Place yourself in the walled city of Krakow in the 13th Century. Unbeknown to you or the rest of the population of Poland’s walled capital at the time, the Mongols, led by the brilliant military strategist Subutai, were planning a surprise attack to raze the city to the ground. Their plans, however, were to be thwarted. A sole trumpeter spotted the approaching horde and blew a warning, now famously known as the Hejnal Mariacki, that allowed the city’s gates to be closed in time to stop the Tatars from invading Krakow once more. Unfortunately, however, the bugler received an arrow through his jugular as retribution from the Mongols to warning the city of the impending invasion. The Hejnal Mariacki, however, plays on to this day from the top of Krakow’s St. Mary’s Church in commemoration of the brave musician who saved the city from ruin: the plaintive tune cut short as was the life of the bugler centuries ago.
This is just one example of the rich cultural and historical history that is imbued in almost every rock, brick, mortar and blade of grass that constitutes the multicultural hub of Krakow. As I took a seat in a small café in the main market square (the largest medieval town square in Europe) I heard the Hejnal Mariacki trumpet its story over the townhouses, palaces and churches that surrounded me.
After partaking in a slice of macowiec and removing the poppy seeds from between my teeth, I meandered across the square into the Sukiennice, or draper’s hall, that dominates the centre of the square. Inside the hall, I picked up a beautifully carved miniature chess set and spent a happy hour or two strolling the various stalls offering amber jewellery, silk scarves, pottery and woodwork. During the 15th Century, the Sukiennice had been a primary source of trade between Poland and the East: it’s impressive renaissance hall filled with the smells of exotic spices and treated leather.
I emerged from the hall into the bright sunshine and decided − given the gloriousness of the day − that Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with the Ermine could wait for more cloudy weather. I instead took a walk along the bank of the Vistula river to visit the infamous Wawel dragon. According to the Polish folklore, the seven-headed dragon lived in a cave at the base of Wawel hill (on top of which now sits the Wawel castle and cathedral) and wreaked havoc on the town by destroying crops, devouring livestock and demanding a virgin maiden to be delivered to the mouth of his cave on a daily basis. Despite many brave knights losing their lives trying to defeat the beast, it was the cobbler’s apprentice Skuba who saved the day (and the king’s daughter) by feeding the dragon a lamb filled with sulphur, prompting the dragon to drink from the river to ease his aching stomach until he exploded in a shower of water and flame. A fire-breathing statue of the dragon sits at the base of the hill, and I discovered to my delight that the banks of the river are a prime location to play chess with the locals who gather their daily to play and soak up the sunshine.
I finished the day by strolling along the belt of Planty park that encircles the old town in place of the city’s walls that once kept the Mongols at bay before spontaneously sitting in on a concert of Chopin’s preludes playing in one of the many churches of the old town.
As I wandered back to my hostel along the now quiet streets after the concert, I marvelled at how a city who’s past had been so riddled with hardship had become such a artistic, peaceful and beautiful place. I still had two days left, but I know intrinsically that it wouldn’t be enough. Krakow would be a city I would return to. The bugle, sounding out from the top of St Mary’s, would call me back.