Legends of Krakow: Poland’s Royal Capital

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Krakow: City Rich in History

 

I’ve 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 I’m here, 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 demolition 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.

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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 which may look familiar to some visitors 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 the old town, 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 posted a reward in the form of his daughter’s hand in marriage, plus a share of the kingdom, 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 on the riverbank, at the foot of Wawel Hill. A 30-foot bronze statue of the dragon guards the entrance. “Krakowians consider it lucky to rub his belly,” says my cousin, Jacek.

Krakow was the capital of Poland from 1257 until 1566, when it lost its primacy to Warsaw. However, the kings and queens of Poland continued to be crowned and entombed in Wawel Cathedral. You can visit the royal cathedral and see the elaborate sarcophagi of the nation’s monarchs. My favourite Wawel sight is the coffered ceiling in the castle’s audience chamber. The coffers, or recessed decorative panels, once held hundreds of carved faces (representing human emotions) looking down on the throne. These were intended to help the king consider the variety of human motives and conditions in order to make just rulings. Today only a few dozen of the originals survive.

A stone’s throw from the Wawel is one of Europe’s largest medieval market squares, Rynek Glowny. In the centre is the Cloth Hall (Rynek Glowny). This intricately-arcaded renaissance building originally housed the stock exchange where cloth commodities, futures and shares were traded. Today the ground floor holds stalls selling souvenirs, religious icons, and jewellery. Amber, a substance plentiful on the Baltic coast, and silver from the mountains, are good values. The upper level of the Cloth Hall houses a branch of the National Museum and features a collection of historically themed paintings.

This city, where Pope John Paul II was once archbishop, is full of beautiful churches. Across the market square, gothic St. Mary’s Cathedral (Kosciol Mariacki) has several unusual features. The Ciborium, made by Giovanni Maria Paduvano in 1550, is a sort of church within the church. The alter-piece by Veit Stoss is a carved and jewelled masterpiece. St. Mary’s has two towers; the Hejnal Tower, the higher and more elaborate, is capped by an elaborate gilded cupola, resembling a giant tiara.

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There’s a gruesome legend about St. Mary’s Cathedral. In the 14th-century the city was bracing for a Tartar invasion. These marauding horsemen from the central Asian steppes left a trail of destruction in their wake. A sentry, posted in the Hejnal tower, spotted the horsemen and 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 in the city streets, the Tartars were repelled. Since that time, to mark the hour, and to commemorate the city’s peril, the bugler’s call is replayed, always ending in the middle of the seventh note.

Other attractions around the market square include the city hall’s gothic tower, the Florian Gate and original city wall, the 14th century Collegium Maius, several museums, and plenty of gothic and renaissance buildings. In fair weather the square is rimmed with outdoor cafes, musicians and street performers. I also found great restaurants and nightclubs. The Jazz Club U. Muniaka and Pod Jaszczurami are my favourites, serving up a menu of traditional Polish food, a variety of national beers and vodkas, and generous portions of jazz music with a uniquely Slavic twist. One night I dined on golabki (stuffed cabbage leaves) and wild mushroom pierogi then sat back to listen to a trio performing on violin, accordion, and guitar.

Western pop culture has not yet taken over in Poland. The radio stations play a full spectrum of pop music, from rap to heavy metal, but the lyrics are all in Polish. It’s still rare to hear the MTV hits that dominate the airwaves in most of the world. Nor is the country completely inundated with Coca-Cola, Nike and the other label brands that are inescapable in the west.

To get an idea of life during the most recent cultural invasion, under the Soviet communists, I visit one of 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 retail kiosks, selling everything from cigarettes, shampoo, and vodka to pornographic magazines. “These kiosks are built on skids for mobility,” one kiosk owner tells me. “Under communism it was illegal to operate any sort of business. Whenever the authorities found a kiosk, someone always tipped us off in time to drag the store, out of sight, to the other side of the building.”

Another of Krakow’s cultural artifacts is the Kazimierz district. This was Europe’s largest Jewish settlement, named after the 16th-century king who gave sanctuary to Jews when religious intolerance sent them into exile from other countries. At its height, just before WWII, Kazimierz was home to 50,000. The Holocaust murdered most of the Jews in Poland, and today only 5,000 are left in the entire country. Kazimierz, however, remains as a testament to their industriousness and creativity. A multi-cultural architectural style characterizes the quarter: imagine Tudor half-timbered walls, with classical columns, and Moorish arch-ways.

A popular, if disturbing, day trip, about a 40 minutes drive from Krakow, is Oswiecim, or Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Here 1.5 million Poles, most of them Jews, were killed by the Nazis, factory-style, in the gas chambers. It is a chilling and intensely emotional experience walking through the barracks, viewing the mounds of human hair and teeth displayed in glass cases. It’s hard for me to hold back tears as I imagine the terror that the victims must have felt. Many of the other tourists seem completely overcome with grief.

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Twenty minutes to the east is a less depressing attraction. Wieliczka Salt Mine was begun in the 14th century by Queen Jadwiga. At the time salt was almost as valuable as gold, and Jadwiga used the mine’s profits to fund one of Europe’s first universities. Jadwigan University is still one of Poland’s most prestigious schools. The mine is a giant sculpture in salt crystal. Early miners risked their lives daily, so they said their prayers before descending. Initially they made one small chapel out of salt, but over the centuries they got carried away. Now several kilometres of subterranean passageway are carved from rock salt, with sculpted figures emerging from the walls and ceilings. The mine includes a ballroom festooned with salt chandeliers and fountains, underground plazas, restaurants, railways, and a lake with a salt gazebo on its salty shores.

 

My cousin, Jacek told me the legend of Wieliczka. “It is said the Queen tossed her engagement ring into the mine to give her blessing. 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, a monastic retreat on Bright Mountain (Jasna Gora). Czestochowa is a revered spiritual pilgrimage, centred on the religious painting called the Black Madonna, believed by the faithful to have been created by St. Luke, writer of the biblical Gospel of Luke, and patron saint of artists. Modern art scholars say it was created in the sixth or seventh century. Whatever its origins, it is a powerful object. It depicts the Virgin Mary and her Christ child as Negroes. The jewel-encrusted portrait riveted my attention, until I, along with hundreds of other pilgrims, was in a hypnotic, trance-like state, broken only by the ringing of the bell tower.

Over the centuries, the monastery has been Poland’s stronghold. When the Teutonic Knights over-ran the country in the 13th century, the king retreated here and eventually drove them back. The Swedes attacked in the 17th century, and Jasna Gora was again the last bastion for a counter-offensive. In the 14th century the Tartars overran Jasna Gora, storming the cathedral where the Black Madonna was displayed. According to legend the Tartar general slashed the icon with his sword. The painting began to bleed and weep. The Tartars panicked, letting their guard down long enough to be overcome. The only evidence of that event is a patched-up wound on the surface of the painting.

Krakow is a good base for exploring Poland’s historic heartland, and the nearby Tatra Mountains offer great skiing and hiking.

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 magical carriages, fierce dragons and bold knights to remember.

 

By Andrew Kolasinski

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