night is DVD night for me and the lady. I guess we should be out raving at the local chav pit but I’m far too old and the lady A is far too polite to mention the fact. Besides, there’s nothing better than a Friday evening in with a bottle or two of vino and a couple of randomly selected movies from the local DVD shop.

Months ago we accidentally and fortunately stumbled upon the Piracki Video shop on Ul. Lea. It’s about 10 minutes walk from where I live, has a pretty good selection of movies, and foreigners are treated as fellow human beings (even if they can’t say “I’m returning this” in Polish). There’s none of this tedious messing about with laminated membership cards and whatnot; they take a note of your name and address (on trust) and that’s it. It’s like being in the Cosa Nostra. No questions asked. You come in, choose a dvd, give a nod and a wave to the lass behind the desk, and that’s it. Admittedly, if you bring a DVD back late, they send ‘Big Stefan’ round to break your legs, but it’s a small price to pay for the day-to-day level of service.

We were very happy there for six months or so. Then, one fateful day, we wandered down a different street and were hypnotized by the pull of a Mega-Hit Nowy-DVD shop called Beverly Hills Video!! Can you imagine getting away with a name like ‘Beverly Hills Video” in the UK? Conjures images of three Armenian cousins renting slightly-worn Chinese-copied DVDs on Kentish Town Road to me. In Poland it’s the acme of cool and trendy weekend entertainment. There are dozens of them across the country, kind of similar to what Blockbuster used to be in the UK. The place is nicely laid out, professionally decorated, well-stocked and, in the final analysis, absolutely awful. We joined.

For three or four weeks we went there every Friday and wandered around its isles and isles of cruddy movies. We tried hard to believe that we were having a good time trawling through the acres and acres of meaningless titles involving ninjas, commandos, strike force 9s, and phat chicks but, in the end, we had to come to terms with the fact that they they didn’t actually have any Woody Allen movies at all. Not to mention the fact that we just didn’t like the place, on any level, despite it’s cooler-full of blue energy drinks and the opportunity to buy ‘chilled wine.’

This week the full horror of our error finally broke upon us and we resolved to return to Piracki Video to face the music. I won’t say we weren’t afraid, because we were. Would they accept us back into the fold? Could we fool them by casually mentioning an imaginary month-long holiday to the Caribbean despite our pasty Polish-winter complexions? Would they smell the evil scent of Beverly Hills Video on our clothes and cast us forever into the outer darkness? These and other questions troubled us and quelled conversation as we made our way up ul. Lea last Friday evening.

At precisely 18:17 we swept into the place with breath held and barely daring to glance in the direction of the rental desk…

The lass behind the desk rose… and broke into a massive grin. She spread her arms and more-or-less embraced us with a kiss on each cheek. Waves of relief and nostalgia swept over us. We spent an hour wandering around the 50 square meter shop grinning like fools and reveling in the sensation of familiarity. “I feel like I came home” said the lady A and I, for one, knew exactly what she meant.

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Domofon etiquette

A domofon is what an English-speaker would call an entry phone. Domofons are ubiquitous in Polish towns and cities where almost everyone lives in apartment buildings of one kind or another. I’ve had a domofon in every place I’ve ever lived in Poland. On the face of it they are handy devices that allow people outside the building to let people inside the building know they want to come in. In fact they are instruments of the devil.

For British readers who are unfamiliar with the concept (few people in the UK have them) it works like this. On the external wall of the building, by the main door, there is a bank of buttons. Each button is labeled with the number of one of the apartments in the building and the name of its occupant. At least that’s the theory. In practice most of the people on these labels have been dead for 30 years, or have emigrated to Australia, or are serving long prison sentences. According to the label on my domofon button I am Joanna Kowalska; no idea who she is but I’m fairly sure she’s not living here with me.

Domofon entry buttons. Not the world’s most accurate source of information.


By pressing the button you cause a telephone-like handset in the relevant person’s apartment to ring. I say ‘ring’ when in fact it’s usually more of a heart-stopping shriek. When that person has recovered their composure sufficiently to climb down from the table they can answer the handset, ask who’s there and press a button to let them into the building, or not. A friend of mine who’s a Police officer usually shouts “OPEN THE DOOR, IT’S THE POLICE” which he thinks is hysterically funny. He may be right.

