A Sojourn in the Heart of Europe

Susanne Houfek explores the history, the street, the vibe

Rick Steves, of PBS European-travel-show fame, says that Krakow will be “the next Prague.” Having been there this summer, I agree. Hip, fashionable, arty, livable, and with a rich, complex and sadly painful history, this university town offers everything for the traveler in the heart of old Europe.  Students mingle with multi-generation families in the city’s centuries-old public spaces. Musicians and street artists are ubiquitous.  The night-time outdoor café scene is lively. A summer performance-art festival with vast outdoor stages and backdrops, and giant speakers playing haunting music captivates observers seated on folding chairs around the main square.  A museum inside castle walls displays the only other known DaVinci portrait besides the Mona Lisa.  And yet reminders of the horrors this country faced in the last century are not far away.  

Poland lies north of the High Tatra Mountains, on a vast plain bisected by the Vistula River, which flows out to the Baltic Sea. The Tatras, the northern-most range of the Carpathian Mountains, cause the cold northern wind and weather systems to remain trapped in Poland, and my July visit to Krakow, at the southern edge of the country, proved no exception. Like the country’s history, the weather is volatile.  Sometimes even umbrellas and coats aren’t enough, and the street wanderer is forced to hide in doorways or dart into the nearest restaurant for a pivo (beer), waiting for  a deluge to stop. 

Nuns in Warsaw - by Sue HoufekOn Grodzka Street, the former “Royal Way” in Krakow, Poland

Krakow was the capital of Poland - politically, culturally and intellectually - from the 11th through 17th centuries.  Poland, Christian since 966A.D, is the most Catholic of all European countries, nearly 80% are practicing, and Krakow is the most Catholic of all cities in Poland. There are 200 churches and cathedrals here, and Catholicism has always played an important role. The country has been, for centuries, surrounded by Prussian/German/Protestants on the west, and the Russian/Slavic/Orthodox on the east.  During times of occupation and attack, Poles have relied on their faith, which is in fact a legacy of domination by the Holy Roman Empire and later the Hapsburg Empire. 

Krakow was the home of Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II.  You can visit St. Francis Basilica, his home church when he was archbishop of Krakow.  This church is Gothic on the outside and Art Nouveau on the inside – a happy combination.  Wojtyla, as Pope, is considered instrumental in bringing down the Iron Curtain, or, at the very least, one of the first in the line of dominoes leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  He was known for his skill in pushing the Communists without jeopardizing the role of the Church, and was a personal inspiration for Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Union movement in the shipyards in the north, not to mention for the Poles suffering under the Soviet Communist occupation.  

Remember that Stalin and Hitler, early on, secretly agreed that Poland should be divided between them, and Stalin made certain of that in 1939 when he invaded the eastern part and took a chunk of Poland for himself, and again in 1944 when the Soviet Red Army “liberated” the rest of Poland from the Germans.  Stalin’s success in 1944 was due in large part to the Allies giving Stalin German troop movement information from the deciphered Enigma code – a sad irony as Moscow controlled Poland for more than four decades after that. 

 Warsaw Kazimierz District - Sue HoufelA café in Kazimierz District

The history of Poland is as much about the Jews in Krakow, as it is about the Catholics, and for this story we also need to go back centuries.  Poland’s “Golden Age” was in the 14th century, under the enlightened guidance of King Kazimierz the Great, who resided in Krakow’s Wawel Castle. He established the Krakow Academy, today called Jagiellonian University.  He fortified the city, further protecting it from invaders such as the Tatars, and upgraded housing from wood to stone. 

Significantly, he invited persecuted Jews from Europe to Poland. Although non-Christians were not permitted to own land in countries of the former Holy Roman Empire, King Kazimierz gave resident Jews rights to banking and trade.  They settled in an area south of medieval Krakow, later a part of the city renamed Kazimierz.  It became the European Jewish cultural and spiritual center, particularly as Jews fleeing the Counter-Reformation in the late 15th century were welcomed there.  By the early part of the 20th century, 65,000 Jews lived in Krakow, representing one-quarter of the city’s population, and well over three million lived in all of Poland. Krakow had ninety synagogues. 

Today, in the somewhat run-down yet newly-trendy Kazimierz district, there are seven synagogues, two of them active, a 500-year-old cemetery, many cafes, restaurants and nightclubs, and a large flea market.  But the total population of Jews in the entire city of Krakow has dwindled to about 200.

