Krakow: The Trumpeter’s tune

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There’s a myth attached to every small facet of every great city. ANURAG MALLICK demystifies the myths and legends of the old Polish capital Krakow, a city immersed deep in history and tradition

IMG_1989 Horse carriage ride at Rynek Glowny_Anurag Mallick

It was noon at Rynek Główny, the largest medieval market square in Europe. Men in Viking armour posed with tourists threatening to decapitate them, horse carriages clip clopped along the cobbled path as makeshift stalls dished out Polish sausages, muddled wine, czarna (strong black coffee), oscypek (smoked mountain cheese) and obwarznek (Krakow’s signature bagel) topped with poppy and sesame. Wrapped in a maze of cafes, restaurants and historical buildings, the 10-acre plaza wore the air of a carnival. The sudden flight of pigeons announced the hourly trumpet call issuing from the main tower of St Mary’s Basilica… For a brief moment, time stood still as everybody froze at the minute-long musical interlude that ended as if someone had throttled the bugle player.

Hejnał mariacki, the trumpet signal used to announce the closing of the city gates, goes back to the Tartar attacks in 13th century. As per legend, when the trumpeter in the church tower was warning citizens against an impending Mongol raid, a Tartar archer shot him in the neck and he died mid-note. Even today Krakow’s bugle call ends off-key and the noontime version is beamed live on Polish national radio! Four men on the tower play facing the cardinal directions – one towards Wawel Castle to honour the kings, one faces Krakow’s Town Hall to honour the citizens, another faces Florianska Street as a welcome to guests and one faces east to mark the first Fire Hall, a shelter built after the great fire of the 1850s. The bugle players are usually firemen and it’s a matter of great pride to be among the chosen ones.

IMG_1897 Cloth Hall and clocktower_Anurag Mallick

Another fascinating legend pertained to the basilica’s twin towers, allegedly built by two brothers. The one who completed it first was afraid his brother might build a higher tower, so he killed him. Overcome by guilt for his heinous deed, he jumped off the same tower. The knife supposedly used to kill the brother is kept in the Sukiennice or Cloth Hall (it was actually used to spite the nose and ears of thieves in the old days). The brothers’ tale could just be a legend as the towers had to be of different heights for an unhindered view of the city from the topmost point.

From bright sunshine we entered the woody gilded interiors of St Mary’s Basilica, face to face with the world’s largest Gothic altarpiece. Artists from Nuremberg were commissioned to create it in 15th century as the old one was destroyed in an earthquake. Ironically, Nazis stole the altar during World War II and kept it in a basement under a bunker in Nuremberg Castle! When the altar was found after the war, it was in 2000 fragments! Painstakingly pieced back, it was reinstated in the church in 1957. Krakow escaped much of the aerial bombing in the war because of its location far south of the country. Unlike the present capital Warsaw where almost 90% buildings were destroyed and later rebuilt, Krakow still retains an old world charm.

IMG_1969 St Mary's Basilica organ_Anurag Mallick

Krakow’s roots go back to the 7th century when the Slav Vistulanian tribe established it as their base. The city lay on the legendary Amber Road, a trade route from the Baltic to Byzantine traversed by merchants carrying amber and precious jewels wrapped in saddlebags. Our guide Schustoff Stachniak led us from the square through Grodzka Street to St Andrew Church, one of the oldest in town. Polish writers from the Middle Ages noted how Krakow’s citizens survived Tartar attacks in 1241 by hiding in this church.

An intriguing sculpture of a dragon near the Vistula river represents an ancient legend about a ferocious dragon that lived under Wawel Hill. A shoemaker in Krakow hatched a cunning plan to kill it. He sewed a big lump of sulfur inside a sheep and left it at the dragon’s lair. When the dragon ate it, it burned him from the inside and he went to the Vistula river to slake his thirst. The water he quaffed reacted with the sulfur and caused an explosion that killed the beast.

IMG_1876 Archbishop Seminary near Wawel Castle_Anurag Mallick

Poland abounds with folklore. Once, a magic tree stood on Wawel Hill, inhabited by white crows. When Christianity stamped out all signs of pagan worship, the tree was burned down and the crows escaped. Their caws could be heard long after they were gone and locals thus called the place Krakow after their raucous cries. However some contend the city was named after its first ruler Krak.

