It is always nice to take a few pretty memory pieces home from vacation, but let’s be honest – at some point you have more shot glasses than event to drink, your shelfs are overflowing with frippery and you were anyways never really into fridge magnets. Especially during short tourist trips it can be difficult to escape your typical touristy corner store and quicker than you realize you’re – again – bringing home kitschy stuff. But there is an alternative. Everybody can point the way towards a more consumption-cautious way and simply don’t buy anything – or you could instead shop practical, pretty and remarkable things for your loved ones at home or yourself. Especially Krakow has much more to offer than amber jewels, dragon toys and carved wooden boxes. In those picturesque alleys in Krakow’s old town and the Jewish quarter Kazimierz you will find much Polish tradition and culture to “take away” without being unnaturally preserved for tourist’s demands.
For fashionistas: Polish Design
Until its hard-earned independence in 1918 Poland had been invisible on European maps, because the country had been partitioned between Prussia (Germany), Russia and the Austrian-Hungarian empire. But that does not mean that the Poles without country were lacking patriotic creativity – the opposite is true. Polish culture was kept alive in the underground. The hotspot of Polish art and culture was to be found in Krakow, the freest and most independent city in the occupied territory. Here, between medieval walls, artists brought together Polish tradition with modern design to express their patriotic feelings and the desire for freedom. Already in 1901, hence 17 years before the Polish independence, the “Society for Polish Applied Arts” had been found and design lovers will find much to appreciate throughout the city. Interior design, prints and carpets are to be admired in the museums and spread out in the city you can find artsy handrails, futuristic church windows or modern stucco decorations. As with many different aspects of Polish culture and history, war destruction, occupation, scarcity and communism dominate the European perception of Poland today. The country is not associated with world class design. But slowly, this is changing. With the speedy improvement of the general standard of living more (young) people in Poland decide (again) for a life with the arts. Polish design takes over the flats and closets of fashionistas. Many artists continue with the line of former designers and connect elements of Polish tradition with modern cuts and patterns of the 20th century. Interested? The “Forum Designu” (Focha 1) is the greatest showroom for contemporary Polish Design in Krakow. From enamel pins, flower pots, socks or bedsheets to interior design and whole bathrooms this place will fulfil all your design dreams.
For Creative Minds: Fabrics
For all those who rather craft than buy (their wardrobe) Krakow has much to offer. Unlike Germany, retail trade is still big and vivid and in many yards, side alleys or in unremarkable corner stores creative souls will find the most fantastic arts, crafts and haberdashery stores (I admit – many are rather frequented by older generations and I could often see the spark in the eyes of my local yarn store when I bought a pack of needles and did not ask to buy just a single for a few groszy). In the jungle of the creative world, it is easiest to buy Polish “art” in fabric stores. Folklore plays a different role in everyday Poland than in Germany. The Bavarians might have their dirndl, but the variety of traditional (floral) patterns in the day to day Cracovian life exceeds the Wine and Beer Festival Fashion easily. In the 19th and 20th century the Polish people without Polish lands searched for various ways of group identification and part of this identifying factor was traditional clothing. Careful embroidery, woven stripes as well as the today most commonly spotted printed florals are elements of these designs. I am truly not an expert for Polish design, so please correct me if I am mistaken to say that the Cracovian garbs – again because Krakow used to be the freest city of Poland – became the national costume and a symbol for the fight for liberation. Part of these garbs are colourful, cheerfully imprinted flower skirts. The fabric for those – and other folkloristic designs – are easily available for purchase in cotton, rayon or other fibres in my favourite fabric store („Madec“, ul. Świętego Filipa 7) and I think the designs are perfect for sewn bags, little gifts or of course happy summer dresses.
For cooks and kitchen people: Dishes with a traditional touch
Out of all the things on this list it is easiest to accidently stumble across “Boleslawiec Ceramics”, but as a big fan I would like to mention it here. With the growing culture tourism (as compared to the still popular party tourism) the souvenir trade in Krakow has grown speedily. By now, most streets in the old town are sprinkled with souvenir shops. A visitor’s favourite is the Boleslawiec ceramics, dishes from lower Silesia. Already in the 16th century, the town Boleslawiec – formerly Bunzlau – had been a production site for everyday ceramics which were exported to many corners of Europe up until the end of the 2nd World War. It is characterized not only by its quality, but also hand painted designs, both florals and more geometric designs. Considering its quality and the elaborate production the dishes are priced very fairly. I personally testify their resilience: I can easily take our pie-pan from the fridge into the (preheated oven) and afterwards into the dishwasher without any harm to the ceramics. While taking pictures for this blog article I however realized that not all ceramics sold in Krakow is produced originally in Boleslawiec – a quick check on the bottom of the piece should reveal a ”Boleslawiec” stamp. Definitely only originals – and in my opinion the nicest selection – are sold in the store “kobalt” (Grodzka 30).
