BOB BONE'S TravelPieces

Krakow, saved by a dragon

Wawel Castle


"Hey, it's a free country!" the man said.

We were on our way back to Krakow, Poland, after tramping around the countryside in jeans and sweat shirts, and we were going to be late for our dinner reservation.

Our companion, Mariusz Moryl, a friend who grew up in Poland but who has been living in the United States for several years, suggested we go straight to the restaurant and not bother to change clothes.

"Will they let us in looking like this?" I asked. "Why not?" Mariusz replied, following it with the "free country" explanation.

Poland was the first of the former Soviet bloc countries to reject communism. But despite the early success of Solidarity and the subsequent fall of the Russian-dominated government, Polish cities have not attracted the crowds of tourists who invade neighboring capitals such as Prague and Budapest.

This is partly because Warsaw, Poland's capital, was completely destroyed in World War II. The city has been rebuilt, of course, including a loving and amazingly accurate restoration of Warsaw's Old Town.

But it is in Krakow, the ancient royal capital, where the past is still present. Explosives planted by hastily retreating Nazi armies in 1945 luckily were never detonated, and architectural treasures such as 11th-century Wawel (pronounced "VAH-vel") Castle, residence of the former kings, would be familiar to these monarchs if they were to return today.

Bass fiddle player, his instrument on his back, traverses Krakow's main square on his way to a gig.


Photos by Robert W. Bone

Beginning in medieval times, Wawel Castle was the home of a colorful series of rulers. One of these kings, Henry de Volois, decided he no longer wanted to rule Poland. He escaped out of the country in the middle of the night and turned up as the king of France. Another Polish ruler, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, was apparently a desirable hunk from a queen's point of view. King Stanislaus was captured by Catherine the Great and taken home to Russia as her personal boy toy.

Portraits of these and other former residents of noble birth can be seen on guided tours of Wawel Castle. Many of their remains are entombed in the basement of the adjacent cathedral.

Castle and cathedral were built on top of the sacred Wawel Hill, which contains a deep cave. The cavern was once believed to be the lair of the fierce Wawel Dragon, a legend perpetuated by the collection of ancient and mysterious bones found there. Sometime after the cathedral was built early in the last millennium, these physical remains were gathered up and suspended rather casually near the main entrance. It was said that as long as they continued to hang there, the city, the castle, and the cathedral would stand.

That portion of the story is apparently correct. Despite Poland's tumultuous history, the city remains and the bones still dangle at the door, even though some spoilsport archaeologist declared in the 1920s that the bones were not from a dragon, but parts of three specific animals - a whale, a woolly mammoth, and a rhinoceros.

Mysterious "dragon" bones have been hanging at the cathedral's doors for several centuries as a sort of Medieval good luck charm.

The bones are consistent with scientific opinion that in the Jurassic age, Poland was partly covered by a large inland sea. Jewelry made from Polish amber, a legacy of those times, is a popular tourist buy.

Some of the most valuable of this amber contains an insect or two. (This was the inspiration for the novel and film, "Jurassic Park," in which creatures were cloned from dinosaur blood devoured by ancient mosquitoes preserved in amber.) Another result of the ancient sea is a huge deposit of underground salt not far from Krakow. Vast salt mines were established under the village of Wieliczka, which have been proudly worked by the villagers for the past 700 years. The extensive complex has also served as a tourist attraction for at least two centuries. During World War II, one of the underground chambers was used as a bomb-sheltered factory to make airplane parts.

There are tunnels filled with various statues and other incongruities made out of salt, along with demonstrations of old mining techniques, including elevators for the miners dating centuries before Otis Elevators. Within older parts of the mine, great halls and chapels are lit by crystal chandeliers - the crystal on these fixtures, of course, being salt crystals.

The mine tour is mainly a walking one today, although there are some old tracks and ore cars around, reminiscent of those runaway carts ridden by Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. In times past, royal visitors were indeed taken through the mines in open, richly upholstered railroad carriages. These luxurious vehicles are also preserved and on exhibit in the mines today.

Children and others of us with childlike impulses taking the tour today are warned by signs: "Don't lick the walls." But you can buy several souvenirs made out of salt or salt crystals. (Thankfully there is no regulation prohibiting taking the guides' stories with a grain of the stuff, or if you accidentally do scrape some off the walls, throwing a little of it over your shoulder just to make sure you'll find your way out again!) Also within striking distance of Krakow are the preserved portions of the World War II concentration and death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, both reachable on frequent tours leaving from the city. The film, "Schindler's List," was made there and in several locations in Krakow.

Another bus ride out of Krakow leads to the Tatra Mountains, the highest part of the Carpathian range, and thence to Zakopane, the country's winter sports capital. Some Poles would like Zakopane to be the site of a future winter Olympics, a highly controversial proposal in a nation of environmentalists. About 28 percent of Poland consists of forests, and the strong environmental movement in the country opposes cutting the swaths of old-growth forest that would be necessary to construct facilities suitable for the Olympics.

Meanwhile, Zakopane can be enjoyed not only for its ski slopes but also, in warmer months, for its bars and restaurants. Several of these are also known for rollicking folk songs and evenings of drinking and frenetic dancing. (A popular concoction: Highland outlaw tea, a hot drink consisting of Vodka with just a smidgen of tea.) Just as in areas of Polish concentration in the United States, the polka is a popular dance. But foreigners are often surprised to learn that only its name is Polish. Poles insist the polka was actually invented across the border in what is now the Czech Republic. The authentic Polish dance is the lively mazurka.






This travel piece appeared in
 several publications:

Write to Bob