The cobbled streets of central Krakow lead, straight as arrows, and flanked by elegant, historic buildings on either side, to the largest, oldest town square in Europe. So vast, that standing on one corner, nearest the Church of The Hourly Bugle (aka St Mary’s), you cannot hope to see right across this quad from 1257.

Not only because of the distance covered by the Rynek Główny, 40,000 square metres to be precise, but how busy it is. All of life can be found in this vibrant piazza; from ornamented horses calmly awaiting their next, excited human load, to break dancers with their boomboxes, appearing to have travelled back from the 1980s to both bemuse and entertain the crowds, to swarms of families settling down to eat their packed lunches while staving off legions of pigeons.

In the middle of this churning sea of city life, a big sporting event, with its waves of spectators, security, wide screens and brightly kitted-out teams, crested, obscuring our vision further.

Even as the bugler trumpeted the hour, and a youthful flash mob broke into dance for their TikTok tribe, to counteract, it almost seemed, the lulling effect of the elderly pretzel-sellers sleepily watching over their little blue boxes of fragrant wares, we nimbly wove through the hubbub to arrive at the diagonally opposite end of the quadrangle.

Equally thronged with locals and tourists alike feasting al-fresco below gleaming white parasols, and busy waiters bringing heaped platters of plump pierogi under the beady eyes of their maître d’s, the classical buildings skirting the square on this side mirrored the others in their beautiful Italianate shades – deep renaissance red, pistachio green, and creamy gelato lemon.

A different world

But there is something extra special on this row – the burnished cobbles, polished by a million feet, lead to Europe’s first-ever bookstore, established in 1610! Packed with books in mainly Polish (oczywiście!), we were about to step out again when we noticed a whitewashed tunnel running from the ancient bookstore’s principal chamber into darker recesses. Winding along its upper walls was a timeline going back centuries, marking the dates of birth and death of literary greats on whom this historically bookish city had a claim.

Curious to see if I recognised any, I drifted deeper into the bookstore, till I encountered, with considerable surprise, a classic English novelist studied in my youth – Joseph Conrad! That briny British author with his bleakly insightful sagas was Polish? Who knew? Walking three palatial buildings down to yet another big bookstore, we took the marble steps up to the offices of Krakow UNESCO City of Literature, the city’s literary glue. If anyone could tell me about Conrad’s connection to Krakow, they could!

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski spent his formative years, 1869-74, in Krakow: “…the town where I spent with my father the last eighteen months of his life. It was in that old royal and academic city that I ceased to be a child, became a boy, had known the friendships, the admirations, the thoughts and the indignations of that age. It was within those historical walls that I began to understand things, form affections, lay up a store of memories and a fund of sensation.”

A struggling student, not surprising in one who had lost both his parents to tuberculosis at a tender age, and prone to suffering from illnesses himself, he was nevertheless a voracious reader, not just of the classics of European literature, but political pamphlets as well. Krakow’s printing presses, bookstores, libraries, and markets, gave young Conrad access to many worlds. Living a stone’s throw from the teeming main square and on the edge of the Kazimierz, Krakow’s bustling Jewish Quarter, his influences had always been wide-ranging and varied, though profoundly Polish at the same time, especially as his father, a Polish freedom fighter, had burnt brightly in his young life.

Kazimierz today sparkles again, despite the horror of the in-between years. Living it up in the present, with busy bars, bistros and bakeries at every corner, draped in greenery and twinkling lights, with distinctive culinary offerings like the delicious zapiekanka at its legendary Roundhouse, and routinely packed cultural events, from Yiddish rap to conferences, does not feel at odds with its firm commitment to keeping the atrocities done to it in the Second World War in mind. Schindler’s List might have been shot in this neighbourhood in 1993, but the commemoration rolls on. Not just in antique stores and second-hand bookshops, but in every lane and courtyard, on boards and plaques and streetside handouts, detailing victims’ histories but also inspirational acts of resistance.

