Krakow is a city with a truly Mediterranean café culture (or, to put it more historically, Viennese). Life here moves to the rhythm of a “small black coffee” both when the weather and moods are right for socialising and when we get into a “mood nobody to sit around”, to quote a song by the Cracovian poet and leader of the band “Świetliki”, Marcin Świetlicki. It’s best to experience this culture for yourself – and choose a good stop on your city walking tour!
“This nasty drink”
The first European coffee houses were said to have sprung up just after King John III Sobieski won a victory over the Turks at Vienna and acquired a fair amount of aromatic beans in Kara Mustafa’s camp. And although coffee is one of the countless inventions and customs that came to Europe from the Middle East, at the first moment it did not get the popularity that it has today. For a long time, the dark beverage was regarded as a “pagan” drink, a sentiment perhaps most eloquently expressed in the Baroque poet Jan Andrzej Morsztyn’s work Niech napój ten wredny / Nigdy chrześcijańskiej / Nie splugawi gęby (Let this nasty drink / Never defile a Christian face).
The first café in Kraków was established in the early 1870s on the first floor of a tenement house at 31 Market Square. The owner of this “kafehauz” (as cafés were called in German in those days), Marianna Sędrakowska, personally served coffee to guests, charging 3 groschen. The speciality of the establishment was the so-called “Polish-style” coffee, i.e. “thick” coffee with a thick tang, and three tin spoons were attached to each table on chains.
The real heyday of café life, however, did not come until the time of Austrian rule over the city in the 19th century. At that time, the mother of the eminent comedy writer Michał Bałucki, Maria, opened a café in the house “Pod Aniołkiem” at ul. Floriańska 11, and the first successful coffee business was conducted by confectioners. Inspired by the culture of Vienna, Reman’s café in the Sukiennice was established in 1879 and went down in history thanks to the name of its second owner, Jan Noworolski, as the popular “U Noworola” café, which still exists today. This is the route by which well-known local baked goods, such as aromatic apple strudel or chocolate pischinger cake, were brought to Krakow.
On the trail of artistic bohemia
The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was marked by artistic cafés. The Paon (Under the Peacock) Café at ul. Szpitalna 38, associated with the literary and artistic movement of the Young Poland movement, was home to some of the most colourful and creative personalities. They included the scandalous writer Stanisław Przybyszewski, painters and artists of the Symbolist era, Jacek Malczewski and Jan Stanisławski, and those more closely associated with the Art Nouveau movement, Stanisław Wyspiański and Włodzimierz Tetmajer. In the main room there was a large canvas filled with drawings, paintings and notes by the pub’s regulars – a unique memorial book of the era. It even featured inscriptions in Sanskrit, reflecting the widespread fascination with the Orient at the time.
In 1901, the owner of Paon, Ferdynand Turliński, went bankrupt and the bohemians moved to 45 Floriańska Street to the Jama Michalika café. This is where, a few years later, the Zielony Balonik (Green Balloon) cabaret began its activities – a kind of hyde park of the Young Poland movement, where everyone had the right to perform their text or song in front of an audience (and be applauded or booed for it). The café, which still exists today, deserves a visit – the interiors have preserved original furniture, paintings or frescoes which at one time provoked the indignation of the Archbishop of Krakow himself. And also, for the sake of balance – an authentic Cracovian nativity scene! Today’s “Jama” regularly hosts recitals and author meetings.
A hot spot on the inter-war map of Krakow’s cafes was the Esplanade (later “Cristal”) at the junction of Krupnicza and Podwale streets. The small side room called the “Nutmeg” was the favourite of futurists and avant-garde poets. It was there that the uncompromising poems and disruptive writings of Bruno Jasieński, Tytus Czyżewski and Anatol Stern were created, and the mathematical concepts of Leon Chwistek were born. Artists also met at Sauer’s, in today’s Journalists’ Club “Pod Gruszką” – the venue for the literary evenings of the Library of Krakow.
A haven for post-war culture
Post-war Krakow – one of the few (apart from Poznań) large Polish cities to have survived the destruction of war – became a haven for people of culture in a ruined country. In the famous Writers’ House on Krupnicza Street (the seat of the Polish Writers’ Union), hundreds of top-ranking Polish writers and poets, with Nobel Prize winners Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz at the forefront, lived or frequented in the space of a few hundred square metres. The young Stanisław Lem came by train from Lwów, and the magazines Tygodnik Powszechny and Przekrój were founded – two beacons of the Polish intelligentsia in the gloomy communist times. Cafés followed this ferment.
