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Posted: 11/2/2014 Page Views: 52 Comments:
A dragon statue at the foot of Wawel Hill in Krakow is a winner with the schoolgirls. They scream and laugh every time the statue belches its sulphuric flames. In legendary times of King Krak, the founder of the city, a dragon inhabited the cave below the Wawel Castle. Some say the bones above the entrance to the cathedral belong to him
With its turrets and cupolas shrouded in the autumn mist Wawel’s Cathedral looks dreamy. Over ten centuries it has witnessed many coronations and funerals, with the bones of past rulers interred in its chapels. The most beautiful of these is the Zygmunt Chapel containing tombs of the two Jagiellonian kings. Also striking is the seventeenth century silver coffin with the relics of St Stanislaw, the bishop of Krakow. In crypts below rest the remains of various distinguished artists, national heroes and leaders of later eras.
A more cheerful site to visit is the belfry. ‘Zygmunt’, the biggest of five bells was cast in 1520 and is larger by far than London’s Big Ben. The schoolgirls now rush up the stairs to touch the bell’s heart. Another legend promises to fulfil their wishes.
To escape the crowded cathedral I walk towards the courtyard and the royal quarters where the atmosphere is more sedate. Fog hangs about the red pitched roof, adding mystery to an exquisite renaissance setting. In the soft milky light the three levels of galleries with arches, columns and intricate decorations make a perfect backdrop for a wedding couple posing for photographs.
Since its beginnings in the tenth century, the castle went through many cycles of destruction and renewal. Most of what can be seen today was begun in the sixteenth century. With the help of the gifted Italian architects, the Jagiellonian king Zygmunt I reshaped his Gothic residence into a Renaissance seat of monarchy. Set on the hill overlooking the Vistula River, Wawel became one of the finest in Europe.
The interior has collections of sixteenth century Flemish tapestries, Italian paintings, period furniture, porcelain and oriental art. Among the many gems is the Audience Hall ceiling with carved wooden heads of prominent people. A favourite of the young tourists from abroad is an assortment of armoury, including a tenth-century sword used for coronations.
I leave Wawel and stroll down Grodzka Street to the main square. Here, students mark the beginning of the academic year by parading in medieval costumes.
On the way is another landmark echoing Italian architecture, the Baroque Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Twelve limestone statues of the Apostles on the plinths bordering the church grounds look ghostly in the stubborn mist. Inside it is warmer, but the stone saints and Foucault’s pendulum, a strange contraption showing the rotation of Earth, couldn’t hold my attention for long.
A short distance away is the Market Square, a space of grand proportions hemmed in by colourful houses. People stroll about or crowd in on the stands selling rolls with grilled sausages and sauerkraut or pierogi (dumplings) with a choice of stuffing. Plump pigeons descend from the rooftops to frustrate staff in the busy cafés. Flower vendors, cheese sellers and fur traders work hard to earn the money, and a horse drawn carriage with tourists rattles by on the cobblestones then disappears into the tangle of side streets.
With its two uneven towers St Mary’s Church presides over the northeast corner of the square. The church interior and its blue vault studded with stars, the fifteenth century wooden altar and sandstone cross are a feast to the eye and soul. These pieces were sculpted by the German artist Veit Stoss. The murmur of prayers and the smell of the burning candles make me shiver. The chapels humble worshipers and visitors like me with their exquisite carvings, gilded objects and paintings by eminent Polish artists.
From the higher tower outside sounds a trumpet call. In the Middle Ages it heralded the opening and closing of the city gates or an enemy’s approach. The tune breaks on the last note a watchman played in 1241 when a Tartar’s arrow pierced his throat and silenced him forever. Commemorating his death, the local radio broadcasts the call hourly.
The focus of the square is the Renaissance Cloth Hall with its elaborate decorations. It was originally built by merchants as a trading post. Now it’s an Aladdin’s cave filled with amber and silver jewellery, crystals, leather goods, paintings and other souvenirs. With a doll in regional costume and many photos later I continue my walk.
It’s time for coffee at an art nouveau Jama Michalikowa. The lights are dimmed but I can distinguish the quirky shapes of furniture and wall decoration. This café was once a famous meeting place of Krakow’s artistic community. The sci-fi writer, Stanislaw Lem may have frequented the cafe while he wrote his novel Solaris.
Shortly before dusk, I cross the Planty Gardens created in the nineteenth century when the defence walls and moats surrounding the Old City were demolished. On the other side is new Krakow. Streams of cars clog the narrow streets while frustrated drivers negotiate the numerous road works. A large ultramodern shopping centre, all steel and glass, stands next to the main bus and train stations.
This great old city is changing, sometimes following the trends of the united Europe, sometimes doing its own things. While the creative talents of my compatriots carry them into the future, they allow magic and romance to remain as it was in times when dragons breathed fire.