A typical domofon handset. Instrument of the horned one.


British cities are very unlike most cities in Europe in that we don’t tend to live in communal buildings. There is a very different concept of public space in an apartment building. When I open the door to my apartment there could be anyone outside on the staircase and there are all kinds of nefarious reasons why they might want to be there ranging from burglary to leaflet posting, the latter being by far the most common and heinous. If I didn’t make a weekly effort to clear the pizza delivery leaflets that arrive hourly I would have been smothered to death long ago. The trouble with the whole apartment-building-domofon concept is that there are all sorts of people who want to get into your building and the easiest way for them to do that is to ring every damned domofon in the place in the hope that somebody will press the ‘enter’ button without bothering to see who’s there first. My domofon rings (read ‘shrieks’) at all hours of the day and night. About one time out of a thousand it’s somebody I actually know. And no, there is no way to turn it off or down short of ripping it out of the wall. And yes I have been tempted to do that very thing on numerous occasions.

The chief culprits are as follows:

The pizza people
As I’ve mentioned, pizza delivery offers settle on my doormat in exactly the same way that January snow didn’t this year. They get into the building by pressing all the buttons and waiting for some sucker to hit the enter button. And while we’re on the subject why does every restaurant in Krakow serve Italian food? I’m sick of pizza and pasta.

The lazy button-presser
Hoody-wearing teens coming home to the parental nest habitually jab at the domofon buttons with fists or open palms causing them to press seven or eight buttons around the one they are actually aiming at. This is constantly and intensely annoying.

Drunken Brits
Brits who aren’t used to the domofon thing find it hugely amusing to press buttons at random in the middle of the night and then stand around guffawing when some rudely-awakened pensioner answers. I tell them to consider the opportunities for love-making with the self, but I know it does no good.

The potato man
Some oddball tries to sell me potatoes over the domofon at least once a week. I have no idea who he is and I have never bought any of his rotten skanky potatoes, but this doesn’t stop him asking me at some ungodly hour of the morning week-in and week-out.

Everybody else
It seems that pretty much everyone in Krakow has had a go at ringing my domofon at one time or another. Go away! I’m not letting you in! I’m letting no one in I tell you! I’m considering installing a boiling oil cauldron on my windowsill.

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Islam in Poland?

Wandering around Krakow the other day I happened to glance up at the roof line of a building I’ve passed a hundred times and noticed that it had an unusual feature. Perched on the sky line were three towers that looked for all the world like minarets, and the middle one was unmistakably a platform for the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) with an incongruously obvious Muslim crescent perched on top.

Those are minarets or I’m a Dutchman.


Islam… in Poland? I initially assumed it was an architectural folly. The whim of some 19th century aristocrat who had spent some time in the Middle East. But the middle minaret is just too functional looking. That door is real and the balcony is no mere decoration. Why would anybody go to the trouble, unless it was built for exactly the purpose it seems to have been built for?

Of course I’ve seen the occasional Middle Eastern tourist on the streets of Krakow (and we can guess that he or she is Muslim), even the very occasional hijab, but it never occurred to me that there might be an indigenous historical population of Muslims in Poland; the place is just so overwhelmingly… well, Catholic. I did a little googling. Turns out I was wrong.

A fellow blogger pointed out a YouTube vid the other day entitled “The History of Poland in 10 minutes.” In general it’s a dangerously inane piece of romantic nationalism (complete with stirring militaristic music and pics of chaps getting their heads chopped off), but it does mention a period of Polish history known as the Warsaw Confederacy that I wasn’t aware of before. The key feature of the Warsaw Confederacy was that it guaranteed religious freedom and consequently became the chief place of refuge for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims fleeing persecution and war in the 16th and 17th centuries. I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time before Radio Maria. I began to wonder if there might have been an historical population of Muslims in Poland; especially in the south and east, so close to the historical and fervently defended border with the aggressive Muslim world of the past.

