On the evening of an icy, windy Monday, I boarded the flight from Gdansk to reach the next beautiful city of Poland – Krakow. Upon arriving at the airport, it was easy to follow the signs and find the way to the train that runs between the city center and the airport except at the point where a sign was kept on the floor (like a board) and a girl standing in front of it obliterated the view. So in the confusion, I missed the first train by two minutes. The next one was after half an hour, which I then boarded and reached the city center in about 20 minutes. From there, with the help of google maps, I walked to the room I had booked. I had informed the property and the receptionist was waiting for me till that late even though it was not a 24 hour reception kind of place (it was around 11 PM). She handed me the keys, explained everything and then left. I was too cold and tired to go get anything to eat (although a 24 hour supermarket was just round the corner). So I just snacked on something I had in my bag and went to sleep. Had a restful sleep. In the morning, I searched the net and found a restaurant close by that offered gluten-free options for breakfast. So I got ready and reached that restaurant. It was a very modern themed restaurant. I ordered something but it took too long to come. So I had to gobble it up quickly instead of savoring it, as I was getting late for the walking tour that was about to start.
And then I sped towards the Florian’s Gate, where the tour was supposed to start. Thankfully, I reached in time and other people were also just getting in. We had a pleasant guide who started with the first story of Krakow.
In the 10th century, there was a king with 5 sons. Probably he seemed to consider all of them equally worthy of the kingdom, or he couldn’t decide who would take the kingdom after his death. So the kingdom got divided into 5 parts. Thus began the struggle of 200 years when the kingdom kept getting divided over generations. Then in 1320, Wladislav I “Lokietek” (the Elbow High) from Krakow, reunited all these fragments. For 400 years after that, every king of Poland was crowned in Krakow. The coronation route would start from the St. Florian’s church. The church was renovated several times and the current look is from the 18th century.
There were 7 gates to the city but the only way to enter was through the Barbican – which was the defense gate since the 15th century. There used to be a huge moat around that which has now been transformed into a beautiful park – the Planty.
Today, there still remains a small part of the city wall with St. Florian’s Gate and the Barbican due to the efforts of a Professor named Feliks Radwanski at the beginning of 19th century when the city officials wanted to demolish the city walls. The reasons given for preserving these ranged from logical to hilarious. I don’t know which one finally convinced the authorities. One of the arguments given was that if the wall was broken, then the Northern winds blowing till the Main Market Square will knock people off their feet, while exposing women and children to influenza, rheumatism, and perhaps even to paralysis. However, the funniest one of all was that the wind would blow up women’s skirts and who would want that inappropriate thing to happen :-).
In the photo of Florian’s Gate, do you see the McDonald’s logo? That’s the first McD that opened in Krakow. The guide told us that when it first opened, it was like the symbol of a huge transformation for the country – from communism to capitalism! The queue was legendary – people waited for hours to get the taste of the big mac. The significance was not because of the taste or quality of McD burgers (a controversial topic), but because of the freedom of choice after living in the communist regime for so long.
Going back to 14th century, after king Wladyslaw I, his son Cassimir the Great or as he is called in Polish – Kazimierz, became the king. He was a very strong king but the last one of the Piast dynasty as he didn’t have any sons. A huge contribution from him was the founding of the University of Krakow – which he could establish with the blessing of the pope but only on agreeing that there won’t be a theology department in the university! We don’t know the exact reason for that but one reason could be that the king needed lawyers and accountants instead of theologians. Another reason stated is the pressure from the pope to not have that department. Now, after Cassimir’s demise, the kingdom went to his nephew from Hungary – Louis I. He also didn’t have any sons but had a daughter – Hedwig (Jadwiga) who was then crowned king of Poland (yes, you read it right – King). That happened because of the work (read – giving privileges to noblemen) done by Louis during his lifetime to persuade the noblemen to allow his daughters inheriting the throne. The kings of Poland needed to be “elected” by the noblemen of Poland, unlike in other countries where this was a hereditary practice. The kings therefore, granted a lot of privileges to the noblemen in return for their loyalty.
So, Jadwiga became the king and then as a religious-political move, she married the king of Lithuania Jogaila when he pledged to convert to Roman Catholicism, thus making Lithuania a catholic country. The king was baptized as Wladyslaw Jogiello and he became the co-ruler of Poland with Jadwiga.
Jadwiga had a life full of political turmoil but despite that, she did a lot for the University of Krakow which became the Jagiellonian University. She funded it with her own jewellery. The people of Poland venerated her during her lifetime and even after, and in she was canonized in 1997 by the Pope.
Now that I mentioned the Wawel Cathedral, let me tell you the most iconic legend of Krakow. There was once, a long time ago, a terrible dragon who lived on the Wawel Hill. He had to be appeased with a regular diet of cattle and once a month treat of a young maiden . Then the day came when there were no more maidens left except the king’s daughter Wanda. The king in desperation, announced that whoever gets rid of the dragon, would get the princess as his bride. Several people tried and of course failed. Then came forth a shoemaker called Skuba. He stuffed a sheep with sulphur and left it outside the cave of the dragon. The dragon ate it and because of the sulphur, became so thirsty that he started drinking the water from the river Vistula. But the thirst just wouldn’t get quenched. When the dragon had drunk almost half of the waters of the river, he could drink no more and exploded! Thus came the end of the terrible dragon, and of course, the princess married the shoemaker and everyone lived happily ever after!
There are two huge bones hanging today at the entrance of the Wawel Cathedral, assumed to be the bones of the dragon; the guide told us that they actually belong to a whale and a mammoth.
With this, I can finally bring this post to an end (has been in draft mode for soooo long) and write the remaining memories of Krakow in the next one.