In 1956, shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin and a slight loosening of the political grip, which went down in history as the “Thaw”, Piotr Skrzynecki founded a cabaret in the cellar of the Pod Baranami tenement house at 27 Market Square. The charismatic leader of the Piwnica Pod Baranami integrated a community of poets and singers who disarmed the absurdities of the system with satire, creating a micro-space of internal emigration. The Piwnica Pod Baranami gave fuel to poetic song, which like few other musical traditions is still associated with Krakow today. Such figures of Polish song as Ewa Demarczyk, Marek Grechuta or Grzegorz Turnau, known for his song about the rain on nearby Bracka street, took their first steps on stage there.
Above the cellar, on the level of the Main Market Square, there is the popular Vis-à-Vis café – an informal office of the cabaret with characteristic long tables simply made for long sitting. Cracovians affectionately called it “Zwis” (“The Overhang”). One of its eternal (literally and figuratively) customers is… Piotr Skrzynecki, whose life-size statue occupies a table in front of the café. Caring bartenders regularly replace the flowers he holds in his hand.
On the other side of the Market Square, at number 8, the Pod Jaszczurami student club opened its doors in 1960, known as a meeting place for the committed, academic community and an extremely active concert stage where artists such as the bands Raz Dwa Trzy, Jarosław Śmietana, Andrzej Zaucha, Zbigniew Wodecki and Andrzej Sikorowski performed.
Also in the late 1950s, the Rio coffee bar began operating at ul. Św. Jana 2, with its characteristic orange and black signboard and designer interior designed by Leopold Pędziałek. The theatre visionary Tadeusz Kantor and the great Polish singer of the second half of the 20th century, Kora Jackowska, used to meet here over a cup of “black”. Recently, the pub has changed owners and undergone renovation, but it has retained its décor and character, remaining a fixed point on the route of everyday walks for many Cracovians.
Transformation – towards Kazimierz
Already after the collapse of the centrally controlled economy, the café scene in Krakow moved to the former Jewish district of Kazimierz, which had been neglected for years. In the 1990s, clubs were established around Plac Nowy, which started a trend for this part of the city that continues to this day – Singer (ul. Estery 20), known for its tables made of old sewing machines, the music club Alchemia (ul. Estery 5), and Mleczarnia (ul. Meiselsa 20), which occupies the courtyard where the film Schindler’s List was shot. Bathed in twilight, filled with antiques and trinkets, the spaces with creaking chairs, lace tablecloths and candles on the tables have become some of the symbols of Krakow.
In the wake of café life, Kazimierz’s cellars have been filled with the sounds of music. The Alchemy cellar is a permanent concert venue, known both for avant-garde jazz by Tomasz Stanko and for folk explorations, the most memorable of which was perhaps the explosion in popularity of klezmer music in the 1990s.
On both coasts
The renaissance of Kazimierz was matched by analogous transformations taking place in the Old Town. A café that Cracovians have been particularly fond of since then is Nowa Prowincja (ul. Bracka 3-5), run for a long time by the singer Grzegorz Turnau and his wife. Wisława Szymborska used to meet friends there. A completely new environment for the development of café culture was also created in 2010 with the Bernatka Footbridge over the Vistula, which brought new life to Mostowa Street and Podgórze on the opposite bank of the river. At the same time, the space of the modernist Forum Hotel was colonised by nightclubs and design artists, who rented their studios and shops there.
‘Talking Dog’ and cafés as living heritage
This will not (and cannot) be a complete overview of Krakow’s cafés with soul and tradition. History is written on an ongoing basis, cafés – like any element of intangible heritage – undergo dynamic transformations, changing addresses, alternately closing and opening.
Let’s conclude with one of the city’s most ‘arch’ places – the Piękny Pies bar (“The Beautiful Bog”), which has migrated several times between different locations to sit at 9 Plac Wolnica at the time of writing this text (2022). It was here that the spoken-word magazine Gadający Pies (“Speaking Dog”) was created over the years, with five-minute speeches by Krakow writers and writers: Marcin Baran, Marcin Sendecki, Krzysztof Varga, Gaja Grzegorzewska, Ryszard Krynicki and Kamil Sipowicz. In the best tradition of the café hyde park, many ideas were born here, which gave rise to other ideas.
As is already the case in cafés.
The text uses excerpts from Joanna Szulborska-Łukaszewicz’s study The First Café in Krakow (in Polish), based partially on Jan Adamczewski’s book Kraków od A do Z (Warsaw 1980).