Krakow developed under Boleslaw V the Chaste (a cheeky nickname for his all-night revelries rather than his religious convictions), who laid out a grid of streets emanating from a central square, a plan that survives till today. It was a short walk to Wawel Castle, which sat ceremoniously aloof on the hilltop. Walking up the incline, we entered through the 17th century Vasa Gate, named after the Swedish kings who ruled Poland. Just past the entrance was a sculpture of Karol Wojtyła, archbishop of Krakow, anointed as Pope John Paul II in 1978, the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years! The same year, UNESCO placed Krakow’s Stare Miasto (Old Town) on the first-ever list of World Heritage Sites.

Wawel bones

Before we entered the cathedral, our guide pointed to some rather large bones suspended from the ceiling. Believed to be the bones of Krakow’s dragon in the Middle Ages, they are actually the tusks of the woolly mammoth and a prehistoric rhino found on Wawel Hill. They were placed inside the cathedral as a lucky charm. Locals believe that if the chains break and the bones fall to the ground, it would signal the end of the world. Thankfully, the bones that hovered overhead were borne by probably the heaviest chains we’d ever seen.

The golden-domed cathedral, hailed as the Pearl of the Renaissance north of the Alps, is considered as the most important church in Poland because almost all Polish kings were crowned here. The 14th century king Władysław the Elbow-high (His Highness was only 1m 38 cm in height) was the first to be coronated and later interred here, starting a royal tradition. The crypts held the bones and ashes of all the kings from the Middle Ages.

IMG_1863 Wawel Castle_Anurag Mallick

Casimir the Great, whose bearded visage graces the 50 Zloty note, gave the city a Gothic makeover in 14th century. In 1335 Casimir also founded the Krakow Academy and the suburb of Kazimierz, named after him. Between 14th and 16th centuries Poland prospered due to the amber trade and salt mined from Wieliczka. Crops and grains from Poland were shipped to Western Europe from ports like Toruń. For nearly 300 years Krakow served as Poland’s capital, until Sigismund the Third from the Vasa dynasty shifted the capital to Warsaw in 1596 and Krakow lost much of its political clout.

You could easily spend a day touring the castle’s chambers, treasury and state rooms ornamented with paintings and tapestries. Inside the Representation Chamber royal weddings and dance balls took place. In the courtyard, knights fought against each other in special armour called frogface, which prevented wood splinters from piercing their eyes.

IMG_1774 One of the many heritage buildings in Krakow_Anurag Mallick

In February, people from the cathedral would collect ice from the Vistula river, and store it in the dungeons by interspersing ice blocks with weed. In summer this ice was used to cool drinks that were served to royalty. Though there were vineyards in the castle, the Polish kings preferred beer. One Polish prince even refused to go to Holy Lands for the Crusades as ‘there was no good beer there and a normal man could not survive without beer.’

The King’s Chapel had stucco decorations from 1602 and walls covered with cordovan (leather). The adjoining ‘Bird Room’ had carved birds in the roof. A chamber called ‘Under the Zodiac Signs’ was based on the astrological signs with a tapestry depicting the Tower of Babel. ‘Under the Eagle’ had a gold eagle on the roof and a Reubens painting of Spanish Queen Elizabeth from the Bourbon dynasty. ‘Under the Heads’ had 194 wooden heads in the ceiling, including a delicate depiction of a veiled lady from Silesia.

IMG_1985 Rynek Glowny historic buildings_Anurag Mallick

We entered a ministerial chamber dominated by a large wooden table to entertain guests and a Renaissance chair, which was so uncomfortable you couldn’t sit on it for more than 5 minutes! Fireplaces and wall-to-wall tapestries and carpets kept the castle insulated in the extreme cold. At one time there were 368 tapestries, all sponsored by Polish king Sigmund August of the Jagiellonian dynasty. From Trojan Wars, Old Testament to Asian motifs, they depicted various themes with recurrent images of the three heraldic symbols – the Polish white eagle, the snake and the Lithuanian white knight. A stunning tapestry showed The Goddess of Victory with a broken spear that represented friendly relations between Poland and Lithuania.

