Legends of Krakow: Poland’s Royal Capital
by Andrew Kolasinski
I arrived in Krakow from Zakopane, a ski resort in Poland’s Tatra Mountains. The train passed scattered industrial developments, crossed the broad Vistula River and abruptly left me in the midst of the medieval town centre.
Poland’s Royal Capital, Krakow is one the few cities in Eastern Europe that escaped the destruction of WWII. This city of 680,000 was spared because Hitler intended it as his eastern capital. The Soviets, who liberated Krakow, also wanted to preserve its charms. Krakow’s gothic and renaissance old town, Stare Miasto, with its palaces, cathedrals, and squares, was declared a United Nations heritage site in 1978, joining 11 other world historic cities.
For me this city is special because my family is from here. My grandfather was once a manager at the central railroad station, a station that may look familiar because scenes from the film Schindler’s List were set here. During the occupation my family was active in Poland’s resistance, sabotaging the Nazi war machine, targeting the railroads in particular. But most tourists, even without roots in Krakow, will find this is a beautiful and inspiring place.
Towering over Krakow, Wawel Hill has been the castle stronghold since before recorded history, when, according to legend, Smog the dragon terrorized the city. At first he was content eating flocks of sheep, but soon he demanded maidens to devour, and treasures to hoard. The king offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could rid the city of the dragon. Many valiant knights died trying to kill Smog. Finally a crafty cobbler devised a plan to defeat the monster. He filled a sheep’s pelt with sulphur, sewed it shut and placed it outside Smog’s cave. The dragon’s appetite and his fiery breath resulted in an explosive demise. Today you can visit Smog’s cave at the foot of Wawel Hill. A 20-foot bronze statue of the dragon guards the entrance. “Krakowians consider it lucky to rub his belly,” said my cousin, Jacek.
A stone’s throw from the Wawel is Europe’s largest medieval square, Rynek Glowny where you’ll find the gothic St. Mary’s Church (Kosciol Mariacki) with its two towers. An elaborate gilded cupola, resembling a giant tiara, caps the higher Hejnal Tower.
There’s a gruesome legend about the Church. In the 14th-century the city was bracing for a Tartar invasion. These horsemen from the Asian steppes left a trail of destruction in their wake. A sentry, posted in the Hejnal Tower, bugled the alarm. The Tartars, expert at firing bow and arrow while at full gallop, pierced the bugler’s throat in mid-note. After a fierce battle the Tartars were repelled. Since that time, to mark the hour, and commemorate the city’s peril, the bugler’s call is replayed, always ending in the middle of the seventh note.
St. Mary's Church was built by the people of Krakow, proudly in comparison to the Wawel Royal Cathedral.
Other attractions around the square include the gothic city hall, the Florian Gate, the medieval Collegium Maius, and several museums. In fair weather the square is rimmed with outdoor cafes, musicians and street performers. I also found great restaurants and lively nightclubs.
To get an idea of life during a grimmer era, under the Soviet communists, I visited the huge apartment blocks beyond the town centre. Monotonous grey towers repeat for miles in every direction: the communist idea of a workers’ paradise. Dotted around these treeless complexes you’ll find kiosks, selling everything from shampoo, and vodka to pornography. “These kiosks are built on skids for mobility,” one kiosk owner told me. “Under communism it was illegal to operate any sort of business. Whenever the authorities located a kiosk, someone always tipped us off in time to drag the store, out of sight, to the other side of the building.”
An hour from Krakow is Osweicim, or Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where the Nazis killed 1.5 million Poles, mostly Jews, in the gas chambers. It is an intensely emotional experience walking through the barracks, viewing the mounds of human hair and teeth displayed in glass cases, but a concrete reminder of what humans are capable of.
Twenty minutes east of Krakow is Wieliczka Salt Mine. Opened by Queen Jadwega in the 14th century the mine is a giant crystal sculpture. Early miners risked their lives daily, so they said their prayers before descending. Initially they carved one small chapel out of salt, but over the centuries they got carried away. Now several kilometres of subterranean passageways are decorated with sculpted figures emerging from the walls and ceilings. The mine includes a ballroom festooned with salt chandeliers and fountains, plazas, restaurants, railways, and a lake with a salt gazebo on its salty shores.
My cousin, Jacek told me a Wieliczka legend. “The Queen blessed the mine by tossing in her engagement ring. When the first miners went to work they chipped at a lump of salt and found the ring. This made them work harder in hopes of discovering more treasure.”
Another popular day trip, an hour and a half from Krakow, is Czestochowa monastery, a revered spiritual pilgrimage, centred on the religious painting called the Black Madonna. The faithful believe the icon was created by St. Luke, writer of the biblical Gospel of Luke, and patron saint of artists. Modern art scholars say it was created around 700 AD.
In the 14th century invading Tartars stormed the monastery. According to legend, when the Tartar general slashed the Black Madonna icon with his sword it began to bleed and weep. The Tartars panicked, letting their guard down long enough to be overcome. The only evidence is a patched-up wound on the surface of the painting.
Krakow’s architectural splendour, cultural attractions, and lively urban scene make it a great holiday destination. Excellent values in accommodation, dining, and transport are another benefit. Even if you don’t buy any souvenirs, Krakow will send you home with legends of magic rings, fierce dragons and bold knights to remember.
WHERE TO STAY IN KRAKOW
The Batory Hotel bills itself as a family hotel. It's centrally located on a quiet street about a 5 minute walk from the Rynek, Wawel Hill, and the Kazimierz district. At about $60 US per night the large modern rooms (with bath) are a bargain. The rooms are tranquilly decorated in natural wood finishes. A lavish breakfast buffet is included.
Across from the train station the Hotel Warszawski and the Hotel Polonia are priced at about $40 per night for basic rooms. You can find real bargains ($25 per night) by staying in private rooms. A booking office is located next to tourist information near the train station.
If you're after old world splendour in accommodation, and your budget allows it, try the Grand Hotel. This 1860s hotel has a palatial elegance.
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