International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
It's midnight as I walk down Kraków's main street, the Florianska. Like everyone else I am wrapped up against the night's chill, but still the cold penetrates. By the time I reach Piec Art ((ul Szewska 12; piecart.pl), my eyelids feel laced with ice. The faint strains of saxophone bubbling up through the ground tell me I am in the right place and I walk down a narrow flight of stairs to emerge in a redbricked cellar. A group of men in jeans and biker boots are huddled around a table with tumblers of vodka in hand, listening intently to the music.
The jazz played by the three-piece band is soft and seductive, threading through the shadows like a curlicue of cigarette smoke. Sometimes, the barman tells me, this place gets wild and full of people who dance into the early hours, but this evening, the jazz is reflective, lapping like a tide at the edges of the night. I take a candlelit table in the corner and watch as the room fills, chattering voices accompanying the instruments like a percussion.
The next day, in need of the strong black coffee so beloved by jazz fans, I head for Alchemia (ul Estery 5, corner of ul Estery and Plac Nowy; alchemia.com.pl) - this club, café and bar in the Kazimierz district has a basement stage that attracts some of the genre's biggest names. In the morning, there's an offbeat, arty clientele: men in black polo-necks discussing philosophical issues. The tables are covered with lace, and a stuffed bird haughtily observes customers from behind the till. The air seems heavy with the imprints of long-ago Kraków residents who still stalk the rooms. 'There are no ghosts here,' says the manager Brunon Bierzenink, not entirely convincingly. 'Alchemia is haunted only by music.'
The historic inhabitants of the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec (ul Benedyktynska 37; tyniec.benedyktyni.pl), which rises steeply from a riverbank on the southwestern outskirts of Kraków, never really left. Black-cowled monks have walked the courtyards of the working monastery since 1044, their footfalls crunching in the snow over nearly a millennium of winters. The quiet men may seem unlikely champions for the power of music, but the Abbey's Gothic church is a popular venue for organ recitals and concerts, and every day at seven o'clock the brothers sing vespers (evening prayer) in Latin. Their sombre voices weave together into an eerie melody, which drifts and echoes around the abbey's ancient walls.
Sample the salt of the earth
There are no elevators going down into the Wieliczka Salt Mine (nine miles southeast of Kraków city centre; kopalnia.pl), no soothing mechanised whir to ease my journey into its cavernous depths. Instead, I walk down several hundred wooden steps that twist and turn inwards like an Escher print, burrowing 135m into the coolness of the earth. Inside lies an eerie subterranean world of labyrinthine passages, lakes and caverns. Although the temperature is kept at a constant 14-16°C, the draughts that whistle through the shafts, and the lack of natural light, make it feel much cooler.
The salt mine has been producing salt for more than 700 years, and dates back to an era when salt was as valuable a commodity as oil is today. Through the centuries, the salt miners have carved out chapels and religious statuettes as they work, many of which survive intact as an extraordinary testament to their ingenuity. The Chapel of The Blessed Kinga is a vast, echoing space lined with detailed carvings in the salt walls, including a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Intricate chandeliers hang from the ceilings, lighting up the gloom with crystals made from glittering shards of translucent rock salt.
A legacy of loss