When I consulted the BBC online weather forecast in advance of our trip to Kraków, I learnt that the night-time temperatures there the previous week had been zero and, during the day, had barely climbed to ten degrees Celsius. On arrival early in the evening on the Friday before last, I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that, although there was a nip in the air, it was nowhere near as cold as I’d expected. The atmosphere was extremely festive: well wrapped up in colourful winter clothes, people were parading the streets, arms linked, talking and laughing, much as they promenade in Spanish towns and cities before dinner; and, unlike in some other eastern European cities I have visited, dinner was served at the restaurants until a reasonably late hour.
The festive mood continued on the following day.
Kraków is a beautiful place. The Stare Miasto, or ‘Old Town’, is entirely circumscribed by a park (or rather a series of them, divided by the radial roads) called Planty, which runs around the line of the old city walls. Sometimes, this is just a narrow strip of land dividing the pavement from the road, but often it broadens into large tree-scattered areas of grass containing children’s playgrounds, statues and benches. Always there is a wide path to walk along, so there is no hazard to pedestrians from motor vehicles (though the cyclists are pretty manic and don’t seem to have discovered either bells or horns!). There are some distinguished museums and other significant tourist attractions in Kraków, but many residents and visitors to the city seemed to me to spend a great deal of time just walking around Planty.
On the Saturday of our visit the park was particularly lovely. Because of the cold spell the week before, the trees had all changed colour and were presenting a glorious display of gold, russet and tawny brown. Most striking, however, was the rapidity with which the leaves were falling: a gentle burnished leafstorm was constantly swirling to the ground and people were catching the colours as they walked along.
Although we never discovered its exact nature, there exists some special relationship between the citizens of Kraków and the falling of the leaves. This may have something to do with the rapidity of the ‘fall’, which we were very fortunate to experience. At our hotel, the staff had placed richly-coloured fallen leaves on the tables and in alcoves on the stairs. In the streets, whole families were collecting the leaves in sheaves and walking along holding them as if they were bouquets of flowers. At the open market in the main square several stalls were selling autumn posies made up of leaves, berries and nuts and, although these were priced between 12 and 20 zlotys (quite a lot in that part of the world for a perishable decoration), they were selling well and being carried around like Elizabethan nosegays.
The fantasia of falling leaves continued for the next three days. On Tuesday we awoke to heavy rain. There had been a storm in the night, and the trees had now been laid almost bare, the rich carpet of leaves on the ground sodden and trampled underfoot. In Kraków, it is autumn’s lease that hath all too short a date. The golden leaves have almost all gone now. It will be a whole year before they make their brief appearance once more.