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Kraków's Revolution

Decked out in formal wear, Dunin, his group of friends, and I climb the broad staircase to a wedding reception for Countess Alexandra Potocka. Although their historic names are known to most Poles, these aristocrats have no formal power, and their circle is almost hermetically sealed. Most of their social goings-on involve people from the dozen or so lineages that ruled this part of Poland for centuries, and the "cousins" often marry within their large extended families. Tonight, Kraków's high society fills the Potockis' ballrooms, which are rented out for business meetings and private parties. The women are stunning Slavs in sleek sheaths; the men have a naturally acquired ease but are, like their suits, a bit frayed at the edges.

The three adjoining ballrooms are a marvel of faded gilt and peeling mirrors. There is a ceaseless hum of conversation. A buffet in one salon holds a feast of Polish food—herrings, sausages, spinach pies. In a far room, an emcee announces swing tunes. Couples dip and twirl gracefully (dancing lessons are still a staple for these families), and even the older generation comes out for the mazurkas and polonaises, court dances from the 19th century. We wander through the quarters, eavesdropping on the conversations—mostly friends and relatives catching up on personal news or discussing the latest foibles of Poland's scandal-prone government. I am slightly disappointed: there's no talk of polo matches or St. Moritz, no plots to restore the monarchy or seize back castles at swordpoint.

As an outsider, I feel uncomfortable grilling guests at a wedding, so to satisfy my curiosity about Kraków's nobility and how it survived the Nazis and the Communists, Dunin suggests that I talk to his paternal grandmother, Amelia Dunin, one of the grandes dames among Kraków's old families. Madame Dunin, as she is known, is an energetic woman in her mid seventies, and on a rainy afternoon she shows up in sensible shoes and a tweed jacket at Café Bankowa, on the edge of the rynek. Before we set out to see the palaces and churches that defined Kraków for her generation, she takes me back to the days before World War II, when Kraków's ruling class still had some portion of its lands and fortunes. In those days, she explains, the old families lived on their estates outside the city. When the damp Central European winter descended, they would leave their drafty country manor houses and castles for the palaces that lined Rynek Glówny and stretched down the side streets of the Old City. Those nobles who stayed in Kraków during the brutal years following the Communist takeover in 1945 survived only by keeping their heads down. Estates of more than 110 acres were confiscated, and young nobles were shut out of the universities and many professions. Madame Dunin herself had been born before the war, on her family's estates in Kalina, 35 miles outside of Kraków. Her father was arrested as an enemy of the state in 1944 and sent to work in a Ukrainian coal mine, while she and her mother escaped, moments ahead of Stalin's secret police. They were hidden by peasants, who smuggled them into Kraków, where they shared rooms with a vicar and sewed piecework to pay the rent.

The city has many faces, but for Madame Dunin, Kraków is Catholic Kraków, and we make a whirlwind tour of the town's churches. We pass the Baroque Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, where a wedding couple is posing for photographs, and the Basilica of St. Francis, whimsically redecorated by the Art Nouveau master Stanislaw Wyspianski. We stop at the Basilica of the Virgin Mary on Rynek Glówny to admire the wooden altarpiece, a sculpted triptych of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, with nine-foot-tall figures carved from whole tree trunks and gloriously painted. This 15th-century relief is so lifelike that in the 1930's a Polish doctor wrote a treatise on the skin disease from which the carver's models apparently suffered.

We end beneath the trumpeters in the tower. The precise origins of the trumpet call are lost in the mists of mythology, but the generally accepted story is that sometime in 1241, a watchman in the tower saw an advancing Tatar army and blew an alarm on his bugle. An arrow caught him in the throat before he could finish blowing the call, known as the hejnal, and to this day, at the beginning of every hour through the night, a trumpeter from the Kraków fire department sounds the hejnal from each of the tower's sides, stopping abruptly three-quarters of the way through to mark the moment the arrow hit the original bugler.

Such legends and history attach themselves to nearly every street, every paving stone in Kraków, but for the young—whether noble or common—Kraków is also a place to let loose. The arrival of capitalism in 1989, and more recently, Kraków's popularity among youthful travelers, has led to the opening of countless bars, dance halls, and music clubs, mostly in the Old City and in Kazimierz. After Madame Dunin has shown me Kraków by day, her grandson agrees to take me on a crawl of his cousins' favorite nightspots, and guides me one evening to a small bar appropriately named Dym (Polish for "smoke"), in a narrow street a block behind Rynek Glówny and facing St. Thomas's Church. Dym is owned by Joanna Janiszewska, yet another of the many cousins. Her daughter Matylda, a vivacious redhead, works behind the bar; most of the other bartenders, as well as the customers, are also members of what Janiszewska calls "our crowd." Dym is the rendezvous for the aristocratic set, a place to stop in at any hour, where one can always find a friend or relative and sit for a drink or three before moving on to another bar or for a walk across the square.

Janiszewska opened Dym seven years ago with her husband and two cousins, after an aged aunt had reclaimed the building and another aunt, in London, loaned her money to build the bar in what had been a courtyard garage. Old bentwood chairs, which she found behind a church, and round, wooden 1930's tables fill the front of the bar; the walls are painted an eponymous shade of blue-gray. In the seventies, when class pressures started to ease, Janiszewska had joined the many aristocrats who began studying the arts, engineering, and other intellectual professions. Running a café wasn't quite what she had in mind when she graduated in 1982 with a degree in design, but in her country's fast-moving, sharp-elbowed new capitalist economy, she had to adapt.

We stop next at Pauza, a bar in a soot-stained building a few blocks down from Dym, on Florianska, a busy pedestrian street that runs from near the medieval Barbican gate to Rynek Glówny. A favorite with late-night revelers, Florianska is lined with bars and sneaker shops, a McDonald's with miniature arches tucked neatly inside, according to the historic-preservation guidelines, and tiny 24-hour stands selling grease-smothered gyro sandwiches through open windows. Carefully hidden one floor above the street, dimly lit and strewn with low-slung sofas, Pauza is Kraków's chill-out lounge. A wall opposite the long bar is plastered with 8-by-10 head shots of Pauza regulars, some of them already familiar to me from Dym. A few friends of Dunin's arrive, there's much kissing of hands (some traditions live on here), and the same handful of family names are exchanged. "You go far enough back, we're all related," laughs another cousin, Stephan Czetwertynski, who moved last year to Kraków from Montreal.

After chatting a while we head down Florianska and across the rynek to Prozak, a noisy disco and bar half a flight below street level, near some of the churches I visited earlier with Madame Dunin. It's nearly 1 a.m., but calling it a night doesn't seem to be on the agenda for this crowd. Instead, more cousins appear. Most of the men wear sports jackets and some of the women look dressed for the hunt, conjuring up a Polish Brideshead Revisited. Bottles of gin and vodka are ordered, and the night wears on until we stumble out of the disco before dawn and wander through a warren of narrow lanes, our heels echoing on the ancient cobblestones.

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