Price of peace
Let's face it. Poland isn't anybody's number one holiday destination. The weather for up to six months is best described as hell freezing over, notable for its homicidal easterlies from Siberia. Even when the weather can't be blamed, the joie de vivre is a bit thin on the ground. And the food . . .
But if you are into post-Communist zeitgeist set against a backdrop of history so rich and thick you could spread it on rye bread, Poland is at once the paradigm and extreme. In one street, it's all Yves St Laurent and Calvin Klein and in the next, it's dirty shop windows forlornly sporting a few tatty razorblades and a tube of toothpaste.
There are, it must be said, some pleasures to be had in Poland - great skiing in the Tatras mountains, for instance, a vibrant night life, exquisite vodka, time-warp cafes dominated by vast crystal chandeliers - but if it's hedonism you're after, head somewhere else.
The pull of Poland is its history, which is palpable everywhere: on the bullet-ridden facades of buildings, in the hard but care-worn faces of its elderly, in the stern Stalinistic brutality of its post-Second World War architecture, in the old trams, packed like sardines, that trundle through the thoroughfares.
Although Poland became a new democracy in 1989 when Solidarity swept into power on so many hopes and prayers, the transition from communism to capitalism has been painfully slow. In public buildings, there is a babushka on every landing, outside every loo, unsmilingly awaiting your zlotys. In restaurants, once your coat has been forcibly removed from you (for more zlotys), you will be mercilessly serenaded by a pianistviolinistaccordionist at your table, until you pay up the zlotys in exchange for peace and quiet.
Despite the new order, the labour intensiveness of every aspect of life that was the hallmark of the socialist state is everywhere, underpinned by the belief that everyone has a right to eke out a living, even if the service they provide is something that consumers do not want.
Look on it as a socio-economic curiosity and you will stay good humoured. Which is important, since being a tourist in a country still not geared up for middle-range tourism will have its challenges. But a few days in Warsaw and Krakow will give you an understanding of eastern Europe's past and present like few other places.
Warsaw is a workaday capital city with few of the aesthetic perks or cultural charms of Krakow. But it happens to be one of the greatest architectural rehabilitation stories of Europe and deserves to be seen and appreciated if only for that.
In 1944, after five years of occupation and repression, what remained of the city's population attacked the Nazi oppressors in the Warsaw Uprising. Hitler responded by decreeing that the city be destroyed. Under the gaze of Russian soldiers advancing from the other side of the Vistula river, 85 per cent of this city, renowned for its baroque elegance, was razed.
It took 10 years to rebuild the city. Where possible, the original materials were repaired and put back in place, brick by brick. The Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasto) and the pretty 17th and 18th-century streets running off it are a reconstruction of the pastel original. Elsewhere, you can pop into gothic-style churches, all of them similarly lovingly restored and well attended by the locals.
The Warsaw Historical Museum, on the north side of the Square, is a must. It contains floor upon floor of Warsaw's grand past proudly displayed in oil paintings and artefacts, a paean to Polish nationalism through the centuries.
Perhaps most interesting are the sections on wartime Warsaw, containing photos after its destruction. There is also a small exhibit documenting the fate of the city's Jews, who comprised a third of its population: the stripping of their rights, their forced ghettoisation, the ghetto uprising in 1943 and their fate.
Krakow is a different story. It is the Polish Prague, the national jewel in the crown. Untouched by the war, Krakow has been a favoured dwelling place in the region since prehistoric times and for centuries, the intellectual and cultural hub of the nation, thanks to the Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364.
The town is overlooked by the 500-year-old Wawel Castle, home to Polish monarchs (and Nazi occupiers) and source of immense national pride. The castle is vast; the most interesting aspect, apart from the palazzo exterior, is the art collections in the state rooms. These include Flemish tapestries, a Durer frieze and an exquisite Oriental art exhibition.
If you venture south of Wawel Castle, you will come to the Kazimierz district, which was the largest Jewish city in Europe from 1495 until the Nazis murdered the inhabitants in Auschwitz and Plaszow. It is an almost unbearably poignant ghost town, full of remnants of a people whose absence is evident wherever you look. Many synagogues were left as they were, looted and then locked up. Two of them have been renovated with money from American Jewish organisations and stand as memorials, museums of a dead culture.
Look at the doorpost of every building and you will see the indentations of where there had once been Mezuzot, the fragments of Jewish scrolls that religious law says must mark the outside of the Jewish home.
Of a pre-war population of three million, there are now about 3,000 Jews left in Poland. Apart from a few memorials, the only way you would know about their past existence is by the Hasidic puppets sold in every shop, featuring large hooked noses and big, sad eyes. These ugly dolls, two new "Jewish" restaurants in Kazimierz (one Jewish and one not) and the many references to "Jewish style" fish in the restaurants of the cities are what remains of what was the most populous and vibrant Jewish community in Europe.