Falling in love again! Kraków’s Podgórze district is full of mystery and desire
Ask me about Kraków – go on, I dare you.
If that sounds a little like a threat, then hell yeah, it should be treated as one, for I’m one of the growing wave of irritating long-term expats that can’t wait to launch into a diatribe about Poland’s second city.
“Tourist trap, blah blah, Disney Land, etc.” Give me the chance, and I’ll make sure you’re left feeling like a worm as I break the town’s faults down into a jillion broken shards. And neither am I alone.
In one of those curious Polish paradoxes, from a foreign set of eyes Kraków is often the first city visitors fall in love with, and yet often also the first they learn to loathe. I mean, really, how can you ever fully enjoy a city when the only natives you’ll find in the Old Town are the ones selling fluffy dragons or trying to entice you into clip joints.
Yep, for me, Kraków lost its magic a fair while ago. At least that WAS the case.
My opinion turned long before covid-19 saw tourist figures flatline, with my change of heart largely attributed to an accidental stay in the district of Podgórze.
It was the start of January, 2017, I think, and a general lack of central hotel vacancies pushed my hand into settling for digs on the other side of the river; as it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise.
Absorbed into Kraków 110-years back, to all intents and purposes Podgórze has retained a strong independent identity and it was this that struck me first. Yes I was in Kraków, but in a Kraków un-menaced by the Easy Jetting rabble.
Of course, being a traditionally working class suburb, Podgórze’s reputation hadn’t always been too engaging – in the social chaos of the immediate post-communist years, it earned the unwelcome moniker of “the land of flying knives” – and to my knowledge, that wasn’t because of the presence of a circus.
Its fortunes, however, have turned. Rapidly so. Brushing next to peeling, pre-war tenements, an outbreak of swanky, gated condos have risen by the river, the powerful contrast between old and new particularly pronounced by the looming presence of Cricoteka – a multi-functional, glass-encased arts venue built ingeniously to hover over a former power station.
Close by, the Bernatek pedestrian bridge, a gently curving walkway decorated with overhead sculptures that wobble in the breeze, pulsates with evening illuminations that cast a glow over the inky, evening waters.
This unexpected joy of clashing sights and sounds continues with deeper explorations: Mercs mounted aggressively on the pavement stand inches from dusty old school cafes festooned with plastic plants while left-field galleries sit next to family-run stores selling spanners and mops. Next to swanky apartments, expressions of outsized street art abound, lending the gentrifying air an element of edge.
But there is tradition, as well. Looking more like a jet-propelled Neo-Gothic space project with its soaring rocket-shaped towers, the Church of St. Joseph does a magnificent job of providing a dramatic visual anchor for the area as a whole; lit up at night, it’s hard not to feel wowed by its towering glory.
Yet despite that, it is for its Jewish associations that Podgórze is best-known.
It was to here that the Germans siphoned the Jews of Kraków, and it quickly earned its stripes as one of the more notorious ghettoes in occupied Poland.
This history has not been forgotten; since 2005, dozens of metal chairs have been installed on Ghetto Heroes Square as a poignant memorial to the ghetto’s eventual liquidation, while not far away, Oskar Schindler’s former factory has been transformed into one of the country’s most popular museums.
Striking as it is, its thunder is surprisingly stolen by MOCAK next door. Likewise set on the sprawling footprint of the Schindler factory, here many of the original saw-toothed pavilions have been transformed to form a harmonious creative space that aims to “reduce prejudice against contemporary art.” Challenging, witty and playful, the exhibitions form an immersive experience that’s a feast for the senses.
At this point, mind you, I should allow for a confession.
For all this talk of the highbrow, given that my travelling companion on this first trip to Podgórze was a bloke who goes around calling himself Murky, you can bet your life that culture wasn’t our primary concern.
And in this respect, it was on this point that Podgórze truly set a standard. Unencumbered by the hooting Brits found in Old Town, our evening became a headlong plunge into locally-led carnage: in one pub, we ask ourselves just who the moron is dancing on the bar spraying beer over the customers. Quickly, it becomes apparent that this is actually the barman.
It goes without saying that this is not the Podgórze you will find at this current time, but I’ve little doubt that once the disruptions subside it’ll rise once again.
A perfect tonic to the more mainstream pleasures of right-side Kraków, it’s the ideal destination in which to rebuild lingering love affairs with this ancient royal city.
Podgórze: I hope to see you soon.