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Kraków: a quintessentially European city

Kraków is a quintessentially European city. Firmly in eastern Europe, in latitude about halfway between Warsaw and Budapest, it reminded me of Europe's turbulent 20th century history at every street corner. I hadn't been there since 1970, when it was challenging to reach, closely controlled from Moscow by the Soviet regime. But even so, we managed somehow to see Da Vinci's "Lady with an ermine", the most important painting in Poland, and a potent symbol of Renaissance Europe.


I returned to Kraków this week, flying easily from Edinburgh by easyJet, to see printers whose 4 million-euro printing presses sounded suited to Rucksack Readers' needs. Capitalism is alive and well in Poland, with retail parks, shopping malls and global brands. The contrast from 46 years ago was remarkable.

Traditional and modern jostle in stark contrast. Touts try to tempt you to sightseeing rides in Krakow's old town in white coach-and-pairs pulled by richly decorated horses - failing which, how about a Segway? Its transport stops feature LED information boards that accurately predict ancient trams with welcome low fares (from about 80p). But Kraków still has the largest market square in all Europe, with its medieval Cloth Hall and an hourly bugle call from St Mary's Basilica - from the higher of its two towers, below left:


Inside St Mary's is an extraordinarily colourful interior, and its colossal altar is by Veit Stoss, constructed between 1477 and 1489, made of painted oak and linden wood and undergoing painstaking refurbishment.


Tourism is everywhere in the centre, but some destinations are sombre reminders of the Holocaust: Schindler's factory, the Jewish Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau.  But Poland is an EU member, German is widely spoken and Poland is Germany's most important trading partner. As a country, it has turned its face decisively towards Germany and the West, away from Russia.

The colleague I went to meet is Polish by nationality, but he has strong family connections to Austria. He is just old enough to remember how, as a child, visa requests to Austria had had to be made six months ahead, and the journey took several days because of delays at both borders. Nowadays, such visits can be made impromptu, and the journey takes him less than four hours.

After finishing my business, I visited Wawel Royal Castle where for centuries Polish kings were crowned. I went around the Wawel cathedral with the Chopin medallion in its crypt and statues of local hero and saint, John Paul II. Most satisfyingly, I managed to revisit the Da Vinci portrait - one of very few surviving oil paintings. The Duke of Milan commissioned it in 1490 as an allegory of his love of his young mistress, Cecilia Galleriani. The portrait still has great freshness and its realistic lighting seems to illuminate its attractive 17-year old subject in three dimensions.

And after a dinner that compensated for having missed lunch, I still had time for the Chopin concert, in Legendary Wierzynek on the Market Square. Performed by graduates of Kraków and Katowice Music Acadamies, these recitals are given daily. Agnieszka Kawula looked young enough to be my grandchild, but she gave a spectacular performance, technically brilliant but musically mature.

And if I hadn't already felt strongly that the UK should remain in Europe, my visit to Kraków would have left me in no doubt.


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