Legends of Krakow: from the Ghost Taxis to Smog the Dragon

I’ve arrived in Krakow from Zakopane, a ski resort in the 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.

For me this city is special because my family is from Krakow. My grandfather was once a manager at the city’s 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.

Most of the attractions in Krakow are within walking distance to the old town. If you don’t want to walk, bus and tram service is frequent and cheap. Taxis are always at hand, including horse-drawn landau cabs. At the train station, an old porter smiles as he cautions me about these carriage taxis, recounting an old Krakowian legend: “A ghost taxi prowls the streets of the old town. Climb in and the driver will take you beyond the grave. Then, good luck getting home.” This tale has, for centuries, provided a convenient excuse for wayward Krakow husbands who are late getting home from the bar. This just one of the legends of Krakow.

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 named Krak devised a plan to defeat the monster. He filled a sheep’s pelt with sulphur, sewed it shut and placed it, with a couple of live sheep, outside Smog’s cave. The dragon’s appetite and his fiery breath resulted in an explosive demise. Krak won the princess and the kingdom, hence the name Krakow. Today you can take a tour and visit Smog’s cave on the banks of the Vistula, 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 guide.

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.

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The castle’s archaeological and historical museums, the crown jewels, treasury, and armoury are all worth seeing, but my favourite sight is the coffered ceiling in the castle’s audience chamber. The coffers, or recessed decorative panels, once held hundreds of carved faces looking down on the throne, each representing a different human emotion. 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 Europe’s largest medieval market square, Rynek Glowny. In the centre is the Cloth Hall (Sukienica). 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 antiques like duelling pistols and swords. Amber, a substance plentiful on the Baltic coast, and silver from the mountains, are good buys. 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 Church (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. There’s a gruesome legend about St. Mary’s Church.  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 Krakow cabbage leaves) and wild mushroom pierogi then sat back to listen to a trio performing on violin, accordion, and guitar.

 

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