“Tartars” is the word. The Tartars are a Turkic people who originated somewhere in central Asia and settled all across southern Russia, the Balkans, and Turkey. By the time they arrived in what is now eastern Poland in the 14th century they were Muslims, and they have been there ever since. Poland’s Muslim Tartar’s were heavily involved in many of the nations’ critical moments from wars with the Teutonic Knights to the German invasion of 1939. The current population of Muslim Tartars in Poland is put at somewhere between three and seven thousand. Not a lot, but remarkable that they have survived with their faith intact at all. Here are some images of other Muslim Tartar mosques in Poland. Are there some similarities are am I mad?

The minaret of the Marcani Mosque in central Russia, one of the last surviving Tatar mosques in Russia. The conical roof, the iron balcony, and the spire topped with the crescent are very similar, if a little more ornate, to the Krakow example.

Marcani Minaret

The new Muslim Tartar mosque in Gdansk. Again a very similar roof and balcony.


Ok maybe not this one, but this is the oldest surviving mosque in Poland.

I would love to know more about this building in Krakow.

This is a full view of the building. It’s at the corner of Długa, Pędzichów, and Filipa.


Some interesting links:

History of Tartar Muslims in Poland</a>
Loyal Muslim Tartars in Polish history

The Wikipedia treatment

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Wine, women, and song

I’d like to say a few words about the buying of wine in Poland. A surprising number of people have told me that Poland is in a ‘transitional state’ when it comes to alcohol consumption. It’s passing slowly and painfully from a ‘vodka’ culture to a ‘beer and wine’ culture thereby bringing it in line with the ‘civilized’ peoples of western Europe. I say ‘surprising’ simply because one wouldn’t expect such an obscure subject to come up in general conversation quite so often, but it does. Exactly why the drinking of beer is described as a new thing in Poland I haven’t quite managed to figure out since the big breweries seem to have been going strong since the nineteenth century, however, that’s neither here nor there.

There are three places where one can reasonably expect to be able to buy wine in Poland (assuming the Pope isn’t in town, in which case there are none); the supermarket, the local off-licence, and the poncy wine shop. For non-British readers I offer the following translations: an ‘off-licence’ is the British name for what the Americans would call a liquor store and anyone else would call and alcohol shop (commonly known as the ‘offie’ in British slang); a ‘poncy wine shop’ is a wine shop frequented by ponces. There are quite a few poncy wine shops in Krakow (ok, ok, it’s a shop that sells wine and nothing else) but they are far too easy and no fun. There’s a very good one on the main square in Krakow where the staff have been specially trained to stare at their customers in a witheringly disapproving manner.

Buying wine in the supermarket is a bit like renting pornographic films at the local DVD shop. You are required to slip unobtrusively through a set of swinging doors into a secretive and slightly shameful enclave. It makes you feel very grown up and degenerate. Small children hang their arms over the barrier and wonder what the adults are doing in there pouring over strange bottles with an odd gleam in their eyes. You pick your wine off the shelf and take it to the special cashier within the enclave. She eyes you suspiciously, rings up the cash, wraps your wino in paper and plastic, and hands you the receipt. It’s very important to keep this receipt because when you go to the proper god-fearing cashier at the front of the shop to pay for all your other non-shameful purchases, she will want to look at it. I have no idea why. The first time I was faced with this situation I did what everybody does with receipts and promptly dropped it, or stuffed it into a pocket, or otherwise disappeared it. This was a bad mistake. My goodness what a hoopla ensued. The default assumption was that I had snuck into the wine enclave, snaffled a couple of bottles off the shelf, wrapped them in paper, put them in a plastic bag, and then tried to sneak them through the cash desk by cunningly placing them on the conveyor with all my other stuff. I almost got away with it too.

Now I’m used to it I actually quite like the system. In the UK you pick up wine in the supermarket with no more thought or palaver than you would pick up toothpaste. I quite like the danger of the Polish system. Can you keep hold of that all-important receipt? Will the security guard believe you? I also quite like the way other people queueing at the cash till eye your tightly wrapped bottles and wonder if you are a straightforward drunk or a sophisticated type capable of picking out proper wine. They will never know.

