Here be dragons (Kraków, Part 1)
October 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
As foundation legends go, Kraków has one of the best: it’s said to be built on the back of a dragon. The dragon’s lair was conveniently located in a cave at the foot of the Wawel Hill, which happened to have been an ideal location for building a castle, and the rest is history.
So – yes, after some frustration and unexpected obstacles, I finally made it to Kraków at the end of August. It was a city I’d wanted to visit for years, given an extra layer of meaning because the trip represented the first time I’d ever visited a country from which my family originally came (one of my paternal great-grandfathers was born and raised in Radom, although he left as a young man and I very much doubt I have any relations left there).
Unfortunately, Polish ancestry doesn’t guarantee any facility with the language and my initial encounter with it was… humbling, to say the least. It is a beautiful, melodious language but for someone whose experience of foreign tongues falls neatly into Romance and Germanic, there’s precious little familiar ground. And that’s without reckoning with all those terrifying, endless rows of consonants. I once heard a humorous explanation of why Welsh and Hawaiian are the way they are: a migrating tribe before the dawn of time had to bail out their boats in the middle of an Atlantic storm, and all the consonants fell out and floated to Wales, with the vowels washing up in Hawaii. I suspect something similar happened on the Baltic… all the consonants ended up in Poland, the vowels, in Finland.
Thankfully, Kraków is a tremendously hospitable city, whether or not you can speak the language, and my shoddy Polish proved no obstacle at all to enjoying it.
The Rynek Glowny (main market square) and the Wawel Hill (site of the castle and cathedral) are without a doubt the most recognisable, best known and most heavily touristed places in Kraków. I’m not really sure the world needs more photos of them. But like virtually every visitor to Kraków, I fell prey to their beauty and couldn’t stop snapping…
Adam Mickiewicz never visited Kraków (poor man!) but he ended up with the best spot in town – in front of the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), facing the Mariacki Church. On second thought, it might not be the best. He may be beloved of Poles and Pan Tadeusz is on school syllabi the length of the land, but unfortunately his statue is also beloved of pigeons…
The upper terrace of the Sukiennice offers the best views of the Rynek – much better than you’ll get on the ground. But as well as looking down, you’d do well to look up.
These grotesques are the work of Santi Gucci, one of a number of Italian artists and architects who worked in Kraków during the Renaissance. They ornament the entire perimetre of the Sukiennice’s roof, no two alike.
Speaking of Italy, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were there… but no, that’s the inner courtyard of Wawel Castle. Designed by Italian architects, but adapted to the Polish climate – hence the height of the upper storey and the pitch of the roof, which you’d never come across in Tuscany.
I have to admit to preferring the cathedral, though. (But all I came away with was exterior shots – no photography permitted inside, which was infuriating as the interior contains sculpture by Veit Stoss and windows by several Polish Symbolists – of the latter, more in a future post.)
There’s one charming detail on the exterior that I couldn’t resist, though: the gutter spouts are all shaped like dragon’s heads.
Wherever you go in Kraków, you’re never far from a dragon.