2016 was an incredible year for me. I had the chance to travel to so many places: Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna and Bratislava. How else to finish it off than by squeezing in yet another trip, this time going back to Krakow in Poland. I visited Krakow for the first time in December 2015 and had a cracking time (I’m not even sorry for the amount of puns that will happen in this post). If you want to visit a Christmas market but don’t want to brave the madness of visiting the bigger German cities, Krakow’s is well worth a visit. But that’s not the only reason to head to this beautiful city.
If you’ve come from the British schooling system like me, you probably don’t know that much about Poland’s history beyond the Second World War. Like every European city, Krakow has a fantastic founding story. And it involves dragons. Way back in the mists of time, when it was still the capital of Poland, the city was besieged by a terrible beast. The townsfolk were forced to feed it sheep and cattle in order to stop it attacking the town. When they ran out of these, they turned to their daughters. Because the logical escalation from sheep is virginal women. Gotta be virgins though, dragons uphold the patriarchy through their palates. Once a year, a young woman had to be sacrificed to the creature. Many brave men attempted to fight the dragon but none could defeat it. Eventually the only virgin left in Krakow was the daughter of King Krak, the lovely Wanda.
Enter a humble young cobbler named Dratewka. He had a cunning plan. Using his cobbling skills, he made a fake sheep full of sulphur and placed it outside the dragon’s cave. Dragons being notoriously stupid, this one gobbled it up. Then, a great and terrible burning raged through his entire body and he immediately began to regret his life choices. The dragon rushes to the river and drinks and drinks and drinks until you could see the bed of the river Wisla. He drank so much that he exploded spectacularly.
When you visit Krakow, one of its most famous sites is a statue of the dragon, Smok Wawelski, near a cave underneath Wawel Castle. It’s no ordinary statue. It breathes fire. It actually breathes fire. Every 10 minutes, you can stroll past and see old Smok breathing his firey breath by the river.
The castle itself is impressive. It’s not like a British castle, all grey stone and moats. Wawel Castle is red brick, set high on a hill next to the Wisla River. Similar to Prague Castle, there’s a long winding walk up to castle itself that brings you right next to The Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill (Wawel Cathedral for short). I just have to include the Polish name in here because as a language geek, the amount of consonants in Polish makes me so happy: królewska bazylika archikatedralna śś. Stanisława i Wacława na Wawelu. Impressive huh? When you first see it, it doesn’t look that impressive. It’s got a huge door but appears small, slightly oppressive. And then you go around the corner. The current cathedral is the 3rd one, having been begun in the 14th century but there’s been a cathedral on the site since the 11th century. It’s been the main coronation and burial site for Polish monarchs for centuries and is suitably grand and gold covered. It has 3 iconic towers, Sigismund Tower, Clock Tower and Silver Bell Tower. There are also some famous Chapels, which have gorgeous golden roofs.
The complex at Wawel has always been central to Polish life, acting as the formal seat of the Polish monarchy and the residence of the President of Poland. During the Second World War Germany’s General Government occupied it and the Nazi Governor General Hans Frank lived there. At the end of the war it was made into a national museum.
In the centre of the Old Town is Rynek Glowny, the Main Square. It’s one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe and dates back to the 13th century. In December, it’s home to the Christmas markets where you can stuff yourself with pierogi, trdelnik, tea with plum vodka and other Eastern European goodies. If you’re there when the markets are up, it’s perfectly possible to eat entirely from street vendors, starting with obwarzanek krakowski (a speciality Krakow bagel) in the morning and then grazing your way around various stalls throughout the day.
Rynek Glowny, and the Cloth Hall in the centre of it are beautiful enough on their own but my favourite part of the Old Town isn’t even visible. It’s underground. Beneath the Main Square is a museum dedicated to Krakow and Poland’s history. There’s been a market on the site since the 13th century and in Rynek Underground you can see the archaeological layers that these years of occupation have created. There’s even a section where you can see the burnt out timbers from a destroyed market stall. The curation is excellent and it’s a really interactive museum if like me you have the attention span of a hyperactive toddler.
Krakow is a beautiful city, full of history, culture and delicious food. For a European capital, it’s cheap as well. Hostels are inexpensive and even an Air BnB doesn’t set you back too much. For a short break, weekend away or a place to start a longer trip to explore Eastern Europe, I can’t recommend Krakow highly enough.