Picture the scene: you’re with your girlfriend, relaxing in the Main Square on a sunny Saturday, enjoying some fine Balkan folk singing and dancing, each performer striving to achieve perfect harmony and synchronicity with his/her partner. Then, in the corner of your eye you glimpse something most inharmonious: riot police, visors down and tails up, shuffling around the back of the Sukiennice. Curious, you decide to follow them. And, before you know it, you’re taking part in Krakow’s annual March For Tolerance. And to think I only went out for a coffee…
It was my first “gay march” and I felt conflicting emotions. Pride at standing up for tolerance and the right of everyone to lead their own lives, free from fear and persecution. But also distinct apprehension: we were tightly ringed by scores of scary-looking riot police whose militaristic get-up was perfectly matched by the aggressive manners and chanting of the far-right boot-boys. These self-appointed guardians of “Polish values” were baying for the marchers’ blood only metres away from bewildered tourists. Knuckled fists were raised and primeval, guttural noises were spat out of angry throats. We banged our drums, waved our rainbow flags, danced and, most importantly, were there. A little later, honour satisfied, the gathering broke up peacefully and my friend and I caught a beer, gawping (from a safe distance) at the fascists.
It was a strange sight to see both neo-Nazis (sporting the fascist organisation Combat 18 t-shirts) and riot police on the streets of my adopted Krakow, city of culture and learning. But after four years, I’m getting used to this annual face-off. At least the march is allowed now (they have been banned in Poland from time to time, always on spurious grounds) and it must be said that the police do a good – although slightly heavy-handed – job of keeping the peace. I only saw one “incident”: a well-dressed middle-aged Polish “gentleman” decided to throw a plastic plant pot (complete with a flower – oh, the irony!) at us. Before you could say “strong-arm tactics,” a policeman broke ranks, rushed over and had granddad pinned up against a kebab stall. I caught his eye, smiled and blew the old git a sarcastic kiss as we marched merrily past. Here’s to next year’s march!
On to things less controversial …
Saturday 20th June (Midsummer’s Day) sees the annual party called Wianki. It’s big, loud and heaps of fun. The main event is a free open-air music concert (Lenny Kravitz this year, no less) by the river Vistula at the foot of Wawel, followed by some spectacular fireworks. More sedately, you will have the chance to observe some ancient pagan traditions during the day.
Dating back to Pagan times, Wianki (meaning “wreaths”) celebrates all the usual midsummer themes of life, renewal and, er, virginity. Unsurprisingly, it was rebranded “Noc Świętojańska” (St. John’s Night) by the early Church, which, no doubt, toned down some of the more earthy practices such as young lovers consummating their love in nearby woods. However, some elements have remained, such as jumping over the huge ceremonial bonfires (sobótka), which are lit along the riverbank and, of course, young women casting their wreaths upon the river.
Traditionally, Polish girls wear wreaths of flowers and throw them into the river. According to folklore, if the wreath comes back to shore, the girl will never marry, if it sinks, she will die young and if it flows down the river, she will be married. Oh, if only modern dating was so easy! Fortunately for all, the Vistula is a fast-flowing river and, traditionally, most girls went away happy.
Back in the 16th century, Jan Kochanowski wrote the following description of Wianki traditions and beliefs:
“In Poland the Eve of St. John’s is fraught with miracles and magic. Animals talk to each other with human voices. The earth shows the enchanted riches… plants take on magical properties… Wreaths to which are fixed lighted candles are cast in the waters… From the course and fate of the wreaths auguries of marriage are made. The special promise of St. John is youth, love and general fertility.”
(I wish I’d read that last line years ago. It would have made a cracking chat-up line)
It’s almost impossible not to get caught up in it all: my advice is simply to allow the crowds to gently sweep you towards the river, the lights and the sounds of one of the biggest nights in Krakow’s diary.
Oh, and just because you’re sitting in the middle of the biggest open-air event of the year doesn’t mean you’re legally free to drink alcohol. Take a tip from the locals: buy a bottle of coke, top it up with vodka and let some other dozy ex-pat get fined 200 złoty for open-air drinking!
Selected pieces by John Marshall may be found at http://krakowjohnradio.blogspot.com