I’m back in Europe. First up on my autumn research swing: Poland, where I’m updating my Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook.
That first day in Europe is always a weary slog. After checking into my hotel and showering, I fight the urge to sleep for the first time in 20 hours. Instead, I go wandering around Kraków. I’m seeking that elusive “Hey, I’m in Europe!” epiphany…that moment that makes the long journey worthwhile.
I quickly discover that, today, the entire city is one big “Hey, I’m in Europe!” On this hot, sunny, early-September weekend, everybody is out enjoying the last hurrah of summer.
Bleary-eyed, I stumble a few blocks over to the Main Market Square — my vote for the best square in Europe. It’s always full of life, but today the bustle is cranked up to 11.
The twin towers of St. Mary’s Church seem to be smiling in the sunshine. One of the windows at the top of the crowned, taller tower opens, and the sun glints off the shiny brass bell of a bugle. The trumpeter begins to play a tune called the hejnał that, if you’ve been to Kraków, you’re probably humming right now.
This song is played at the top of each hour to commemorate the town watchman who, back in the 13th century, sounded the alarm when he spotted Tatar invaders approaching town. (According to legend, before he could finish, an arrow pierced his throat — which is why, even today, the hejnał stops subito partway through.) Like the iconic clanging of London’s Big Ben, this tune is synonymous with its city — and makes it unmistakably clear where I’ve arrived.
The hejnał stops with a jolt, and life on the square goes on. The flower vendors are particularly busy, with couples and kids buying bouquets for their loved ones. The outdoor café tables are jammed. And little kids are having the time of their lives chasing gigantic gossamer soap bubbles.
The Main Market Square is a magnet. I just can’t resist its pull. I keep trying to veer off — heading up this or that side street to check details for my book. But the siren call of the square (and the hejnał) keeps luring me back.
I return in the cool of the evening, under a hazy pink-and-purple sky. It’s romantic twilight, and pristine white Cinderella horse carriages line up in front of St. Mary’s Church. Bright lights under their running boards flicker on — attracting customers like a bug zapper. A young mom brings her curious toddler over to pet the horse.
Doing a few more laps around the square, I spot all of my favorite landmarks. The old, green hand pumps, still used by the flower vendors under their yellow tents. The big donation box. The little old ladies who sit behind their blue, aquarium-like stands, filled with fresh-baked dough rings called obwarzanki. And of course, travelers having the time of their lives — treating Europe’s grandest square as their own, very spacious living room.
As usual, there’s plenty of live music. A ragtag and unlikely trio — guitar, trumpet, trombone — entertains passersby.
But one thing’s missing. One time on an early visit to this square, back in the early 2000s, I heard clapping to the beat of a tinny boombox. Following the sound, I spotted a half-dozen pre-teens breakdancing on a big piece of cardboard. I mean, full-on, 1984, Electric Boogaloo breakdancing. They could barely hold a handstand for more than a second…but they were determined. There was something so hopelessly unhip, so disarmingly corny about it all. They charmed me so much that I even mentioned them in my guidebook.
With each visit, at some point I’d pass those breakdancers, busking for tips. They became a Kraków fixture, right up there with St. Mary’s and the hejnał. But on this trip, making my final pass through the square, I’m feeling nostalgic and thinking that surely those guys have moved on by now. They must have real jobs, families, obligations…and happy memories of breakdancing on the Main Market Square.
But then, from across the square, I hear Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” start to play. A crowd is gathering. Could it be? Making my way over, double time, I see — sure enough — those same kids, all growed up, executing flawless windmills and hand glides and headspins under St. Mary’s towers. Their sound system is better. They don’t need the cardboard. They’re now ripped, bearded, and balding. But it’s definitely them. They’ve persevered after all…in spite of the odds, they created their own niche, and filled it. (Millennials…)
Tossing a few coins into the hat, I smile and head back to my hotel. It’s been a long day — or two, actually — since I got on that plane in Seattle. But I’ve made it back to Europe. And here in historic Kraków, some things never change.