My first ever visit abroad was to Poland for Christmas 1964, in the middle of the Cold War. I went with my much-loved Polish father, and it was his first trip back there for twenty-five years. It was highly emotional reunion between him and his elderly brothers and sisters, and an education for a British schoolgirl who had never seen a gun in real life, let alone the submachine guns slung over the shoulders of soldiers on every platform and street corner. It was a country full of contrasts; the snow and the horses and sleighs were magical, the shortages and the overcrowded apartments bewildering. I could only speak a few words of Polish, but the whole experience created a love of travel that has never since left me.
I’ve been back many times, but never for Christmas, so this winter was rather special. There is something wonderful about revisiting places with powerful memories, and Wawel Castle hasn’t changed much. The bell that tolls only for important events such as Christmas Eve still sounds doom-laden and mediaeval, and I do wonder whether there’s an element of infrasound there, the sort of bass note below our hearing that’s a component of a tiger’s roar, used to momentarily disorientate its prey. The building in the central market square hasn’t changed either, but its surroundings certainly have. In the Communist era it was bleak and frequented mainly by pigeons. Now it’s a riot of sound and colour, full of stalls selling cheese and embroidered slippers and mulled wine. There are horses pulling white carriages, Appaloosas, astonishingly, and you can get a ride around the city at a very reasonable price. There always were crystal glasses for sale, even in the old days, and lace tablecloths, and that hasn’t changed. There’s a monument to the poet Mickiewicz, and this year we came across a group singing traditional carols, and reading his poetry. It’s a cultured city. There’s no graffiti or rubbish, and the Christmas decorations were so different to the cheap plastic monstrosities you frequently see in the UK.Dragons are a constant theme, due to the founder of Krakow being a man called Krakus, who slew a dragon and saved the populace from its predations. The statue below Wawel breathes fire every so often...
We went to an excellent concert, held in a church. It was cold, admittedly, but the acoustics were fantastic. The bugler still plays his evocative tune from the tower of St Mary’s Church, as he has done for centuries, but these days he waves afterwards. There’s a story behind it, of course, as there always is in Poland. The refrain is cut off part way through to commemorate the moment in 1241 that a Tartar archer shot the original bugler in the throat, as he warned of a Mongol invasion.
In 1964 my father and I spent a week in Zakopane, the beautiful town in the Tatra Mountains that, today, is a ski resort. That's me and my dad with a rather drunk man in a bear-suit, and me today at the foot of Giewont, the mountain that towers above it and resembles a man lying on his back. But in the old days the horses and sleighs really were taxis, whereas now they’re tourist attractions. The mountain music is the same, traditional tunes played with violins and double basses, and the costumes are the same too. My eyes filled with tears on more than one occasion – it’s the memories being reinforced by so many different senses, the sounds, the sights, the smells, the tastes. The food was limited in the sixties, but now you can get just about anything, especially cakes. And the range of vodkas is far greater than it was then…
I have used Poland old and new in my writing several times, as has Catherine Czekawska.It’s a romantic and dramatic place, and a wonderful setting for anything from a spy story to a love story. This is an extract from my book, Beware of Men with Moustaches, which was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2013. It’s about a group of poets who go there on a cultural exchange. Although I’ve invented an Eastern European country called Karetsefia so as not to offend anyone, the source material is rather obvious to those in the know...
“Shall we go inside?” suggested Igor. “No more steps. Now there is ramp.”
It was a long ramp, too. When they reached the top they found themselves in an enormous hall, which ran the whole length of the castle. The wooden floor was uneven and worn very smooth, and it looked extremely old.
“This is very famous room,” said Svetlana. “When Mongol Hordes bring Black Death to Karetsefia, king and his family leave city and seek refuge here. Then they catch the plague anyway. Mongol Hordes take over castle, but they do everything on horseback, so they build audience hall for men on horses.”
“You mean they rode right into the castle?” said Julie.
“Yes. When Mongol Hordes leave, new king turns it into room for dancing. There is painting of him on wall at end. There are many paintings here, including very famous one of poet being shot by firing squad.”
Horses, poetry, castles… it’s all there in Krakow. It’s worth a visit.