A city, a history, and its many mysteries and curiosities. A town ravaged by two world wars that resulted in the loss of many of its inhabitants. But behind these tragic experiences hide countless anecdotes, stories and legends that have enabled this city to once again become the cultural center of the country. This is Krakow, the former capital of Poland for over five hundred years, and a city declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.
Among its streets and squares with unpronounceable names hide peculiarities that evoke the history of the country, some of them paying homage to the thousands of Poles who lost their lives while defending their city. This is the case with the trumpet players of the Basilica of Santa Maria, who leaned out of the window of the city’s tallest tower to play St. Mary’s Trumpet Call, or Hejnal Mariacki, a traditional melody that was used seven hundred years ago to warn the population of the opening and closing of city gates and of possible enemy threats.
Legend has it that when the Tartars attempted to sieze the city of Krakow, the Hejnalist warned the arrival of the enemy by playing his trumpet. Unfortunately, as he began to play, an arrow surpassed the walls of the city and pierced his throat, leaving the melody unfinished. Since then, every hour, whether it be day or night, a Hejnalist from the city’s fire department rises to the top of the tower to play the song, leaving it interrupted mid-note in order to pay tribute to the Hejnalist who was killed by the Tartars that fateful day.
The second legend is linked with the Hejnal trumpeter as well, seeing as the Basilica of Santa Maria again acts as the protagonist. Located in the Market Square, this unique gothic structure was built in the thirteenth century by two brothers that agreed it should have two towers, so that each of them could maintain one.
As construction on the towers continued and their height increased, so did an enmity between the brothers, since each wanted their tower to be the most attractive. The tension arose to such a point that when the two brothers met near the Vistula River to discuss the situation, one ended up killing the other. Although this story is commonly spread as gossip, there is another more logical and credible theory that states the towers served as defensive walls to prevent and protect the city from possible attacks. The fact that one was higher than the other allowed for improved visibility.
Continuing through the center of Krakow, about five minutes from the basilica lies another one of the city’s hidden curiosities, the Barbican, a medieval defensive structure that originally served as the entrance to the town. Its construction depicts the society’s impressive level of intelligence and war strategy for the time, as the fortress was built to save time during attacks. The entrance to the fort is located on the other side of a drawbridge and, once inside, you must cross through a second door located to the right in order to enter. As a result of this construction, the enemy could never make it through the entrance, seeing as he would have had to knock down two doors to be able to do so.
Finally, situated on the other side of the historic center and near the Vistula River is a huge statue of iron, an essential part of Krakow’s history. The legend known as “The Dragon and the Cave” explains that below the hill on which sits Wawel Castle, lived a dragon that hid in a cave and scared the whole city. One day, the king announced he would offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who succeeded in slaying the dragon; many were those who tried but only one succeeded. He killed a sheep, filled it with sulfur and placed it in front of the cave so that the next morning, the hungry dragon ate it. And so, unable to calm the fire that grew in his stomach, he drank so much water that he swelled to the point of exploding. Today, the statue is visited by thousands of people who anxiously await the breath of fire that the dragon expels every five minutes, while walking along the bank of the Vistula River.
Behind every city lie countless secrets that tourists are unaware of, whether it be due to a lack of time or because they do not deviate from the path of the most famous sites. We must venture into the depths of the city to really know its heart, its people, its myths and its legends…soaking up the essence that emerges from the little things offered to us. In this way, we are capable of enjoying a different trip – because “the typical” will always be there, patiently waiting, and if not, someone will excitedly tell us about it.
We invite you to visit Krakow and even challenge you to discover new myths and legends that are hidden within the walls of this historic and beautiful city. If you manage to discover any new findings that do not appear on our list, don’t hesitate to write us and tell us about your experience!
Have a good trip!
Translated by: Kirstin Meyerhoeffer