Having said all that, buying wine in the supermarket is nothing compared to buying it in the local offie. Open-all-hours alcohol shops in Poland are actually extremely well-stocked with wine, not to mention a hundred other kinds of intoxicating liquids. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to get at them. The average Polish off-licence is a narrow shop strictly divided by a counter. The customers are on one side of the counter while the sklepowa and all the booze are on the other (depending on the area bullet-proof plexiglass may be involved). Walk up to the counter and the resident troll says “What do you want?” or words to that effect. “Red wine please” opines the innocent customer. The troll rolls her eyes and gestures over her shoulder at the two-to-three hundred wines for sale. “Which?” she asks. Now that’s a tricky question when the wines in question are a good two meters away and it is therefore impossible to read the labels with any accuracy. Also you have to consider the fact that there are a dozen people standing behind you in the queue who may or may not be raving alcoholics with the patience of four-year-old children.

Fortunately the Poles have come up with a cunning system for coping with this fundamental flaw in the wine-selling business; “Sweet or dry?”; “Semi-sweet or semi-dry?” All wine-buying decisions come down to this. The proper response is “Yes. I would like a semi-dry wine for about 20 zloty.” You are then handed a random bottle that vaguely matches these parameters. Note that one should always say “semi-dry” if one doesn’t want to be equated with teenage alcohol experimentation (wisniowa anyone?) and that 20 zloty puts you safely outside of jabola country. Exactly how vintners make money from this arrangement I have no idea. For the customer the results are diverting and occasionally pleasant.

The women? There is only one A.

The song? I was listening to T-Love ‘I Love You’ (Polish version) when I started this. And no, I am not a wise man.

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Crazy Ivan

In the depths of the mid-January blues I have, nevertheless, managed to come up with a pointless and probably insulting generalization about the Polish people. I’ve decided to wholeheartedly embrace generalization both because it’s funnier than balanced reporting and because it fits in nicely with my inherent laziness.

In the 1990 movie The Hunt for Red October the eponymous Soviet submarine performs a maneuver described by the American heroes as a “Crazy Ivan.” The so-called Crazy Ivan move involves stopping dead in the water and spinning around by 180 degrees to point in the opposite direction. The idea is to spot sneaky American submarines that may be quietly following them (as indeed they are). I’ve just realized where they got the idea; the Crazy Ivan is standard practice for Polish pedestrians.

I get caught out by this at least 17 times a day (I’ve also decided to embrace flagrant exaggeration). Walking down the street the person in front of me will suddenly stop in their tracks and lurch of to the right or the left or backwards with absolutely no warning. I walk fast, and this means I have to take drastic evasive action, such as diving sideways into oncoming traffic, or risk a collision. I have no idea what lies behind this extraordinary behavior. Are they suddenly distracted by something visible only to natives? Is it some kind of genetically-inherited method of detecting and disabling following foreigners? Is there a Krakow bylaw that forbids walking in one direction for more than 50 paces?

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Eskimos live in igloos, Japanese live in paper houses, and the English live in country cottages festooned with roses, but where do the Poles live? Most westerners probably visualize grim Stalinist blocks as the standard abode of the Pole, and it has to be said there is a degree of truth in this, but the whole story is a little more complex and interesting. There are three basic forms of housing in Poland; the Kamienica, the Blok, and the Dom.

The Kamienica
Kamienica (pronounced Ka-mee-en-eetza) is a tricky word to translate. Basically it means a pre-World War I apartment block in a town or city center. These are the pretty four or five story building that line Poland’s lovely medieval city squares and make up much of the housing in its old city centers. Anyone who’s been to any historical European capital, apart from London, would recognize them. In the best parts of the most tourist friendly towns they have been meticulously restored to chocolate box standards and are dripping with baroque decorations on which winter snow can perch prettily. Few people can afford to live in these and most are given over to hotels, fancy restaurants, and trashy nightclubs. In the less fortunate towns and outside of the golden tourist zones of Krakow, Wroslaw, and Gdansk, there are thousands of these buildings in a less happy state of repair. Usually they are romantically dilapidated and have intriguing entrance halls with peeling paint that hint at happier and more decadent times. British tourists raised on a diet of home improvement shows and tales of foreign property investment can be seen standing outside them drooling. Fantasies of snapping up a rundown city center apartment for next to nothing dance behind their eyes.

