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Krakow: Poland's Enduring Capital of Culture : Saved from Nazi destruction, the city retains the essence of a rich medieval heritage.

June 28, 1992|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

KRAKOW, Poland — Every hour on the hour, seven days a week, a bugler climbs the soaring tower of the 13th-Century Church of the Holy Virgin Mary in this old Polish capital's Market Square to sound his clarion call four times, to the cardinal points of the compass. His few heart-rending notes are also played throughout the country on Polish radio to begin its programming every day at noon.

What makes the plaintive call so poignant to Poles even today is that the bugler never finishes, always ending abruptly on a broken note. It is a daily re-creation of the fate of a 13th-Century bugler who was trying desperately to warn Krakow's people of an attack by Tatars when an enemy arrow ripped through his throat, ending his life and his warning, and creating a heroic legend for the city.

In a country brimming with glorious medieval cities from the Baltic to the Czech border, Krakow is surely the most magnificent, often called Poland's Athens-Rome. First mentioned in the diary of a merchant from Cordoba in AD 965, it soon became a political center for southern Poland, and later the country's capital for more than 600 years. The entire history of Poland and a spellbinding treasury of Polish culture remain within Krakow's ancient walls.

For today's visitor, all the splendors of Krakow's 10 centuries are still here to enjoy, thanks to a fortuitous gift of fate: Due to a brilliant tactical maneuver by the Russian army in 1945, the fleeing Germans had no time to destroy Krakow's priceless castles, palaces and glorious other buildings with explosives, as they had done with countless other Polish cities. The hasty Nazi retreat left the city relatively unscathed, although it was looted of many artistic treasures.

The lifeblood of Krakow pulses from Market Square, said to be the largest of its kind in Europe and certainly the most gigantic we've yet to see. Its four sides are each more than 330 yards long, and the sheer size (10 acres) would overwhelm the senses were it not for the 14th-Century Cloth Hall at the center, which divides the square to the eye and sensibilities.

So how does one ever hope to absorb the wonders of Krakow, and capture a sense of its turbulent history, during a short visit? Try stepping into Restaurant Wierzynek on Market Square. Here in 1364, the innkeeper Nicolaus Wierzynek and the Polish King Casimir the Great entertained the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, the kings of Hungary, Denmark and Cyprus, princes from Austria and other European nobility with a regal dinner on gold and silver service. Since then, and throughout 45 years of recent Russian occupation, Wierzynek's has remained in private hands, outside Communist control.

We had two superb dinners of wild boar steak with all the trimmings and roasted duck with apples. All that 14th-Century royalty couldn't possibly have dined any better in Poland's oldest and most famous restaurant, not for $16.

How long/how much? At least two full days for Krakow, perhaps another two for visits to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp (34 miles away) or to the town of Czestochowa, where the 15th-Century "Black Madonna" in the Jasna Gora Monastery is Poland's holiest icon and the object of pilgrimages from around the world.

Lodging throughout Poland is very moderate in cost, while excellent and bountiful dining is little more than a pittance.

Getting settled in: While many Polish cities have their newer and better hotels on the outskirts, Krakow is blessed with two fine ones at the heart of Old Town. The very regal Grand was the palace of a 16th-Century prince, became a hotel in 1887 and now harks back to that opulent era with its fan-vaulted lobby, gilt wainscoting and stained-glass windows in the hallways. The Grand's stately conservatory dining room, with its parquet floors, blends a cheerful brightness with a decided feeling of royal elegance.

Bedroom furnishings are in period style, and the fabrics are lustrous indeed. There is also color TV and other such amenities.

Just around the corner, Hotel Francuski opened in 1912 and was completely refurbished last year in a style approaching Art Deco. The lobby and bedrooms reflect this handsomely, and the restaurant is a warm and cozy room noted for its fine food.

Forum Hotel Cracow, located just across the Vistula River, Poland's Danube, has a view of Wawel Hill that is nothing short of spectacular, particularly in late afternoon when the sun brings a warm glow to the towers and spires of the cathedral and Royal Castle.

The Forum is an enormous contemporary building set in a sea of manicured grass bordering the riverbank and its walkways. It is almost a city unto itself, with restaurants, bars, numerous shops, and indoor pool, rooftop cafe and nightclub. It is also rather pricey for Poland.

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