Conrad died in Britain in 1924, long before the Second World War broke out, but he was living in Krakow during the Franco-Prussian battles of the 1870s, which contributed to the tensions that led to both World Wars. Young though he was, his family’s tragedies at the hands of imperialist powers, and his own peripatetic and dispossessed childhood as a result, would have alerted him to the shadow creeping across Europe, and over his own beloved patch. It was no wonder he took to the high seas as soon as he was old enough, via Marseille at 16, showing a natural propensity to travel the world and explore its contrasts.

He served on British ships, settled in the English countryside, and with his hold on the Polish language loosening, wrote all his novels in English. There was much that he admired about the British, not least that they welcomed him on their ships and into the hallowed halls of English literature, but the deep disappointment with humanity he displays in most of his novels, be it Nostromo or The Secret Agent, extended to them too.

“When it came to political issues, he was extremely distrustful of all ideologies,” Conrad Festival programme director Grzegorz Jankowicz clarified, “He later became a reference point for several generations of writers and social activists, who treated his work as a moral and political compass. Very important to his contemporaries was his attitude to ethics, which Conrad saw as a sphere of non-negotiable duties, of absolute responsibility.”

The return

Krakow drew him back in 1914, 40 years after his first exit, and on the very day the First World War started, though that was a coincidence. Staying at the Grand Hotel, which still stands on central Slawkowska in all its stately glory, he strolled down familiar paths to find the main square unchanged, despite the tumult that was about to engulf it, “The Square, immense in its solitude, was full to the brim of moonlight…” On his return to England a few months later, he was not only doubly committed to the cause of Polish independence but would live to see it happen after over a century of oppression under three European powers.

And Krakow has always returned Conrad’s regard, celebrating its links with him with the vigour and vision of the latter’s own work. The Poselska Street apartment where he grew up is marked by a memorial plaque, with organised walks taking you to this site and many more connected to the author. Polish translations of his books have also proved popular, with new editions perennially in the pipeline. Altogether, Krakow’s dedicated championing of this canonical writer, once known to the planet as British, has transformed him into a Polish author “who chose to write in English”.

Most of all, this city’s big, international festival of literature, which welcomes literary lights every autumn, is named after our man. About Conrad in that it’s about great storytelling, their team explains, the festival honours the power of the pen.

Correcting Conrad

Which Conrad wielded with great effect, but did it sometimes miss the mark? Hadn’t revered African writer Chinua Achebe criticized Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an “offensive and deplorable book“, adding, “how terribly wrong it was to portray my people – any people – from that attitude”? More recently as well, hadn’t Conrad been controversially edited out of Roald Dahl’s Matilda?

Grzegorz Jankowicz agrees with Achebe, but challenged the need to “correct” classic literature, “Achebe was right to point out that Conrad’s portrayal of the Congolese people was tainted by racism. Conrad was convinced he was portraying the evils that Europeans brought to Africa, that he was exposing the colonial mechanisms of Westerners. He was unable to see that these mechanisms infected his perception, making his story blind to the people he wanted to liberate from the colonial machine. Instead of removing his name from Dahl’s books, however, we should teach young people how to read the troublesome works of the past. We should read them critically.”

Or, as Barack Obama maintained, “The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws…” Ironically, the answer to how we deal with that could come from Conrad himself, “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.”

Tucking the book I’ve been gifted safely in my rucksack, we amble along the wide, blue Vistula’s embankment, over Krakow’s Walk of Fame, with its handprints of celluloid giants (our own Lambuji included), for an afternoon in their lustrous castle, Wavel. Items of great value and beauty reside within its ramparts; precious artefacts in crystal cases, medieval and renaissance art wrapped around buttresses, and bright, new installations in the gardens.

On the road into town, we stop to listen to an impromptu concert from a youthful classical quartet, whose music moves spectators to spontaneously clasp hands and dance. After an admiring interlude, we push on, in search of the fabled bench in Planty Park flaunting an inscription in honour of Conrad.

Although it eludes us, we discover instead a gloriously green space, of mature trees and blossoming shade, in which to contemplate our lessons on Conrad; how perfectly this skilled prose stylist fits into creative Krakow, and the importance of his penetrating geopolitical analyses to our stridently polarised world. There’s no doubt we need all the wisdom we can gather from humane, well-told stories, so I open my new copy of Lord Jim and embark on a second, sager reading.