Legend has it that Krakow was founded on the defeat of a virgin-eating dragon! A statue of this dragon is to be found betwen the Vistula River and Wawel Castle and if you’re lucky, you’ll see it breathe fire. The legend goes that as well as eating cows, the dragon found virgin girls particularly tasty. Given the King had a daughter who could very well be the dragon’s next victim, he offered the daughter’s hand in marriage and half his kingdom to anyone who could slay the dragon. After many failed attempts by various suitors a poor shoemaker had a go, opting to poison the dragon using a sheep full of tar and sulphur. The dragon ate the sheep and eventually exploded and the shoemaker married the beautiful princess and when King Krak died, became ruler of Krakow.
In Krakow Part 1, I covered our explorations in the historic Old Town district including the Wawel Castle. Not far away is the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, a historic district from the 14th century, which was depleted of its residents during WW2 then largely neglected by the communist authorities. Since 1988 an annual Jewish Cultural Festival has been held here, re-introducing Jewish culture to a generation who grew up without much contact with it. Spielberg filmed most of Schindler’s List in Kazimierz, even though it historically wasn’t set there. That brought some international attention to the area. Historic buildings have been restored and there are plenty of Jewish themed restuarants, synagogues etc making it an interesting place to visit.
Was great to see Aneta again (our friend from Angloville) and meet her daughter Ula. Both of them have excellent English and were only too happy to use it and share their city with us. They took us to the centrally-planned, model communist city Nowa Huta, a district of Krakow built in socialist-realist style post WW2. The project, completely funded by the former USSR, had a massive steel works and workers housing. Nowa Huta was supposed to be an ideal city for ideal communist citizens… but instead it became one of the centres of revolution and resistance within Poland. It was interesting to visit a different part of Krakow, in complete contrast to the decadent ‘bourgeois’ town centre and one of only two fully planned Socialist Realist cities in the world to be built. We saw a couple of very soviet style cafes and restaurants and had dinner together in one, decorated with Lenin statues.
There were no churches planned for Nowa Huta given that church didn’t exactly fit the atheistic communist ideal but residents lobbied for permission to build one soon after they moved in. In 1956 permission was granted only for it to be withdrawn again in 1960, leading to protests that were met with violence from police and military. In 1967 residents were given permission but the authorities would not make any materials or equipment available, which in a state-run economy made things tough. But the residents were not deterred. They mixed cement by hand, made their own bricks and gathered about 2 million stones for the facade. The foundation stone for the Lord’s Ark church was laid in 1969 and it was consecrated in 1977 by the man who the following year became Pope John Paul II. As the name suggests, the church is designed to look like Noah’s Ark resting on Mount Ararat after the flood. Not hard to see the symbolism!
After seeing the Lord’s Ark Church in Nowa Huta we went to one of two mounds in Krakow. Wanda’s Mound is supposedly the resting place of the legendary princess Wanda who (according to one story) took her own life by drowing in the Vistula not far from the Mound, in order to avoid an unwanted marriage.
Before Nowa Huta we had a look at a cool community centre type place where there was some kind of theatre I think. Aneta dances traditional dances so we looked with interest at the photos of those in national dance costumes doing various traditional dances.
Edyta was another Angloville participant we met up with in Krakow. She showed us around another part of Krakow which had its own charms. It was great to get to know Edyta some more and get a feel for the town at a food & wine festival, where locals were relaxing and catching up.
We walked across this bridge, one of many we saw on our travels where lovers had attached padlocks declaring their love. Not something we were ever tempted to do, but a little cuddle for the photo I felt was appropriate.
During our stay in Krakow we visited a few different churches… the names of which I have now forgotten! So I’ll just leave you with some pictures.
Now THE thing to do when in Krakow is visit the nearby Salt Mine. We followed in the footsteps of Copernicus, Goethe, Chopin & Bill Clinton, descending more than 300m below ground to see what lay beneath. We were not disappointed!
The Wieliczka Salt mine is visited by more than a million people a year… it is extremely popular and you have to book your tickets and exact times of visiting in advance. It was all very well organised with guides taking groups at certain times in various languages. We had of course booked an English tour and our guide was knowledgeable and had a good command of English. The tour and the mine itself was fascinating! It started with us walking down, down, down a never ending wooden staircase.
The mine was unlike anything I had imagined. It was like a town down there… with churches and a cathedral, where all the art, the walls, the chandeleirs, the floor, everything was made of salt. The mine began over 700 years ago and is really vast, with mining passages covering a length of 287 km (not a typo!). The route tourists get taken on is about 3.5km so while we covered what felt like a reasonable distance, it was not even 2% of the mine passages! The mine was still producing table salt until 2007 but had stopped producing salt commercially in 1996 because of low salt prices.
In its glory days, from the start of the 16th century to the mid 17th century, there were almost 2000 people working in the mine and they mined over 30,000 tonnes of salt. The wealth this generated for the ruling royals enabled them to fund the building of so many wonderful buildings you can see in Krakow today.
The tour was all very interesting but the cathedral and in particular the scenes from the gospels carved from the walls of salt were incredible. These had taken many decades to complete, being done by workers in their time off.
After being suitably impressed with the salt mine, we emerged back into daylight, found a restaurant not far away and enjoyed a good meal. Overall the food we had in Poland was pretty good.
On our last day in Krakow Antony wasn’t feeling too flash so he stayed at the apartment, but I headed off with Ula and Aneta to a beautiful forested area just outside Krakow. It was a lovely day, great to go for a walk, enjoy good company and see something other than Polish cities. It was a gorgeous green area and I felt very spoilt they took me there. We then had a nice meal together back at their place before saying our goodbyes.
So that concludes blog post part 2 about our time in Krakow. While in the city we did make a day trip to Auschwitz which I’ve blogged about here. We’d both love to return to Krakow for although we saw so much, there is still plenty in Krakow to discover and enjoy. Would be a cool place to house sit for a month or so… We shall see what happens in the future.