The last of my Kraków posts is the one that recalls for me the most special time of my visit. I should explain that I went to Kraków in order to facilitate the meetings of an international librarian advisory panel. We were very privileged to have as our host Marek Krośniak, the Serials Acquisitions Librarian at the Jagiellonian University Library in Kraków. Marek not only allowed us to hold our meetings at the library, but also arranged for us to take a tour of some of its priceless treasures.
The Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364, is one of the oldest academic foundations in Europe. Its collection of manuscripts, incunabulae and other rare printed books dates from every period of its existence and is incomparable. It includes an extensive collection of handwritten scores by famous composers. Also amazing is the knowledge of the librarians who curate this collection. No less than four specialist librarians explained the rarest treasures to us. (Understandably, security was tight: the door to the room holding these volumes was locked behind us and each of the books was stored in a locked glass case. There were also security guards in attendance.)
I have a fairly large collection of photographs taken during the tour (all without using flash, as requested). It was difficult to make the choice, but I have selected four that I hope will illustrate the distinction and diversity of the whole collection. First is the original manuscript of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, in which he presents his theory of the heliocentric system of the universe. This autographed manuscript never left his possession in his lifetime and the first printed edition of the work was from a copy made by his pupil, Georg Joachim Rheticus. Famous throughout the world, it was acquired by the Jagiellonian in 1956 and is possibly the library’s pièce de résistance, though there are many other contenders for this crown. Second is the first missal with an illuminated flower border to have been produced in Kraków. It belongs to the high mediaeval period (and is reminiscent of some of the early books that I saw in the University of Barcelona library and wrote about earlier this year).
Third is the earliest known book to have been printed in Cyrillic characters. Fascinatingly, it is also one of the earliest extant proof copies: in the photograph, you can see the printer’s corrections on the pages.
Finally, there is one of Mozart’s handwritten scores, this a one-act Singspiel, or comic opera, called Bastien and Bastienne, written when he was a boy and performed in the open air in 1768. The library’s large collection of original scores includes works by Berlioz, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn Bartholdy and other famous musicians, but Mozart had a special relationship with Kraków (and is possibly the world’s favourite composer), so that’s why I have chosen to feature his work here.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey how exciting it was to be allowed to see these beautiful books and to learn their history from experts. I hope that I have managed to share a little of the excitement with you. And I’d like to thank Marek Krośniak and his colleagues very much indeed for providing all of our party with this wonderful opportunity.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
This is the second of my Polish pieces. I’m sorry that it follows on from the first after quite a gap – I’ve been hi-jacked by a nasty cold this week. I’ll try to be a bit more punctual from now on.
Cold notwithstanding, I should have preferred to get this post out earlier, because its main purpose is to share with you some photographs of our visit to the famous Wieliczka salt mine some seventeen kilometres outside Kraków. The chambers and carvings in the mine are spectacular – as you can see. Discovering them was an opportunity that we almost passed up, because we’re pretty averse to joining any kind of organised tour, and the salt mine is obviously not a place where tourists can be allowed to wander around on their own; indeed, so many tunnels are there, it would be very easy to get lost. We were persuaded to make the visit only the evening before, by some Danish people dining in the same restaurant. I suppose that making holiday plans on the advice of complete strangers about whom you know nothing and whom you’re never likely to see again is as good a way as any! In any case, I’m published by Salt and it therefore seems an appropriate kind of tribute to Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery.
Determined not to be an entire pushover to the tourist industry, we travelled to the mine on an ordinary service bus instead of one of the special tour buses. For me, one of the highlights of the day was encountering people from the suburbs as they travelled on this bus, though I was much less enthusiastic about the return journey in the afternoon, when the driver was clearly behind schedule and rattled along at such a speed that I had to face the back of my seat and hang onto it in order not to be thrown into the aisle. I was grateful that I hadn’t had lunch! I was also fascinated to note that, beyond the suburbs, Kraków has quite an industrial hinterland.
Tours at the mine are extremely regimented and quite expensive – entry costs about as much as a visit to the Tower of London, which is extortionate by Polish standards. The experience was also shot through with a slightly bizarre streak: for example, our tour was called a ‘non-tour tour’ (we worked out that this meant that we were not part of a pre-booked group). Endearing rather than annoying was how the enterprise running the mine tried to make money out of absolutely everything, from coffees and ice-creams to printed guides, knick-knacks made of rock salt and ‘genuine miners’ soup’, but in a slightly amateurish way. It is noticeable in Poland that everyone is desperate to make money, but in a friendly, almost apologetic, manner. The same thought struck me when I was watching the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages in the main square in Kraków trying to cajole tourists into taking rides.
