A Bit of Krakow History

Monday, May 19, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments

CHAPTER 28:  IN WHICH WE HEAR A FIERY TALE

Around the World, Day 28:  Krakow, Poland.  Like many European cities, Krakow boasts a long history.  The earliest known settlement, dating back to the 4th century, was established on Wawel Hill.  According to legend, the ruler Krakus built the town, naming it after himself, at the top of this hill immediately over the lair of a powerful dragon.  When livestock and young maidens kept disappearing, Krakus invited knights to attempt to slay the dragon in exchange, of course, for his daughter's hand in marriage.  In true romantic fashion, all the knights, errant and local, fell to the dragon's fiery power until a local cobbler conceived the solution and baited the dragon with a sulfur-filled sheep, leading to its demise.

Wawel Castle on Wawel Hill along the Vistula River
Since Krakow is a popular tourist center, it comes as no surprise that for the paltry sum of 3 Polish zlotys (about 99 cents US), one can descend into the dragon's cave from the top of Wawel Hill, exiting just at the site of an array of souvenir kiosks selling...yes, dragons!  Stuffed (though not with volatile sheep), wooden, plastic, metal, or most any other type of dragon figurine is available.

By the year 1000, Krakow had become a center of trade and in 1038 became the seat of the Polish government.  Krakow continued to serve as the capital of Poland for almost six centuries and still plays an important role in preserving the national identity.  Unlike so many cities in Poland, Krakow was hardly damaged in World War II, and restoration efforts in recent years have been returning many historic buildings to their original glory.

Just north of Wawel Hill, the Old Quarter remains the heart of Krakow.  The city's Market Square is said to be the largest in Europe, surrounded this time of year with sidewalk cafes and populated with tourists and locals who like to hang out there.  We made the obligatory climb up the old City Hall Tower for a fantastic view of this vibrant public space.

Town Hall Tower
Dominating the east side of the square is St. Mary's Church, a massive Gothic basilica built in the 14th century.  At 262 feet, the taller of St. Mary's towers historically served as a watch tower for the city.  Following tradition, a trumpeter still blows a signal from the tower hourly.  In memory of a now famous trumpeter who was struck in the throat by an arrow when attempting to warn the city of a Mongol invasion in the 13th century, the trumpet call is abruptly interrupted each time it is played.  You can hear an example here.

St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow
Behind the communion table in the sanctuary is the massive 40-ft tall sculpted altarpiece.  Panels depict scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus, with scenes of Mary's joy on the inner panels and her sorrow on the exterior panels.  Each day at noon the doors are opened to reveal the huge carved centerpiece.

St. Mary's altarpiece (photo from Wikipedia)
As the Nazis began invading Poland during World War II, townspeople dismantled the altar and hid it in different places around the country to protect it from Nazi plunder.  Their efforts were in vain as the German governor of Poland determined the location of the treasures and had them removed them to the Third Reich.  After the war, the altar work was discovered in the basement of the bombed ruins of Nuremberg Castle, returned to Poland and restored.

We will wind up our visit to Krakow tomorrow before moving on to our next destination.

More Photos from Today

Krakow Cathedral on Wawel Hill
Flower Vendor at Old Town Square 
No shortage of horse-drawn carriages around the square
Waiting for a fare  
Old Market Square