Nestled on the Vistula River, Kraków served as Poland’s capital for five centuries and is the country’s leading tourist attraction today. It is home to Poland’s largest castle, Wawel Royal Castle, one of the very first UNESCO World Heritage Sites designated in 1978. Coincidentally, this was the same year the city’s archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II, making him the first-ever Slavic pope.
But the city’s history reaches far past these noteworthy facts and the Second World War it survived. What is it, then, that is so fascinating about Kraków? In short: everything.
A Fire-Breathing Dragon and the Cobbler Who Became King
Ever wonder where Kraków got its name? Some attribute it to a cobbler named Krak, who, in a feat of bravery, tried his hand at slaying a beast who tortured the city. You see, legend has it that a ravenous dragon once lived beneath the city’s castle. When his demands for cattle were not met, the dragon wreaked havoc and feasted upon the townspeople instead.
In his desperate attempts to save lives, the king of the castle decreed that whoever defeated the dragon could marry his daughter, Princess Wanda, and take over his royal throne. Many stepped up to the plate, but it was the lowly shoemaker Krak who ultimately took down the reptilian terrorist with a sheepskin he’d stuffed with hay and sulfur as a sacrificial meal. The dragon, as expected, satiated his appetite with the faux sheep but was quickly overcome by an unquenchable thirst. He flew to the Vistula River where he drank and drank until his body could take no more – and he exploded into dust.
The elated king kept true to his word, offering his blessing for Krak to marry the princess. The newly anointed King Krak built a castle atop the dragon’s lair and named the city in his honor. Now, others believe the cobbler’s name was Skuba, so whether or not you believe this story is up to you. However, you can visit the 20-foot-tall Wawel Dragon Statue who goes by the name of Smok Wawelski, near the river, which, by the way, breathes real fire. You can also find the dragon’s likeness in many a souvenir shop, a testament to this historic legend.
St. Mary's Trumpet Call: An Hourly Tradition
From the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone to the whooshing spray of fountains scattered throughout the city, Kraków is filled with auditory pleasures, but none is more distinctive than St. Mary’s Trumpet Call.
Originally constructed in the 13th century and rebuilt in the 14th-century in the Gothic style, St. Mary’s Church itself is the towering landmark of Old Town Square, but do not let its understated brick façade deceive you. Inside is a flamboyant display of frescoes and ornate decorations that lead the eye to the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world, intricately carved from wood.
However, you’ll want to be outside for the highlight of St. Mary’s, where, every hour on the hour within the tower, a trumpeter plays the Hejnal Mariacki, a five-note hymn-turned-anthem of the city, commemorating an event that occurred nearly 900 years ago. It is said that when Kraków came under siege in 1241, a Polish soldier saw a cloud of dust in the distance. Recognizing that it was enemy Tatar troops, he took to the church tower and played the song to warn inhabitants of the impending attack. While the citizens were able to close the gates to the city and were saved, tragedy struck when an arrow pierced the sentry’s throat in the middle of playing the melody.
Today, St. Mary’s bugler is an icon of the city. The tune, just as the soldier’s life, is abruptly cut short, and is played in each cardinal direction – a not-to-be-missed and moving spectacle that brings history to life… through music to your ears.