This is the elegant, Italianate Cloth Hall in the centre of the magnificent main square of Krakow in Poland. The city deservedly has a reputation for being beautiful. I have just spent a few days there and can confirm that this is the case. The city is also very friendly with lots of thriving young enterprises and a rich musical and cultural life. It has existed for around 1,000 years and in that time has experienced many changes of fortune. Like all of Eastern Europe it has been very unfortunate in its choice of neighbours. Throughout its history it has suffered the arrogant, expansionist attentions of Austria, Prussia, Nazi Germany and Russia. before that they had to deal with the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks. For some 150 years the country simply disappeared from the map only to rediscover its identity at the end of The First World War. That, of course was simply a precursor for some of the most horrific events of all human history at the hands of Nazis and Bolsheviks.
One evening we went to a concert of Chopin piano music in an elegant small palace off the main square. The very fine pianist Bartlomiej Kominek played an array of the intricately beautiful piano pieces of his countryman. It reminded me that one of the first Chopin piano pieces I ever heard was the spellbinding Revolutionary Etude (etude no. 12 in C minor) which the great composer, then resident in Paris, composed to express his rage at the brutal repression in 1831 of Warsaw by the Russians.
In the modern city it is impossible entirely to escape the dark history of these events and a visit to the Jewish Kazimierz district brings back the Nazi attempt (almost successful) to exterminate the entire Jewish race. Sometimes the Nazis like modern Islamic State, like the perpetrators of the appalling Stalinist purges are referred to as `animals` but what they did was very much worse than anything any animals have ever done. It is therefore inspiring to see the free and recovering country foster business, education and liberty. One of the many beautiful cafes is Soprano`s near the Collegium Maius, a tribute to the survival and revival of beauty and style.
Another is in the Jewish district itself, near some of the events depicted in the Spielberg film, `Schindler`s List`. It is a Jewish cafe and civic centre. It had a warm, welcoming atmosphere along with excellent produce. Books lined the walls and people sat playing games, chatting, eating or drinking in beautiful surroundings.
Ironically, the most moving scene of our visit was a McDonald`s restaurant beside the Florian gate. This was the first western, private enterprise business to open after the collapse of communism in 1989. People queued for hours in their best clothes to visit this with more reverence than any shrine in any church because it symbolised the return of freedom to Poland. Personally I am not very fond of McDonald`s restaurants and would far rather eat and drink in the others I have mentioned but I too felt reverence for the place.
Perhaps more than anywhere else I have ever visited this underlined for me the vital importance of democracy, of ensuring that power is never again solely in the hands of one faction or party or individual. Those in comfortable democracies like the severely misguided Russell Brand in Britain do not understand the world at all when telling people not to vote. All democracies, like all human systems, are imperfect, but the citizens of Krakow can tell you how vital the democratic system is. It is also vital that we do everything we can to ensure our democracies aim for the highest standards of civilised behaviour. I also reflected on the very sad rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe. The ignorance and stupidity underlying such attitudes is very dangerous.
More about my books and writing can be found on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk. My latest travel book Coffee with the Colossus is about visits to modern Greece. My latest novel is the mystery story The Moves of Murder set against the political machinations of Ukraine and Spain.