Swan Song

Wawel castle and cathedral: 'Like visiting Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey rolled into one', the guide book said. I generally dislike seeing how the privileged live and I’ve never visited Buckingham Palace, but Wawel Castle state rooms, home to Polish kings from the 14th century, were fascinating, decorated with tapestries, tiled stoves, furniture and paintings from all over Europe. Truly the rich have always had rich pickings. I played the game of trying to find one thing in each room that I'd be prepared to give houseroom (assuming I had enough space, which of course I haven't) and there was very little. Even so, the craft and skill was impressive - marquetry, sculpture, friezes, carpets... and I had never seen whole rooms lined with tooled gilt leather (cordovan) before.

The exhibition about restoring the palace after the Austrian occupiers had turned it into a barracks was illuminating - a real work of love and national pride. The destruction wreaked on Poland by its occupiers and invaders is a sore and recurrent theme, but I notice that King Kazimierz (14th century) is called ‘The Great' in part because he extended Poland's territory. A slight disconnect.

The cathedral was far too full of gold for my taste (what would the money-lenders have made of Christianity 1,600 years after Jesus overturned their tables in the temple?) but the climb up the tower's steep, narrow wooden stairs to see a vast bell and a great view appealed.

The cathedral museum contained clothing of kings and archbishops that I didn't think was possible: on the back of regal cloaks were small bas-reliefs, made of wood then covered in silvery fabric embroidered with gold thread and tiny pearls. Astonishing, on every level.

Today is my last day in Poland and fittingly, there has been rain - to the pleasure of this busking violinist when a hundred of us sheltered under the bridge where he was playing - and I have been wandering new (extra of a block of flats I enjoyed) and familiar streets, bidding this place farewell.

When I planned this trip I wanted to fit two days in Gdansk between Warsaw and Krakow but Son's timings meant that that wouldn't work. I thought seven days in Krakow would be too long but it hasn't been. I've loved this beautiful, confident, lively city beyond anything I expected. I also enjoyed Warsaw much more than I expected. The implication, I realise, is that my expectations of Poland were lower than they should have been. I've been wondering why and think that, subliminally, I assumed that over 900,000 Poles living in the UK must mean something wasn't working here. If that's so, I haven't seen what it is. Culture, infrastructure, employment, food - all are excellent. I wouldn't want their racist government, but then I'm not that keen on ours either.

Black and white in colour 186

A surreal second extra, spotted as I left the flat this morning.

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