Poland's ancient capital, Krakow, is attempting to preserve its liberal traditions intact despite the imposition of martial law.

As the seat of Poland's oldest university, the cathedral town where Pope John Paul II served as priest and then archbishop, Krakow is the most tolerant and westward-looking of Polish cities. The relaxed state of mind--the product of living close to the past amid some of Europe's most perfect medieval architecture--has largely offset the drabness and austerity associated with a communist-ruled country.

On the evidence of a two-day visit to the city organized by Polish authorities for foreign journalists, Krakow's special atmosphere has also blunted the harshness of last December's military crackdown.

Scholars, Communist Party apparatchiks, priests and members of the suspended independent Solidarity trade union all seem to agree that things are better here than in the rest of the country. Apart from the big strikes that followed the imposition of martial law, there have been no serious clashes between workers and police. The Army has kept in the background.

Heavily influenced by the powerful Roman Catholic Church, Krakow intellectuals tend to take the long view of Polish history. Solidarity, they argue, has left a permanent imprint on Poland--and sooner or later the Communist Party will have to come to terms with it. Better to wait patiently than to gamble everything in a violent uprising, they say.

The strength of the liberal tradition in Krakow has also rubbed off on the authorities. The party chief, Krzystan Dabrowa, likes to boast that he is still determined to solve all problems "by political methods" rather than force. The local military commissar, a Gen. Sulima, has the reputation of being a cultured man skilled in the art of compromise.

At the same time, some Krakow residents insist that all these professions of tolerance and good will are merely a veneer. The regime's tactics toward Krakow may be different, but the aim is the same: the restoration of full Communist Party control.

A leading local journalist remarked: "in some ways it's even worse here as we don't know where we stand. The authorities do what they have to do under martial law--but they confuse us by wearing white gloves."

The atmosphere of normality in Krakow obviously made it, from the government's point of view, a good place to bring a party of foreign journalists for "a study tour."

These trips make for a strange experience. The first, back in January, to the western city of Poznan (also ostensibly quiet) resulted in a minor sensation when a Solidarity leader publicly withdrew an earlier loyalty pledge to the regime, claiming that it had been given "under duress." Since then, local officials have been more careful about whom they trot out for the journalists to meet.

Most tours soon develop into a kind of game played between competitive Western journalists looking for a story and Communist Party bureaucrats seeking to prove that all is "normal" in their particular district. The journalists' aim is to escape the attention of their chaperons and get to interview some real workers--or indeed anyone who will tell that what's really going on.

The strategy of the officials is to tie everybody down with interminable press conferences describing the history of the region, statistics on industrial production and arguments justifying martial law.

Included on every tour is a visit to a factory during which the journalists are given hard hats, surrounded by management officials and escorted to the most technology-intensive part of the plant. At the sight of anyone resembling an authentic worker, the entire press corps (with plainclothes men in hot pursuit) bears down with television lights, microphones and notebooks to question him about Solidarity's future.

Despite these artificial conditions, some insights did emerge from the visit to Krakow. The journalists were taken to the Lenin Steelworks--a rambling, now crumbling place that was built in the 1950s as an industrial showpiece. Originally it was seen by communist ideologues as a laboratory for the building of "socialist man," a working class citadel that would counterbalance the "reactionary" power of the church and the Krakow intelligentsia.

Last year the steelworks became one of Solidarity's strongholds--with 90 percent of Letter From Poland the 38,000-strong work force belonging to the union.

Today, except for some roughly scrawled slogans on walls ("Communists out" was one), there is little outward evidence of Solidarity's former dominance. The union chairman, Mieczyslaw Gil, was sentenced two weeks ago to four years' imprisonment for organizing strikes--and no one has taken his place. Underground Solidarity activity at the plant appears to be limited.

Questioned privately, however, most workers express a calm conviction that Solidarity will be back in some form or other. The "social commissions" set up by the Communist Party in place of trade unions are described as being artificial and unrepresentative of the work force. Many workers admitted to taking part in the strike immediately after martial law that was broken up by riot police.

"Of course Solidarity exists. It's a beautiful idea--and they can't eradicate that from our minds," one worker said. He started to predict that there could be unrest in the spring, when food supplies are expected to become even more difficult. But he suddenly fell silent when a foreman approached.

"Please go . . . . That man could cause me trouble," he said to a group of reporters.

A common theme in conversations with workers was that they were still waiting to gauge the full effect of the price increases introduced at the beginning of February. The cost of living went up sharply, but most workers were given an extra month's pay as compensation and therefore have not had to change their consumption habits drastically yet.

Officials said 19 workers at the steel mill had been interned following martial law--of which 10 had been released already. Out of 6,400 party members, about 400 had either resigned or been expelled.

Since last December, the only significant trouble in Krakow occurred at the university last month. Students lit candles in their dormitory windows to protest martial law--and eyewitnesses reported seeing bundles of burning newspapers thrown onto the streets below. Patriotic hymns and slogans were sung.

Similar incidents occurred in the southwestern city of Wroclaw, where many students were reportedly beaten up after being made to run a gantlet of baton-wielding riot police. In Krakow, by contrast, the protests were defused by university staff who applied moral pressure to the students, contending that they were jeopardizing traditional university freedoms.

The argument is a strong one in Krakow's case since the Jagellonian University appears to have escaped the worst of the repression. Apart from one university staff member interned, there have been no dismissals.

Some of the credit for this relative tolerance is given to a communist intellectual from Krakow, Hierononym Kubiak, who still sits on the party's Politburo as a representative of the cultural community. At a meeting with intellectuals recently, he was reported to have expressed the hope that the staff of high schools and universities would be spared the ideological purge.

Kubiak was also reported by an underground Solidarity bulletin to have compared the mood among high school youths, frustrated at the lack of job opportunities and political repression, to "a time bomb."

A university professor in Krakow said that among his students there were divided opinions. Some favored all-out opposition to the government in the form of underground resistance, while others wanted to take advantage of the possibilities for independent academic study that still existed within the system.

A third, and perhaps most common, reaction among young people is to withdraw into themselves and ignore officialdom completely.

Oblivious to martial law, the members of one of Krakow's experimental theater groups threw a party to mark a birthday. The beat of heavy rock music floated across the renaissance rooftops and spires of the old town as they danced, joked and got drunk.

The party could have been anywhere in the West. The products of a European tradition dating back 10 centuries, the young people there were closer in spirit to Paris and New York than to Moscow. They wore Western clothes (one sported a U.S. Army jacket) and expressed Western ideas.

An actress said: "We're reacting to what's happened in Poland by a kind of internal emigration. We want to keep together and keep as far away from the Poland of the internment camps and communist jargon as possible."

Such an attitude is hardly likely to produce an uprising this spring, as some have predicted. On the other hand, it's hardly likely to produce a totalitarian state either.