For book worms: Central and Eastern European Literature
I am a book lover and think that a bookshelf can’t ever be too packed (and anyways books are easy to pass on to friends or Little Share Libraries). A country – that is my opinion – can be wonderfully discovered through the eyes of national authors; a mentality and history get new meaning by the stories told in fiction. In Krakow many bookstores invite to stay and roam with a coffeeshop included. A growing stock of English (translated) books is constantly added to the repertoire. Its worthy (anyways) to wander with open eyes through the city. A student’s favourite is the American bookstore/ coffeeshop “Massolit” (Felicjanek 4) where new and second hand books – fiction and non-fiction –as well as intriguing events and tasty (vegan) snacks are offered. In here I found many different Central and Eastern European authors who are given their own shelfs in one corner of the front store, as well as translations of Polish works. Famously known, Polish author Olga Tokarczuk has been awared the noble price on literature this year – you must be into her descriptive style of writing, but if you do – this is where you’d find her in English. Regardless of any book purchase a visit in the comfortable coffee shop is worthy the trip.
For the (inner) child: Children books
In the past years, Poland has made negative headlines in European papers and the re-election of homophobic, chauvinist and ideologically right politicians in the recent election does not help to change this reputation abroad. The more surprising it might appear that the market for progressive, creative and open-minded children books is experiencing a boom in recent years. Illustrators from Poland win one price after the other and their works are being translated to a variety of languages. I am especially fascinated by different non-fiction books which explain children the world in a beautiful, artsy way. Started with the (non-Polish) book project “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” and the following global boom in feminist children literature, Polish illustrators have taken on biographies of power women. Map collections about extinct animals and picture stories about the industrialization and modern life bring the climate crisis closer to children’s minds. And without stereotypes or prejudice manage other books to take the curious reader into the world of legends and truth. I for my part could go book shopping every day. My nieces and nephews are thankful recipients of my gifts from Poland (or the local bookstore in my hometown for translations). My favourite spot to discover new publications is the “Ksiazkoteka” (Rajska 3).
For Art lovers: Polish Poster Art
It should be clear by now: Poland and Art – that belongs together. Art enabled many generations of Poles to express themselves in a constricted and oppressed atmosphere and to keep a patriotic sense of belonging alive. Particular tradition has the poster art. For me, walking today through Krakow, theater posters are fascinating. I like to pause in front of one of many advertising columns in Krakow which are frequently used to announce events, exhibitions or shows. They often feature artsy theatre posters. The teaser for the show is already a pleasure. Poster art was in fact a meaningful channel of expression during communism in Poland. The globally successful artists of the “Polish School of Poster Art” managed to, despite the oppression by the Communist regime, produce humoristic, ironic and individualistic art posters which were used as advertisement for all kinds of happenings and products (if less). Other than the stereotype would suggest, those posters did not sport worker heroes or happy farmers representing the Soviet ideal society. Instead, during a travelling exhibition in Western Europe during the 1950s, Polish artists brought abstract shapes and gaudy colours to the other side of the iron curtain. Today, brands rather make use of façade covering bill boards to advertise their products with half naked models and the nation’s favourite football players, but the theatres of the city stick to the poster art. Besides, art galleries and museums preserve the history. The Dydo Poster Gallery (Focha 1, closed on Mondays) for example invites for changing exhibitions and a wide selection of prints for purchase. A small selection of posters, but many different postcards and historic photographies are to be found at Galeria LueLue (Miodowa 22) in Kazimierz. I am a big fan of the Poland series of the late graphic artist Ryszard Kaja who has charmingly caught the essence of Polish
I hope I was able to inspire you to a nice and special souvenir which gives you a piece of the extraordinary Polish culture and history home and doesn’t run danger to be unnecessary trash. And if all the above doesn’t work for you – there will always be the Polish vodka and chocolate-covered plums.
More information on Polish art and design can be found here: www.culture.pl