30 Jul 2017 16:36 IST

Bedazzled in Old Town

Pristinely-preserved past is Krakow’s big draw, but the glow of its amber outshines the rest

The 700-year-old Sukiennice at Rynek Glowny, the main square in Krakow, Poland, was once a medieval textile trading hub. Shops flanking the long arcade of this elegant Gothic building are now packed with souvenir shops. I halted at the one where a mellow light was filtering through every displayed object and creating a wispy hue. As it turned out, it was the hue of amber. Dulcet and dewy. Almost fairylike.

The bespectacled owner behind the counter chuckled at my dazed expression, “I see that look on most visitors. By the time they reach my shop they’ve seen plenty of ‘I love Krakow’ tees, armies of dolls, lots of lace, wood-carving and ceramics. They are dazzled by amber,” she said. The shop indeed had a lot to offer. Sitting cheek by jowl were lampshades, delicate cutlery, boxes and paperweights, keychains, and loads of trinkets and charms. Each had a hint of amber or were carved out of the precious resin entirely. The owner held a luminous amber pendant against the light and exclaimed, “This little piece has undertaken a long journey. The beautiful Baltic amber must have passed many a hand as it travelled down the Amber Road,” she said.

I was familiar with the Silk Road, the Hindustan-Tibet Road and the Incense Road — all ancient trading routes. The Amber Road, however, was unfamiliar territory. As I stood chatting with the silver-haired Pole, a narrative emerged as maps were fished out and routes retraced. Amber has been big business in Eastern Europe for centuries and trading corridors emerged from its two major sources — the Baltic Sea and the North Sea coast.

The owner relished trivia and had much to say about the superior Baltic amber, a prized, almost revered commodity which the Greeks used as medicine, Romans for jewellery, Egyptians for armour, Chinese in objects d’art, and the Prussians for building palace chambers. “Poland was so busy sending it all over the world that we were content with the hand-me-down rings and pendants of our babcia (grandmother)!” she jested. Amber, we decided, would possibly have reached India through the Silk Route, bartered for spices, brocade or gold. “Amber and salt, which we had in abundance, was as good as gold for us. In fact, it’s poetically called Gold of the Baltic,” she explained.

Unlike precious stones which are found in the rock state, amber is fossilised tree resin and is an organic gemstone much like coral and pearl. To my untrained eye, several of those pieces appeared commonplace, but were actually high-grade jewels boasting supreme clarity. Some, embedded as they were with fossilised insects, took my breath away. Such exotic pieces had made amber worthy of kings and a key agent that filled up the treasury of medieval kingdoms.

Various sea and overland passages were sketched to transport amber. The Romans used the Amber Road, which began at the Baltic coast, ran up the mountains, down the valleys and over corduroy roads and culminated at the Adriatic Sea. It cut across Poland and bits of it are still found here. The ancient path gets a modern makeover with Autostrada A1, officially called AmberOne, an under-construction expressway that nearly traces that route. This north-south corridor runs through central Poland, beginning at Rusocin, near Gdansk on the Baltic Sea and winding up at Gorzyczki, the Polish-Czech border, where it meets the Czech highway D1. The highway is about an hour from Krakow, but the ancient route is believed to have been closer to the town, thus making it prosperous.

I had arrived in Krakow or Cracow after reading closely about its well-preserved 12th-century Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The site was expectedly atmospheric. Its nucleus, the imposing Rynek Glowny — the biggest medieval market square in all Europe — made a pretty picture with immaculate buildings, outdoor cafes, artists working in the promenades, buzzing restaurants and touristy horse-carriages. The 14th-century Gothic-style St Mary’s Basilica, and the Sukiennice, also called Cloth Hall, are its remarkable landmarks. Footing around Old Town, I was impressed by the exactness of its restoration and the extent of preservation. Almost all public places — avant-garde brand-stores, restaurants or museums — had uber-contemporary interiors, but the exposed brick-work on its walls conveyed the passage of time brilliantly. The past and present juxtaposed seamlessly adding to the character of Krakow.

A little away from Old Town is Kazimierz, the district where the city’s rich Jewish culture is carefully preserved. During World War II, after the invasion of Poland, Jews of the city were forced into a walled zone from where they were eventually sent to concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Steven Spielberg shot a section of Schindler’s List at Kazimierz in 1993.

I was staying on Ulica Florianska, Old Town’s lively high street known for its boutiques, pubs, and carts of obwarzanek, the Krakow bagel. The street also had glass-fronted jewellery shops claiming to sell ‘Original amber with certificate’. Tempted, I had walked into one only to retreat hastily, empty- handed. “Once upon a time people would say, ‘Ah, you bought amber’. Now they say, ‘Oh my! You bought amber!’ That’s how expensive Poland’s most popular souvenir has become,” my guide said in an attempt at consolation. However, I did bring back something priceless from Krakow — the knowledge of a prehistoric trading route.

Travel log

Getting there

Krakow is well-connected and all major airlines fly into town.


Hotel Pod Roza, an elegant heritage property in Old Town


Visit Stary Kleparz farmers market for artisanal cheese, lavender and freshly-steamed pierogi (dumplings stuffed with potato or cheese)

(Brinda Suri is an independent journalist. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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