Updated: Mar 23
I have never written a post about my adoptive home city of Kraków on this blog, and indeed I have generally overlooked it when it comes to writing other than occasional restaurant and gig reviews due to the sheer volume of stuff that is already out there on this city. I try to find less well-known places to highlight. But these are extraordinary times. And this article isn't designed to get you to come to this city. Not at the moment, at any rate. My love for this city has not waned - well not as much as for some I guess. But it's no longer the place it used to be. Since I moved here in 2002, Kraków has been transformed from a diamond in the rough - a beautiful but under-developed city with a lot of potential - to a city that rivals the likes of Prague, Barcelona and Berlin for tourist numbers. It surpassed 3 million visitors in a year for the first time in 2019, and as a resident here that is a double-edged sword. The growing wealth of the economy is reflected in infrastructure improvements, huge civil engineering projects and numerous face-lifts, renovations and improvements which have given the city a sheen and glossiness that simply didn't exist in the early years of the 21st century.
When I first arrived, the tourist facilities were so lacking that there wasn't even a hostel available in the city other than in a curfew-only Church-owned place charging 5 dollars a night. The facilities, well...they left a bit to be desired. Restaurants were limited to a few fancy white-table cloth joints around the Market Square, kebab shops, pizzerias, takeaways and milk bars. The pub scene was still in its infancy, and there were only a handful of places you could go for a more refined drink. In short, it was rough and ready. The 2004 accession to Europe changed all that - for good and bad. Suddenly there was a food revolution, cuisines from all over the world, craft ale and wine bars, well-known bands playing, facilities to rival any city. But property developers moved in, foreigners started coming en-masse with cheap airlines, rents and house prices rocketed and you couldn't walk across the main square without being accosted by an umbrella-wielding girl trying to entice you into a strip club.
As a long-term expat, these things detract bit by bit from the city you knew and first fell in love with. You put up with the changes maybe, but deep down, you don't like it. Don't like the commercialization. Don't like the crowds of drunk foreigners embarrassing themselves yet being treated invariably politely and kindly by the Polish bar girls, waiters and hoteliers. Especially don't like the steep prices of flats and houses that were driven up by a rampant market, even in the wake of the 2008 crisis, which barely seemed to register. Kraków, it must be said, was in a 15 year bubble.
And then Covid 19 happened. One week ago, in response to the virus, the government abruptly stopped all flights into and out of the country, put up the borders, closed pubs, restaurants and all places of entertainment and told people to stay at home if possible. For two weeks, it was said. But we all know it will be a lot longer. Months, if we are being realistic. The main wave is yet to hit the country, and Kraków itself, perhaps surprisingly for a tourist city of its size (about one million) has only had about 25 cases and no deaths so far. Not much, you might say, and you'd be right. But Poland has acted swiftly, brutally even. Certainly, if you were one of the many residents reliant on tourists in some way for your income, these past few days have been incredibly stressful. The buoyant short-term rent market, mostly advertised through Airbnb, has fallen through completely. As many as 50% of flats in the central Kraków area are now suddenly vacant, and owners are looking for long-term tenants just to stay afloat. Similarly, everyone in the entire hospitality and leisure industry is panicking and wondering how to pay their staff and stay open for business. Bar owners are unable to do anything except rely on government financial aid. Restaurants scramble to make their businesses work online through takeaways. The strongest online presence on the likes of Ubereats and Pyszne.pl will survive. The rest, well..
Though that is true for every city around the world, not every city relies so heavily as Kraków does on tourists for their prosperity. Combined with the large student population, who have also now mostly disappeared for who knows how long, the city will be hit hard by this crisis. How quickly it bounces back depends entirely on the virus of course. Today, the Czech Republic announced that they are considering keeping their borders closed to foreigners for two years. Consider that for a minute. The number of businesses that will go to the wall as a result of that is mind-boggling. Let's hope that is an over-estimation. However, we are in the realm of the unknown. The airline industry, in desperate need of bailing out, will never be the same again. Many will simply cease to do business, it's almost certain to say. No more cheap holidays? It's not beyond the realms of possibility. Meanwhile, all the outsourcing companies that came here on the wave of cheap labour and high profits might be doing their sums right now and weighing up rafts of redundancy packages. Thousands of Ukrainians, working in the Polish equivalent of the zero hour sector, will be out of jobs. The economy is in turmoil. The last twenty years of plenty will very likely not return. This is the brave new world, for better or worse. Still, at least we might have seen the last of those mankini-sporting Brits...
So far, the city is responding well to the crisis. People seem relatively calm and accepting of the situation, and there seems to be little of the rising panic and/or the blithe disregard of the virus that seem to be the default positions in the UK. Rather, the majority of people have looked at what is going on in Italy, and heeded government advice to stay in. No draconian measures needed. People, by and large, are respecting the social distancing advice, are not crowding in any popular areas and are not hoarding food (at least to the extent in the UK, where shelves are laid bare). Although I am generally loath to praise the right-wing, family-values government here, they have (so far) acted in a measured and sensible way, and the citizens seem to be responding to that. As things ratchet up in the next few weeks, that may all of course change. There is also another worry on the horizon. In Hungary, Victor Orban's
nationalist government submitted a draft law to parliament Friday (20 March) that would enable it to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time, citing the corona emergency.
How many other central and eastern European countries, already well on the road to hard-right regimes, will go down that route? Poland may not be far off. As the world looks on admiringly at China and the way they have efficiently dealt with the virus (we are to believe), is the democratic world going to lurch in the direction of hard-line authoritarianism? Time will tell.
For now, relative calm, and totally deserted streets in Kraków, the like of which has has probably not been seen since the days of martial law in 1981-83. Wandering the empty square and surrounding cobbled roads of the city this sunny, chilly March Sunday afternoon - normally thronging with people by now - was eerie and perplexing, but at the same time quite uplifting: people are doing the right thing - despite it being the hardest thing to do. In a way, Kraków is fortunate - the city has been so thoroughly taken over by tourists that when they disappear, the city naturally becomes empty, at least in the centre. Social distancing here is actually easy. My flat in central Kazimierz might as well be in a remote village. Cabin fever will grip this city like everywhere else before long, if not the actual fever people are desperate to avoid. Let's hope the vast majority overcome both. Social distancing, hand-washing and vigilance are key. Responsibility is paramount. It's not going to be easy. One way or another, there will be casualties along the way.
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