As the government returns seized palaces and flats to aristocrats, Poland's second city is undergoing a quiet revolution. But, Peter S. Green wonders, can the nobility help restore Kraków as the country's center of culture and commerce?
Credit: © iStockphoto

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.

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.

Over the next few days, I realize how easy it is for anyone to come into contact with young nobles. Michal Bisping, a smiling 25-year-old, runs a bicycle-rental shop from the entrance to his family's apartment building in the Old City. Jan Rostworowski's cousin Dominik has a leading contemporary art gallery tucked away in Swietego Jana street. Other cousins run a fashionable Corsican restaurant, called Paese, on Poselska street. On another corner, I come to the Czartoryski Museum, set up in a mansion recently given back to the Czartoryski family's descendants and best known for housing Lady with an Ermine, a portrait of a beautiful young woman holding a white ferret, painted in 1496 by Leonardo da Vinci.

Judging from the vibrancy of the Old City and Kazimierz, Kraków is recovering steadily from the deep freeze of Communism; a vital new energy is infusing its ancient streets. Guidebooks list over 300 places to raise a glass or sip a coffee in the Old City alone, where bookshops are almost as numerous as shoe stores and clothing boutiques. Business is clearly thriving, but artists, writers, and musicians—who retained some degree of intellectual freedom in the decades that followed the war by carefully sidestepping the censors—are still finding it difficult to make a living. I'm left wondering how long the city can maintain the precarious balance between luring in outsiders and supporting its own authentic culture. Prague, swamped by tourists, has seen its languorous beauty transformed in many districts into high kitsch, the result of efforts to please visitors who want Olde Worlde charm, cheap beer, and Mozart quartets.

Looking for an answer to what the city's future will be, I stop in at Kraków's museum of contemporary art, Bunkier Sztuki ("Art Bunker"), a 1970's architectural catastrophe in poured concrete that sits near the Old City. I meet the director, Masza Potocka, who lets on that she is related, through her ex-husband, to the other Potockis I've met. In the museum's café, she explains that Kraków is on the edge of a cultural precipice, fighting what she describes as its provincial snobbishness, left over from its 19th-century café society days as a "little Vienna."

The tendency, she says, is for Krakówers to ignore the changes happening in the outside world. Unlike their forebears, most of the country's rich business owners do nothing to help the arts. Even Kraków's cultural leaders—the older generation of artists and the bureaucrats who fund them—pretend to themselves that their work will always be in fashion and that the dwindling tide of state funds will continue to flow. "This is Kraków: we don't speak with Warsaw; the Planty is our border," Potocka says, disdainfully waving a cigarette. Almost daily, she adds, she battles Kraków's provincial officials, who stifle her efforts to bring foreign artists and contemporary, conceptual pieces to the gallery. With its art schools and huge student population, she notes, Kraków ought to be far more involved in the avant-garde than it is. Just over a decade out of Communism, Poland still has few private patrons willing to fund the more experimental arts, and artists must instead win the approval of the small-minded state administrators who dispense meager grants.

None of the aristocrats I've met are currently in a position to become the Medicis of their era; they are still too busy fixing the roofs of their leaky palaces. And the thousands of newly minted post-Communist millionaires are still too busy grubbing for money to consider the world beyond their cashboxes. That bothers some of Kraków's more innovative artists. I caught up with Malgorzata Markiewicz, a diminutive woman who is one of Masza Potocka's rising stars in Kraków's current art scene. Markiewicz's conceptual hallmark is clothing: for a recent exhibition, she wrapped used garments around the balustrade of the Goethe Institut (set in a palace belonging to yet another branch of the Potocki family).

Kraków, Markiewicz agrees, is slowly being strangled by its own laid-back lifestyle. The city's rents are far lower than those in Warsaw, and the slow pace makes it easy to stretch a zloty—for artists and aristocrats. But, she says, the lack of concern for new art is encouraging many of her colleagues to leave for the capital or abroad. "I feel this claustrophobia in Kraków," Markiewicz explains. Her hope, she says, is to work in New York or Japan.