The non-tour tour guide was a young woman immaculately dressed in uniform. She was extremely professional and her English near perfect. She was obviously highly educated and very knowledgeable about the history of the mine, which has existed since mediaeval times. Rock salt was quarried there for seven hundred years, until 2002, after which the mine was devoted entirely to tourism. Engagingly, the guide explained that this was because more money could be made out of tourists than digging for salt. There is another commercial salt mine elsewhere in Poland, with much lower extraction costs, and that provides the supply.
I was almost as interested in my fellow tourists as the mine itself. We were a jovial bunch from many countries; the only thing we had in common was that we had chosen an English-speaking guide, rather than one who spoke the other languages on offer: Polish, German, Dutch, French or Italian. Our group therefore included people from India, Japan, China and the USA, as well as several other Brits. I particularly admired the Indian couple, who gamely negotiated with two quite small children the up-and-down kilometres that we had to walk within the mine.
The initial descent, down many short flights of wooden stairs within a vertical shaft, was neither frightening nor particularly taxing, if dizzily repetitive. Walking back up all of those stairs would have been a challenge, and might have caused a few heart attacks. Nevertheless, I didn’t enjoy the return to the surface, which had to be made in a small miners’ cage, crammed in with seven others. I was delighted to reach the exit and emerge into the warm autumn sunshine again.
I’ve already written more than I intended, so I’ll leave the pictures to speak for themselves now, just adding that all the sculptures and carvings – and indeed all the floors – in the mine have been fashioned from rock salt and that (although it is probably self-evident) Polish salt miners were very devout, some of the chambers having been turned into chapels, the most impressive being the Chapel of St. Kinga, which, with its altarpieces, wall-friezes and statuary, as well as carved floor, all in rock salt, is like a cathedral. The caverns are astonishing in scale (the Staszic Chamber has a ceiling thirty-six metres high), in some cases with self-supporting ceiling, in others prevented from collapse by elaborate wooden prop systems or by much more modern metal rods, inserted into drilled holes and therefore much less obtrusive to the eye.
I hope that you’ve got the taste of the salt from all this, if not a taste for a salt mine visit; you can lick the walls of the tunnels if you like (visitors are encouraged to do so)! Alternatively, you can read a Salt book…
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.
I asked for a riposte to Christina’s cider-pressing post, but that was not to be! However, by way of recompense, she has allowed me space to comment on what must be one of the greatest crimes inflicted by man upon man. While she has been busy with what she calls ‘the day job’, which has been, on this occasion, a publisher-librarian conference held in Krakow (for the pedantic, this is pronounced by Poles as KrakOUF, with the stress on the second syllable), I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, one hour and forty minutes away by bus.
On the face of humanity, a carbuncle, perhaps now healing slowly, but sensitive to the touch and destined to leave a permanent scar. Yet the body politic suffers still and continues to break out in boils symptomatic of the same underlying disease. Mankind, disfigured, cannot find a cure and treats, always too late, the symptoms alone. These gross and scabbing reminders of our failure as a race to reach the root of our ills do not make comfortable our self-examination in the mirror of consciousness, but I found, on this, my second visit after some years, that the experience was already becoming, for the latest visitors, too organised, desensitising.
Brick, concrete, iron, steel, stone and dust, all strung about with the twisted barbarous wires; original timbers are gradually disintegrating or have gone. All about, the millions of October leaves are falling, falling. Summer’s beauty choked by approaching winter cold, they are gathered up in heaps, loaded into barrows and trucks and taken away for burning or to rot down. Colour and life turned to ashes. Shorn of their tresses, the trunks and branches are emaciated, twiggy fragile limbs starkly outlined against the sky.
Irony in the bus loads of tour groups disgorging their cargoes and delivering them into the hands of the camp guides. Selection by language. An industry in itself. The cameras click; the iPads embrace the scenes as each former terror is re-hashed for public consumption. Work makes free. Tourism makes realism – ‘No photographs here’ signs ignored as every shred of individual dignity is wrenched from the heaps of human history and saved for later: ‘I was there; it was awful; look at my pictures.’ I have to step away, unable to stem emotion. My leaves fall like tears, like lives.
Symbolism of railway lines, stretching through the gate to infinity. The sleepers are relinquishing their hold upon the rails, wasting from within. Will those be replaced, like wooden huts, to show what it was like? The other sleepers are softly breathing their message to us, the words falling as gently as leaves, and we strain to hear against the sound of the narrative of the guide. Their language is universal. The guide says that we are now walking the same way as the doomed, but we are not. Once more I break away, this time for good, and let imagination tell the story. And then, on the cracked steps to those underground chambers, now guarded by a staunch metal grid, a delicate beauty opens wings amongst the many fallen leaves and flies into the air. The loveliness of lost lives is captured for me in a butterfly.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James