Portraits of various kings lined the walls. Perhaps the most valuable painting was that of Polish prince Władysław of the Vasa dynasty. Painted in Belgium by the great Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens when the prince was on a Europe tour, the painting was owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York but was exchanged for the armours of Hussars and knights. Polish King John the Third of the Sobieski dynasty defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1683 at the Battle of Vienna and was hailed as the defender of Christianity in Europe. Sobieski, the famous Polish brand of vodka is a tribute to him! His family portrait depicted children with strange haircuts. The close crop, called the ‘knight cut’, prevented the helmet from wobbling. It’s the same principle applied by US marines and various armies today!

Krakow tapestries

The Vasa kings sold off many tapestries to raise money for wars. Some landed in the hands of Russian aristocrats who treated them callously like ordinary carpets; often cutting them up to fit in corridors. In 1921 a peaceful pact with Bolshevik Russia ensured the return of several tapestries to Poland. Between 1939 and 1945, Nazi soldiers pilfered many artworks and shipped them to France, Canada, Argentina and Colombia, where they ended up in private hands. One such masterpiece is the ‘Portrait of a young man’ by Renaissance painter Raphael Santi. The Princess Czartoryski Museum still has an empty frame in the hope that it would return one day. Besides a Rembrandt, a Bruegel and other antiquities, the museum’s best-known exhibit is Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting ‘Lady with an Ermine’. While buying it, Lady Isabella of the Czartoryski family had famously remarked ‘If this is a dog, then it’s very ugly.’

Like its tapestries, Wawel Castle too faced the brunt of several conflicts. Sandwiched between belligerent neighbours like Germany and Russia and fights with Sweden over the Baltic Sea, Poland was always at the heart of power struggles. In 1702, Swedish soldiers burned down the castle, though some frescoes survived. The Austrians remodeled the castle in 19th century, knocking down structures and building barracks for soldiers as well as a Military Hospital. Wawel also served as the headquarters of Nazi officer and Governor General Hans Frank. An 8m long Nazi eagle totem was found in recent excavations on the hill. It’s believed the Germans left the pole there in the hope of returning to stake claim to Krakow.

Krakow Holocaust monument_Chairs

During World War II, 55,000 Jews from Krakow were sent to concentration camps like Belzec and Auschwitz, an hour’s drive from the city. The streets of Krakow’s former Jewish quarter Kazimierz have synagogues, markets and cemeteries that survived. Across the Vistula River lies Podgorze, site of a wartime ghetto and Oskar’s factory, immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. When the Jews were being deported, their chairs and belongings were left abandoned at the town square. This was the inspiration behind the art installation of empty chairs one finds by the tram stops in Podgorze.

Despite deep scars of Nazi occupation and genocide, the Polish spirit lives on. From the time it was erased from the map of Europe in 1795 and divided between Germany, Austria and Russia to its rebirth as an independent nation 123 years later, Poland has risen from the ashes each time. As if on cue, an eagle glided majestically above Wawel Castle and in the distance a trumpeter played a centuries old tune…

IMG_1879 Grodzka Street is the city's oldest avenue_Anurag Mallick

Fact File

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Poland’s capital Warsaw, from where Krakow is a 50 min flight by LOT Polish Air or 3 hrs by EIC (Ekspres InterCity) train. Located south of the country, it is as a great base to cover Auschwitz, Wieliczka Salt Mines and the Tatra mountains around Bukowina and Zakopane.

Where to Stay: Radisson Blu Hotel at Straszewskiego, a stone’s throw from Wawel Castle, is centrally located and a great place to stay.

Where to Eat: Wentzl Restaurant in Rynek Główny, with its impeccable drapes, tapestries and cutlery, is the oldest restaurant and a good place to enjoy Polish cuisine. For a taste of India, try Ganesh Restaurant nearby with dining in cavernous chambers.

Where to Eat: Wentzl Restaurant in Rynek Główny, with its impeccable drapes, tapestries and cutlery, is the oldest restaurant and a good place to enjoy Polish cuisine. For a taste of India, try Ganesh Restaurant nearby with dining in cavernous chambers.

IMG_1787 Polish cuisine at Wentzl Restaurant_Anurag Mallick

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of JetWings International magazine.

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