Art isn't the only thing at stake. The commercial energy unleashed by Poland's competitive capitalism threatens to overrun the quiet provincial charm that brings so many visitors to Kraków. Already, city planning officials feel powerless to halt the arrival of international chains, the homogenizing storefronts that are spoiling the character of the Old City's historic façades. But the people with more ambitious taste—artists, aristocrats, and the small but growing professional class—do not have the means to achieve a balance between these forces. Unless the local government, and Krakówers themselves, try harder to ease the tension between art and commerce, Potocka warns, Kraków may become stuck in time. "Kraków has two choices," she says, "To be a rich cultural city or remain an open-air museum of restaurants for people to visit from Warsaw."

Kraków's Pope John Paul II International Airport has connecting flights from many European destinations; several discount airlines, including EasyJet, serve the city from within Europe. In summer, Poland's LOT airline flies directly to Kraków from both Newark and Chicago. Kraków is 2 hours and 45 minutes by rail from Warsaw.

Kraków's Old City has an abundance of boutique hotels along its ancient streets, all of them within a five-minute walk of Rynek Glówny, the massive medieval town square.

Hotel Alef
Four small rooms, outfitted with 1920's furniture, combine eccentric period charm with comfortable Mitteleuropa shabbiness. The restaurant serves excellent Jewish food. DOUBLES FROM $99. 17 UL. SZEROKA; 48-12/421-3870;

Hotel Pod Róza
Liszt, Balzac, and Czar Alexander II all stayed here. Restored to its former satin-lined glory, the Pod Róza is a gem of Central European elegance. DOUBLES FROM $210. 14 UL. FLORIANSKA; 48-12/424-3300;

Pension Trecius
Nuclear physicist Michal Palarczyk has turned his family's house into a bijou of a pension in the heart of the Old City. DOUBLES FROM $59. 18 SW. TOMASZA; 48-12/421-2521;

Café Larousse
Perfect for a stiff espresso and a slice of szarlotka, a Polish apple pie. 22 SW. TOMASZA; NO PHONE

Chlopskie Jadlo
An upscale peasant's kitchen, where real Polish home cooking—pierogis stuffed with mushrooms, rich borscht, and bigos, a Polish choucroute that includes five kinds of meat—is served. DINNER FOR TWO $35. 1 SW. AGNIESZKI; 48-12/421-8520


Italian architects built many of Kraków's Baroque churches and palaces, so it shouldn't be surprising that the city has excellent Italian restaurants. Padva is the best, with regular deliveries of fresh fish. DINNER FOR TWO $50. 6 SW. ANNY; 48-12/292-0272

DINNER FOR TWO $45. 24 UL. POSELSKA; 48-12/421-6273

Bar Propaganda
The busts of Lenin and posters of handsomely muscled workers give a mock-nostalgic zing to the drinks served along this dark, noisy bar, crowded with artists and Kazimierz hipsters. 20 UL. MIODOWA; 48-12/292-0402

Café Bankowa
The café's location right on the grand square makes it Kraków's ultimate spot for people-watching. 47 RYNEK GLOWNY; 48-12/429-5677

13 SW. TOMASZA; 48-12/429-6661

18 UL. FLORIANSKA; 48-12/422-4876

Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery
3A PL. SZCZEPANSKI; 48-12/422-4021;

Czartoryski Museum
19 SW. JANA; 48-12/422-5566;

Galicia Jewish Museum
The permanent exhibition, Traces of Memory, showcases photographs depicting Poland's remaining Jewish heritage. 18 UL. DAJWOR; 48-12/421-6842;

Michal Bisping Rent A Bike
$1.25 PER HOUR. 4 SW. ANNY; 48-501/745-986

National Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art
IN THE SUKIENNICE, 1-3 RYNEK GLOWNY; 48-12/422-1166;




Chlopskie Jadlo

Café Larousse

Pension Trecius

Hotel Pod Róza

Centuries-old Renaissance palace made for modern travelers, thanks to flat-screen TV’s, Wi-Fi, and a full-service gym that looks out onto the city’s medieval towers.

Hotel Alef