A fireman with a brass trumpet has just blown the hourly call from the belfry that towers above the red-brick walls of the Basilica of the Virgin Mary in Kraków's main square, Rynek Glówny. The ornate pastel façades of the surrounding buildings form an operatic backdrop for the hundreds of people hurrying to work or school or the many shops, or simply to loiter in the cafés and bars that line the narrow streets of the Old City. All paths in Kraków seem to cross the rynek, at 10 acres the largest medieval square in Europe. A few minutes later, I'm joined by Jan Rostworowski, a 21-year-old sociology student and a scion of one of Poland's oldest families. Rostworowski looks every inch the image of a young nobleman: tall and slim in a rumpled tweed jacket with a scarf knotted at his throat. He leads me up a dusty and twisting marble staircase in the Sukiennice, a long vaulted passage that has housed a fabric market since the 14th century, to a small museum where we hunt for the portrait of his great-granduncle, Count Ksawery Puslowski. A noted patriot in the brief years of Poland's independence between the two world wars, Puslowski fought with his cavalry unit against the Germans when they invaded Poland in 1939, launching World War II. After the war, Poland's new leaders, Communists installed with Moscow's backing, stripped the aristocrats of their land and the contents of their residences, down to the portrait of the stern-faced count.
Since the postwar regime was overthrown in 1989 by Solidarity, the pro-democracy movement led by Lech Walesa, Poland's former nobility have been struggling to recover what remains of their property. Some want their castles. For others, the goal is to restore their rightful place in Polish history. Back in the Sukiennice, as a group of schoolchildren are led past mammoth canvases of historic battles and romanticized landscapes, Rostworowski explains to me the significance of the szlachta, as the nobility is known in Polish. For centuries, they were the landowners who raised armies of peasants to defend Poland against Germans, Russians, Swedes, and the Tatar hordes. They created one of Europe's first democratic-style governments, with the nobles electing their king in 1572, and they protected the traditions of Catholic Poland against German and Swedish Protestants (except for a brief period when some nobles turned against the pope and embraced the Reformation). "My family traces its roots to the fourteenth century," Rostworowski tells me, "but we're not looking for any titles." Instead, he says, he wants Poles to remember that the nobility fought for their country's freedom through all the wars and even helped in the struggle against Communism.
Although Kraków itself survived the war nearly intact—in part due to failed air raids—the city's ancient aristocracy did not. For more than four decades of Communist Party rule, the Rostworowskis and other "old families" were classified as enemies of the state and they kept out of the public eye, holding ordinary jobs and struggling to maintain what traditions they could. Hundreds of Polish nobles had left for France and England or the Middle East to fight the Germans; many of those who returned at the end of the war—like many who had stayed in Poland—were deported to Stalin's Siberian labor camps or shot by Soviet commissars. The luckier ones were sent packing: some to England (like Ksawery Puslowski), others to France, the United States, Canada, South Africa, or Australia.
The few who remained are now enjoying the benefits that Poland's new status as a member of the wealthy European Union has conferred on their city—including a thriving high-tech, manufacturing, and retail economy and a rise in tourism from America, Europe, and the capital, Warsaw, which is just under three hours away by fast train. In addition, a string of recent laws allowing Poles of any status to reclaim property seized by the Communists is giving them a chance to renew their lives in a town that has traditionally been a vibrant center of culture, trade, learning, and the arts.
Through much of Polish history, Kraków was the chief city of Poland's ruling class, and it is still the place where many of these families have their roots. It began as a village, built on the Vistula River near the Wieliczka salt mines and along the amber trading route from Gdansk to the Adriatic Sea. It was incorporated in 1257, and by 1320 had become the seat of royal Polish power. The Wawel Castle, a few hundred yards downhill from Rynek Glówny, continued as the site of coronations and funerals for Poland's kings, even after the court removed to Warsaw in 1595. But disputatious nobles hobbled the monarchy and were themselves unable to prevent Poland's split in 1795, when the country was finally divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Kraków had the relatively good luck to end up in the Austrian sector: the Poles resented the partition of their country, but the peace and prosperity brought by Austrian rule left Kraków's noblemen much idle time in which to mimic the manners of the imperial capital in Vienna, dabble in politics and the arts, and create a sophisticated, if somewhat circumscribed, lifestyle for themselves.
Together with Kraków's mercantile elite, they built grand theaters and museums, an arts academy, and monuments to Polish patriots. Their patronage fostered generations of painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians. Fueled by this rich lifestyle, the city grew from the half-dozen blocks on either side of the massive square, past Wawel Castle, and beyond the town walls—which were torn down in the early 19th century and replaced by a narrow strip of lawn and trees called the Planty—to a larger ring of 19th-century buildings, and finally to an expanding outer circle of Communist-era apartment blocks, new suburban developments, and gleaming post-Communist factories and superstores at the end of Kraków's extensive tram lines.
Today, the buzz of activity in Kraków radiates out from Rynek Glówny for a few blocks in each direction to areas just outside the Old City—most notably newly hip, bohemian Kazimierz, the former ghetto from which 60,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Despite the recent growth, many visitors still find in the city the unhurried pace and unpolished beauty that distinguished Prague in the early 1990's. Taking advantage of the newfound interest in their hometown, Kraków's landless nobility have found a way to merge culture with modern commerce, some by turning reclaimed ancestral palaces into hotels, others by opening bars, cafés, art galleries, even bicycle shops within the buildings. And some have simply rented their family seats as bank branches, to keep the roofs patched after decades of neglect.
A few days before meeting Jan Rostworowski, I had hooked up with Piotr Dunin, a compact 28-year-old who also has a historic lineage. A family tree hangs in the parlor of his parents' cramped second-story home in a blocky 1920's apartment building near the Old City. The chart, which stretches back to the 1400's, is surrounded by dusty engravings of castles the family has lost over the centuries. Central Europe's borders have shifted like sandbars, through wars, treaties, and royal marriages, and much of what was the Dunin family property now lies beyond their reach in present-day Ukraine. Piotr Dunin, therefore, has focused his energies on the present; cashing in on a vogue for extreme sports, he has built a lucrative business in Kraków designing and selling special downhill mountain bikes.
Over drinks one evening, he asks me if I'd like to see Kraków's gotha, its "high society," up close. So on a warm Saturday night, I find myself standing on Rynek Glówny watching lights shine from the second-floor ballroom of the Palac Pod Baranami, a yellowish expanse of Italianate plaster at one corner of the square. The palace has been returned to another of Dunin's many "cousins," as they refer to each other; this one is from a branch of the Potocki family, some of whom sat out much of the Communist era in Washington, D.C. Like many old families who have won back ancestral property, the Potockis had no way to maintain theirs. To generate upkeep funds, they opened the Tribeca Coffee House, a tastefully decorated Polish version of Starbucks, on the ground floor. On most nights, the scene at Pod Baranami is at street level: in the café, in an upscale pierogi restaurant behind it called Officyna, and in the vaulted medieval cellars of the Piwnica Pod Baranami, a cabaret that in the later decades of Communist rule was famed across Poland for its brazen political satire, which mocked the government, keeping a half-step ahead of the dreaded censors.