Original 1930’s Krakow street signs, displayed at Schindler’s Factory Museum

Krakow is the home of the former Emalia factory, a Jewish-owned company which manufactured enamel-dipped metal pots and pans. During the German occupation, Oskar Schindler moved from Germany to Poland to run the factory, after Krakow’s Jewish business-owners and residents were forcibly moved to the Podgorze ghetto south of Krakow, and later, to the Plaszow concentration camp nearby. As we know from the movie, Schindler made heroic efforts to improve the lives of his Jewish labor-camp workers, and saved the lives of 1,200 in 1944.

The original factory building has been turned into a museum, with historical film clips, full scale representations of ghetto life, Nazi documents, uniforms and newspapers, broadcasts of old radio announcements, and pictures of life during the German occupation.  The Nazis replaced Krakow’s street signs with new ones, in German. Ulica means street in Polish.  

About an hour outside of Krakow is Auschwitz-Birkenau, which, like the Schindler Factory Museum, is more of a memorial, designed for us all to remember and to make certain the horror never happens again.  As the Soviet Red Army advanced in January 1944, the Germans destroyed most of the buildings, barracks and operations at these two adjoining camps prior to fleeing, so a visit is not as traumatic as one might expect. It was however, still soul-numbing, and  gave me a nightmare that night. 

Some days, the sun shines in southern Poland.  Walking down Grodzka Street, the former king’s Royal Way, you arrive at the base of the hill-top Wawel complex -- a castle, cathedral, crypts, and museums, plus lush and immaculately-maintained gardens and lawns.  The inner courtyard with its arcaded galleries is pure Italian Renaissance, since Florentines were invited to Krakow for their architectural design and construction expertise in the mid-1500’s. 

Gardeners Wawel Castle - Sue HoufekAt Wawel Castle

It is here that DaVinci’s painting, “Lady with an Ermine,” is displayed.  Who was the lady? Scholars mostly agree that she was Cecilia Gallerani, the 16-year old lover of Ludovico Sforza, the powerful Duke of Milan in the late 1400’s. I prefer the term lover to mistress, because it is clear that Ludovico wanted to marry Cecilia, resisting as long as he could his father’s insistence he marry the aristocratic Beatrice D’Este. Ludovico’s court poet, Bellincioni, even wrote a sonnet about Ceilia’s portrait, which was painted in Milan during DaVinci’s residence there.  

Lady With Ermine - Da Vinci  






The painting is displayed in a cool, dark, small viewing room off the main courtyard, and there were only a handful of people plus a polite guard there the morning I saw it. I think Cecilia looks like a cross between Mona Lisa and Carla Bruni – the ambiguous smile, a delicate yet sensual body, eyes projecting sly intelligence, the face of an innocent.  She holds the ermine tightly in the crook of her arm, her fingers pressing deep into the animal’s shoulder and neck.  

Cecilia’s legacy was caught up in Poland’s history. After disappearing for centuries, around 1800 the painting was acquired in Italy by an aristocratic Polish family. In advance of the invading Russian army in 1830, the painting was sent to the family’s residence-in-exile in Paris, and returned to their Krakow residence 50 years later. Then, in 1939, after the Nazi invasion, the Germans took it to a Berlin museum. The next year, the portrait was back in Krakow -- in the offices of Hans Frank, Poland’s Nazi Governor General.  After the war, Allied troops discovered the painting in Frank’s country home in Bavaria, and the intriguing Lady with an Ermine returned to the family’s descendants in Krakow.

In the next installment of my Central European sojourn, I visit the Czech Republic and a series of old-world towns in the heart of the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia.  I have a special interest in this region, as my father’s family line is documented back to 1605 in village parish records there.  My ancestors also show up in the “Register of Serfs According to Their Confession,” and I’m wondering, when I get the old Czech translated, do I descend from aristocratic Bohemian stock, or from a long line of serfs! Stay tuned.


Sue Houfel




Bay Area-based Susanne Houfek is a self-described Bohemian/Adventurer/Photographer/Writer/Artiste/Renaissance Girl who delights in living in the moment and sharing her experiences and observations. Originally from Chicago's North Shore, she is a graduate of Stanford University and has an MBA from U.C. Berkeley.