In Britain, the rail station coal-yards became car parks at about the time that diesel electrics replaced steam trains. One presumes that space heating for the station buildings was converted at the same time to gas or electric. Not so in Krakow. As Winter approaches, the main station coal-yard is alive with workers reducing a stack of fat tree trunks to uniform split logs. Alongside the wood piles are the huge heaps of coal, in a line from a heap of large, engine-block sized pieces that will need hammer-breaking to heaps of smaller, graded fuel.
All must be destined to be burned in the station's boilers and stoves over the next few months, and indeed it must have started already, for Krakow is one of the few heated mainline stations I've yet encountered. The entrance atrium, the ticket halls, the waiting rooms, the station restaurant, the shops and lavatories all pleasantly warm. This brings its own problems. I watched a station official exercising a sort of time limit on the elderly destitute, around half of them couples, who sat around on the oak benches of the waiting room as inoffensively as possible, sheltering from the bitter cold outside. A group of four men had reached their time limit; the official clicked over to them and few words were necessary. They picked up their bags and filed out to the square. I guess it was like our short-term parking restrictions; maximum two hours heat with no return within one hour or something similar.
You can tell a lot about a country by its rail stations. Unlike the shopping malls. Right bang beside Krakow's is the now ubiquitous Euro Mall; the same steel, the same glass curtain walls, the same layout, the same terazzo flooring and the same tenants as the Euro Malls I found in Budapest. It was Carrefour here instead of Match, but the Zaras, the H&M, the Swarovski, the McDonalds and Burger King, the Hackett and the rest were all the standard Euro-tat. I'll bet I can go to Bucharest, Warsaw, Bratislava or Belgrade and find exactly the same. Hugely popular with the locals, of course, but I found it profoundly depressing. I loathe homogeneity. And I'll bet the Mall's security staff won't even let the destitute past the door - my somewhat ragged and travel-battered Barbour came under disapproving scrutiny from a crop-headed blond boy in uniform and for a moment it was touch and go whether I'd get anywhere near the Zara frocks myself.
I found the bars last night after all. In a district called Kazimierz, between the old walled city and the Vistula. None of them truly old, but many the product of the interior decorator's imagination of what a brown bar should look like. In Winter, they told me, Krakow goes down to the cellars in Kazirmierz as the pavement cafes are disassembled to make place for the Christmas Market now under construction in the old town. The street corner bar, so familiar an adjunct to every residential city block from Zurich to Hamburg via Lille, Brussels and Amsterdam, is unknown here. I know. I walked twenty blocks around the back of the hotel trying to find just one. Instead are plenty of 24hr off-licences with shelves of cheap vodka and great floor stacks of cans. It can't be that Poles are unsociable - they're not - and must be result of some historic quirk. Still, it's a minus point.
The EU rag was far less apparent here than in Barcelona, Porto or Budapest; I didn't actually spot a single EU flag anywhere, though the Polish Bicolour was everywhere in evidence. The ghastly EU symbol was confined to something the size of a postcard on a few civic projects obliged to acknowledge funding, but there was no pride or belief in it - in complete contrast to Budapest, which revelled in EU membership as a Labrador revels in cowshit.