A kamienica (the pretty kind)


The occupants of a typical kamienica tend to be ‘diverse’, to put it politely. My friend D frequently warns against the purchase of an apartment in a kamienica on the grounds that they are chiefly occupied by babcie, drunks, bumpkins, and car thieves — he’s known for his liberal and understated views. He does have a point though. Many of the people living in these prime slices of real estate have been there all their lives and got them in the first place through apparently random assignment by the communist authorities. The Kazimierz district of Krakow, for example, is stuffed full of medieval and 17th century buildings that can cause the average property developer to eat his own trousers in excitement, but until ten years ago it was one of the poorest and most crime ridden parts of the city. Kazimierz was the original Jewish quarter of the town and was tremendously prosperous for centuries. At the end of the second world war when the Jews had, ahem, ‘gone away’ the authorities assigned the empty apartments to the hordes of impoverished and desperate people who were streaming in from the countryside. Many of them had spent the previous four years in the forest hiding from Einzatsgruppen johnnies and their fun shooting-people-in-the-back-of-the-head game. It’s not uncommon to find that many of the apartments in these buildings are occupied by wheezing old gentlemen with flamboyantly red noses and an extensive collection of empty vodka bottles. They haven’t worked since 1974 and the gas, water, and electricity were cut off some time in the late 80s (I’m not exaggerating here). They spend their time huddled in one corner of one room of a 90 square meter apartment waiting to die. Their families are also waiting for them to die of course so they can flog the place for bundles of loot to the nearest neo-German property developer and get the hell out of the city (see The Dom). There’s some kind of irony in there somewhere.

Another kamienica (the less pretty kind) from this guy


There’s a kind of quiet war going on over the kamienica. The descendants of the wealthy families that originally owned the kamienicas, many of them now living in the States, started popping up after the fall of communism and pointing out politely that they would quite like their property back please. When this failed to produce results they hired extravagantly expensive Chicago lawyers and said it again, a little more loudly. The new Polish political elite, with their hunger to embrace the free market, had a degree of sympathy with them but also had one eye on their electorate whom, they suspected, would be less than happy about being turfed out of their homes so that a rich American could overhaul them and become slightly more rich in the process. The end result was that laws were introduced making it next to impossible to evict people, even if they hadn’t paid their gas bill since 1964. Dozens of expensive and protracted cases went through the Polish courts (the very idea makes me shudder) and lots of families did, eventually, get ‘their’ property back. In the vast majority of cases, however, the drunks are hanging in there. Toned and hungry-looking property types purr past in their Mercs occasionally, waiting for the old guard to die and fall off their perches. The day when the last kamienica is renovated and prettified and the last drunk is carted off from his traditional sleeping position, slumped across the front step, is the day I leave Krakow.

I live in a kamienica, as all foolish foreign bohemian types aspire to. The locals are far too sensible to fall for this and tend to live in the grey but perfectly serviceable blocks that lie a little further out from the center. My building has all the typical features one should expect from the classic kamienica; it’s cold, there are drunks sleeping on the stairs, and the plumbing was last overhauled in the 17th century. The electrical system is a source of endless entertainment and periodic bracing shocks to the system. Jiggling the bedroom doorknob causes the lights in the kitchen to flicker in a festive manner and one has to be extremely careful when opening the fridge. On the plus side I have access to a communal attic that has a ladder leading to a skylight from which one of the best views in Krakow can be observed. Of course you have to move quietly otherwise the resident babcie will be down on you like a ton of bricks demanding to know what you are up to creeping around in the roof space in a highly suspicious and foreign manner. All kamienicas also have cellars, but they scare the bejeezus out of me for all kinds of reasons so I can’t tell you what goes on down there.

I once knew a guy who lived in one of the very few kamienicas that survived the razing of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1943. Every Tuesday hordes of Israeli school kids would be bused in from the airport under heavily armed guard to see how their ancestors lived in the bad old days. They regarded him with thinly disguised hatred and chucked the occasional rotten egg at his windows even though he was English, and therefore righteous and innocent. His girlfriend used to ply the local 12-year-old hoodlums with beer and ice cream in the hope that they would refrain from stealing her car stereo. Those were the days.

Coming soon: The Blok and The Dom

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